A Book Review from Books At a Glance
By Andre A. Gazal
The current religious landscape in America seems to suggest strongly that Protestantism, once the vanguard of national morality, is now on the defensive as evidenced in the increasing numbers of converts to Catholicism from Protestant, and especially Evangelical churches. Some of the most notable converts like Christian Smith, Dwight Longnecker, and Scott Hahn have alleged that while Protestantism has continued to fragment and morally compromise itself, the Roman Catholic Church remains steadfastly faithful to its longstanding teaching and tradition that can be traced directly to the apostles themselves as interpreted authoritatively by its magisterium.
Moreover, more scholarly voices like Brad Gregory assign the cause of the West’s steady descent into secularism to the Reformation. Other sympathetic authors such as Mark Noll and Carol Nystrom have characterized Evangelicalism as deficient in ecclesiology, tradition, intellectual life, sacraments, the intellectual life, theology of culture, aesthetics, philosophical theology, and historical awareness. Furthermore, some scholars have maintained that in the light of contemporary inter-faith dialogues, such as that between the Lutheran World Federation and Rome, which produced the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification in 1999, that the Reformation was fought over semantics, meaning that the doctrines of Luther and the Church which excommunicated him were essentially the same. Therefore, Rome is really the only viable refuge of theological and moral certainty.
Daryl Hart provides a clear, eloquent and erudite response to the above contentions in his book, Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters. Throughout the span of ten chapters, Hart argues that the truths of the gospel recovered by the Reformation are still relevant and compelling. Specifically, the author endeavors to assert, explain, and defend these truths within the historical context in which the Reformation took place. Written to a generally educated audience, Still Protesting functions as both a polemic against evangelical converts to Catholicism and a primer that re-introduces contemporary Protestants and evangelicals to their neglected heritage.
The book consists of two main sections. Part 1 highlights the significant theological issues that occasioned the Reformation. Throughout the chapters comprising this section, Hart carefully situates these disputes within their late medieval and early modern context. Chapter 1 examines this context in detail. Upon establishing the historical causes of the Reformation, Hart proceeds to argue how the Reformers derived their teachings from the apostles whose successors the Roman bishops claimed to be. The Reformers’ attempt to recover apostolic doctrine from the Roman traditions that obscured it resulted in their return of the Bible to authoritative primacy within the Church. This is the subject of chapter 2. Chapter 3 considers how the Reformers’ stress on the primacy of Scripture led to their discovery and advocacy of the doctrine of justification by faith alone in opposition to the prevailing view within the late medieval church that held justification as resulting ultimately by grace infused through the sacraments.
Hart’s Presbyterian commitments clearly show themselves in chapter 4 where he appears to represent Presbyterian church government almost as something of a unanimous deduction from Scripture by the Reformers while downplaying the fact that some held to the validity of other ecclesiastical polities like episcopacy. Chapter 5 cogently discusses the manner in which the doctrine of justification by faith alone led to a distinctive view of the Christian life characterized by the idea of vocation, wherein every occupation is itself a divine calling whether it be motherhood, a skilled trade, commerce, or the priesthood. By virtue of their justifying faith in Christ, all Christians are priests, and therefore can faithfully serve God in every walk of life.
Part 2 incisively counters the objections raised by Catholics against Protestantism. Chapter 6 answers the claim that the Roman Catholic Church is the church Jesus founded by calling attention to the observation made by even Catholic historians that Rome entered the Christian community much later than other cities like Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. Moreover, Rome participated with these other churches in the development of doctrine and ecclesiastical structure. As to the assertion that Protestantism shattered the unity of Christendom, chapter 7 reminds the reader that significant divisions had occurred within the Catholic Church before the Reformation as evidenced by the East/West schism in 1053/54. Although chapter 8 attempts to answer the Catholic charge that Protestantism disregards art and beauty in church life, it does so myopically in that it posits the Puritan disdain for ecclesiastical art as somewhat representative of the general Protestant view concerning the place of liturgical art without considering either the Lutheran position or the rejoinder to the Puritan stance given by a later Elizabethan Protestant, Richard Hooker (1553-1600) in Book V of his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. This is arguably one of the weaker chapters in the book.
Chapter 9 provides a robust answer to the contention of Brad Gregory and other Catholic authors that Protestantism helped create and foster modernity by marshaling specific historical examples of it forthrightly stood counter to the forces of modernity. One of the most compelling instances to Hart calls attention is the manner in which Protestantism consistently opposed the ideology of the French Revolution, which was one of the definitive shapers of modernity. Chapter 10 forcefully impeaches the Catholic Church’s questionable claim of being the same church Jesus founded, and hence the unmovable bulwark of apostolic tradition against the shifting tides of culture. The most conspicuous evidence countering this grandiose assertion noted by the author is the character of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican II (1962-65) which fundamentally affected the liberalization of the Catholic Church. In short, according to Hart, Vatican II essentially turned the Roman Catholic Church into a liberal church. The author then proceeds to prove this thesis by demonstrating from Catholic sources how the ethos of Vatican II ultimately resulted in the continuing decline of Catholic beliefs and practices among the faithful as well as the waning of traditional institutions like the priesthood and religious orders.
Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters serves as polemical tour de force that is accessible to a general Christian audience. Not only is it a compelling response to the standard, but flawed arguments of popular Catholic apologists, it is a helpful resource for perplexed evangelicals to navigate the sundry issues raised by the ongoing Protestant/Catholic debate, by helping them to reclaim with confidence the grandeurs of the Reformation heritage that stand as a resplendent testimony of faithfulness to biblical truth. It is suitable for Sunday School classes and undergraduate courses in church history. Indeed, Still Protesting is an invaluable to every evangelical’s vital role in the continuing Reformation.
Andre Gazal is Vice President of Academic Affairs at Montana Bible College in Bozeman, Montana.
Buy the books
STILL PROTESTING: WHY THE REFORMATION STILL MATTERS, by D. G. Hart