The most recent book from the prolific Dr. Peter Kreeft, titled Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn From Each Other? (Ignatius Press, 2017), is a frank and engaging examination of the common ground shared by Catholics and Protestants and a candid reflection on the question of where we go from here. Packed with Kreeft’s typical witticisms, keen observations, and common-sensical assessments, the book is a wonderful resource for ecumenical dialogue.
“Peter Kreeft has a remarkable gift for expressing complex issues in lucid, accurate, and pithy ways,” says best-selling Evangelical author Eric Metaxas, “He also has the fairness and insight needed to undertake a tractate to bring Catholics and Protestants into closer union. This book will no doubt help understanding and dialog between both.” Dr. Thomas Howard, a former Evangelical and noted Catholic author, says, “This book should help us to find a real step forward in the mutual understanding of these two sectors of the Ancient Faith.” And Evangelical theologian Timothy George, who is Dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University, describes it as “A volume full of faith-and hope.” Kreeft himself states, in the book, that his purpose is to be “like an Australian sheepdog, herding and hectoring Christ’s separated sheep back to His face. For that is the only way they can ever return back to each other.”
Recently Dr. Kreeft corresponded with Catholic World Report about the book, ecumenism, and related topics.
CWR: You’re a convert to Catholicism and you describe yourself as an “Evangelical Catholic.” How did your personal experience motivate you to write this book?
Peter Kreeft: The motive for this book, as for all of mine, was not explicitly personal or autobiographical. It was Christian, universally Christian, i.e. what should be a motive for all Christians. Reunion is not an option or an extra, it is as much a part of the gospel, or a corollary of the gospel, as social ethics is. If a Christian is a little Christ (an extremely little Christ), he or she must feel agony over the fact that the world, looking at Christians, no longer says “Look how they love one another!” but “Look how they contradict each other” and even “Look how they hate each other” – although we have made very significant progress on that latter issue in the last generation or two, which has to be the starting point for progress on the former issue.
So the answer to your first question is really your second question.
CWR: Why is ecumenism important? In other words, why is it important that Catholics and Protestants not “see too little” in each other, as you put it in the book?
Kreeft: Christians see (or try to see) what Christ sees. He sees His beloved children fighting among themselves, and this causes Him far more agony than it causes us. His Mother too: mothers are especially sensitive to their children fighting. The Bible (the common absolute authority for both Catholics and Protestants) is very clear about God’s attitude toward denominationalism: Cf. Jn 17. And St. Paul has zero tolerance for it (e.g. I Cor. 1). Anyone, Protestant or Catholic, who accepts the current situation as normal and natural or even inevitable, is not reading the right Book.
CWR: Do you feel that a lot can be accomplished by a simple change of perspective, putting ourselves in each other’s shoes?
Kreeft: Putting yourself in the other’s shoes, changing your perspective (which is not the same as changing your convictions), is the necessary but not sufficient cause for reunion. For us the instrumentalists in Christ’s orchestra who are not playing in harmony, even more important than seeing the music from the viewpoint of the other instrumentalists in the orchestra is looking at the Conductor’s baton first. In one sense this is the whole secret of reunion, for we know His will is harmony. In another sense that is just the indispensable beginning, for the only possible ground for reunion must be truth, not compromise. So there is a whole lot of work to be done. But when it is finished we will have something much richer and fuller – as Trent gave us something richer and fuller than the thing Luther found and protested against.
CWR: When you talk about Goliath (i.e. differences on the doctrine of justification) being slain, you say there are many more Philistines left to slay. Why haven’t we made more progress towards unity since the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification released in 1999?
Kreeft: Progress on really important things is bound to be slow. There are formidable obstacles. We can see now how success on the issue of justification was possible, though almost no one could see that long before it happened. (Von Balthasar was the only exception I know of.) When we both affirm a Joint Declaration on the Relation between the Authority of the Church and the Authority of the Bible, we will also see how it was possible, but we do not see that yet. Our hindsight is much clearer than our foresight. That is why we need hope and trust for our foresight.
CWR: What are some of the most important insights you came to in writing this book? What can we learn from each other?
Kreeft: That is a good question, since most people think that the process of writing a book, or teaching a class, consists simply in discovering how to formulate and communicate persuasively the truth that you as writer or teacher already understand; but every good writer and teacher knows that writing and teaching is a great way of understanding what you did not fully understand or realize before you tried to communicate it.
The same is certainly true of artistic creation, as St. Pope John Paul II said in his letter to artists. He said that art can not merely communicate theology but create it. Not a new theology, of course, but a new insight into the Deposit of Faith that is ever old and ever new. The most important insight that the process of writing the book taught me was that the Christ Protestants adore and love and serve outside the sacraments is the very same Christ Catholics adore and love and serve and find in the sacraments. And that does not mean that the sacraments are accidental. They are our umbilical cord to the Blood of Christ with which He made all things new (remember that shattering line in “The Passion of the Christ?”).
Yet as the Catechism says, God also works outside His sacraments. To use a crude and in some ways misleading image, getting into the house through the back door is getting into the same house as getting in through the front door. An unbaptized baby whom God gets to Heaven gets to the same Heaven (there’s only one) as a baptized baby who gets in the front way. Yet the front way is first, true, real, superior, and divinely instituted and commanded.
CWR: Can these insights also help us in relations with other Christians (such as the Orthodox), other religions (such as Judaism and Islam), and other religious traditions?
Kreeft: Yes, even though with non-Christian religions we do not have an explicit appeal to the authority of Christ. Yet if Jn 1:9 is true, it is Christ who inspires all that is true, good, and beautiful in our knowledge. So objectively He is working to unite all His beloved children, even though not subjectively. They may well be “anonymous Christians,” as Rahner says. If that is not so, then one of two absurd conclusions follows: either we can be certain that all who are not explicit Christians are going to Hell, or Christ is not the universal savior, but just one among many.
CWR: How long did this book take to write?
Kreeft: Once I decided to write the book in the form of “pensees” or short, independent points, it took only a couple months to write. I think with most nonfiction books the author usually takes too much time with the string and too little with the pearls. Books are like animals: some gestate quickly, like the mayfly, and some slowly, like the elephant. Between Heaven and Hell took less than a week; An Ocean Full of Angels took 20 years.
CWR: You are a very prolific writer. Are you currently working on any other books?
Kreeft: Yes. St. Augustine’s Press will publish Socrates’ Children, my 4-volume history of philosophy for beginners late this year, InterVarsity Press will publish Between One Religion and Another, my dialog about comparing world religions, soon, and Ignatius will publish my plan for Bible study of John’s Gospel also probably late this year. I’m working on a series of dialogs in the next world where Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, mediates every dispute between two philosophers (e.g. optimism and pessimism, rationalism and empiricism, determinism and free will, individualism and collectivism) except one. When it comes to Christ, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, the two most radical opposites in the history of philosophy, ironically gang up on him for lacking “infinite passion.” After that I’m thinking of a book of reflections on the Lord’s Prayer.
Don’t ask me where the ideas come from. Where do most ideas come from? Where do yours come from? Our angels are far more active than we think, and we will have a great time in Heaven when they point out what they did. “Oh, that was you?”
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This idea that Protestants can offer Catholics anything of value has led to the destruction of the true faith. Rebellion against the true faith and against the Church that Christ instituted is not something Catholics should emulate.
It is the Catholic faith, whole and pure, that saves souls. Outside of this faith, one’s salvation is clearly in jeopardy. That is what Protestants need to understand.
“Why haven’t we made more progress towards unity since the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on Justification released in 1999?”
That’s easy – because those who signed, were, just like other ecumenists, speaking only for themselves. They did not speak for the average Catholic or Protestant. On the contrary, many Catholics and Protestants despise each other, and regard each other as – at best – non-Christians. But ecumenists ignore these ugly and revolting facts, and prefer to concoct a prefabricated, neutered Christianity, never professed by any Protestant or Catholic.
I really wish Dr Kreeft would stop laying such stress on the Joint Declaration. He has been doing it for a few years, and he should have learned by now that it does not bear up under scrutiny.
Though encouraging of the effort, JPII declined to sign the declaration, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published a quite critical “Official Catholic Response to the Text of the Joint Declaration ” in which it said, “The Catholic Church is, however, of the opinion that we cannot yet speak of a consensus such as would eliminate every difference between Catholics and Lutherans in the understanding of justification… On some points the positions are, in fact, still divergent.” The full response is on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/documents/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_01081998_off-answer-catholic_en.html
This should be obvious, as it basically results in something like a declaration that it was all one big misunderstanding. Except, that it wasn’t. Luther really did understand the Catholic doctrine of justification, but he did not agree with it. And the Church really did know what Luther was saying (if in doubt, read St Thomas More’s excellent Dialogue Concerning Heresies) and didn’t agree with that.
The Joint Declaration attempts to plow a middle ground, sometimes conceding to the Catholic doctrine, more often to the Lutheran (particularly as regards the cooperation of free will in salvation, where it, but ultimately it is a kind of compromised muddle, satisfying to no one that is committed to the Luthern doctrine or to the Catholic doctrine.
I would not use it as the example for future efforts.
If one had a sense of humor, they might be tempted to call it a forensic declaration on justification…
Hmm, I just saw this article linked today, and the other recent comment that was made on it, and assumed it was from 2019. But since it is from 2017, my comment could well be out of date, as perhaps he has revised his opinion by now.