Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Take Up and Read, Please!

Like dozens of other books published in 2017, Peter Kreeft’s latest project, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other?, was written to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. One of its key components is Jesus’ claim to be the way and the truth and the life, and his further clarification, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Indeed, Kreeft points out that the way, the truth, and the life correspond to the three deepest human desires: goodness, truth, and beauty.

The way, the truth, and the life are the three things we all need the most and therefore desire the most, deep down. “The way” is goodness; “the truth” is truth; and “the life” is spiritual life, beauty, bliss, and joy. Goodness, truth, and beauty are the three essential foods of the soul.[1]

He goes on to point out that goodness, truth and beauty are the objects of the soul’s three distinctively human powers: the will, the mind, and the heart. They, in turn, correspond to the three dimensions in every religion: code, creed, and cult; or works, words, and worship.

Kreeft makes so much of the triad that it makes sense to consider this book from that perspective. Kreeft’s tone is irenic (goodness); his rhetoric is refreshingly clear and bold (truth); his imagery is delightful (beauty). The strands are so intertwined that it’s difficult and artificial to isolate them. So I’ll point them out along the way.

One of Kreeft’s qualifications for writing this book is that he was a Protestant who became a Catholic. He spent his formative years with his family in the Christian Reformed Church; he received his undergraduate degree at Calvin College (Grand Rapids, MI) and became a Roman Catholic as a young adult. He took his M.A. and PhD at Fordham University, and has taught at Boston College in the Department of Philosophy since 1965.[2] The first of his books that I read was Heaven: The Heart’s Deepest Longing (1980), his explication of the argument (for God) from desire, which C. S. Lewis exploited so beautifully in his writing.

Now in his most recent work, Kreeft promotes unity among Catholics and Protestants beginning with his subtitle, What Can We Learn from Each Other? (goodness). His tongue-in-cheek yet perfectly serious kick-in-the-pants approach in the chapter titled “How Not to Think About Reunion” is representative of the whole book. He writes that the biblical evidence for unity “is a solemn, thunder-and-lightning-tinged order from Almighty God.” Thus, he directs us to stop reading his words for a few minutes to encounter the monumental mandate in the Word (Psalm 133:1; John 17:11; Romans 15:5-7; 1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 2 Cor. 13:11; Ephesians 3:1-14; Philippians 1:27; 2:2, 54:2 and 1 Peter 3:8; 4:1). “Do it. Actually do it—now, before you read another paragraph. Don’t just think about it—do it. . . . And if you don’t have a Bible, go steal one.”[3]

I was thunderstruck when I read those passages. As a Baptist pastor I thought of a statement like “Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble” in 1 Peter 3:8 (NIV) as applicable to the relationships within my own congregation rather than to all of God’s people everywhere. Now, living into the Catholic view of the Church, it’s easier to see the grand expectation of unity conveyed by the Holy Spirit not just by Jesus (John 17:11) but also by the Apostles in the New Testament letters.

I truly enjoy Kreeft’s unabashed ability to tell the truth—in stark contrast to our culture's addiction to PC language. Before Catholics and Protestants can experience freedom that comes from unity, we must know the truth (John 8:32). This book is chock-full of blatant truth-telling.

For example, I laughed out loud in surprise and appreciation when Kreeft responded to the question “What Happens in Individuals Who ‘Ecumenize’?”[4] He sets up his answer by pointing out that we won’t merely enter into polite discussions, or merely love each other and listen to each other, or merely pray for each other and with each other, though we should do all of those things. Those who ecumenize discover something big and new: “Catholics discover the fire, and Protestants discover the fireplace.”[5] He explains:

Catholics discover the essence of Evangelical Protestantism; a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Protestants discover the essence of Catholicism; Christ’s own visible, tangible Body, both as a living institution with teaching authority and as a real literal personal presence in the Eucharist.[6]

Kreeft acknowledges that it’s not that these two things are totally missing on either side. “Yet when Catholics and Protestants meet each other on the deep level of religious faith, this is what very often happens, because most Catholics have minimized the fire and most Protestants have minimized the fireplace.”[7] As a Christian with experience in both traditions, I heartily agree!

This “Christian Unity for Dummies” gives three simple and undeniable reasons to work toward unity: Our Lord demands it (John 17:11); the Church teaches it (1 Corinthians 1); and the world needs it. That third reason needs emphasis. Once again Kreeft pulls no punches, pointing out that our civilization is dying. “Its humanistic education, its literacy, its historical memory, its identity, its spirit, its reason for being, its hope, its ultimate end, the very idea that there is such a thing as an “ultimate end”, are all dying.” A fractured Church can hardly heal a splintered civilization.

But this tremendous crisis can be a tremendous opportunity. If we obey Christ’s “great commission” (Mt 18:28) to preach the good news, if we show them Christ, we will save not only souls but also society. When we apply the golden key to the lock, we fill the hole, we bind up the lacerations. We heal.

That phrase “the golden key” is one reminder of the beauty in this book. It’s an image Kreeft uses from time to time; and I’m guessing he has in mind the short Grimm tale by that name[8] as well as the longer fantasy by George MacDonald.[9] The Grimm brothers’ version is a paragraph-long story of a poor boy who has to go out in the cold to fetch wood on a sled. After he finishes, he decides to build a fire because he is so frozen. While clearing the ground, he finds a small golden key and reasons that if there is a key there must also be a lock. So he digs in the ground and finds a little iron chest. He so wants to find the keyhole, for the box must certainly contain valuable things. Finally he spots a tiny hole and tries the key. It fits! Now we must wait until the boy has unlocked the chest and has opened the lid to find out what wonderful things there are in that little box.

The golden key is Christ Himself. “Unsurprisingly, the key to ecumenism is the same ‘golden key’ that is the key to evangelism and, as we will see, to ecclesiology and to hermeneutics—Christ Himself, His real presence.”[10] Saint Augustine is a prime example for Catholics and Protestants, for both groups look to him as a spiritual father. So Kreeft recalls Augustine’s experience found in his Confessions: Before Augustine knew Christ, the scriptures were meaningless; “but then later in his life . . . Christ was present to his soul helping him interpret the book.” What was the key to Augustine’s understanding the scriptures aright? “He tells us: he says he ‘saw one Face’.[11] All of scripture’s doors then opened to him, once he had the golden key.”[12]

When I stumbled onto this treasure in my favorite bookstore I must have felt like the boy who discovered the golden key. As I took up and read snippets of the book I felt the adrenaline rush of joy. My month-long excursion into the hows and whys of Christian unity has been a grand adventure. There’s only one disappointment: It’s too short!

So my wish for my Catholic and Protestant friends is that they too will find this treasure and read it. Then we can discover and discuss its goodness, truth, and beauty—and learn from one another.

© Stan Bohall

[1] Peter Kreeft, Catholics and Protestants: What Can We Learn from Each Other? (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017), 161.
[2] Readers can listen to Kreeft’s account of his conversion at
[3] kreeft., 26.
[4] Ibid., Chapter 5.
[5] Ibid., 29.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[10] Kreeft, 148. See also pp. 144, 156, 157, 188.
[11] Augustine, Confessions, bk. 7, chap. 21 trans. F. J. Sheed, rev.ed. (Indianapolis, Ind.: Hackett, 1993), 124.
[12] Kreeft, 188.

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