The Evangelization Station
Pray for Pope Francis
Scroll down for topics
Toward Reuniting the Church
Born into a strong evangelical Protestant family (Dutch Reformed), I became a Roman Catholic while studying philosophy at Yale. I did so for the only valid and honest reason anyone ever should become a Catholic or a Protestant or a Christian or an atheist: because I believe it is true. But I also believe everything affirmed and emphasized by evangelical Protestantism is true. And since truth cannot be opposed to truth, I also believe reunion without compromise is possible. This essay investigates that reunion.
Born into a strong evangelical Protestant family (Dutch Reformed), I became a Roman Catholic while studying philosophy at Yale. I did so for the only valid and honest reason anyone ever should become a Catholic or a Protestant or a Christian or an atheist: because I believe it is true.
But I also believe everything affirmed and emphasized by evangelical Protestantism is true. And since truth cannot be opposed to truth, I also believe reunion without compromise is possible. This essay investigates that reunion. First, I shall explore the major obstacles to unity; second, the way to unity, the way to overcome these obstacles; finally, the nature of unity: What would a reunified church look like?
I see six major obstacles to unity. Two are general philosophical and theological problems, two are specific doctrinal problems, and two are radical problems out of which all the other problems grow.
The first and most general problem dividing Catholics and Protestants seems to me to be the problem of nature and grace. I became a Catholic partly because I found a greater appreciation for the natural order, for human reason and human tradition, and for the sacramental power of matter in Catholicism than in the Calvinism I knew. Other converts to Catholicism have often come from the opposite branch of Protestantism, from liberalism or Modernism, and were attracted by the supernaturalism of the Catholic Church. It seems pretty clear that the solution to the problem of nature and grace is a strong affirmation of both, and that this affirmation would unite Protestants with each other as well as with Catholics.
A second, more difficult problem may be called the problem of the objective versus the subjective in religion. Protestants often see Catholics as superstitious believers in a magical religion of automatic, objective institutional and sacramental efficacy, while Catholics often see Protestants as subjectivists, individualists, sentimentalists, or humanists. The issue surfaces in the form of the institutional church, a visible and objective thing: How important is it? Is it necessary to salvation?
Any church, in fact any publicly visible, externally observable religion, has three manifestations: its theological beliefs, its ethical values, and its liturgical worship: creed, code, and cult; words, works, and worship. These fulfill the three parts of the human soul: thought, action, and feelings; mind, will, and sensibilities; the intellectual, the moral, and the aesthetic. Catholics emphasize these three aspects of religion, while Protestants deemphasize them relative to the subjective, personal core of religion, the individual’s relationship with God face to face, heart to heart, center to center, unmediated by church, creed, code, or cult, mediated only by Christ.
The solution here, too, is a both/and solution. Each side sees something. Since man is both invisible and visible, religion must be both: both the internal and the external, the nut and its shell, the heart and the flesh, the meat and the sandwich, the picture and the frame, love and the expression of love.
But could this general solution apply to specific doctrinal controversies such as the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and objectively efficacious sacraments, which work ex opere operato? I think so. Objectively efficacious sacraments do not exclude individual subjective freedom and responsibility, as magic does, any more than an objectively efficacious God excludes human freedom and responsibility. God works through man, not through magic. Yet it is God who works, and therefore with certain and objective efficacy.
These first two problems are merely cases of different emphases. The relatively simple solution was a both/and rather than an either/or. Our next two problems are more specific issues, which seem logically to demand an either/or answer and therefore the exclusion of either the Protestant or the Catholic answer as false.
The third problem is the problem of the source of authority. All the distinctively Catholic (as opposed to Protestant) teachings of the Catholic Church follow from the teaching authority of the Church. Most Catholics believe in such things as Purgatory, the Immaculate Conception, and the seven sacraments not because they have thought through each issue separately and have come to the Catholic position by theological reasoning, but because the Church teaches them and they accept the Church’s authority — just as orthodox Protestants accept all the teachings of Christ simply because they accept his authority as teacher. But Catholics seem to believe in two sources of authority, or rather two channels of authority through which Christ reveals his mind and will to successive generations: the Bible and the Church; while Protestants believe only one as unerringly authoritative: sola scriptura. Are these two horses in the authority race or only one? It cannot be both. How can this disjunction be overcome?
There is only one horse, and it is the Bible. But it needs a rider, and that is the Church. From the Catholic side, Thomas Aquinas - certainly no maverick among Catholics — teaches that the Church is authoritative as interpreter of Scripture, that all the teachings of the Church must be based on Scripture. And more and more people from the Protestant side are coming to believe that it is the unified Christian community that gives the Holy Spirit’s authoritative understanding of Scripture. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life; and the Spirit of the body of Christ lives in the body, the Church.
The fourth issue is the most crucial of all. It is the issue that sparked the Reformation, and it is the issue that must spark reunion too. It is, of course, the issue of faith, of faith and works, of justification by faith.
This is the root issue because the essence of the gospel is at stake here. How do I get right with God? This was the issue of the first century church at Galatia, a church Protestants see as making the same essential mistake as the Catholics — preaching the gospel of good works. Protestants dare not compromise on this issue or they would be turning to what Paul calls “another gospel”. Thus his harsh words to the Galatians, the only church for which he has not one word of praise:
How do I resolve the Reformation? Is it faith alone that justifies, or is it faith and good works? Very simple. No tricks. On this issue I believe Luther was simply right; and this issue is absolutely crucial. As a Catholic I feel guilt for the tragedy of Christian disunity because the church in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was failing to preach the gospel. Whatever theological mistakes Luther made, whatever indispensable truths about the Church he denied, here is an indispensable truth he affirmed — indispensable to union between all sinners and God and to union between God’s separated Catholic and Protestant children.
Much of the Catholic Church has not yet caught up with Luther; and, for that matter, much of Protestantism has regressed from him. The churches are often found preaching one of two “other gospels”: the gospel of old-fashioned legalism or the gospel of new-fangled humanism. The first means making points with God and earning your way into heaven, the second means being nice to everybody so that God will be nice to you. The churches, Protestant and Catholic, may also preach the true Christian gospel, but not often enough and not clearly enough and often watered down and mixed with one of these two other gospels. And the trouble with “other gospels” is simply that they are not true: they don’t work, they don’t unite man with God, they don’t justify.
No failing could be more serious; but on the Catholic side, as distinct from the liberal Protestant side, it is a failing in practice, not doctrine. When this happens, the Catholic Church fails to preach its own gospel. It is sitting on a dynamite keg and watering the fuse; it is keeping a million dollar bank account and drawing out only pennies. Catholicism as well as Protestantism affirms the utterly free, gratuitous gift of forgiving grace in Christ, free for the taking, which taking is faith. Good works can be only the fruit of faith, flowing freely as a response to the new life within, not laboriously, to buy into heaven.
But there are two important verbal misunderstandings in the Reformation controversy over faith and works. First, when the Council of Trent affirmed, contrary to Luther, that good works contribute to salvation, it meant by salvation not just getting to heaven but the whole process of being transformed and becoming incorporated into the life of God. In other words, salvation meant not just justification but sanctification as well; and it was quite correct to say that both faith and works contribute to sanctification, thus to salvation.
Second, Catholic and Protestant theologians mean different things by the word faith. Protestants usually follow biblical usage: faith means saving faith, the heart or will accepting Christ. Catholics usually follow a more technical philosophical and theological usage: faith means the act of the mind, prompted by the will, which accepts Christ’s teachings as true. In Protestant language, faith means heart faith, or whole-person faith; in Catholic language, faith means mind faith. Thus, Catholic theologians are right to deny justification by faith alone in that sense (which of course was not Luther’s sense). For “the devils also believe, and tremble.” in this narrower sense faith can exist without the works of love; as James writes, “Faith without works is dead.” In the larger sense, faith cannot exist without works, for it includes works as a plant includes its own blossoms.
The last two problems are the deepest of all. The deepest obstacle to Christian unity is not theological but moral: the deepest obstacle is sin. The root of disunity is sin; the root of separation among men is separation from God, Sunde. The reason for the Reformation was sin. The root of theological errors, whoever made them, was being out of alignment with God. We know his mind and his doctrine clearly only if our will is pure: “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God.” Jesus solves the hermeneutical problem, the problem of interpreting his words and his authority correctly, in one amazingly simple stroke when he says: “if any man’s will is to do the will of my Father, he will know my teaching” (Jn 7:17). We will have church unity only when we have God unity. We will be one with each other only when we are one with God. And we will be one in mind with God, and thus with each other, only when we are one in heart and will with God. The opposite of that oneness is sin.
The last obstacle to unity is paradoxical: it is the illusion that unity is wholly absent. We already have unity, if we would only see it. The illusion is that unity must be visible in order to be true unity. Unity must be visible to be complete, for we are visible as well as invisible creatures, bodies as well as souls. But incomplete unity is still real unity, as a soul without a body is an incomplete human but is still a really human soul.
We already have Christian unity, unity in Christ, in his mystical body. The Church is always one (and is therefore one now) because the oneness of the Church is an inseparable property of her very essence as a body: a body must be one to be a body. If the gates of hell can never prevail against the Church’s essence, they cannot prevail against her unity either. “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord.” This Spirit is real, objective, metaphysical, and factual; it is not just a thought, belief, aspiration, or feeling, like the spirit of Socrates or the spirit of democracy. Spiritual does not mean subjective.
But spiritual does not mean visible either, and we do lack visible unity. Visible unity is not unimportant. First, it is the natural, fitting, and proper expression of invisible, spiritual unity. Second, it is a testimony to the world, which is impressed by appearances: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Christians are not very visible in Northern Ireland. Love creates unity. Unity between individuals is certainly more important than unity between Christian institutions; but the latter is a sign and testimony to the former. Our signs are obscure today; that’s one reason our gospel is not selling as well as it could.
Can unity be achieved? If and only if there is a way, a road. A dream is not enough. There must be a Jacob’s ladder to connect the heavenly dream to earth. There is a ladder, and the angels continually ascend and descend on it. It is not a method or a teaching or a technique. It is a way, not a method; a truth, not a teaching; a life, not a technique. It is, of course, the one who said: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and then continued: “No man comes to the Father but by me. “ Unity is with the Father. The only way to unity is the Son.
The way from unity to disunity was through the loss of Christ as the center. Therefore the only way back is through Christ as the center, through letting Christ rule our churches completely. This is a guaranteed recipe for success. For we know his will is unity (reread Jn 17:20-26). Therefore if we only let him do his will in us, we will have unity.
The only road to unity is total openness to his will, even if it means admitting that we were wrong. We don’t know in advance what letting Christ have his will completely in us will lead to, except that it will lead to truth. “Follow me. “ Where? “Come and see. “ Might it lead to an admission that we Catholics were wrong? That you Protestants were wrong? It might. I firmly believe all that the Catholic Church teaches; but if I should meet God face to face and find that I was wrong in this, I would still be his child.
Catholicism and Protestantism do not essentially define our identity, as Christ does. If I should die and find out that Christ is not my Savior, I could not be me, I could not exist in such a world. Christ is essential to my very self: “For me to live is Christ.” The Church is like my family: very close to me, loyal to the death — but not my essence. Saint Paul did not say: “For me to live is Catholicism.” He did not say: “I live, nevertheless not I but Protestantism lives in me.” The only absolute certainty we have is Christ.
The unity we already have in Christ includes doctrinal unity, for if we accept the teacher we also accept all his teachings, at least through Scripture. None of the Catholic Church’s interpretations of or additions to Scripture is as important as the scriptural agreements between Protestants and Catholics. The agreements between orthodox Protestants and orthodox Catholics are far more important than the agreements between orthodox Catholics and liberal, or Modernist, or demythologized Catholics, and far more important than the agreements between orthodox Protestants and liberal Protestants.
The following questions do not divide Protestants and Catholics — and they are the most important questions of all — but they do divide the orthodox from the Modernist in both churches:
Affirmative answers to these questions constitute the most important kind of unity already: not unity of thought but unity of being, the new being, being “in Christ”.
The evangelical resurgence, the charismatic movement, and the born-again phenomenon are all indications that God is working in our time at precisely this center, this place of unity. No human can create new being, and therefore no human can create unity, for unity follows being. But although with man it is impossible, with God all things are possible. God can and does create new being in us, and therefore God can create new unity among us — and he’s doing it right now! We are witnessing with our own eyes in this generation the definitive solution to the problem of division in the Church. God is solving the problem in exactly the same way he solves all our problems. He has one answer to all our needs, and the answer is a Person.
It’s working. You can see it, surely, at charismatic prayer meetings: without compromise, indifference, or watering down their faith, Protestants and Catholics are experiencing the kind of Christian unity New Testament Christians experienced: unity in Christ. And the world is noticing: “See how they love one another!”
My last question has to do with the nature of this unity. The most important answer to that question has just been given: Christian unity is Christ. But I should like to add three lesser points about the nature of Christian unity. First, Christian unity includes plurality. The doctrine of the Trinity gives Christianity a unique concept of unity. Nothing is more one than God; yet God includes plurality, manyness, differences — without compromising his oneness. In fact, he is more one by being also many than if he were only one; for the oneness of love among the Persons of the Trinity is a greater oneness than that of sheer identity. As C. S. Lewis puts it in The Problem of Pain:
Christian unity, like divine unity, is the unity among lovers, not monolithic indistinguishability. When we unite, we shall remain ourselves, and even increase our distinctive selves. The three most distinctive characters in all reality are the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The most distinctive human persons are the saints. God is both one and many; therefore his people are both one and many.
Second, there are three degrees or levels of unity. At the deepest level there is God himself: there is only one of him! Next to this level is that of human experience of God’s presence. Since God’s unity includes infinitely diverse facets, this level of experience is infinitely diverse; and this is a glory, not a scandal, just as the experience of any human being in many different facets is a glory. The third level is theological reflection about the second level and about the first as experienced in the second. On the third level we find a diversity that is not a glory but a scandal: disagreements about God. How do we solve them? By continually plunging into the deeper levels. For the closer we get to the center, the closer we get to each other. The nearer we are to God, the more our disagreements will dissolve.
Third, what will the Protestant and Catholic roles be in such a unified church? What will Catholics have to stomach from Protestantism and what will Protestants have to stomach from Catholicism?
Catholics will have to stomach the Lutheran Reformation, will have to admit that the Church needs reformation, evangelization.
The Church will have to repent. It will have to admit in practice, not just in theory, Calvin’s central insight: the absolute sovereignty of God. Many Protestant churches will also have to repent and confess in this way, like the Lutheran Church of Kierkegaard’s Denmark. I believe his Attack upon Christendom is the prophetic voice of Christ to the churches in the modern world:
The Church must repent.
And what will Protestants have to repent of? Doctrinally, whatever they left behind in the Reformation that was not a perversion — like selling indulgences or ecclesiastical politicking — but part of the apostolic tradition. I believe this includes the teaching authority of the Church, the inerrancy of her creeds, sacramentalism, apostolic succession, prayers to saints, Purgatory, transubstantiation, and even a definite papal primacy — all suitably defined, suitable not first of all to Catholics but to the Spirit of Christ.
But that is too much for both sides to stomach yet. That is as it should be: too much, not too little. The objection to faith must be: that’s too much to believe, that’s a myth, a fairy tale, that’s too good to be true. That is the natural objection to justification by faith: that it is too good to be true. And it is the natural objection to Catholic claims: too much. But a unified Church cannot be achieved by watering down, by lessening, by a political compromise of God’s word and God’s will for us. A unified Christian Church would be fully Catholic and fully Reformed, fully authoritative and fully free, fully sacramental and fully evangelical, fully institutional and fully charismatic and missionary and eschatological: the Evangelical Catholic Church, the one holy, catholic, apostolic body of our common Lord Jesus Christ. His be the glory now and forever.
Kreeft, Peter. “Toward Reuniting the Church.” Chapter 46 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 287-298.
Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith - ISBN 0-89870-202-X.
Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press