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Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters, by D. G. Hart: A Review Article

Richard M. Gamble

Still Protesting: Why the Reformation Matters, by D. G. Hart. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2018, xiii + 207 pages, $18.00.

Scores of local churches and evangelical colleges face the challenge of Roman Catholicism today in ways for which they may not be prepared. Catholic theology, liturgy, aesthetics, and in some parishes a tight-knit community prove attractive to more members of our congregations than we might expect, especially our young people.

In the case of college students, their conversion to Rome typically starts with friendship. As a courtesy, they accompany a roommate or classmate to Mass, usually with the promise of a return visit to their own Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, or Methodist church. Surprised in some cases by a kind of earnest Catholicism they didn’t know existed, they become curious. They start reading. They get into disorienting debates over justification, sanctification, the sacraments, tradition, and beauty. They might find the Roman Church’s pro-life activism and emphasis on marriage and the family compelling. They might sense the alienation of modernity, resent the damage done by divorce to their childhoods, feel awash in a culture of radical individualism and global capitalism, have grown tired of megachurch innovations, seek certainty and authority in a whirl of competing truth claims, and long to be connected to the grand narrative of Western civilization. All of this the Catholic Church seems to provide in abundance, especially in those parishes where these emphases set the tone, however rare such parishes may be. Ultimately, seekers buy into the plausibilities offered by Rome, while their circle of Catholic friends and mentors—often converts themselves—pressure them to convert. Despite Pope Francis’s liberalism, alarms over heresy, and pedophilia in parish after parish, Protestant converts believe they are coming home. Some even enter the priesthood or convent.

Are Protestants just being cranky and obscurantist if they resist these conversions? Is the Reformers’ dissent from Rome five hundred years ago still relevant? Is the Catholic Church the same institution that Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli denounced and from which they were severed in the sixteenth century? If so, then the old Protestant cause is one still worth fighting for. Here we stand. We can do no other.

These are the kinds of questions Darryl Hart tackles in Still Protesting—a two-word title that states a thesis. Hart, a professor of history at Hillsdale College and a ruling elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, has good friends and colleague who are devout Catholics and has witnessed Rome’s attraction for students, including those in the OPC. Much of this book grows out of personal experience. It is not abstract. He has seen the heartbreak that families, pastors, elders, and congregants have endured. For many of us, this is a pressing concern, and he addresses it with his wide knowledge of the Reformation, especially historic Calvinism, a sympathy for converts, and a fair-minded assessment of what Catholicism teaches and practices. Caricature has no place in a sober response to Rome.

At its core, the Protestant Reformation still matters since “salvation, worship, and the institutional church still matter” (xiii). To prove this thesis, Hart divides his task into two parts: the first five chapters are meant to refresh our memories about the Reformation; the second five chapters refute Rome’s claims about the consequences of Protestantism. Hart concludes with reflections on sainthood, contrasting Catholicism with the testimony of the Bible. On the eve of John Henry Newman’s scheduled beatification in October 2019, this chapter is an especially timely reminder of just what it means for all believers to be saints. Above all, Hart’s hope is “to make the objections to Rome not political or cultural but religious and theological” (14).

To that end, Hart goes right back to Luther and other early Reformers. Much of Hart’s overview will be familiar ground to students of history and hopefully to officers in the OPC. These chapters lay out the context for understanding the debate that still divides Rome from Protestantism, especially from confessional churches that know who they are and what they believe. Hart rightly emphasizes the recovery of sola scriptura, the purity of the gospel (justification by faith alone), the dubious claims of papal authority, and the priesthood of all believers.

One of the most powerful narratives being promoted today is that Protestantism is the source of everything we hate about modernity. Protestants themselves bear much of the responsibility for promulgating this story, at least a certain brand of progressive Christianity does. It was common at one time, especially in America, for cultural Protestants to boast that the Reformers were to be thanked for the manifold blessings of individualism, the market economy, civil and religious liberty, and the absolute sovereignty of private judgment. These Protestants celebrated American civilization and gradually secularized the Reformation into an achievement for political, social, economic, and broadly cultural ends. It was a happy story of how the arc of history led to themselves and their own moment in time. They abandoned theological precision and fidelity to confessions of faith in the name of advancing American greatness and the nation’s mission to the world.

Once people began to doubt the virtues of modernity, however, it was easy to blame Protestants for the very things that they had been boasting about as their contribution to civilization. A number of recent Catholic historians and apologists have accepted the Protestant Whiggish version of history as true, and have set out to deconstruct it, offering Catholicism as the antidote to the poisons of modernity. The truth, as always, is more complicated. Rather than investigating what modernity did to Protestantism and Catholicism alike, they blame modernism on Protestantism. What gets missed in these pronouncements from the bench is the fact that Protestantism itself underwent a revolution, beginning at least in the nineteenth century, that ultimately turned it into another religion altogether, having little to do with the Reformation. Hart highlights J. Gresham Machen’s compelling argument in Christianity and Liberalism that modernity in the shape of theological liberalism had created nothing less than a new religion disconnected from the Bible and everything for which the Reformers stood. This new religion has a different God, a different Christ, a different soteriology, and a different eschatology.

Hart argues that Rome has been a theological and ecclesiological innovator for centuries, culminating, for the time being at least, with Vatican II’s liberalization of the church. The history of Catholicism is not a seamless, organic story of remarkable continuity and harmony topped off with a happy ending. Indeed, the history of the Council of Trent alone shows a church deeply divided against itself and wrapped up with political intrigue. “History is not reassuring or comfortable,” Hart warns. “If anything, history makes claims to certainty and authority look profoundly contested” (111). That note of skepticism ought to chasten American Protestants as well. Admirably, Hart shows what Roman Catholicism did to apostolic Christianity rather than providing an ark for its preservation. The division between the Reformers and their adversaries in Rome cannot be reduced to an unfortunate misunderstanding. To do so does an injustice to all who have contended for the faith and trivializes what is at stake.

What is to be done? Firm in their adherence to Scripture and true to their convictions, congregations need to remain grounded in the hope of the gospel. Parents need to catechize their children, cultivate lifelong habits of faithful church attendance, and show by their own lives that the local church is the center of their ongoing spiritual formation. Elders and deacons need to care for each member, including and perhaps especially the children under their charge. They need to build relationships with young people, making the church a home and hospital, a place that nurtures their faith and affections. Pastors need to be willing to bear the burden of repeated, time-consuming conversations with young people, showing love and patience as they raise the same questions again and again. Pastors and elders need to be well versed in the history and doctrines of the Reformation, and know more than a little about the Council of Trent and about claims concerning the Virgin Mary and the intercession of saints. They need to teach the biblical and confessional doctrines of human depravity, election, grace and nature, the atonement, good works, and perseverance. Our Reformed churches also need to understand the beauty and simplicity of their own worship in Word and sacrament. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (7.6) eloquently says of the sacraments, “though fewer in number [than Rome’s], and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory . . . [the gospel] is held  forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles.”

Still Protesting is a helpful and timely resource to equip the church of Jesus Christ to defend the faith. The stakes are ultimate and the significance eternal.

Richard M. Gamble is a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC. Ordained Servant Online, October 2019.

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