Is the Reformation Over?

The second part of the White Horse Inn broadcast for 3 November 2007 features an interview with Mark Noll. I don’t know Mark well. We had lunch once when I taught at Wheaton. He was kind to spend some time with a young scholar. I’ve read a good bit of his work and it is terrific. He’s amazingly well read and his stuff on American religion is not to be missed. No one, however, who writes as much as Mark does can get it all right all the time. The HB is living proof of that dictum.

In this post I’m only reacting to the interview, however, and not to the book since I haven’t finished it—too many of my own writing and teaching assignments.

In the interview Mark argues that the issues that separated Rome from the Reformation have passed. What was his basis for making such a judgment? Is it that a council has met and promulgated dogmas and decrees that have been ratified by the Holy See? No. He seemed to make two arguments: 1) things have changed; 2) we misunderstood each other, 3) Rome believes in grace and faith etc.

These grounds are non-starters.

First the last one. It’s evident from the interview that Mark, like lots of folk raised in fundamentalism—go back and listen to John Woodbridge’s explanation of why he signed ECT II—he was surprised to find that Roman Catholics love Jesus and confess a religion of grace. I appreciate the shock that comes when one’s prejudices are shattered. I had to overcome similar prejudices about infant baptism and other things. My early Christian training was wrong in a number of important ways. The fact that I’ve since discovered that my prejudices about Roman Catholics were ill founded is irrelevant to deciding whether the Reformation still stands.

Mark says that the Reformation is over “in terms of doctrine.” Then he sets up a test that explicitly excludes the Reformation confessions and the Canons and Decrees of Trent. He wants to know how things are done “on the ground.” That’s a little like trying to determine the rules of baseball by surveying how kids play it on the sandlot.

He says that they looked for “bible-centered, grace-centered, Christ-centered” teaching. That’s all fine but the only problem is THAT WAS NEVER THE ISSUE! Yes, I’m yelling. I’m yelling at my windshield, as it were, because Mark should know better. He says that they (he and Nystrom) deliberately did not use the 16th-century formulas. Why not? On what grounds? Why isn’t that arbitrary and why doesn’t such a test pre-judge the outcome? If you ask, “After Vatican II are more Roman Catholics reading the Bible and talking more like evangelicals” or if “After the end of Fundamentalism are more evangelicals talking like Roman Catholics?” or “Is there are sort of popular convergence between American Roman Catholics and American evangelicals, well of course there is but that’s beside the point, unless Schleiermacher is right and theology and religion is nothing more than the quest to replicate Jesus’ religious experience.

Of course Christianity entails certain dogmas. The controversy between Rome and the Reformation was never over whether they love Jesus or have a Christ-centered faith (modern Roman biblical theology is sometimes brilliant— my favorite commentaries on John are all Roman Catholic) or whether they confess a religion of grace. Read Lombard or Thomas. Read Trent. Rome teaches a religion of grace. It’s just equivocation to say, however, Rome teaches grace and we teach grace and therefore the Reformation is over.

The questions have always been “what is grace” and “grace plus what?” Rome teaches a different definition of grace and she has always taught a soteriology of “grace plus.” We confess a soteriology of grace plus nothing.

We must do justice to the Roman communion. This is one place where Mark’s analysis fails. She does not view herself as just another society of Christians. She views herself as THE holy catholic church. To leave the Roman communion is to leave THE church. She has canon law. She has a great body of promulgated, adopted, ratified, bind dogmas. She publishes a massive (!) catechism. Even if there is, in fact, real change in Roman dogma she doesn’t admit it. As I read her doctrine, officially her dogma has not changed. She cannot change. Moral reformation is possible and necessary but dogmatic reform, of the sort demanded by the Protestant Reformation is impossible.

Thus, any cardinal (a papal elector) or priest or bishop or even Pope (when he is not speaking ex cathedra—which he has only done once—can say what he will but that utterance does not necessarily, ipso facto change Roman dogma. When the Pope issues an encyclical or speaks in his capacity as the head of the church (what a remarkable thing for a mere human to say of himself) that’s another thing. When the Holy See orders take out from the local restaurant, that doesn’t become Roman dogma.

Without a declaration Rome canceling the anathemas of 1547, they are still in force. She cannot be said to have changed her stance toward Protestants and the Reformation gospel of justification sola gratia, sola fide. Too often evangelicals tend to interpret Roman doctrine as if Rome means by words such as “grace” and “faith” what they (should) mean by them or even as if they mean what the Reformation meant by them.

Now Trent was a different matter. As I’ve written here many times and as is obvious to anyone who reads the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session Six, against the background of medieval theology (which is how they must be read) and against the background of the Protestant confession as it existed in 1547, the delegates to the Council of Trent understood the Reformation doctrine of justification. The Canons and Decrees make it clear that they understood our definition of faith in the act of justification. It is clear that she understood our definition of justification as the declaration by God on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. She understood that we say that only Christ fulfilled the law and that justification cannot be improved or perfected, that there is no “initial” and “final” justification but only one justification for all time.

When Trent says “faith” it’s clear that she means “faith formed by love.” That’s not what we meant then or mean now by it relative to justification. When Rome said (and says) “grace” she means a substance with which one is infused progressively toward sanctification, with which one must cooperate toward justification.

Mark notes that Rome says that faith is a free gift. Yes, it is, but to imply that Rome means by “faith” in the act of justification that it remains a free gift is equivocation. Yes, in Roman dogma, faith begins as a free gift initiated in baptism, but in Roman dogma it is also the case that we must do our part. We must cooperate with grace. In this respect, Sungenis’ representation of Roman dogma is more faithful than Noll’s. Yes, you can find “Protestants” saying wacky things about faith, so what? Mark says “You do have a statement in the Catholic Catechism of salvation by grace through faith.” He says, as Alister McGrath argued some years ago in Christianity Today, that Rome has essentially given in on the central issue. Wrong. She hasn’t. She doesn’t come “very close” to grace alone, and even if she does, in this case, close isn’t good enough. That “allein” makes all the difference in the world (and the next) to brother Martin, brother, John and to the rest of the Protestants.

Here’s what Rome says today:

para. 1989 The first work of the grace of the Holy Spirit is conversion, effecting justification in accordance with Jesus’ proclamation at the beginning of the Gospel: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Moved by grace, man turns toward God and away from sin, thus accepting forgiveness and righteousness from on high. “Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man. (emphasis mine–rsc)

Notice how Rome defines justification TODAY: “not only the remission of sins, but also the the sanctification and renewal of the inner man.”

How sanctified are you today? Right now? Rome says “that’s how justified you are today.”

The entire Reformation hinges on that “but also.” There’s no “but also” when it comes to justification. Zip. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Nihil. Das Nichtige.

We Protestants stubbornly confess that Jesus’ righteousness ALONE, for us (pro nobis is the only ground of justification. Our churchly confessions are absolutely clear about what we mean by “grace” (divine favor) and “faith” (receiving and resting). These two sets of definitions are irreconcilable.

Read the Canons and Decrees of Trent. Most of it was moral reform stuff and pretty tedious. It was the stuff about which they had been talking internally since the late medieval period and the sorts of stuff Councils had addressed as late as the early 16th century when a council declared the Roman church to be corrupt in “head and members.”

What is impressive about Trent is the degree of sophistication they demonstrated in their perception of the Protestant doctrine. They manifestly perceived accurately the differences, for example, between the Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Calvinist views of the Supper.

There is just too much evidence in the canons and decrees of Trent that they knew what they were doing when they promulgated those anathemas—which were not mere acts of petulance. These were considered decisions (even if there was some serious violence during some of the deliberations!).

So, what real evidence is there that Rome’s official position has actually changed? Cardinal Cassidy can say what he will. I don’t care. For that matter, Fitzmyer can say what he will. That’s fine. Those are private opinions. Great. They mean nothing for the ecclesiastical relations between Rome and Protestants.

If you want to know what the Roman church says, read her documents. If you want to know what the Protestant churches say about these issues, read their confessions: Augsburg Confession (and the Book of Concord for confessional Lutheranism), Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort, the Westminster Standards. These are the official dogmas of the Protestant Churches and these are definitive just as the catechism, encyclicals, canons and decrees of the Roman communion are definitive of her doctrine.

Update on Monday, November 12, 2007 at 06:16PM by R. Scott Clark

Lest someone accuse me of misrepresenting the Roman view, here is a recent Vatican statement on the effect and consequences of Vatican II for changes in Roman dogma.

This document was promulgated by the same office that published the catechism. Thanks to WSC student Austin Britton for pointing us to this document that appeared 29 June 2007. As you can see below they have the authority of the Holy See.




The Second Vatican Council, with its Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, and its Decrees on Ecumenism (Unitatis redintegratio) and the Oriental Churches (Orientalium Ecclesiarum), has contributed in a decisive way to the renewal of Catholic ecclesiology. The Supreme Pontiffs have also contributed to this renewal by offering their own insights and orientations for praxis: Paul VI in his Encyclical Letter Ecclesiam suam (1964) and John Paul II in his Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint (1995).

The consequent duty of theologians to expound with greater clarity the diverse aspects of ecclesiology has resulted in a flowering of writing in this field. In fact it has become evident that this theme is a most fruitful one which, however, has also at times required clarification by way of precise definition and correction, for instance in the declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae (1973), the Letter addressed to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Communionis notio (1992), and the declaration Dominus Iesus (2000), all published by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The vastness of the subject matter and the novelty of many of the themes involved continue to provoke theological reflection. Among the many new contributions to the field, some are not immune from erroneous interpretation which in turn give rise to confusion and doubt. A number of these interpretations have been referred to the attention of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Given the universality of Catholic doctrine on the Church, the Congregation wishes to respond to these questions by clarifying the authentic meaning of some ecclesiological expressions used by the magisterium which are open to misunderstanding in the theological debate.



Did the Second Vatican Council change the Catholic doctrine on the Church?


The Second Vatican Council neither changed nor intended to change this doctrine, rather it developed, deepened and more fully explained it.

This was exactly what John XXIII said at the beginning of the Council.1 Paul VI affirmed it2 and commented in the act of promulgating the Constitution Lumen gentium: “There is no better comment to make than to say that this promulgation really changes nothing of the traditional doctrine. What Christ willed, we also will. What was, still is. What the Church has taught down through the centuries, we also teach. In simple terms that which was assumed, is now explicit; that which was uncertain, is now clarified; that which was meditated upon, discussed and sometimes argued over, is now put together in one clear formulation”.3 The Bishops repeatedly expressed and fulfilled this intention.4


What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?


Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”5, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted.6 “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.7

In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church8, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them.9 Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.10


Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?


The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure, but which “as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity”.11

“It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church”12.


Why does the Second Vatican Council use the term “Church” in reference to the oriental Churches separated from full communion with the Catholic Church?


The Council wanted to adopt the traditional use of the term. “Because these Churches, although separated, have true sacraments and above all – because of the apostolic succession – the priesthood and the Eucharist, by means of which they remain linked to us by very close bonds”13, they merit the title of “particular or local Churches”14, and are called sister Churches of the particular Catholic Churches.15

“It is through the celebration of the Eucharist of the Lord in each of these Churches that the Church of God is built up and grows in stature”.16 However, since communion with the Catholic Church, the visible head of which is the Bishop of Rome and the Successor of Peter, is not some external complement to a particular Church but rather one of its internal constitutive principles, these venerable Christian communities lack something in their condition as particular churches.17

On the other hand, because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church governed by the Successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him, is not fully realised in history.18


Why do the texts of the Council and those of the Magisterium since the Council not use the title of “Church” with regard to those Christian Communities born out of the Reformation of the sixteenth century?


According to Catholic doctrine, these Communities do not enjoy apostolic succession in the sacrament of Orders, and are, therefore, deprived of a constitutive element of the Church. These ecclesial Communities which, specifically because of the absence of the sacramental priesthood, have not preserved the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic Mystery19 cannot, according to Catholic doctrine, be called “Churches” in the proper sense20.

The Supreme Pontiff Benedict XVI, at the Audience granted to the undersigned Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ratified and confirmed these Responses, adopted in the Plenary Session of the Congregation, and ordered their publication.

Rome, from the Offices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, June 29, 2007, the Solemnity of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul.

William Cardinal Levada

Angelo Amato, S.D.B.
Titular Archbishop of Sila

[1] John XXIII, Address of 11 October 1962: “…The Council…wishes to transmit Catholic doctrine, whole and entire, without alteration or deviation…To be sure, at the present time, it is necessary that Christian doctrine in its entirety, and with nothing taken away from it, is accepted with renewed enthusiasm, and serene and tranquil adherence… it is necessary that the very same doctrine be understood more widely and more profoundly as all those who sincerely adhere to the Christian, Catholic and Apostolic faith strongly desire …it is necessary that this certain and unchangeable doctrine, to which is owed the obedience of faith, be explored and expounded in the manner required by our times. For the deposit of faith itself, or the truths which are contained in our venerable doctrine, are one thing; another thing is the way in which they are expressed, with however the same meaning and signification”: AAS 54 [1962] 791-792

[2] Cf. Paul VI, Address of 29 September 1963: AAS 55 [1963] 847-852.

[3] Paul VI, Address of 21 November 1964: AAS 56 [1964] 1009-1010.

[4] The Council wished to express the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church. This is clear from the discussions on the decree Unitatis redintegratio. The Schema of the Decree was proposed on the floor of the Council on 23.9.1964 with a Relatio (Act Syn III/II 296-344). The Secretariat for the Unity of Christians responded on 10.11.1964 to the suggestions sent by Bishops in the months that followed (Act Syn III/VII 11-49). Herewith are quoted four texts from this Expensio modorum concerning this first response.

A) [In Nr. 1 (Prooemium) Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 296, 3-6]

“Pag. 5, lin. 3-6: Videtur etiam Ecclesiam catholicam inter illas Communiones comprehendi, quod falsum esset.
R(espondetur): Hic tantum factum, prout ab omnibus conspicitur, describendum est. Postea clare affirmatur solam Ecclesiam catholicam esse veram Ecclesiam Christi” (Act Syn III/VII 12).

B) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 297-301]

“4 – Expressius dicatur unam solam esse veram Ecclesiam Christi; hanc esse Catholicam Apostolicam Romanam; omnes debere inquirere, ut eam cognoscant et ingrediantur ad salutem obtinendam…
R(espondetur): In toto textu sufficienter effertur, quod postulatur. Ex altera parte non est tacendum etiam in aliis communitatibus christianis inveniri veritates revelatas et elementa ecclesialia”(Act Syn III/VII 15). Cf. also ibid pt. 5.

C) [In Caput I in genere: Act Syn III/II 296s]

“5 – Clarius dicendum esset veram Ecclesiam esse solam Ecclesiam catholicam romanam…
R(espondetur): Textus supponit doctrinam in constitutione ‘De Ecclesia’ expositam, ut pag. 5, lin. 24-25 affirmatur” (Act Syn III/VII 15). Thus the commission whose task it was to evaluate the responses to the Decree Unitatis redintegratio clearly expressed the identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church and its unicity, and understood this doctrine to be founded in the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium.

D) [In Nr. 2 Schema Decreti: Act Syn III/II 297s]

“Pag. 6, lin. 1- 24: Clarius exprimatur unicitas Ecclesiae. Non sufficit inculcare, ut in textu fit, unitatem Ecclesiae.
R(espondetur): a) Ex toto textu clare apparet identificatio Ecclesiae Christi cum Ecclesia catholica, quamvis, ut oportet, efferantur elementa ecclesialia aliarum communitatum”.
“Pag. 7, lin. 5: Ecclesia a successoribus Apostolorum cum Petri successore capite gubernata (cf. novum textum ad pag. 6, lin.33-34) explicite dicitur ‘unicus Dei grex’ et lin. 13 ‘una et unica Dei Ecclesia’ ” (Act Syn III/VII).
The two expressions quoted are those of Unitatis redintegratio 2.5 e 3.1.

[5] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.1.

[6] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 3.2; 3.4; 3.5; 4.6.

[7] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution, Lumen gentium, 8.2.

[8] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Mysterium Ecclesiae, 1.1: AAS 65 [1973] 397; Declaration Dominus Iesus, 16.3: AAS 92 [2000-II] 757-758; Notification on the Book of Leonardo Boff, OFM, “Church: Charism and Power”: AAS 77 [1985] 758-759.

[9] Cf. John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, 11.3: AAS 87 [1995-II] 928.

[10] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.2.

[11] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, 8.2.

[12] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 3.4.

[13] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 15.3; cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Communionis notio, 17.2: AAS, 85 [1993-II] 848.

[14] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 14.1.

[15] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 14.1; John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint, 56 f: AAS 87 [1995-II] 954 ff.

[16] Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 15.1.

[17] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter Communionis notio, 17.3: AAS 85 [1993-II] 849.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Cf. Second Vatican Council, Decree Unitatis redintegratio, 22.3.

[20] Cf. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Declaration Dominus Iesus, 17.2: AAS 92 [2000-II] 758.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott,

    In his book, “Luther: Man Between God and the Devil” Heiko Obermann posited the hypothetical. If Luther were alive today would he get a job at any University or Seminary as a Professor. It is an entertaining portion of the book. The answer, and this is an indictment against our times, is that “no” he would not. Universities and many Seminaries want a Scholastic thinker. Erasmus would do quite well! That is not necessarily a good thing! Reading “Intellectual Foundations of the Reformation” and “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea” it seems to still be all the rage to be a Scholastic. It is not that I don’t respect Noll or McGrath. However, McGrath (whom I have read more of his writings) seems to take the same old new (haha) view that the Refomation was just a simple confluence of historical events, that led in a socoi/economic/politcal way to the reluctant Luther who just couldn’t tear his way from Rome. There were certainly pre-Reformational grumblings and movements, and I study the history of Medeival, pre-Reformation Europe. However, with all due respect I see the Reformation as nothing less than a wholesale repudiation – God-ignited – revolution – overturn of Roman Catholicism by the magesterial and non-magesterial Reformers. This was no ineveitable blip on the radar. This was God’s work! I wonder if the push to be more Scholastic and less-polemic on the seminary level is part of the problem. As least as far as men like Noll, and McGrath are concerned. ~Eric

  2. Oh, and NO the Reformation is not over! Perhaps Noll, and McGrath, and Packer just think that the Reformation was a simple “Recultivating the Vineyard” Hmmmm……wasn’t there a book by a man, Hendryx, Noll, no it was Hendryx. I guess that a “church” which never has recanted anything from the Council of Trent, and still considers Protestants anathema, and denies the gospel, and has a million man made traditions simply needs to be recultivated.

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