A decade ago Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom published Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. The book was measured in its answer, but in an interview at the time of publication, Noll said, yes, the Reformation is over. I responded to some of Noll’s arguments in 2009. That book came after more than a decade of dialogue between what are now called “Evangelical thought leaders” and a representative of the Roman communion, Idris Cardinal Cassidy, during which more than a few evangelical leaders signed the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” documents claiming to have mitigated at least some of the major differences between Rome and the Reformation. The years since the publication of the book have seen a number of Protestants leave churches in the Reformation tradition to unite with Rome.
After all, the lure of Romanism seems stronger than ever. For those concerned about the late-modern cultural crisis, Rome seems to offer not only stability in the midst of chaos but Romanists are now the leading edge of cultural resistance to the sexual revolution represented by Roe v Wade (and Doe v Bolton; 1973) and by Obergefell v Hodges (2015), which revolutionized the definition of marriage in the US. Romanists now dominate the U.S. Supreme Court. The intellectual leadership of the conservative counter culture is led by Romanists. The mainline Protestant institutions long ago gave up their confessional theological heritage and with it, ironically, their influence in the culture. It is ironic because they gave up their confession in a misguided attempt to retain influence in the culture. Further, Rome claims to offer a profound connection to the past, beginning with a their claim of an unbroken line of succession from Pope Francis to the Apostle Peter. For Americans, who are historically challenged, the obvious potency of Romanist cultural influence combined with their claims to antiquity are persuasive.
Has Rome’s doctrine really changed? Have the differences between confessional Protestants and Rome really evaporated? Is the cultural crisis so great that Protestants should set aside their objections and unite with the one entity that seems able to resist the apparent wave of immorality? Is there anything more than prejudice driving a continued protest by Protestants? In his latest book, Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Still Matters (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2018), in 10 brief chapters (the book is 224 pages) D. G. Hart answers seeks to answer these questions.
He begins with a survey of some of the most compelling reasons given by some high-profile converts to Rome, e.g., Christian Smith and Richard John Neuhaus and responds by re-asserting the material cause of the Reformation: “Despite dramatic changes with the ecclesiastical landscape over the last fifty years, the status of human beings before a holy and righteous God and the message of the gospel as explained by the Reformers remain the same” (p. 8). The changes that Neuhaus, Noll, Nystrom et al. see, the drift of Rome and evangelicals toward each other, “has more to do with forgetfulness and confusion about the claims of Rome and Protestants at the time of the Reformation than it does with doctrinal or ecumenical breakthrough” (p. 11). After all, he writes, “the Reformers were not confused or unclear; nor was the Council of Trent, even if subsequent popes and councils have sought to soften Rome’s sixteenth-century teachings” (p.11).
The book is in two parts. The first five chapters walk us through through the essential Reformation case. The second five chapters are a response to Romanist apologists (e.g., evangelical converts to Rome). Since he has worked professionally with Romanists for a number of years Hart is sensitive to the charge that such a book might be another rehearsal of old anti-Romanist prejudices—of which Hart, as a scholar of 19th and 20th century American religious history—is well aware. He makes clear that his objections are not political or cultural but “religious and theological.” He is not trafficking in fundamentalist anti-Romanist conspiracies but old-school Presbyterian analysis of Romanist theology, piety, and practice re-considered for our time.
His survey of the basic issues of the Reformation is well written, uncluttered with footnotes or digressions. They make a good introduction to the Reformation. Specialists may quibble with some of his analysis (e.g., Reformed Protestantism owed its initial success to the politics of the empire; p. 20) or a detail here and there (e.g., Luther most like did not say “Here I stand. I can do no other” at Worms in April, 1521). The survey moves quickly through the institutional history of the Reformation from Luther to Bucer to Calvin.
In chapter 2 he surveys the basic issues surrounding the Reformation assertion of sola Scriptura (the formal cause of the Reformation), clearing away the brush of misrepresentations and caricatures. He notes (p. 38) that, in the Ten Theses of Bern submitted to the Diet of Augsburg (1530), the Reformed churches took a somewhat stronger stand in the on sola Scriptura than the Lutheran churches had to that point. His survey of the Roman reaction to sola Scriptura from Trent to Vatican II should be read by those tempted by Rome.
He next turns to the material (substantial) cause of the Reformation: Rome’s doctrine of salvation and the related problem of doctrinal development. Those unfamiliar with how Rome justifies her manifest departures from ancient Christian theology, piety, and practice should read this chapter. He addresses the contention that, at Vatican II (1962–65) and in subsequent ecumenical endeavors, the essential differences over salvation have been resolved.
Through the first half of the book Hart explains why Protestants are reasonably concerned about things to which evangelicals no longer pay attention, e.g., church government. Did Jesus institute the papacy and does it matter? What is the effect of the papacy on the Christian life (e.g., on Christian freedom)? He also tackles the neglected but vitally important doctrine of vocation. When Romanists speak of vocation, it was usually reserved, until Vatican II, for those called to the priesthood. Even after Vatican II Rome does not quite grasp the doctrine. The protestants asserted that every believer, in secular life, has a vocation. A vocation need not be “holy” to be good. That notion has powerfully liberating consequences for daily life.
Those who are tempted toward Rome by its claim to antiquity will want to consider the chapter on the papacy, “Is Protestantism New?” In chapter 7 he tackles the argument that Protestantism is hopelessly divided and thus Christians seeking a unified church should swim the Tiber. In it he notes the historical problems for Rome’s claim to antiquity and unity. He also addresses (ch. 8) the apologetic from aesthetics. Rather than trying engaging in an aesthetic gunfight he follows Tertullian by challenging the ground of his opponent’s appeal.
One of the strongest appeals made by Romanists (e.g., Brad Gregory) is the argument that it was the Reformation that gave us our late-modern religious and moral chaos. Hart’s response and his critique of Vatican II and Rome’s relation to Modernity are two of the stronger chapters in the volume since Hart is on his home court here.
This is a needed, well-written volume. This would make an excellent resource for adult classes, for advanced high schoolers and undergraduates, and especially for those who are toying with the idea of converting to Rome. This is a volume that pastors will want to read and put in their church libraries and on church book tables. Christian high school and college libraries as well as seminary libraries will want to add this to their collection. Future editions of this book should include a brief bibliography for further reading for those who would hear more from Luther, Calvin, and the confessional Presbyterian and Reformed churches.
It is lightly footnoted, which is appropriate for a popular volume aimed at laity, but remarkable number of those notes are to online resources. This is not a criticism—since such references make resources available quickly and easily—just an observation. The disadvantage of such references is that by the time the reader gets to them, they may no longer exist. In such a case, the reader should be aware of the Internet Archive WayBack Machine.
Groan. Just when I thought I had gotten caught up on my reading of Hart’s books (just now working my way through “Between the Times: The OPC in Transition, 1945-1990”) now it looks like I’ll have to add yet another to my library. Looks like a good read, though!
Well, one reason why Rome can run circles around us is $$$$$. It does not help when the modernists have stolen all of your established institutions and the bequests that went with them.