Was the Reformation a Mistake?

Why Catholic Doctrine is Not Unbiblical

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Matthew Levering, Kevin J. Vanhoozer
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    , September
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For those either celebrating or bemoaning the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, this book will prove both timely and helpful. Matthew Levering, a Roman Catholic theologian, has done a remarkable job of listening sensitively to Luther’s critique of the teachings and practices of the church of his day, and then restating faithfully the substance of those concerns and the questions they pose to Roman Catholic teaching. Such a task is not easy, and the fact that Levering has listened so well indicates both the good will he brings to this effort and the genuineness of his desire for church unity.

Levering undertakes to respond to nine of Luther’s contested loci (scripture, Mary, the Eucharist, the seven sacraments, monasticism, justification and merit, purgatory, saints, and the papacy) by appealing to the biblical basis for each, arguing that Roman Catholic teaching in regard to these contested doctrines is, at least, not unbiblical. In so doing, Levering hopes to meet Protestant questions with a Protestant strategy of appealing to scripture. How well he is able to carry this off is another question.

That question is taken up by his friend and interlocutor, Kevin Vanhoozer, an evangelical theologian who recognizes and appreciates the generosity and intent of Levering’s work. Neither Levering nor Vanhoozer thinks the Reformation was a mistake, though Levering does think the Reformation made some serious mistakes in doctrine. Vanhoozer responds specifically in regard to two of Levering’s chapters (scripture and Mary) but the burden of his “merely Protestant” response has to do with the understanding of the lordship of Jesus Christ and the role of the church in interpreting scripture. Vanhoozer contends that the conversation founders at the point where Roman Catholic teaching blurs the distinction between the “once and for allness” of Christ’s person and work, and the ongoing “more and more” of an incarnation understood to extend into the church itself. It is this confusion that enables Roman Catholics to claim the church as the authoritative interpreter of scripture, the Eucharist as the instrument of salvation, and the sacrifice of Christ and the sacrifice of the Eucharist to be one and the same thing.

Vanhoozer goes on to point out that endeavoring to show that a teaching is not unbiblical is not the same thing as showing that it is biblical. Citing particular texts in support of a teaching can easily become a way of not listening to scripture, but rather finding a scriptural word to buttress an already decided doctrine. If Christ is, in fact, the scope of scripture, then his lordship, one might argue, extends to his invitation to follow him wherever scripture leads.

Still, Levering’s effort to respond to Luther’s critique with a careful analysis of the biblical witness merits great respect, in part because the questions it raises are so troublesome to Protestants (especially Liberal Protestants). What is one to make of Jesus’s saying in Matthew 19 about becoming a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven? Should Protestants listen again more seriously to a text that seems to invite celibacy? Or, how should one respond when Jesus tells the young man who has much, that if he would be perfect, he should “go, sell what you possess and give to the poor…”? Should we revisit such an invitation to poverty as a mark of discipleship? Levering’s reading of scripture may not be as “biblical” as most Protestants would like, but his citations of particular texts are often ones that Protestants have not paid much attention to, and his lifting them up for the church’s consideration is a gift in itself.

Was the Reformation a Mistake? could be read with profit by both trained and untrained theologians. It is well-written, engaging, and sufficiently provocative to stimulate genuine dialogue and discussion. This book will help those who desire to remember the Reformation faithfully, that is, with all its questions, concerns, achievements, and failings. And perhaps this book will even engender the hope in many for a Christian unity not yet visible but very much longed for.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas W. Currie is professor emeritus at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Date of Review: 
December 4, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Matthew Levering is Perry Family Foundation professor of theology at Mundelein Seminary, University of Saint Mary of the Lake, in Mundelein, Illinois. He previously taught at the University of Dayton. Levering is the author of numerous books, including Engaging the Doctrine of RevelationThe Proofs of GodThe Theology of Augustine, and Ezra & Nehemiah in the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, and is the coauthor of Holy People, Holy Land. He serves as coeditor of the journals Nova et Vetera and the International Journal of Systematic Theology and has served as Chair of the Board of the Academy of Catholic Theology since 2007.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer is research professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. He is author of several books, including Is There a Meaning in This Text? The Bible, the Reader, and the Morality of Literary KnowledgeThe Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology, and Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. He also serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Systematic Theology and the Journal of Theological Interpretation.


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