The Reformation—Is It Over?

Danny E. Olinger

New Horizons: October 2006

Reformation Then and Now

Also in this issue

Reformation—Then and Now

Roman Catholicism and Liberty

Mountain Religion (Part 1)

People are often surprised to learn that one of my degrees is a master of arts in theology from a Roman Catholic institution, Duquesne University. When asked why I pursued this degree, I explain that I wanted to learn about contemporary Catholicism to help those interested in coming from it to the Reformed faith.

It was with great interest (and some surprise), then, that I read Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom's award-winning book, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Noll and Nystrom argue that a new day has dawned in the relationship between Roman Catholics and evangelicals. The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) changed the tone of Roman Catholics toward Protestants and paved the way for dialogue on the issues that led to the Reformation. So dramatic has been the change in Catholicism that one can ask whether the Reformation is over. Noll and Nystrom seek to answer that question by examining the current Catholic stance (and evangelical response) on the two basic principles of the Reformation. But their presentation of Roman Catholic teaching is quite different from what I learned at Duquesne.

The Two Basic Principles

The material principle (or chief doctrinal issue) of the Reformation was sola fide (that justification is by faith alone). Noll and Nystrom argue that "on the substance of what is actually taught about God's saving work in the world, if not always on the exact terminology used to describe that saving work, many evangelicals and Catholics believe something close to the same thing" (p. 232). Catholics, like evangelicals, "believe that God justifies his people by grace alone, through faith, and that God himself initiates that action" (p. 140).

However, Noll and Nystrom acknowledge that confusion is created because "Catholics seem to blend what evangelicals regard as two steps in the way of salvation, namely, justification (the start) and sanctification (the continuation)" (p. 140). If the trouble with the terminology could be set aside, evangelicals and Catholics would see that they believe basically the same thing, that God initiates and sustains the Christian life. They conclude, "If it is true, as once was repeated frequently by Protestants conscious of their anchorage in Martin Luther or John Calvin that iustificatio articulus stantis vel cadentis ecclesiae (justification is the article on which the church stands or falls), then the Reformation is over" (p. 232).

If, as Noll and Nystrom argue, the material principle of the Reformation has been satisfied, what of the formal principle of sola Scriptura (that Scripture alone is the final authority on Christian doctrine)? Catholicism may have "a three-legged conception of the authority on which their faith rests, Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium (or teaching office of the church)" (p. 132), but it does see Scripture as inspired by God. They cite the Catholic Catechism (1993), which teaches that "the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach the truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided in the Sacred Scriptures" (p. 119). Further, many believe that the additional books in the Roman Catholic Bible (the Old Testament Apocrypha) "do not significantly alter major theological teachings" (p. 131). Noll and Nystrom write: "The decisive break of the Reformation era over the Protestant insistence on sola scriptura (the Bible as supreme authority) may not be as decisive as it once seemed, since so much of contemporary Catholic doctrine is obviously conforming to the main teachings of Scripture" (p. 133).

They acknowledge, however, that sola Scriptura remains a major stumbling block between evangelicals and Catholics (p. 161), particularly because Rome believes that Christ and his church are one (p. 146), so that "the pope (as the Vicar of Christ) can speak without error in matters of faith and morals" (pp. 146-47). They 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" (p. 147).

Is the Gap Narrowing?

Differences between Roman Catholics and evangelicals are also seen in other matters, such as the role of Mary. Catholic devotion to Mary is said to be "essentially ecclesial." It is "a corporate means of participating in the grace that God gave to the world, literally, through her" (p. 235). According to official Roman Catholic doctrine, Mary was conceived free of original sin, lived a sinless life, remained a virgin, and was taken bodily into heavenly glory, where she brings the gifts of salvation to those who pray to her (pp. 133-34). Noll and Nystom acknowledge that Marian practice troubles evangelicals in that it "looks like compromising Christ as sole mediator between God and humanity" (p. 235).

At the end of the book, Noll and Nystrom warn against "romanticized, partial, excitable, irresponsible, or self-serving evaluations." They declare that "it is important to assert ... that the Roman Catholic Church continues to tolerate a great quantity of syncretism, lifeless formalism, hegemonic Constantinianism, and dangerous capitulation to sub-Christian varieties of both modernism (power) and postmodernism." Despite the transformations of the last four decades, "the Roman Catholic Church is not moving toward a full embrace of classically evangelical doctrine and practice" (p. 250). On the other side, evangelical Christianity "is beset with great quantities of practical Pelagianism, lifeless informality, narrowly sectarian Gnosticism, and dangerous capitulation to sub-Christian varieties of both modernism (epistemology and apologetics) and postmodernism." "Evangelicals as a whole are not returning to embrace the forms of classical Reformation faith and practice" (p. 250).

Nonetheless, Noll and Nystrom believe that the gap between the two sides (at least among those who are open to cooperation) has narrowed and should narrow more. "Whatever differences may still exist between such Catholics and evangelicals with respect to the foundations of Christianity are infinitesimal when compared to differences between traditional Christianity as described above and modernist Christianity of all sorts. Differences on basic Christian convictions between Catholics and evangelicals fade away as to nothing when compared to secular affirmations about the nature of humanity and the world" (p. 230). Nole and Nystrom conclude that Catholics and evangelicals are "not yet speaking the same language and certainly misunderstanding much that the other says but nonetheless communicating quite well and actually learning from the apparent idiosyncrasies of the other tongue. Might God do more? Look around. Listen. It is happening right before our eyes and ears. Soli Deo gloria" (p. 251).

Noll and Nystrom present their case in a friendly manner. The book is easy to read, well documented, and civil. The question, however, is whether the authors' assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism is correct. Should the Reformation be considered over for all practical purposes?

The authors claim to make "an evangelical assessment of contemporary Roman Catholicism, with special attention given to the dramatic changes that have taken place since the Second Vatican Council" (p. 13). However, they mention neither Karl Rahner (widely regarded as the most important post-Vatican II Catholic theologian) nor Eduard Schillebeeckx (who had a major impact on the Catholic Catechism). Rahner and Schillebeeckx stand at the heart of Catholic teaching since Vatican II, while operating in the critical tradition of Bible interpretation. Rome's critical turn has not been lost on Orthodox Presbyterians Cornelius Van Til and Robert Strimple in their penetrating analysis of Vatican II and its impact.

Sola Fide

With regard to the material principle of the Reformation, sola fide, Van Til argues that Roman Catholicism (both before and after Vatican II) does not acknowledge that man was totally ruined by the Fall. Rather, Rome sees man's problem starting with his finitude. Man tends naturally toward evil because he is a creature, not because he is a sinner. Supernatural grace, then, was necessary before the Fall; it was lost in the Fall, but man's essential nature (rationality and free will) remained intact. Human reason is not radically depraved, and thus people can cooperate with God's grace toward final justification.[1]

For Van Til, any discussion of Rome and sola fide must start here. Strimple agrees: "The difference between the Roman Catholic doctrine of salvation (both in its traditional form and now in its modern, Rahnerian form) and the Reformed doctrine of salvation is the difference between an ontological concept (man as created needing some "additional" gift) and an ethical one (man's position being his disobedience, needing forgiveness and sanctification)."[2]

I was taught the same Catholic doctrine of man at Duquesne. However, Noll and Nystrom do not address this teaching, and their silence undercuts their contention that the Reformation principle of sola fide should no longer divide Protestants and Catholics. Post-Vatican II Rome may say that it believes in salvation by grace alone, as Noll and Nystrom contend, but they mean something quite different from the Reformation understanding. It doesn't matter if the critique comes in 1966 or 2006; until Rome changes its doctrine of man, it is unable to affirm sola fide in the biblical sense.

Sola Scriptura

What then of sola Scripture? Strimple writes that Catholicism has not moved away from "the so-called 'formal insufficiency' of Scripture—that is, the fact that the Bible is not sufficient in itself to give anyone a knowledge of God's will, because that cannot be understood apart from the Catholic church's authoritative interpretation of the Scripture. Sola Scriptura in the Protestant sense has not been affirmed."[3] Van Til writes: "It is the essence of Romanism that the authority of the living church interprets to the individual believer the meaning of the word 'God' and the word 'Christ.' What the Bible says to the individual is mediated through the declarative activity of the church which is assumed to be infallible."[4]

Noll and Nystrom recognize that Catholicism teaches such a role for the church, and that this remains a key point of contention. How then can they contend that Catholics and evangelicals "trust equally in the full inspiration and final authority of the Bible" (p. 231)? Either they have misread Vatican II's teaching on Scripture or evangelicals have revised their doctrine of Scripture.

I was taught at Duquesne that Vatican II (Divine Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965) basically approved "the critical method of modern exegesis within the bible's fundamental historicity."[5] That is, there is a full recognition of the time-conditioned character of all human statements. Scripture may be inspired by God, but it is a human record and therefore contains errors and limitations. Inerrancy is found in the declarations of the living, teaching church, not in the Bible.

Furthermore, revelation is not a finished product (the Bible), but an ongoing process in which the Roman Church acts as the infallible interpreter. Believers are not to find their certainty in Scripture alone, but in the interpretive declaration of the church. Scripture is only a human testimony to revelation. Scripture and revelation are two different realities. Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) writes, "The fact that 'tradition' exists is primarily based on the non-identity of the two realities, 'revelation' and 'scripture'. Revelation means God's whole speech and action with man; it signifies a reality which scripture makes known but which is not itself simply identical with scripture." He continues: "There can be scripture without revelation."[6]

This is a reversal of evangelical doctrine. Orthodox Protestantism places its trust in the infallible Word; Catholicism places its trust in an infallible church. Orthodox Protestantism believes that Scripture itself is God's infallible commentary on his own activity; Catholicism believes that the church provides the infallible commentary on God's activity.

Catholicism operates with a "both-and" model. It can accommodate either past teaching (Trent) or modern thought (Vatican II). It can welcome Protestants as "separated brethren" (Vatican II) or reject them as heretics (following the anathemas of Trent). Every option is covered. In a world where opposition to contemporary thought means instant marginalization, such options are considered crucial if the Catholic Church is going to have an impact.

Catholic scholar William Shea argues that evangelicalism realized this in the 1940s, before Rome did in the 1960s; it no longer wanted to be against the world, but in the world. According to Shea, evangelicals reversed the failed strategy of fundamentalist separatism (exemplified by Machen and the OPC), just as the leaders of Vatican II later reversed their predecessors' separatist strategy. Before each lay the harvest field of the modern secular world, but readmittance to the cultural game meant sharing company with previous foes in opposition to the ultimate evil of anti-Christian modernity. The enemy of one's enemy becomes one's friend.[7]

Indeed, the fields are ripe for harvest, but what the world needs most is for the church to proclaim the unadulterated gospel of Jesus Christ. Neither the traditional teachings of Rome nor their contemporary formulations lead to the self-attesting Christ of Scripture. Do evangelicals really want to join arms with Rome and follow that path?


[1] See Cornelius Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, 163; Christian Theistic Ethics, 29; The Reformed Pastor and Modern Thought, 91-92.

[2] Robert Strimple, "Roman Catholic Theology Today," in Roman Catholicism, ed. John Armstrong, 110.

[3] Ibid., 101.

[4] Van Til, The Reformed Pastor, 75.

[5] Eduard Schillebeeckx, The Real Achievement of Vatican II, 40.

[6] Karl Rahner and Joseph Ratzinger, Revelation and Tradition, 35-36.

[7] William Shea, "Modernity as a Stimulus of Reconciliation between American Evangelicals and Catholics," Horizons, the Journal of the College Theology Society 31/1 (Spring 2004), 156-57.

The author is the general secretary for Christian Education of the OPC and the editor of New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2006.

New Horizons: October 2006

Reformation Then and Now

Also in this issue

Reformation—Then and Now

Roman Catholicism and Liberty

Mountain Religion (Part 1)

Download PDFDownload ePubArchive


+1 215 830 0900

Contact Form

Find a Church