January 22, 2021

Is the Reformation Over? — Part Two: An Overwhelmingly Negative Stance

Is the Reformation Over? (part two)
An Overwhelmingly Negative Stance

Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism
by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom
Baker Academic (April 1, 2008)

On Sundays this summer, we will be blogging through Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom’s book, Is the Reformation Over? This work considers changing attitudes among evangelicals toward the Roman Catholic Church since Vatican II.

* * *

“As we enter the post-war world, without any doubt the greatest enemy of freedom and liberty that the world has to face today is the Roman Catholic system. Yes, we have Communism in Russia and all that is involved there, but if one had to choose between the two…one would be much better off in a communistic society than in a Roman Catholic Fascist set-up….America has to face the Roman Catholic terror. The sooner the Christian people of America wake up to the danger the safer will be our land.

– Carl McIntyre, 1945

It is hard for many of us today to grasp the depths of mutual mistrust and hostility that existed between evangelical Protestants and Catholics in the U.S. prior to the “modest and growing engagement” that has developed since the mid-1960’s. The quote above from a fundamentalist Presbyterian right after World War II may seem extreme to the point of being out of bounds, but this well represents the overwhelmingly negative stance conservative Protestants had toward Rome. Even liberal Protestants in post-war America were hesitant to consider Roman Catholics “Christians” and Roman Catholics, for their part returned the favor. For example, when the World Council of Churches met in Chicago in 1954, Cardinal Strich forbade Catholics from attending, even as reporters.

The basic evangelical polemic against Catholicism may be described in the following points:

  • It teaches that people earn salvation by good works.
  • It forbids common people from reading the Bible.
  • It makes up extrabibiblical saints, festivals, and rites that substitute human religion for biblical faith.
  • It makes Mary the coauthor of salvation.
  • It abuses authority by forcing new doctrines on the Church through the pronouncements of mere men.
  • It promotes a despotic hierarchy that strips the people of their proper status as priests of God.

For their part, the Roman Catholics have their own critique of Protestantism:

  • It offers salvation by faith while denying the need for holiness of life.
  • It abandons the Bible to the interpretation of every Tom, Dick, and Harry.
  • It denies that the Holy Spirit works through the means of the teaching office of the Church.
  • It neglects God’s gracious help provided to humankind through Mary and the saints.
  • It rejects the apostolic authority of bishops, councils, and popes, and accelerates rationalism, secularism, and moral anarchy.
  • It rejects the seven sacraments bringing God’s grace to crucial points of people’s lives.
  • It forsakes the God-given leadership in the community of faith and reduces everything to individualism.

Council of Trent

In the chapter, “Historic Standoff,” Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom make the following observations (supported by many examples we won’t detail here) about the situation of animosity that was in place in America in the years following World War II:

  • Part of a long history of antagonism — “Attitudes toward Catholicism that evangelicals maintained with something close to unanimity into the 1960s had been around for a long time….set firmly in place soon after the Reformation began.”
  • Part of the early “DNA” of colonial America“Although the number of Catholics in the thirteen colonies was small (only twenty-five thousand by 1790), Protestant anti-Romanism was a staple of the American theological world. It was fueled first by the background of Catholic-Protestant strife dating from the English Reformation but was also given fresh impetus in the eighteenth century by warfare between Protestant Britain and Catholic France.”
  • Bound up with civil mistrust of Catholicism as anti-democratic“…American commitments to republican principles functioned as an ally of Protestantism and an enemy of Catholicism.” “Almost universally, evangelical Protestants felt that Catholics threatened the biblically based character of American civilization.”

The authors conclude:

In sum, the fixed Protestant opinion was that Catholicism was such a flawed version of Christianity that it was hardly Christianity at all. In the United States, moreover, evangelical Protestants were full participants in arguing that Catholicism not only was a religious threat but also subverted the free political institutions of the United States. Well after World War II, the anti-Catholic polemic went on. Into the late 1950s, almost no one would have predicted that change was in the air.

Noll and Nystrom do include a section which they call “Signs of Peace during Times of War,” in which they give examples of “minority opinions” that expressed more moderate points of view over the history of Catholic/Protestant antipathy. One of these that I found particularly intriguing was that of John Wesley, who, although he wrote several works designed to show how far the Roman Catholic Church “hath erred from truth and reason,” also penned A Letter to a Roman Catholic in 1749, in which he expressed hope that the destructive polemics of the past might one day be put to rest, even if full agreement between Protestants and Catholics did not take place.

In the name, then, and in the strength of God, let us resolve, first, not to hurt one another; to do nothing unkind or unfriendly to each other, nothing which we would not have done to ourselves. Rather let us endeavour after every instance of a kind, friendly and Christian behaviour towards each other.

Let us resolve, secondly, God being our helper, to speak nothing harsh or unkind of each other. The sure way to avoid this is to say all the good we can, both of and to one another ~ in all our conversation, either with or concerning each other, to we only the language of love, to speak with all softness and tenderness, with the most endearing expression which is consistent with truth and sincerity.

Let us, thirdly, resolve to harbour no unkind thought, no unfriendly temper towards each other. Let us lay the axe to the root of the tree; let us examine all that rises in our heart, and suffer no disposition there, which is contrary to tender affection. Then shall we easily refrain from unkind actions and words, when the very root of bitterness is cut up.

Let us, fourthly, endeavour to help each other on in whatever we are agreed leads to the Kingdom. So far as we can, us always rejoice to strengthen each other’s hands in God. Above all, let us each take heed to himself (since each must give an account of himself to God) that he fall not short of the religion of love, that he be not condemned in that he himself approveth.

Unfortunately, Wesley’s conciliatory voice was a mere whisper amid a roaring flood of hostile voices that drowned out most meaningful engagement between Protestants and Catholics for centuries.

The authors point out that, indeed, the conflict persisted without abating through the 1950’s, two hundred years after Wesley’s Letter. In discussing the situation right before the ice began its slow thaw, they give examples from the evangelical publishing world of an “overwhelmingly negative stance” toward Roman Catholicism that continued up through the election of America’s first Catholic president and into the Second Vatican Council of 1962-65.


  1. This very short daily devotion (by my pastor) goes a long way in explaining the difference between Catholicism (not to mention a great deal of Protestantism that mimicks Rome’s ‘a lot of God and a bit of me’ theology):


    Yes, some will shreik…but that always happens when truly free Christians try to place it ALL on Christ with NO add-ons.

    • Does it come with snark for free or do I have to subscribe?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Watch out on that link. When I clicked on it last night, it hung my browser (Firefox) with a massive amount of hard-disk action. Even Task Manager took several minutes to kill the browser, it was taking so much system resources. I’ll be doing a complete virus/malware scan later today.

        According to a recent MSNBC article, Church websites are the most likely to be infected with virii or malware, for the same reason porn websites were years ago — lots of them, built and maintained locally by amateurs, with little knowledge of Web security or tricks of the trade.

        And of course it’s going to be snarky, Brendan. God’s Anointed snarking on Apostate Romish Popery from the position of The Righteous. Sola Scriptura, Al’lah’u Akbar.

        • Thanks for the heads-up on virii. I have had no other such notices, however. I do appreciate the heads-up though.

          And…is it being snarky to point out that people are adding on to the finished work of Christ?

          If so, then I’ll happily be snarky, rather than to join them. Maybe someone will be freed from all that Christ +, stuff…and it will be worth someone believing that I am snarky.

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            I spent a couple years immersed in a “Sola Scriptura, Sola Christus” environment, always On Fire for The LOORD (TM), Work For The Night IS Coming (TM), All The End Time Prophecies Are Being Fulfilled We Might Not Have a 1977 (TM). It almost killed me. Leaving it for the Post-Evangelical Wilderness (in similar emotional circumstances to JMJ and Eagle) was like escaping the Soviet Union over the Berlin Wall into the West. Born Again Bible Believing Real True Christians rejected me and all that I was, and Romish Popery accepted me.

      • I ran a full vrus scan this am and found ZERO viruii.


      • I ran a full virus scan this morning and found ZERO virii.



  2. Excellent point to mention this letter by John Wesley. The entire letter itself is well worth reading. Wesley was well read in the historical writings of the church – including Roman Catholic writers.

    One can focus on the success or failure of the reformation in terms of its affect on the Roman Catholic church, but more importantly would be an assessment of whether or not the protestant reformation achieved any of the ideals for which it aspired. In particular, I think the protestant reformation failed to free itself of heteronomies which crush individual faith without ever achieving true fellowship. It certainly hasn’t freed us of the influence of “popes”, which all the attention over cult of personalities such as Piper’s demonstrates. We are never truly free to believe without somehow bowing the knee to some megachurch or parachurch talking head, be it Piper, Warren, Hybels, etc. We certainly are not free of the Holy Roman Empire, when good Christians must swear their allegience to the Republican party or risk exile. We certainly are not free of the superstitions of which we accuse Catholics, when any endorsement of critical thinking or reason is viewed as heretical. Certainly our worship practices, with their emphasis on emotionalism an esoteric experiences shows no deliverence from superstition. When evangelicals save themselves through ten-step principles of every variety, salvation by grace through faith is an idea which has failed to capture any lasting attention. And above all, Tetzel got the last laugh, everytime a televangelist peddles his “seed faith”. When discontent evangelicals are still crossing the Rhine to Rome in droves, I think it is safe to say that the protestant experiment was a utter flop.

    • Is it fair to compare Piper, Warren and Hybels to the Pope? Have any of them claimed of themselves what the Pope does of himself?

      Piper is serious about his Calvinist theology, and while I don’t agree with him, the more I listen to what he says the more he strikes me as an honest man with sincere beliefs. In his dealings with N.T. Wright, for example, he allowed Wright to read the text of his book beforehand, took the time to correspond with Wright, etc. Does that sound like something a Pope would do?

      The reason that we have religious freedom in this country, and the freedom to write blog posts critical of religious figures, the Republican Party or the president, is due to the Protestant Reformation. If the medieval church had been left in place and no reform attempted, the entrenched interests running the church would never have changed on their own.

      • Margaret Catherine says

        “does that sound like something a Pope would do?”

        Actually it does. But don’t take my word for it…Benedict is a prolific writer. Start with his 2-volume life of Christ, or his series of talks on the early Christians. See what the writings tell you of the man, s with Piper.

      • “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” Yes, there are many acts the Reformers did for which we can be grateful. It seems, given the ‘entrenched interests’ which want to run the church this time around, the stones are winning.

  3. I like what John Wesley wrote. Thanks, Chaplain Mike.

  4. David Cornwell says

    Growing up Methodist, thus a part of Wesley’s heritage, I remember having disagreements with what Catholics taught, but never real antagonism. My mom and dad were never ones to express hate toward others. The only thing I remember my mother doing was to point out that such and such was a Catholic. Her main disagreement with Catholics was that some of them drank too much.

    I didn’t know much about Carl McIntyre until my college days, and then I thought he was an extremist kook.

    The points that dumb ox makes above are excellent ones.

    • One thing many may not know is that Francis Schaeffer began his ministry as a colleague of McIntyre’s.

      • I was surprised when I read about Schaeffer’s past to find out how deeply fundamentalist he had been. I think it is nothing short of remarkable how God softened him up and changed him.

        • Ken,

          Really? I think Schaeffer was a typical fundamentalist and just found other enemies.

          • It’s complex, Jim. The only time I ever heard him speak was in 1980 or so, and by that time the culture war was underway full bore, with the Soviets invading Afghanistan, the hostage crisis in Iran, the Reagan candidacy, and Schaeffer providing the intellectual ballast for Falwell and others through Whatever Happened to the Human Race? He sounded extremely fundamentalist when I heard him then — almost like a return to his earlier days. But in between, during the L’Abri ministry, it seems to me that he spoke most out of the context of books like The Mark of a Christian, in which he forcefully argued the need to balance holiness and genuine love.

        • Danielle says

          Schaeffer was a very conservative Presbyterian, which can be compared to being a fundamentalist. But that life has always had its own concerns and flavor.

  5. Amen to Wesley! Good words to consider whenever we have a disagreement with anyone.

  6. John Wesley had his light switch ‘turned on’ while listening to Martin Luther’s commentary on Romans being read.

    There, he got a hard dose of the law…and the pure gospel.

    There’s not much pure gospel out there these days.

    That is why the Reformation needs to, and will continue. As long as there are those who have heard it, and those who still have ears to hear it.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      How does that differ from Comrade Trotsky’s Doctrine of Perpetual Revolution?

      After Reformation after Reformation after Truly Reformation, after March after March, Culture War after Culture War, Perfectly Parsed Theology after Perfectly Parsed Theology, the only hymn you’ll be singing is Blue Oyster Cult’s “Veteran of the Psychic Wars” —

      “You see me now a veteran
      Of a thousand psychic wars
      My energy’s spent at last
      And my armor is destroyed
      I have used up all my weapons
      And I’m helpless and bereaved
      Wounds are all Im made of —
      Did I hear you say that this is victory?

      Dont let these shakes go on
      Its time we had a break from it
      Send me to the rear
      Where the tides of madness swell
      And been sliding into hell
      Oh, please dont let these shakes go on
      Dont let these shakes go on
      Dont let these shakes go on…”

      • There was reformation from the start. There never was, nor will there ever be a perfect church. We are inveterate ‘doers of law’ to create some sort of righteousness of our own. It is our default position. Therefore there is a constant need to be on guarf for it and to warn others of it when they may be too close to see it for themselves.


        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          All I can say is I experienced more “THOU SHALT NOT” Law from BABBECs (Born-Again Bible-Believing Evangelical Christians) than I ever have in the RCC. Just like North Korea, almost everything was Forbidden, and what was not Forbidden was Absolutely Compulsory.

          • Yeah, ‘born again Evangelicals get on my nerves, too. And their theology is self-focused. That’s why I’m not one of them.

            I tend to steer clear of all this self-focused (are you doing your part religion).

            That’s why I am a Word alone guy. Christ with NO add-on’s…no matter how nice or not I am treated by them.

            Sorry for any snarkyness.

  7. Growing up in the south, starting the 9th grade in a religeous school, we were taught that the Pope was the antichrist. I couldn’t square this with the teachings of Christ in the gospels. After all we all worshiped the Same God and Jesus as Lord. So Idrifted away and didn’t return to God for about 50 years.Perhaps wiser now I tend to ignore many of thesehucksters who call themselves messengers from on high. Michael Spenser has been a great help to me.

  8. Re the above comments. I turned 15 yrs old in 1950. Also I just received a lesson in what words will get a comment moderated!

  9. That first quote is simply breathtaking. Better to live in a communist country than in a Catholic one? Tell that to any Pole born before the 80s and watch them laugh in your face. Prejudice, it seems, really does make you stupid.

    And thanks for the Wesley quote. Yet another reason (among many) to like Wesley. Such a good egg.

  10. Moonshadow says

    This is going back a number of years, but I heard the Jesuit historian Gerald P. Fogarty speak in Washington, D.C., on how Catholic military service during WWII, especially how many American Catholics gave their lives for their country, really raised their esteem in the eyes of American Protestants who value patriotism, “God & Country.”

    Typically, when the tide begins to turn, as it did after WWII, those for the status quo come out of the woodwork to fight off change. They were unsuccessful.

  11. humanslug says

    It’s unfortunate that the Reformation got so entangled in the political and cultural disputes of that time. With everyone, including kings and popes and peasants, all looking to expand their power and influence and the old medieval order already starting to give way to nationalism, the influx of new and dangerous social ideas, so many crying out for change, and just as many more trying to keep lid on the boiling pot — it’s no wonder the whole thing turned into a blood bath.
    And in all that violence, upheaval, and chaos, the kind of calm and reasonable discussion that needed to happen just didn’t happen — and any honest pursuit of the truth of things got buried under the fears of what some stood to lose and the ambitions of what others stood to gain.
    Sad to say, it took secular government forcing Protestants and Catholics to co-exist without violence to finally bring us to the point where we’re actually starting to engage in some meaningful communication.

  12. Steve Newell says

    What I find interesting is how little people who call themselves “Protestant” really understand what Martin Luther taught. Many may consider Luther “too Catholic” in terms on his view of the Sacraments, especially baptism and in particular infant baptism. Luther wanted to reform the Church from within and he did not see to create a new branch of the Church. If an “evangelical Christian” walked into a Lutheran worship service that follows the Historic Liturgy, they may think that they are in Roman Church.

  13. Bronislaw says

    The Reformation may be over, but the Great Schism is alive and well. (How come the Protestants never stopped to question the Filioque?)

  14. As an old Jesus Freak, I have predicted a “second reformation” sometimes in the 21st century. I mean, I do not see how God will allow things to continue on as is without some sort of major correction. We may all be surprised at what Christianity will look like after that…

    • The fragmentation from the Reformation continues. What would make this a “second reformation”, rather than simply a continued working out of the first?

      Against whom would this rebellion take place? The Catholic Church again? The Lutherans?

      Finally, what would be the issues of this “second reformation”? What would be the battle cry? (e.g. “Sola Scriptura!” and “Sola Fide!”).

  15. agree with your thought. thank you for your sharing.http://www.planodesaudephs.com

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