I should probably blame my interest in ecumenism on books. Reading theology introduced me to the voices of genuine and deeply learned men and women living out their faith in a wide variety of Christian traditions, and while I happily worship as part of a United Methodist congregation, I know my spiritual life wouldn’t be the same without the writings of Catholics like Thomas Merton, Anglicans like N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams, and Presbyterians like Eugene Peterson, just to name a few. This experience has given me a deep-seated appreciation for the depth and breadth of common ground shared by believers of all stripes—whether Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant—and it’s made me rather wary of works that exhibit more sectarian tendencies, arguing either explicitly or implicitly that only certain parts of the Church are “real” followers of Jesus.
Given all these things, it’s understandable why I felt a spark of excitement upon finding out that Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft was working on a book exploring the question of how Protestants and Catholics can learn from one another. In terms of structure and style, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? is inspired by Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, and it shows (117). Kreeft is a gifted communicator, writing in a direct style that for the most part stays away from overly-technical theological language.
There is a lot for thoughtful readers to be energized by in this book; the clear passion with which Kreeft makes his overarching call for reunion in the Church is infectious. Standing as we do five hundred years after the start of the Reformation, it’s all too easy to forget that, as Kreeft puts it, Luther’s original intention was for “reform, not revolt” (17). One thousand years from now, he suggests that Catholic historians may look back on the Protestant Reformation as an unfortunate but necessary event in the history of the Church, “something like a rebellious teenager running away from a home that has become seriously dysfunctional” (113). Despite the challenges involved, he is convinced that working towards greater unity in the Church is vitally important:
Ecumenical reunion is like the “social gospel”, the creeds, baptism, or ministering to the poor: it is an ineradicable part of the whole Gospel. It is not the whole of the Gospel, and it is not the very center of it, but it is not an addition to it either. This thing is inextricably glued to the center of the Gospel, because the center of the Gospel is Christ Himself, and this thing is Christ’s will and demand. (27)
For me, Kreeft is most moving when talking about the need for Catholics and Protestants to clear away the pernicious stereotypes and caricatures that have built up over the centuries. In order to move towards reunion, he rightly urges us to really listen to each other with more depth, patience, and humility (72). When this happens, we can discover deeper levels of mutual understanding and better remember that, despite the differences, we still ultimately belong to the same Body of Christ. We may even find echoes of perspectives that we hold dear in unexpected places. Now of course, it’s true that merely listening to each other better (as necessary as that is) won’t automatically dissolve the theological issues that continue to divide Catholics and Protestants. But, Kreeft dares to hope that as we better understand one another, and seek together to follow Christ more closely, we may be surprised to find eventual healing for these areas of division (80). As evidence of this, he points to the joint Catholic-Lutheran Decree on Justification, which Kreeft is convinced shows that, “The single greatest obstacle to reunion, by far the most important religious difference between Protestants and Catholics, has essentially been overcome” (17).
The latter part of the book contains a number of longer chapters exploring some of the central issues that stand in the way of reunion, including Catholic doctrines about Mary, the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, and matters of ecclesiology. In these chapters, as in the earlier parts of the book, Kreeft’s style is personal and aimed at making the subject matter understandable for the non-specialists among us. I’ll admit that I wasn’t persuaded by all of his arguments, but I incline to think that that isn’t especially the point. If a necessary step towards ecumenical reunion is better understanding each other, then Protestants like me must value our Catholic friends enough to spend time honestly letting them explain how the issues look from their point of view, with the presuppositions they bring to the table. I think that is one of the best ways to get past simplistic misunderstandings about how the “other side” practices their faith.
As this review draws towards its end, I want to reiterate that Kreeft has given a valuable gift to the Church, one that will hopefully lend fresh life to ecumenical efforts. I’m grateful for his call for expanded dialogue between Protestants and Catholics and for his insistence on breaking down inaccurate stereotypes. All of that makes it hard for me to avoid also mentioning Kreeft’s dismissive treatment of “liberal” Christians, which seems oddly inconsistent with the rest of his approach in the book. For instance, at one point he calls liberal Protestantism “shrinkage and hopeless heresy,” and later on declares that “liberal Christians do not even believe in the supernatural, in the miraculous, and therefore in the Incarnation and the deity of Christ” (30, 109).
These kinds of statements bring up the questions of who is a liberal, and who gets to decide that. I know a fair number of Christians who identify as being on the more liberal/progressive end of the spectrum, yet they still affirm the Incarnation. They also still care about Scripture. Turning to more public figures, scholars like Walter Brueggemann and Peter Enns, and Christian writers like Rachel Held Evans, come to mind. They don’t resemble the lifeless “liberal” Christianity described by Kreeft either. Therefore, it seems to me that in this area at least, Kreeft could stand to listen more closely to his own counsel regarding the value of getting past stereotypes and caricatures of the other in order to grow closer to his brothers and sisters in Christ—he might even be surprised to find areas of common ground.
Protestants and Catholics: What Can We Learn from Each Other? isn’t perfect, but it asks a great question, and I think we all can be grateful for his reminder that Protestants and Catholics, despite their separation, nevertheless really are still brothers and sisters (113). Will the contentious divisions in Christ’s Body be healed prior to the last day? Who knows. But, both Kreeft and I deeply pray for it.