On remaining Protestant: more harm than good?

In the new issue of Pro Ecclesia, Michael Root has an essay reviewing the book, Is the Reformation Over? by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom. The book is an evangelical inquiry into the current state of Protestant-Catholic relations. The book engages ecumenical documents like the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification as well as recent dialogues between Catholics and evangelicals. Like most books with sexy titles meant to grab your attention, the book never really answers the question. But it does point out that what separates Protestants from Catholics is more a difference in polity and liturgical custom than a difference in theology. In any case, Root raises some interesting questions at the end of his article. In particular, he asks whether the continuing existence of the Protestant churches now does more harm than good. What do you think?
Are the Reformation churches over? Does the existence of distinct Protestant churches continue to serve the gospel? ... Is the proclamation of that gospel in all that the church is, says, and does served by the continuing existence of Protestant churches in anything like their contemporary form?

The issue is not whether the contribution of the Reformation to the total life of the church would be better realized if there were not church division. Few would deny that. The question is whether, whatever may have been the case in the sixteenth century, the continuing existence of distinct Protestant churches now does more harm than good, more harm than good precisely to the cause of the gospel that called the Reformation forth.

—Michael Root, “Is the Reformation Over? And What If It Is?” Pro Ecclesia 16:3 (2007), 344.


Shane said…
"But it does point out that what separates Protestants from Catholics is more a difference in polity and liturgical custom than a difference in theology."

for the reformation to be over either we persuaded them, they persuaded us, or we realized we were saying the same thing. I think we have persuaded them about justification and have made some forward motion on their doctrine of scripture. (So there's the material and the formal principles of the reformation--which is a pretty good start). However, there are still problems remaining:

*Papal Infallibility
*The immaculate Conception of Mary
*(Mary as coredemptrix)*
*There is only one true church and the pope runs it.

From the protestant perspective these teachings are simply unacceptable. Nor are these trifling matters. Indifference to ecclesiology is a hallmark of free church evangelicalism, but not of RC.

Beside the above list there is a whole range of cultural questions that are very important, but not insuperable:

*the use of natural law in moral theology
*the RC teaching on birth control
*the long history of evil popes
*superstitious saint magic
Halden said…
This sounds like a great article, David. Thanks for this. Doesn't help my angst, but it's great food for thought.
Lee said…
I would mostly second what Shane said except I'd add that the issues he highlights like papal infallibility and post-Tridentine Marian dogmas are not unrealted to the issue of justification. If justification is sola fide, then requiring these "extras" is a denial of the gospel as Protestants traditionally understand it. In other words, for classical Protestantism, justification isn't just one doctrine to be put on the shelf next to others, but the criterion by which other doctrines are evaluated. The Joint Declaration on Justification has been accused of fudging on just this point. Though I'd be interested in hearing more about in just what sense Root thinks Protestant churches are doing harm.
Anonymous said…
I agree with Shane that some matters are still lingering. I don't think the papal infallibility issue is that big of a deal though as in practice it largely just amounts to honoring him very much in word not deeds. Protestants may already honor the pope more. They certainly practice the same form of evangelist-honoring in their own circles so it wouldn't be all that odd.

But the Mary stuff....there's the rub. No matter how much I read rationalizations of Mary and the saints when a prayer is thrown up to them (no matter how ancient), it is either meaningless or completely pagan feeling. Most protestants view themselves as too modern and enlightened to believe or practice this stuff.

Mary is what creates the 'ick' factor with Catholicism for evangelicals. It's no different emotionally than the reaction to chicken blood in Santeria. All the other disputes (papacy, ecclesiology, scripture, justification) could now be nice in-house intellectual arguments. But this ritual difference delves into 'powers' not just ideas. You can't even stay in the room to talk about it.

Shane said…
I'm actually less bothered by the praying to mary stuff, but that's because i'm kind of a pragmatist at a certain level--if it helps you, ok, good on ya. making mary as coredemptrix, however . . .

Another small detail I forgot to mention earlier -- the doctrine of transubstantiation, the catholics are pretty serious about that.
D.W. Congdon said…

I agree that there are important points of theology that still divide Protestants and Catholics. I was trying to summarize Noll's and Nystrom's point of view more than offer my own. But I do think what scares off evangelicals most is the structural hierarchy of Catholicism rather than theological differences. That's just because most Protestants could care less about theology. I think the notion of submitting to a pope -- or submitting to anything, even tradition -- is something that frightens American evangelicals who are committed to a voluntaristic, individualistic conception of Christianity.
D.W. Congdon said…

I think you're right that Mary is definitely a point of contention for many evangelicals looking at Rome. But it's not the biggest one, as far as I can tell. Many recent books have come out in an attempt to "recover Mary for Protestants." As long as the Catholics doesn't actually make Mary a co-redemptrix, there shouldn't be anything "icky" about her. The whole "praying to Mary" thing might be strange and a little off-putting for many Protestants, but it's certainly not the center of the Catholic faith.

I really think the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy is what scares off Protestants in America the most. I think you are right that evangelicals are hypocritical on this point, since they have many "cults of personality." The big difference is that evangelicals choose their personalities, whereas in Catholicism it is chosen for you. This is a huge difference. Voluntaristic Protestants want to pick and choose who to follow. If Christ is too demanding, find a version of Christ that isn't. If a church is too restrictive, find one that's more open. If a pastor is too challenging, find one that makes people more happy. This is the unfortunate nature of religion in America.

Theology has little to do with it, in my opinion. As a theologian myself, I certainly think there are major points of theological difference. But these aren't the ones that keep the average Protestant away.
WTM said…
For my money, the Joint Declaration doesn't move us forward at all. That means that the key contention of the Reformation is still a live issue. Add to that the post-Reformation Marian dogmas, and you've got quite a problem.
WTM said…
Also, I would be terribly remiss if I did not point all interested parties to my own review of the Noll / Nystrom volume in question.
Andy said…
Why doesn't anyone ask whether protestants can justify their continuing separation from Constantinople? Look at Shane's list of remaining differences. These are all excellent points, but do these things separate us from Orthodoxy?

Papal infallibility? No.
The immaculate conception? No.
Mary as co-redemptrix? No.
One true church run by the pope? No.

Of course, liturgy and polity are still huge issues, and we'd have to do a lot of talking about justification, but it seems to me there are fewer obstacles down this path.

I read something once, I think it was written by Timothy Ware, which indicated the biggest obstacle from the Orthodox perspective is that a distinction would need to be made between protestants who believe in the resurrection and protestants who do not. Rome, it would seem, hasn't felt the need to call us on that one yet.

Then we have the further problem which D.W. mentions about "evangelicals who are committed to a voluntaristic, individualistic conception of Christianity." This needs to be named as a heresy and dealt with. Smells like an ecumenical council to me.
WTM said…
The problem with Constantinople is that it is Eastern, and I am a Western christian. I cannot shake the feeling that it would be disingenuous of me to try to insert myself into that communion, although there may be fewer and certainly less sharply defined issues of separation.

Once again, I'm not afraid of a bit of diversity, especially on the institutional level. Why must we assume that we must have one ecclesial institution if we are to function as the one body of Christ, the one, holy, cathcolic and apostolic church?
Camassia said…
To further complicate things, not only do we also have the Eastern Orthodox around but we still have the descendants of the two 5th-century schisms around, who are actually quite numerous (72 million, according to Wikipedia). What all these schisms have in common, however, is that they basically fell along ethnic and geographic lines. The Nestorian schism took out Parthia, the Chalcedonian schism took out Africa, Armenia and India, the EO schism took out Turkey and Eastern Europe, and the Protestant Reformation was basically a Germanic thing. It's an uncomfortable fact, but for all the talk about how the Reformation was really an in-house dispute, it raises a question as to whether the "Western Church" is a real entity. Even the more decentralized EO structure tends to see Rome as the western outpost of a middle eastern religion, which is clearly no longer the case.

I would also be remiss to my Mennonite brethren if I didn't point out that voluntarism has real theological roots that aren't identical with sheer bloody-mindedness. It represents a different conception of church and how the Spirit works in it, which any general reconciliation would have to deal with.