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by John Hutchins

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Matthew Levering. Was The Reformation A Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017. 240 pp. Paperback, $11.55. ISBN: 978-0-310-53071-8.

was the reformation a mistake leveringIn one of the most famous understatements in film history, the Captain in Cool Hand Luke (1967) turns from beating Lucas Jackson to address the remaining inmates: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate. Some men you just can’t reach.” Matthew Levering, the James N. and Mary D. Perry, Jr. Chair of Theology at University of Saint Mary of the Lake, titles his 2017 book as the question Was the Reformation a Mistake? with similar irony. Levering examines the Protestant Reformation from an epistemological perspective, that is, whether the reformers correctly challenged the truth claims of the Roman Catholic Church. The subtitle summarizes the thesis of the book: Why Catholic Doctrine is not Unbiblical. The Bible tells Christians to seek truth together with the church as a whole, which Levering suggests will lead to an openness to the teachings of the Catholic Church. In the afterward, “A Mere Protestant Response,” Kevin Vanhoozer, Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, provides a lively and incisive rebuttal from an evangelical perspective

Surprisingly, Was the Reformation a Mistake? includes only three pages dedicated to discussing and answering that question. Levering’s answer is that the 16th century church was corrupt and in need of reformation, even though the reformers made mistakes at certain steps (p. 31). Few historians, Catholic or Protestant, would disagree with this general answer. Inasmuch as he attempts to answer the question from a historical perspective, Levering’s solution was brief and unsatisfying. He seeks to show that the reformers “mistakenly deemed some Catholic doctrines to be unbiblical and church-dividing,” and so commits the remainder of the book to an exploration of nine theological topics from a Roman Catholic perspective (p. 31). Unfortunately, he skims over the historical question of whether the Reformation was justified and only focuses on the theological debates, thus missing out on important context.

Levering structures his book around nine hot topics in the Protestant-Catholic debate: Scripture, Mary, The Eucharist, The Seven Sacraments, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Purgatory, Saints and Papacy. Each chapter begins with a fair explanation of Luther’s position (with extensive quotations) and ends with a “biblical reflection” that lays out a reasonable argument from Scripture for the Roman Catholic positon. The chapters provide a helpful primer of the issues. Levering’s first and last chapters define the crux of the dispute: how do we find truth?

The heavy focus on Luther fits with the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. However, a Protestant position is a moving target: many evangelicals disagree with Luther’s views on these nine topics. The Reformation has disparate branches which theologians must deal with on their own footing. Even Luther is difficult to pin down: most of Levering’s material comes from Luther’s polemic writings in the 1520’s, even though one should prefer Luther’s later confessional writings to learn what the man actually believed. The same charge could apply to Levering’s “biblical reflection” which comes from the perspective of the particular Conservative American Catholicism of which Levering finds himself a part. Restricting the discussion to these two perspectives limits the usefulness of the main body of the book.

Levering plainly states: “My intended audience is Bible-believing Christians who deem the disputed Catholic doctrines to be biblically mistaken” (p. 187). He targets well-meaning Christians who only have talking points from ill-informed preachers as defenses against Roman Catholic dogma. If Levering can deconstruct an evangelical’s preconceptions that Roman Catholic doctrines are unbiblical, he can clear their path to conversion or ecumenism. So, Levering eschews the standard debate points and engages in friendly discourse. He effectively pairs the techniques of soft-pedaling the disagreement with lowering the standard of proof from biblical to not unbiblical. Like a court-appointed defense attorney, Levering comes alongside the reader to sow reasonable doubts that the defendant (here, Roman Catholic doctrine) may not be as guilty as it appeared. Levering does not present any new ideas or analyses, but repackages Roman Catholic perspectives in a way that evangelicals might appreciate.

Levering describes “biblically” more as an adverb: a manner in which to pursue truth. Evangelicals traditionally think of “biblical” more as an adjective: whether the doctrine matches a chapter and verse of Scripture. He explains that one knows truth biblically through the “liturgically inflected and communal process of ‘thinking with’ Scripture in ways that cannot be reduced to an appeal to biblical texts…” (p. 21). In his first chapter (Scripture) and last chapter (Papacy), Levering provides a helpful rebuke of those who claim they seek truth impartially and independent of their community. As Vanhoozer later suggests, solo scriptura (interpreting scripture by yourself) is impossible because everyone imports a worldview derived from their community (p. 207). Instead of compiling proof-texts that agree with our preconceptions, we must come to Scripture gathered with other Christians. The Bible predominantly shows God bringing people to truth through preaching (Nehemiah 8), church counsels (Acts 15) and the breaking of bread (Luke 24:35) as opposed to personal Bible reading or reflection (cf. Acts 8:31). Levering posits that “biblically warranted modes of reasoning” include a reliance on tradition and dogma, therefore we cannot call them unbiblical (p. 21).

While Levering correctly explains the importance of interpreting the Bible in accordance with the whole church (Greek, katholikos), he cannot hide the key question of who has the final authority to determine truth. The Reformation hinges upon the answer: whereas Roman Catholics pivot toward the Pope as the locus of authority, the reformers pivot to Scripture as the locus of authority. Luther and the first Protestants could not escape the dilemma through fine arguments about “biblically warranted modes of reasoning”; they staked their lives and salvation that Scripture alone is the final rule of doctrine. Levering confuses the Vatican with the universal church and the Pope with Scripture, imputing to the one the authority due the other.

Whereas the hinge of the reformation is the locus of authority to determine truth, its beating heart is justification and merit, which Levering treats in Chapter 6. The critical difference here between Luther and Levering is whether justification actually delivers us from judgment or purifies our hearts so that we can then merit God’s favor. Luther focuses on the imputation of faith as righteousness (cf. Rom. 4:5); Levering focuses on the impartation of personal righteousness unto reward (cf. Rom. 6:17-18).

Luther certainly agrees that God purifies the hearts of Christians upon conversion. But the Roman Catholic position on justification fails to appreciate that the scriptural context for any discussion of impartation is not salvation from judgment (forgiveness of sin) but a result or fruit of justification. Forgiveness of sin produces good works; good works do not produce forgiveness of sin. Only the pure gospel that sinners are forgiven by virtue of Christ’s finished work alone can provide consolation for repentant Christians, and can inspire Christians to lives of love under God’s commands.

The afterward, “A Mere Protestant Response” was a positive feature of the book, and fits with Levering’s goal of staging a friendly conversation as opposed to an adversarial debate. Vanhoozer hits a humorous and charitable tone, but does not pull any punches. He correctly surmises that the “charming catholic spirit [and] daring Protestant strategy” cannot hide the “enduring Roman substance” (p. 193). Against Levering’s main point, Vanhoozer maintains that thinking biblically means keeping the Bible as the only source of doctrine, and tradition as a secondary source to help us understand the context. Although some of his statements reveal an insularity common to his American evangelical perspective, Vanhoozer’s response deals honestly with obstacles to (and prays for) ultimate unity between Catholics and Protestants. Vanhoozer concludes by suggesting that “Protestant doctrine is not uncatholic” (p. 229), in the sense that the universal church has always believed in justification by faith. Unity will come when Roman Catholics become catholic again.

I would recommend Was the Reformation a Mistake? only as a primer on some differences between Luther and Modern-day Roman Catholicism. Other books will better serve those who wish to understand the historical context of the Reformation or the theological debates between church bodies.

Returning to the question posed by the book’s title, Levering assumes that Luther’s actions caused the Reformation. In my opinion, Pope Leo X divided the Western church by excommunicating the first Protestants (for petitioning him to stop the trafficking of forgiveness under the Pope’s name). Emperor Charles V and Pope Paul III cemented the rift when they declared war on the Protestant territories over their confession of faith. To question grounds for the reformation feels like suggesting the Captain beat Cool Hand Luke due to a “failure to communicate.” Yes, I do think the Reformation was a mistake – the Popes’ mistake. Luther could do naught but stand on Scripture. Although Levering might object, Luther denies responsibility:

I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything (pp. 293-94).