Peter Kreeft on Healing Reformation’s Wounds: Prayer, Love Key to Christian Unity

Kreeft asserts that the path to reconciliation will be found through loving Protestants in Christ and praying fervently for reunion.

Peter Kreeft
Peter Kreeft (photo: EWTN)

The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation is an opportunity to take stock of the progress Protestants and Catholics have made toward reunion and focus on how to heal the barriers that remain, contends Boston College professor of philosophy Peter Kreeft.

In an interview with Register correspondent Stephen Beale, Kreeft drew upon his new book — Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? — to assert  that the path to reunion will not be achieved by compromising the truth, but instead will be found through loving Protestants in Christ and praying fervently for reunion. Despite the obstacles that remain, Kreeft says some of the biggest ones have already been overcome.


In your book, you say the Reformation is over. Why is that?

George Marsden, the Protestant historian, said something like, “It’s only a little bit of an exaggeration to say that the Reformation is over” — mainly because of the decree on justification issued by the Vatican and the Lutheran bishops, which claimed that the primary issue of the Reformation, justification by faith, has been misunderstood for 500 years and that there is no substantial or essential disagreement between Catholics and Lutherans on that. So that’s miraculous. That’s like Goliath falling. There’s still a lot of “Philistines” that we have to deal with, but that’s the biggie.


How were these Lutheran bishops and the Catholic Church able to come to an agreement on the doctrine of salvation?

Are we saved by faith alone or by faith plus good works? That seems like an either-or. Is it a one-part ticket to heaven or a two-part ticket to heaven? How could both sides be right?

Well, the term salvation meant to Luther getting to heaven. The term salvation for Catholics means that which God demands of us, which includes sanctification and not just justification — in other words, not just being a saint, but [also] getting to heaven. So that’s one misunderstanding.

The word faith also has a range of meanings. Sometimes it means the simple act of accepting divine grace, which does save you. Sometimes it just means the intellectual component of that, which does not necessarily save you. James said, “Do you believe that there is one God? Good for you — the devils believe that, too, but they tremble in fear” (2:19). So faith in the narrow sense is not enough to save you.

Faith in the broad sense is because it necessarily produces good works. The same divine grace enters the soul by faith and then enters the life and the world from the soul by good works. So they’re not two separate realities; they’re two stages in the same reality.


We may no longer disagree on faith and good works, but what about the Eucharist, the pope and Mary?

Luther summarized, or at least Lutherans summarized, their disagreements with the Catholic Church under three slogans. They all begin with the word sola, which is in Latin “only.” Sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone) and sola Scriptura (Bible alone). The sola gratia was never much of an issue because the Council of Trent taught that we can’t merit the first. God has to start the process. Sola fide was dealt with by the statement on justification. So the one that’s left is sola Scriptura, and that has not budged.

The reason Catholics believe all these things that Protestants don’t is because Protestants don’t see them clearly in the Bible. And Catholics accept them on the basis of uniform Church Tradition. So that’s the biggie that remains, and that explains all the other ones — Mary, the pope, the sacraments, purgatory — they’re all part of a uniform 1,000-year-old tradition.


How do you envision the reunion happening, given these barriers?

It certainly cannot be by compromise. You can’t compromise truth. On the other hand, you can’t compromise love. These are, for Christians, two absolutes. So we have to stop hating each other and ignoring each other and refusing to learn from each other and refusing to listen to each other. And if we start from there — if we start with a fundamentally different attitude — what can we learn from each other?

We’re trying to serve the same Christ, and we’re serving him in different ways; and we disagree about his will and from the [perspective of] truth. If we start with [common] love, that will open our eyes to all sorts of unforeseen agreements that we didn’t see before. The prime example of that is the joint statement on justification.


In your book, you discuss the importance of prayer. What role does prayer play in the process of reunification?

Prayer, like life, has two absolutes — truth and love. And if you start with love, it comes from the will.

If you align your will with God in prayer, then he promises that he will lead you to truth. (“Seek, and you shall find.”) So what happens in prayer is you’re trying to detect and obey the baton of the conductor of the Christian orchestra, who is Christ himself. And insofar as both Catholics and Protestants do that, they will come together, because there’s only one Christ.

It’s not easy, it’s not automatic, and it’s not instant, but progress can be made in that area. If the holy heart aligns with the confused intellect, the confusion will begin to dissipate.


What would Christian unity actually look like?

We don’t know. God has surprises. We know two things: It will not look like compromise. Nor will it look like one side learns from the other and the other doesn’t learn, but one simply triumphs and the other simply doesn’t.


You say that both sides can learn from each other. What can Catholics learn from Protestants, particularly evangelicals?

We have a big fireplace, which the Protestants question — all the extra Catholic things — but the fire in the fireplace is much more important than the fireplace. And evangelicals [concentrate] on that fire. A big fire in a little fireplace, on the one hand, a big fireplace and a little fire, on the other hand, need each other and need to listen to each other.

I don’t see the possibility of Catholics simply saying: “Oh, we were wrong about this doctrine. You were right, Protestants.” But I do see Catholics saying very often, as the Church itself did with the Council of Trent, “We need reform.”

The truth stands, but we were not living the truth or, in some cases, even comprehending it very well. In fact, John Paul II, who was certainly nothing like a theological liberal, has made implicitly what I think is the greatest confession of failure in Church history with the title of the “New Evangelization.” What’s new about the New Evangelization? Well, we have to evangelize Catholics. We haven’t taught our own people. [We’ve] got to start over. That’s a remarkably humble idea.


Some people reading this might wonder, “Why should we be in dialogue with heretics?” What would you say to them?

There were people in Jesus’ day who said, “Jesus, why are you eating with these sinners? Why are you going after these lost sheep?” We’re dialoguing with “heretics” because we love them. And we’re trying to help them. The word “heretic” has a perfectly good meaning — somebody who chooses for himself, rather than listening to God, as what to believe. And, in that sense, heresy is very common. It’s not just a few heretics. We’re all tempted to some kind of heresy.

Even if Protestants are right about sola Scriptura — which they’re not — they can be heretics in taking that Bible as a set of propositions and idolizing it just as much as a Catholic can idolize something much less abstract and much less philosophical.


Why did you decide to write this book?

Well, I was born and brought up as a Protestant evangelical. I became a Catholic at about the age of 21. So I think I understand both sides from experience.

What motivated me to write the book was both sides are trying to understand each other and finding it rather hard to do that. And there’s often a hidden agenda — “You were right about this, and you’re wrong about this. I’m going to prove it to you.” And there’s a place for apologetics and argument to prove — a necessary place — but I detected that the other half of the equation — the attitude, the openness, the listening — could stand a shot in the arm.

Stephen Beale writes from Providence, Rhode Island.