Book Review: Was the Reformation a Mistake?

Matthew Levering, Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical. Grand Rapids, MI, 2017. 231pp. Paperback. $16.99.
We allegedly live in an age of tolerance. Yet tolerance often takes on distorted meanings. Contrary to popular misconceptions, tolerance does not mean that all viewpoints and practices are equal and worthy of acceptance. Tolerance, instead, involves disagreeing with others while being willing to put up with them and their views in spite of the persistence of real disagreement. While we should be thankful that the days of the inquisition and burning heretics at the stake are past, we must not run to opposite extremes by concluding that theological and practical differences must not really matter much.
In this volume, Matthew Levering seeks to show implicitly why Protestants and Roman Catholics should tolerate one another’s viewpoints and even why Roman Catholic theology is a viable option for Protestants in light of the teaching of Scripture. Rather than turning the Protestants’ sword against them, part of his hope is that both sides might eventually put down their swords and shake hands. While his tone and way of proceeding is admirable and worthy of imitation, the fundamental difference between Protestant and Roman Catholic teachings remains the authority and use of Scripture in theology. While Protestants and Roman Catholics should learn from Levering to tolerate one another, this reviewer believes that this difference over the foundation of theology remains an insurmountable obstacle to unity.
The aim of this book is fairly modest. The author seeks to show only that Roman Catholic theology is not “unbiblical.” This goal fits post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, since Catholic theologians often admit openly that while many church traditions are not taught in the Bible they do not contradict the Bible as foundational revelation. Treating Roman Catholic doctrine in this way allows authors, such as Levering, to seek agreement with Protestants over the teaching of the Bible in general without abandoning Roman Catholic convictions. The question remains whether or not doing so is possible when many Roman Catholic doctrines not only go beyond Scripture but, from a Protestant vantage point, contradict it. Levering addresses nine disputed doctrines (Scripture, May, the Eucharist, the Seven Sacraments, Monasticism, Justification and Merit, Purgatory, Saints, and the Papacy), beginning with Luther’s protests to each and followed by arguments from Scripture to the end that Roman Catholic teaching fits general patterns of biblical reasoning. He engages in mature biblical theology that will likely appeal at many points both to Protestants and to Roman Catholics. However, he does not adequately address the core differences between these groups in relation to the function of Scripture in theology. The book concludes with a “mere Protestant” response by Kevin Vanhoozer that more or less argues to this effect.
Levering’s chapter on Mary illustrates the difference over core principles clearly. Most Protestant readers will likely find his treatment of Mary to be the most jarring of his chapters. Vanhoozer apparently agrees, since he singles out this example in his response (208-212). Following standard Roman Catholic exegesis, Levering argues that Mary is the “woman” in Genesis 3:15 and Revelation 12 (70-71), that she shared uniquely in her Son’s suffering and in his exaltation (71), that her womb is the true ark of the covenant (72), and that as Christ is the new Adam so Mary is the “new Eve” (73). Though his exegesis related to each of these themes is plausible on a surface reading of biblical texts, it is difficult to see how Scripture itself requires such conclusions. This illustrates what is at stake in the age-old divide between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. The former seeks to establish its teaching on the authority of Scripture alone with the ministerial aid of the church in doing so. The latter establishes its teaching through the magisterial interpretations and ecclesiastical traditions in a way that tries to build upon and harmonize with the teachings of Scripture. In this way, Levering’s treatment of Mary in particular, and of other doctrines in general, exemplifies the root issue that continues to divide both groups.
In the seventeenth-century, William Perkins wrote Catholicus Reformatus. In the first line of the book, he wrote that Protestants and Roman Catholics believed the same articles of faith. However, Protestants must reject those errors and additions that Roman Catholics added to these articles of faith. His point was that the Reformed were the true Catholics because their catholicity consisted in retaining biblical doctrine. In his view, Roman Catholics were the true schismatics because they added to the teaching of Scripture. In this reviewer’s opinion, such ideas can help readers evaluate, Was the Reformation a Mistake? While the irenic tone of Levering’s work is most welcome and Protestants should respond in kind, the principle of authority that underlies his theological method and his view of how God speaks to his church is still a fundamental dividing line that permeates every area of theology. In this light, Vanhoozer’s assertion that there are few if any impediments to unity on the Protestant side (231) misses the proverbial elephant in the room to some extent. Protestants have asked (and should continue to ask) whether the Bible requires a doctrine or practice. Roman Catholics have asked (and continue to ask) how the traditions of the church interpret the Scriptures and harmonize with them even where they add to their teachings. The one side asks what the Bible teaches while the other asks what the Bible could allow for. In this respect, it is a greater danger and tragedy than many Protestants today realize when people in our churches increasingly justify aspects of church life, worship, and government by saying that Scripture does not forbid them.
We should not continue to press issues that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics simply because we have always done things this way, or because we are we want to avoid the stigma of talking with “the enemy.” Yet the issues dividing Roman Catholics and Protestants continue to be substantial and fundamental. We must tolerate one another and we should delight in and imitate Levering’s (and Vanhoozer’s) gentle and kind spirit. However, we must, like Perkins, seek to be Reformed Catholics, not by uniting ourselves with the tradition of a particular church whose teachings may or may not be compatible with Scripture, but by uniting around the catholic doctrine taught by the apostles and prophets in the true Catholic Church, of which Jesus Christ himself is the chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20).
Ryan McGraw