Has The Reformation Ended? An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll | September 24, 2005

Has The Reformation Ended? An Interview with Dr. Mark Noll | September 24, 2005

Dr. Mark Noll is the Carolyn and Fred McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. An Evangelical Protestant, Noll is widely regarded as one of the finest Christian historians writing today. He has authored numerous books, including America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys, and Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.

Dr. Noll graduated from Wheaton as an English major and matriculated from Vanderbilt with his Ph.D. in the History of Christianity in 1975. He has been on the Wheaton College faculty since 1979 and is the co-founder and present director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. In recent years Dr. Noll has been a visiting teacher at Harvard Divinity School, University of Chicago Divinity School, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Regent College of Vancouver, B.C.

His most recent book, co-authored with Carolyn Nystrom, is titled Is The Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Baker Academic, 2005).

Carl E. Olson, editor of IgnatiusInsight.com, recently interviewed Dr. Noll and spoke with him about his new book.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What was the main objective in writing Is The Reformation Over? Who is it primarily meant for?

Dr. Mark Noll:
Carolyn Nystrom and I were trying to combine historical analysis and theological explanation with a little in-house exhortation. The prompt was what appeared to me (an observer of current events and a long-time teacher of courses in the general history of Christianity) as remarkable changes underway for about forty years and as a crying need to provide some assessment of these changes. The main audience was evangelical Protestants who may not have been fully alert to recent changes and their meaning. (As a sign of the times, it is necessary to specify "evangelical Protestants" since there are now a fair number of self-designated "evangelical Catholics," both in the U.S. and abroad).

IgnatiusInsight.com: What might a Catholic gain from reading the book?

A Catholic would certainly find out how two evangelical Protestants perceived and evaluated their religion and its practice in the current moment. A Catholic might also find out a little bit more about the Catholic faith, either by self-consciously disagreeing with what we had to say about Catholicism or by following us as we studied documents like the Catechism of the Catholic Church that (maybe) some Catholics have not perused as extensively as we did in preparing this book.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Comparing Catholic-Evangelical relations in the 1950s to those of today, what significant differences can be found?

There are several differences:

• Much more political cooperation between Catholics and evangelicals as determined by left-right political designations (i.e., conservative Catholics and conservative evangelicals cooperating, liberal Catholics and liberal Protestants, etc.)

• Much more evangelical respect for at least some Catholic leaders, primarily Pope John Paul II, but also Mother Teresa or (among academics) Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntrye–but many more as well.

• Many more opportunities for ordinary religious connection, primarily (I think) in neighborhood Bible studies conducted by women.

• Many more ad hoc or parachurch activities, like the Alpha Program, that draw Catholics and evangelicals together in common work for common goals.

• Quite a bit more formal cooperation (as the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative) and many more occasions of dialogue (as those sponsored by the Vatican, but many more less official ones as well).

• Much more awareness among at least some evangelicals of Catholic writing (as with InterVarsity Press’s "Ancient Christian Commentary" series).

IgnatiusInsight.com: How much did cultural/social changes in the 1960s and ‘70s positively affect Catholic-Evangelical relations? From an Evangelical perspective, what impact did the Second Vatican Council have on Catholic-Evangelical relations?

We make the case in the book that changes stemming from the Second Vatican Council are the deepest changes and the ones that will likely have longest-lasting religious effects, but also that some of the cultural-social changes of the ‘60s and ‘70s (opposition to Roe v. Wade, "Catholics for Reagan", etc.) were and probably remain more visible, at least to the general media.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Many Catholics are (understandably) confused by what distinguishes Fundamentalism from Evangelicalism. How much of the difference comes from different attitudes toward ecumenism in general and the Catholic Church in particular?

Noll: This has become a tricky question since at least some self-described "fundamentalists" have become militant culture warriors, and when that happens conservative Protestants of whatever kind generally begin to look to some politically conservative Catholics with respect. In general, however, I think it would be fair to say that among self-described "fundamentalists" one is more likely to find views about Roman Catholicism shaped by post-Reformation polemics (e.g., Rome as the whore of Babylon or the Anti-Christ). By contrast, among self-described "evangelicals" there is more likely to be a willingness to find areas of agreement, like on the Trinity or the sanctity of life, even though among self-described evangelicals there still would be a wide range of opinions on Catholicism ranging from considerable suspicion to open appreciation.

IgnatiusInsight.com: You write: "If Christ and his church are one, then a great deal of Catholic doctrine simply follows naturally. In a word, ecclesiology represents the crucial difference between evangelicals and Catholics." While many Evangelical theologians clearly understand this, how well do you think this is understood by the average Evangelical? Would most Evangelicals consider Mary, or the Eucharist, or the Papacy as more of a stumbling block than different understandings of the nature of "Church"?

Noll: Since Carolyn Nystrom and I did not come to this conclusion–or at least see it clearly–until we’d been working on this book for about a year and a half (and after I’d been teaching a whole lot of Catholic history for thirty years), I would have to say most evangelicals, of whatever degree of education, probably would not put it as we did. For most evangelicals, the problem with Catholics and Mary would be the direct suspicion that Catholics seem to insert Mary into the Trinity rather than that Mary (as first of the faithful) stands for the Body of Christ in the world and so deserves the respect she is accorded. Likewise, for most evangelicals the problem with the papacy is over-reaching in claims for papal infallibility rather than defining the pope as vicar of Christ as so head of Christ’s Body on earth.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Almost all of the theological issues (Marian doctrines, the sacraments, the ordained priesthood, ecclesiology, etc.) that Evangelicals find troublesome about Catholicism are also areas of disagreement between Evangelicals and Eastern Orthodox (and the ancient Oriental churches). What sort of challenge does this pose to an Evangelical assessment of the historical validity of core Evangelical beliefs such as sola fide, sola scriptura, and total depravity?

There is a growing wedge of well-informed evangelicals very aware of the implications of this question (those working on the InterVarsity Press series mentioned earlier, for example, or Daniel Williams of Baylor, a Baptist who has written two books challenging evangelicals to value tradition much more highly). And there have been a steady trickle of converts to Orthodoxy from evangelical churches over the last quarter century (including two young men from my own congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church). But by and large, Eastern Orthodoxy remains terra incognita to the huge mass of evangelicals and so the nice theological challenges, as you’ve posed them, have barely begun to register.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Is The Reformation Over? contains a section about former notable Evangelicals (Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, etc.) who have become Catholic in recent years. Although they offer criticisms, they have a very ecumenical attitude toward Evangelicalism. Are there counterparts, so to speak, within Evangelicalism–former Catholics who became Evangelical because of serious theological reflection and who now engage in ecumenical dialogue with Catholics, either formally or informally?

I’m sure there must be, but most of the ex-Catholics I know or know about tend to be pretty severe on their Catholic past. Most ex-Catholic evangelicals of my acquaintance were not well catechized, and often their Catholic experience was nominal, mechanical, or (in some instances) abusive; by contrast, many ex-evangelical Catholics reasoned themselves into Catholicism from articulate evangelical positions. That difference helps explain the contrast in "ex"s (if, in fact, my experience speaks to a general situation).

IgnatiusInsight.com: Your book outlines Evangelical criticisms of the Catholic Church, but it also contains strong criticisms of Evangelical weaknesses. What are some of those criticisms, what do you hope they might accomplish, and do they carry on in some way the work of internal criticism you engage in your controversial but widely acclaimed book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind?

The quick answer is "yes." In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind I implored evangelicals to value tradition more highly, to combine communal with individual approaches to society, to think of intellectual life as a possible vocation, and to expect affectional Christianity and intellectual Christianity to support each other. For each of these goals, I’ve found some Catholic influences or models quite helpful. And since I really do believe in "the communion of saints," I expect different streams of Christian tradition (or different "languages" as I tried to define them in the book) to be instructive to other streams.

IgnatiusInsight.com: If you had to hazard a guess, what might Catholic-Evangelical relations look like in another fifty years?

Historians make awful prophets, but also sometimes rush in where angels fear to tread. So….I think there will be a growing "evangelical" element within the Catholic church, with whom some Protestant evangelicals will have deepening connections. I do not expect, however, that this evangelical element within Catholicism will become dominant in the Church. I expect more pluralism to develop within Catholicism, which opens up broader possibilities for social, educational, and political cooperation between many evangelicals and a fairly broad swath of conservative and moderate Catholics. But I also expect other Catholics—some moderates, most liberals, and some pre-Vatican II conservatives—to become even more nervous about contact with evangelicals. Putting things another way, Catholicism and evangelicalism are both fairly fluid at the present time; depending on how things develop in each of these communions will go a long way toward saying whether mutually instructive contact expands or contracts.

Related Links:

Christianity Today’s review of Is The Reformation Over?
Thomas Howard and the Kindly Light | IgnatiusInsight.com
Objections, Obstacles, Acceptance: An Interview with J. Budziszewski | IgnatiusInsight.com
Thomas Howard on the Meaning of Tradition | IgnatiusInsight.com
Peter Kreeft | IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page
Thomas Howard | IgnatiusInsight.com Author Page

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