Dei verbum and Lumen gentium, the constitutions on Divine Revelation and the Church, respectively, remain two of the most discussed documents among Protestants responding to Vatican II. Historically such interest follows from the concerns of the Protestant Reformation, where early reformers often took issue with the Medieval Catholic Church’s conceptions of scripture and tradition as well the hierarchy and order of the church. Several Protestant scholars have affirmed Vatican II’s position on these issues. Writing on the Constitution of the Church, Patterson notes that the “Church is defined primarily as the People of God composed of various groups and including Bishops and laity. Historically the tendency has been to emphasize the hierarchical conception of the Church….”
Similarly, Howard writes that Lumen gentium took a step away from the juridical ecclesiology of Trent and Vatican I and moved toward a conception of the Church as a mystery of faith guided by the Holy Spirit. Further, both Patterson and Duncan note Vatican II’s emphasis on baptismal unity, which, while not quite on the level of Protestantism’s “priesthood of all believers”, nevertheless represents a welcome shift towards that conception and away from the language of Trent. Perhaps most encouraging from the Protestant perspective was language in Lumen gentium shifting the Catholic perspective from the Tridentine view of “being” (est) the true Church toward seeing the “fullness of the Church universal as ‘subsisting in’ (subsistit in) the Roman Catholic Church.” A minor shift, but for many an important one representing the fellowship of all Christians.
Reactions to Dei verbum on the importance of scripture have been more tempered. Clearly the emphasis on the scriptures and their impact on the life of the Church were welcome news for Protestants. However, Vatican II made clear the central importance of tradition for the Roman Church, which has been critiqued as suffocating many of the post-conciliar ecumenical attempts by Protestants and Orthodox alike. Patterson concludes that given the amount of time granted to a discussion of scripture in the conciliar documents, “it must be admitted, Scripture is given new emphasis, and a new balance is struck between Scripture and tradition as sources of divine revelation. Yet it is quite clear that tradition is not to be ignored or minimized. It is in this fact that Protestants who preach sola scriptura may suffer disappointment in the document.” Thus while Roman Catholic conceptions of scripture and tradition were shifted at Vatican II toward a position more acceptable to Protestants, there remain significant divergences in the authority granted to scripture by the two traditions.
Apart from such affirmations, many Protestant scholars maintain that the Roman Catholic conceptions of the church and revelation, while admittedly different than both sixteenth century and early twentieth century forms of Catholicism, remain far from acceptable to the Protestant faithful. Duncan notes that Rome claims for itself an authority which Protestants affirm only resides in Christ, writing that for Protestants, “not the church but Christ, ‘is necessary for salvation’. Whilst Rome claims that all these come to the faithful by Christ, as Protestants teach, the difference is that for Rome, these are mediated to the faithful solely through the church, a teaching that is problematic to Protestants.” For example, while a section on the “priesthood of the faithful” may be found within Lumen gentium, that constitution firmly distinguishes the laity from the ministerial priesthood, leading to the perception that substantive changes in church order have not occurred. Indeed, a major concerns seems not to be the official constitutions of Vatican II, but instead how documents on Divine Revelation and the Church, as hopeful as they may be, must be interpreted through the traditional framework of Trent and Vatican I.
While certainly no voice of Protestant moderation towards Catholicism, R.C. Sproul aptly summarizes the strongest Protestant critique of Vatican II, writing that while there is no question Catholicism has changed since the Reformation, those changes “have not closed the gap between Rome and Protestantism. Indeed, the differences are greater now. For instance, the formally defined proclamation of the infallibility of the Pope and all of the Mariology statements have come since the Reformation. Neither has Rome backed down from any of the positions it took in the sixteenth-century debate. In the updated Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in the mid-1990’s, the treasury of merit, purgatory, indulgences, justification through the sacraments, and other doctrines were reaffirmed.” To broadly summarize Protestant reactions to the Second Vatican Council’s constitutions on Divine Revelation and the Church, the general perspective indicates that while Rome has moved toward certain conceptions that are more acceptable to historical Protestantism, there has not been sufficient revision to be completely affirmed by Protestants.