Thursday, January 12, 2006

Seeds of division

This article at Alvin Kimmel's Pontifications ties in nicely with the Peter Kreeft seminar my wife and I attended on the weekend, the one about Catholics and Evangelicals together. The text is by John L. Gresham, and the subject is historian Mark Noll's take on the Reformation today. Writes Gresham:
Noll characterizes the extent of this changed relationship quite well in his closing comments where he says Evangelicals and Catholics were like Elves and Orcs to one another, but now they are more like Ents and Hobbits, not quite speaking the same language or sharing the same culture but seeing themselves more on the same side. (I find it interesting that Noll pulls these analogies, without explanation or reference, from a mythical world created by a Catholic philologist, rightly confident that both his Evangelical and Catholic readers will get his point). The Middle Earth analogy is preceded by a Lindebeckian synopsis of historic Christian divisions as various cultural linguistic adaptations of Christian faith to new environmental challenges: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, Evangelical Protestantism, and Pentecostalism represent the four broad cultural linguistic expressions of Christian faith (each of which Noll affirms are rooted in a shared "mere Christianity")... Of course, to answer the question in the title of the book, Noll must move beyond historical description and consider the theological issues. He begins with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which he describes, despite areas of doctrinal difference, in glowing terms. Evangelicals who read the Catechism "are in for a treat" he says. Noll makes note of the depth of scholarship, abundant scriptural and historical references, and the pastoral, prayerful and worshipful tone of the Catechism. (I only wish some dissenting Catholics could be so generous toward this great compendium of doctrine!) He describes vast areas in which evangelicals will find themselves in agreement with the Catechism, extending from its teaching on God, Trinity, Christ, Salvation and judgment to most of its devotional and moral teaching. In fact, he says Evangelical Protestants should find themselves in agreement with at least 2/3 of the content. (There is an important apologetic strategy suggested here: first to argue that the Church which is right on 2/3 of the issues, including such fundamental areas as Trinity and Christology just might be right on other issues as well; secondly, to show the interconnections between the 2/3 of doctrines Evangelicals already believe and the remaining 1/3 they still question.) What of the remaining 1/3 differences? First, as Noll points out again and again, many of the areas of difference are also areas of wide divergence among Evangelicals themselves. For, example, some Evangelicals will agree with much of the section on Baptism, others will find themselves in greater disagreement, depending upon their views on paedobaptism. Second, the most striking point made in this book is that justification is NOT one of those issues. Noll explicitly says if justification is the article on which the church stands or falls, the reformation is over! Based on the Catechism, the Joint Declaration and other ecumenical documents Noll finds the current Catholic teaching on justification closer to the teachings of the sixteenth century reformers than the beliefs of many Protestants, including many evangelicals. He notes the wide range of evangelical views from Luther and Calvin to Wesleyan Arminianism and places the Catholic view within that range. The Catholic view is closer to Luther and Calvin in its emphasis on divine grace Noll argues than are some extreme forms of Arminian Evangelicalism which overemphasize human agency. So, if justification no longer divides us, what does? Noll lists some of the usual topics: Mary, magisterium, sacraments, etc., but the heart of our division, he says, is ecclesial. On this he repeats a joke Evangelicals tell upon themselves in this regard, "The main difference between us (Evangelicals) and the Catholics is ecclesiology-they have one and we don't."
Th subject of ecclesiology is relatively new to me and I'm not prepared to say much about it. I am curious to know about the reaction of my non Catholic Christian readers to Noll's thesis. Noll is a respected Evangelical scholar, so how about it? Is it offensive or reasonable?

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