This past year, evangelicals (whoever they are: see this article) celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In the five centuries since Martin Luther nailed his thoughts to the castle door in Wittenberg (1517), have Roman Catholics (RC) and Protestants closed the gap between them? To state it differently, one wonders if RC’s and Protestants have come to an agreement on the theological matters that once divided them. If so, can we now say the Reformation is over? Or do we find the gap still there and therefore believe the Reformation must continue?
Opinions on the matter vary. Peter Kreeft, a professor at Boston University, believes the gap has closed. The signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999 is evidence of the closure. Chris Castaldo and Gregg R. Allison, two Protestant theologians, disagree. Though Castaldo and Allison “applaud the many steps taken by Protestants and Catholics to better understand one another,” they “do not believe the Reformation is over—not at all.” In their book, The Unfinished Reformation, they go on to clarify why they hold their position:
We say this because of the many basic doctrinal differences that still exist between the Catholic and Protestant traditions. These include views on Scripture and Tradition, justification, the nature and role of the church/Church, the sacraments, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, Mary and the saints, merits, indulgences, and purgatory.
Indeed, that is quite the list of theological differences. Allison, in his article for Southern Seminary magazine (Here We Stand, v85.n2), goes on to explain these points in more detail. At the top of the list, in my mind and in the article, is the doctrine of justification. According to Allison, “The two traditions operate with widely different definitions of justification” (26). He goes on to write, “According to Catholic theology, justification ‘is not only the remission [forgiveness] of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the inner man” (26). In contrast, Protestant theology defines justification as’” “a mighty act of God by which he declares sinful people not guilty but righteous instead. He does so by imputing, or crediting, the perfect righteousness of Christ to them. Thus, while they are not actually righteous, God views them as being so because of Christ’s righteousness” (26).
The gap, on this point, seems wide. For RC’s, justification is a life-long process and not by faith alone (sola fide). For Protestants, it is a declaration made by God at the point of faith in Jesus (cf. Rom 5:1). Therefore, as long as we part ways over the doctrine of justification, I am unable to see how anyone can claim the Reformation is over.
Perhaps I do not grasp the nuanced positions of Rome. I’m happy to learn. But as things stand, it seems the differences over the doctrine of justification maintain a gap that keeps me hoping for further reformation.
For a full treatment of this issue, I recommend the following resources:
- The Unfinished Reformation (Chris Castaldo and Gregg R. Allison)
- Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic (Chris Castaldo)
- Talking with Catholics About the Gospel (Chris Castaldo)
- Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Gregg R. Allison)
- Are We Together: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism (R. C. Sproul)
- Why the Reformation Still Matters (Michael Reeves)