April 11, 2005


Signs of the Reformation's Success?: Reformation scholar Timothy George discusses Pope John Paul II's historical significance and this 'momentous' era of Catholic-evangelical dialogue. (Interview by Collin Hansen, 04/08/2005, Christian History)

For much of Protestant history, Catholics have been derided as "papists." The office of pope symbolized what was wrong with Catholicism. Now, with Pope John Paul II's death, you don't often hear that rhetoric in sermons. When did this begin to change?

I think it's a fairly recent phenomenon. If you go back to the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, you have a watershed moment. You would find on the Protestant side a lot of anti-Catholic rhetoric and deep reservation. Just look at the newspapers and some of the sermons and read about the dangers that would happen if you elect a Catholic President who answers to Rome.

Certainly Vatican II is another watershed. In the sense that Vatican II falls far short of what evangelical Protestants would like to see, it does move significantly beyond where the Roman Catholic church was. Most notably for evangelicals is the role of the Bible, the fact that Roman Catholics now study the Scriptures with a new intensity and devotion that would not have always been the case prior to Vatican II. The stand on religious liberty that Vatican II takes is another example. Those are significant changes that, in some ways, we're just beginning to feel the impact of 40 or 50 years later.

But I would not underestimate the role of John Paul II's world historical significance. If there's one thing that evangelical Protestants were against in the '40s, '50s, and '60s, it was communism. Here comes along a Roman Catholic pope who, admittedly with the help of President Reagan and a few other people, was able to radically alter the geo-political landscape. Put Billy Graham in this realm too, in his preaching in the Soviet Union and so forth. So I think that softens some of these attitudes that we used to hear.

Other than Billy Graham, have there been other major evangelical figures who tried to bridge the historic divide with Catholicism?

Chuck Colson has to be put into that category. At another level I would say Francis Schaeffer, though he was a straight-laced Presbyterian. He recognized the importance of an alliance with Catholics on the issue of sanctity of life.

To some extent Carl Henry also fits. He was a member of the editorial board of First Things, for example, which is not strictly a Catholic magazine but has a lot of Catholic influence. [...]

It's really hard to evaluate where we are or how historians will look at our times. But there is a sea change that has happened, particularly among evangelicals and Catholics. I think the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement is evidence of that. Clearly something momentous is afoot. Evangelicals are not Roman Catholics. But we are Catholics in that we affirm the historic orthodox faith. And we want to call the Roman Catholic Church, as we call ourselves, to a further reformation on the basis of the Word of God. That's what we ought to be about.

Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom have just written a book called Is The Reformation Over? In my endorsement I said, "The Reformation is over only in the sense that to some extent it has succeeded." Which is to say that Roman Catholicism has taken on many, but not all, of the main emphases that come out of Luther. There's a clear movement in that direction, and I think evangelicals can celebrate that and see our commonalities.

It would have been better for the Reformation to occur wholly within the Church, but the split may yet prove temporary.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 11, 2005 12:00 AM

We should not forget earlier schisms - with Islam, and the Orthodox. God loves unity, but He loves competition too.

Posted by: pj at April 11, 2005 8:36 AM

He ignores the key role played by the US Supreme Court, which has been the main driver of the repprochement.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 11, 2005 8:47 AM

The Orthodox will certainly come back. Islam is a longer term project.

Posted by: oj at April 11, 2005 8:47 AM

"For much of Protestant history, Catholics have been derided as "papists." The office of pope symbolized what was wrong with Catholicism. Now, with Pope John Paul II's death, you don't often hear that rhetoric in sermons. When did this begin to change?"

It began to change when people began to realize that the real dividing line in the West was the secular vs the religious, not protetant vs RC.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at April 11, 2005 11:08 AM

Who's to say the Orthodox should come back to the Catholic church, and not the other way around?

Posted by: Timothy at April 11, 2005 1:52 PM

Evangelicals, at least, are beginning to see why believers must hang together or surely hang separately.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 11, 2005 8:38 PM

I'll echo Timothy's comment above.

Posted by: Dave W. at April 14, 2005 12:23 AM