Peter Kreeft

Ecumenism Without Compromise—Transcription

The text of the Ecumenism Wihout Compromise audio lecture
Table of Contents Audio Reference
Introduction 00:00
The Golden Key 04:00
Common Ground 11:02
A Surprising Clue 41:23
Why Not Now 19:15
Recap and Example 23:45
Spiritual Gravity 28:31


Introduction

I’d like to give a fairly short, fairly formal semi-lecture followed by an interesting discussion about ecumenism.  If we are to witness to the world, the problem is not only the world, the problem is in us.  And the problem in us is not just that we are wicked and foolish, that’s always the case.  We are also split, we’re divided.  We can ignore that, we can be dishonest and compromise our convictions, but obviously that’s not going to do any good. 

Is there any hope for reunion?  I am increasingly convinced that there is much more hope than most of us think.  And my hope is based most fundamentally on the fact that the most passionate ecumenist in all of existence is Jesus Christ.  We all know His prayer to His Father just before His Crucifixion in John 17, “That they may be one even as Thou the Father art in me and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us, so that the world may believe.”  He explicitly connects apologetics and ecumenism.  “I in them and Thou in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that Thou has sent me and has loved them even Thou hast loved me.” 

If you read the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians, you will see that denominationalism was not just a scandal, but absolutely unthinkable and intolerable to St. Paul.  Because denominationalism is not the multiplying of subdivisions in an organization, it’s the amputation of limbs from an organism.  Just as no sane person loves war, so no sane Christian loves the war among Christians that so scandalizes the world and weakens our witness to it.  How could a divided church unify a divided world?  No more than an infected physician can heal himself.  But our divisions seem as intractable as war! 

Here are 9 grounds for hope for ecumenical reunion that are commonly given: 

  1. Reasonable compromises. 
  2. Understanding and education: the hope that deep down, we’ll find that we don’t really disagree.  That we’re all saying the same thing in different words but just misunderstanding each other. 
  3. Mystical experience: if you only have one, you’ll see that the previous point is true. 
  4. Tolerance:  like a mutual non-aggression pact.  Why can’t we just get along? 
  5. Subjectivism: reduction of THE Truth to “my truth” or “your truth” or “our truth.” 
  6. Skepticism:  no one knows the truth anyway. 
  7. Rational argument: perhaps we can persuade each other as in a scientific laboratory. 
  8. A vague optimism:  Dickon’s Mr. McColbers, “Something will turn up!” 
  9. Merely a temporary tactical and pragmatic union to fight a common enemy: an ecumenical jihad.  Good but not enough.  None of these is the golden key to reunion. 

The Golden Key

There is a golden key!  His name is Jesus Christ.  We can’t do it.  And He can.  We must be very clear about those two truths.  The main reason it hasn’t happened is that we do not fully believe both those two truths. 

Christ Himself is the most powerful source of reunion in the world because it comes not from the world but from Heaven.  And He will have His way with us sooner or later, one way or another.  We don’t know whether it’s going to be sooner or later, and we don’t know if it will come by one way or by another.  But we do know that it will come because it is his will.  We don’t know when and we don’t know how, but we know who. 

Pope John Paul II has voiced the bold hope that as the first thousand years of Christian history were the millennium of Christian unity, and the second thousand years were the millennium of Christian disunity, 1054, 1517, and the over twenty-thousand denominations that came from 1517, so the third thousand years may be the millennium of Christian re-unity, reunification. 

But how?  The deepest division is obviously between Catholics and Protestants, for the Eastern Orthodox Churches have all remained one, not split into twenty-thousand in creed, code, or cult.  They have preserved the fullness of Catholic faith.  Except for universal papal authority, but that has changed its form quite a bit throughout Christian history, though not its reality, and it can change again.  The pope himself explicitly said that in Ut Unum Sint.  But how can Catholics and Protestants achieve reunion?  I will prescind entirely from the question whether Anglicans are Catholics, Protestants, both, or neither.  Well it cannot be by yielding or weakening or compromising one iota of divinely revealed truth! 

All the serious differences between Protestants and Catholics concern how much territory this category of divinely revealed truth covers.  For instance, the Church’s doctrines about Mary, and the saints, and the seven Sacraments, and Transubstantiation, and purgatory, Catholics accept them because they believe they are true and divinely revealed.  Protestants reject them because they believe they are not true and not divinely revealed.  Protestants say Catholics believe too much.  Catholics say Protestants believe too little.  Protestants say the Church added to Christ’s original, pure and simple revelation in the New Testament.  Protestantism is thus Catholicism stripped down: the Catholic Ark with what Protestants claim are the non-scriptural barnacles scraped off of it. 

When I was at Calvin College and investigating things Catholic and falling in love with them and feeling guilty about it, because this was the wrong church, I took a course in church history to try to get things clear.  And the very first day of the course, the wise-old professor said, “What is the Church?”  And we were all just freshman, we didn’t know for nothing so nobody answered.  So he said, “Well, you’re going to meet a Roman Catholic someday and he’s going to say, ‘You’re in the wrong church!  You’re a Calvinist, you’re in the church John Calvin founded 500 years ago.  We’re in the church Jesus Christ founded 2000 years ago.’  What do you say to him?”  Nobody had an answer.  I said to myself, “I’m in the right class.” 

He said, “Well, here’s what the Catholics will say: the church today is a great big thing and it looks very different from the simple thing you read about in the New Testament, but it’s the same just as that oak tree is the same organism as that little acorn.  What’s wrong with that picture?  The Catholic will say that Luther and Calvin broke off some branches of the church because it was really rotten and they tried to start a new one, but that can’t be done cause there’s only one Jesus.  And therefore, only one church.  What’s your answer to that?  What’s wrong with that picture?”  And nobody had an answer.  I said to myself, “I’m in the right class!” 

And he said, “Well, here’s what’s wrong with that pictures, here’s what happened: Jesus founded one church indeed and it is the church described in the New Testament, and it’s like Noah’s Ark, and it did get rotten, and Luther and Calvin and Knox and others said, ‘Gee, this Ark is sinking!  We gotta scrape the barnacles off!’  So they scraped the barnacles off and restored it to its simple, pure, primitive, New Testament essence.  So we’re in the right church!  It’s the Catholics who are the upstarts.  They’re the ones who added all those pagan barnacles.”  I said, “Oh that makes me feel good.”  I remember asking a question, I said, “Professor, do you mean to tell me that, if my Catholic neighbor and I both found a time machine and went back to the first century,”  I still remember his look, “What’s this guy, a weirdo?  Science fiction?”  “…and worshipped together, that I as a Protestant would feel more at home in that church than he as a Catholic would?”  And then he smiled.  He said, “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”  I said to myself, “Good, that means that I don’t have to be a great theologian to figure out who’s right.  All I have to do is read the Church Fathers to prove to myself that they were all Calvinists.”  Well, I read the Church Fathers and proved to myself they were all Catholics, so that’s why I’m here. 

But the very word “Protestant” means protesting, refusing some of the Catholic whole because they think it’s anti-scriptural and unscriptural barnacles added to what Christ gave us.  While the very word “Catholic” means universal, or whole.  The whole deal.  So this has a problem, apparently without a possible solution because no faithful Catholic could dream of unity with Protestants except on Catholic grounds.  For to be a Catholic is to believe that those grounds are holy grounds, divinely revealed.  It is the Protestants who must remove their shoes.  Catholics cannot negotiate away any of the deposit of faith because it is not theirs, it is Christ’s!  The divinely appointed mail carriers may not edit God’s mail. 

Common Ground

So the reunion must be on Catholic grounds.  That is, complete, universal grounds.  That is the essentially and distinctively Catholic point: essential Catholic point and it is non-negotiable for any faithful Catholic. 

But at the same time, reunion must be on Protestant grounds.  And these are equally non-negotiable.  What I mean by that is the essentially and distinctively Protestant point: the central Protestant point seems to be the opposite of the Catholic one, namely the simple all sufficiency of Christ alone.  Jesus only.  Jesus plus nothing.  Jesus straight, not mixed drink.  If reunion is possible, that is its only foundation.  The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. 

Now of course that doesn’t have to mean, and it shouldn’t mean “no creed but Christ” or “Jesus only and therefore no Church” or “Jesus only therefore no Sacraments” for most Protestants do have a creed and a church and sacraments. 

So perhaps those two central points already overlap a bit, or more than a bit.  In fact they overlap so much that we can say, without trickery, that the whole reason for being a Catholic is to be the best possible evangelical Protestant. 

What I mean by that strange statement is that the essence of evangelical Protestantism is to be one with Christ, to meet Christ, and that’s the best reason to be a Catholic.  That’s the reason for the Mass, and the Eucharist, namely the Protestant thing of meeting Christ.  That’s the whole point of the Catholic thing of the Church, and of the Sacraments and of the Saints and all of the rest.  Take the Eucharist.  Christ is no great because of the Eucharist, the Eucharist is great because of Christ.  We Catholics don’t try to squeeze Christ out of the Church like orange juice out of an orange, Christ gave us the Church.  We got the Church from Christ first of all.  Only then do we get Christ from the Church because He put Himself into her.  The Church is the servant, the messenger.  The Church is Christ’s body, but the body is the head’s body.  We don’t idolize anything.  Protestants accuse Catholics of idolatry, ecclesiolatry, sacramentiology, Mariolatry, Christ is the only “idol.”  The total “idola” or “icon” or “image” of God.  We do not idolize, for instance, the doctrine of the Real Presence.  It’s only a doctrine, though it’s a true doctrine.  We worship Christ not doctrines about Christ.  The Real Presence is the real presence of Christ.  Christ alone is the absolute everywhere in Catholicism.  Mary for instance, is holy only because of her relationship to Christ.  She gave us Him by freely consenting to be His mother.  And He gave us her, from the Cross.  “Behold, your mother.” 

A Surprising Clue

But reunion without compromise between Catholics and Protestants still seems impossible.  Yet, here’s a surprising clue that it may be possible after all: the main point of what I said in the last few minutes “Jesus only,” “the all sufficiency of Christ,” that’s the essential Protestant point and it was just made by me, a Catholic. 

That point seems to be an essential dividing point for Catholicism seems to Protestants to violate that point.  Catholicism seems to Protestants to be “Christ plus paganism,” “the Ark plus the barnacles,” or “Christ plus many human traditions and historical accretions,” “Christ plus the pope,” “Christ plus Mary,” whatever.  The most serious Protestant objection to Catholicism as a religion, not just as a theology, is that it violates the scriptural teaching of the all sufficiency of Christ, the teaching that there is one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus. 

To Protestants, Catholicism seems to add other mediaries, other intermediaries between man and Christ: Mary, the saints, the Church, Sacraments, priests, human traditions. 

But I suggest that if Protestants make just one single adjustment in their vision, they will see the possibility of reunion.  Not just theologically, but more deeply religiously and spiritually, without any compromise at all.  And that one adjustment is not to see Christ in any different way at all, but to see the Church in a different way.  Not as an obstacle between us and Christ, not even as an intermediary between us and Christ, but as the very body of Christ Himself. 

And why would they make that adjustment?  Well, which of these two concepts of the Church is the scriptural way of seeing it?  Come on, answer honestly.  You read the Bible and isn’t the Bible the supreme authority for any Protestant?  Once Protestants see the Church’s identity, they can love her instead of fearing her because the body of Christ is Christ as your body is you.  It’s not an alien, it’s not an obstacle.  How can your own body be an obstacle?  How Gnostic!  The body is not your prison house, or your coffin, or your punishment.  It’s not even your tool, or your clothing, or your house.  It’s not This Old House.  It’s you.  Although it’s not the whole you.  It’s not your head, or your soul.  The same is true of Christ’s body which is what the New Testament calls the Church.  It is Christ.  Though it’s not the whole Christ.  He is her head.  And the Holy Spirit is her soul. 

Protestants will not and should not stop protesting against the Catholic Church until they see the totally Christocentric character of her and all her teachings.  Sometimes, the understanding of the Church’s Christocentrism can be the key to understanding the Christocentric nature of each of the Church’s teachings.  And sometimes, it works the other way around.  Doctrine by doctrine, yielding its Christocentric treasure at the heart as it is more deeply explored and understood.  As Christ the teacher appears at the heart of each of the Church’s teachings.  I know a number of Protestants who have read the Church’s new Catechism and had been amazed at how consistently Christocentric everything in it is.  And unless Protestants see this, how could they think of reunion with Catholics?  And how can they see this, unless Catholics show it to them?  And how can Catholics show it to them, unless they see it themselves?  And how can they see it, unless they have a teacher, a preacher?  As it is written, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of them that preach the good news.”  

In this light, it seems to me, clearly Providential that God has raised up for our time, the time of the end of the second millennium, the millennium of Christian disunity, and the beginning of the third millennium, hopefully the millennium of Christian re-unity, has raised up John Paul the Great.  The most Christocentric pope of modern times, probably of all times.  The most ecumenical pope of all times, and yet one who is totally and traditionally and enthusiastically Catholic.  Is the pope Catholic?  There have been times in the Church’s dark history when that joke was not funny.  Today it’s funny. 

Why Not Now?

Well, if God can do this, if God can effect an ecumenical reunion, why not now?  Why does he delay?  God never delays.  Well then if the teachings of the Church are true, why doesn’t God convince Protestants of those truths?  I think the reason is spiritual and personal, more than theological. 

Why should God let Protestants become Catholics when many Protestants, perhaps most, already know Christ more intimately and personally than many Catholics, perhaps most!  How can God lead Protestants home to the fullness of faith in the Catholic Church until the Catholic Church becomes that fullness that they knew as Protestants plus more, not any less!  When Catholics know Christ better than Protestants do, when Catholics are better Protestants than Protestants, then Protestants will become Catholics in order to become better Protestants! 

When Catholics are evangelized, Protestants will be sacramentalized.  But not before!  Evangelizing comes first. 

So I think we Catholics have to change first.  But that change involves not the slightest compromising with anything Catholic: no dumbing down of the faith and no addition from without, no paganization nor secularization nor negation not weakening.  Only a rediscovery of our own essence from within.  Frankly, it is the Protestants who are going to have to add to the doctrines they rejected by seeing them differently.  What we have to add, or rather, rediscover is something even more important then doctrines: namely the relationship that we have neglected.  A truer relationship with a person is even more important than a truer concept about him.  So that point will probably make many Protestants cheer. 

But any good Protestant who is hearing this ought to protest one thing I said a few moments ago: namely that Protestantism is essentially a protest movement, essentially negative.  Protestants defend Protestantism as essentially positive.  Why?  Not because it doesn’t have a pope or Transubstantiation or purgatory or rosary, that is negative.  But because it knows Christ, because its essence is the absolute all-sufficiency of Christ. 

But that means that good Protestants are Protestants for exactly the same good reason that good Catholics are Catholic: out of fidelity to Christ.  So if the Protestant and the Catholic are both totally sincere about this Christocentrism, If both sections of Christ’s orchestra want only to follow the baton of Christ the one conductor, and if they never yield on this holy fanaticism of love and loyalty to Christ, then they will play in harmony.  For we know that Christ’s will is harmony, and unity.  Look at that most intimate glimpse of the inner life of the Trinity that we have in Scripture: Christ’s high priestly prayer to His Father just before His death in John 17.  Unity is central to it.  Departure from Christ was the fundamental cause of the Church’s tragic divisions in the first place.  Another word for departure from Christ is “sin.”  Therefore, return to Christ will be the cause of the Church’s return to unity.  That is simple logic.  I could put that into a syllogism.  It is also simple sanity and sanctity.  Another word for “return to Christ” is “sanctity.” 

When bishops and theologians become saints, then Catholics will become Evangelicals and Evangelicals will become Catholics.  When both Protestants and Catholics become saints they will become one.  For a saint means only an “alter Christos,” another Christ, a little Christ, and Christ is not divided.  Christ’s body is not divided.  When Christ comes at the end of the world to marry His Church, He will not be a polygamist.  The Church will not be His harem. 

Recap and Example

Let’s go through the whole thing one more time in a somewhat different way because it’s an apparently an impossible, unbelievable point: this hope for ecumenical reunion without compromise. 

Already ecumenism has defied predictions and expectations.  Apparently easy bridges have not been built, for example between Catholics and Orthodox.  While apparently impossible ones have been built, for instance the Catholic-Lutheran agreement on Justification.

In my individual experience I find the same surprising principle to be true.  I often find more mutual understanding between myself and a fundamentalist Southern Baptist who sincerely believes I am worshipping the great whore of Babylon and on my way to Hell, or with a Muslim who uncompromisingly rejects my belief that Christ is Lord as utter pagan blasphemy, than I find with some active Catholic laity, nuns, especially ex-nuns, priests and even bishops!  As fellow Catholics we may agree on more articles of faith than I do with the Protestant or the Muslim, yet I sense we disagree more fundamentally than I do with the Protestant or the Muslim, and not just by personal temperament. Here’s a mystery and when I try to unravel it, here’s what I came up with. 

Let’s begin at the beginning with God, and the nature of God, and the will of God.  God is Love and God wills above all for us all to enter into that Love forever: to incorporate us into the very mystery of the life of the Trinity.  Everything that God does, from banging out the big bang, to incarnating His own Son, to arranging for each and every hair that falls from our head, everything He does is done for that end.  Now with this general and very Heavenly principle in mind, let us look at something very earthly and very particular. 

Let’s look at the ecumenical situation in a very local time and place.  Latin America today.  Catholics are complaining that Evangelical, Fundamentalist, and Pentecostal sects are stealing sheep.  Protestant sects are growing and Catholic percentages are declining.  Well, instead of complaining, let’s look deeper at the reality.  Why is this happening?  I think the ultimate reason is because God is Love.  Because God wills to draw all men to Himself.  Because of that spiritual gravity, because nature abhors a vacuum, spiritually as well as physically, and because the Catholic Church has been so remiss in giving God’s children the fullness of the spiritual food that God has given the Church to give out, therefore, the children have been going elsewhere to eat it. 

And God has allowed this because God is a good father.  And a good father would rather see his children go away from home and live, than stay home and die.  Of course things are not that simple, of course motives for leaving the Church and joining the sects are many and mixed and some are simply bad, but still I think the main force that’s driving these events is in the realm of the spirit is the Spirit.  When these sheep find little or no Christ in the Catholic Church, whoever’s fault that is, and find Christ more really in a sect, more really objectively and not just subjectively, and certainly not just emotionally, then they’re moving closer to and not farther from the fullness of the Catholic faith.  They may have left the Eucharist, the real presence of Christ in the Catholic Church, and that is the fullest presence of Christ in this world, but they did not know the Person who is present there, and whose body they ate with their bodies, but not with their souls. 

When these starving sheep leave home to find the manna of Christ in the sects, they are learning the lesson one that should have learned as Catholics but didn’t.  And that lesson one is the only possible foundation for lesson two and three and four.  That is, the fullness of the faith that the Catholic Church has, the building, rests on one foundation.  As Catholics, these people may have gotten the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but they didn’t get the real presence of Christ in their hearts and in their lives.  They got the upper stories of the Catholic skyscrapers, but not the foundation.  Not the faith and the hope and the love relationship with Christ as Lord and Savior.  Therefore, in order to become good Catholics, they must first become good Protestants.     

Spiritual Gravity

God pulled them out of a Catholic Church and put them into a Protestant sect because God is spiritual gravity and God pulls us towards Himself, like a massive sun.  If His rays are blocked in one place, we must go elsewhere to find them, for find them we must!  They draw us, they give us life.  They are a matter of life or death, not a religious shopping mart.  You may think this God-gravity somewhat speculative, but why should God have less gravity than the sun?  Why should there be less gravity in grace than in nature?  Why should the spiritual universe be less united by gravity than the physical universe?  The parallel works perfectly. 

Look at physical gravity carefully.  It’s like love.  It bring together.  Time and space are principles of dispersion, separation that prevent complete union.  Time disperses our being out into past and future.  Space disperses matter out into various places.  Those two dispersions make death possible.  Time and space enable death to insert its destructive sword between one year, when you live and one year, when you die.  And between one material part of you, let’s say your head, and another, your body. 

Yet, despite these dispersions, the physical universe is still united by a universal, gravitational attraction which is a real force of love and union.  A non-random, directed, purposive movement or tendency towards all other matter.  All matter is in love with all other matter.  That is, the universe wants to return to the big bang unity, the one divine source of the many.  In the act of creation, the physical universe runs by the love of God.  “The love that moves the sun and all the stars,” in Dante’s words. 

For gravity is not just like love, but gravity is love on a material level.  In fact, it has two movements: one is towards union, back to the center, the big bang, the past by gravity.  And the other is to give itself out to all other beings, out into the future, the expanding universe, by energy, and by entropy, which is energy giving itself out to the empty places.  Aquinas says, “The good is diffusive of itself.”  On every level, from the Trinity to subatomic particles. 

Thus the light that leaves the star goes everywhere in the universe forever.  A dropped rock on earth goes to the moon and makes the rocks on the moon shudder just a little.  We can calculate how much, it’s a function of the two variables of mass and distance.  Every mass at any distance exerts some gravity.  When I drop a pebble into a pool, I make ripples all the way to the shore.  And when I drop a good deed into another person’s life, those ripples, tiny and imperceptible though they may be, do not stop short of the shore of death.  And even then, they proceed on to the “third and fourth generation of those who hate God and goodness onto thousands of generations of those who love God and keep His commandments.”  

God is the source of all spiritual gravity and God touches us only through Christ.  “No one can come to the Father but by me.”  Thus all spiritual gravity, including ecumenical gravity is through Christ.  All return, all homecoming, all reconciliation, all mutual understanding, all healing of wounds in the body of Christ, is through the gravity of grace in the body of Christ.  Now this is a largely unconscious and invisible thing, this gravity of grace.  We don’t see it and we don’t even know what is happening when our spirit is drawn, just as we don’t know when our body falls.  It’s not our conscious knowledge that is the prime mover of spiritual events. 

When the human race first learned the law of gravity through Newton, it was a scientific and technological revolution.  When we will learn the law of spiritual gravity, when we learn that it is a person and His name is Jesus, there will be a greater revolution.  He promised that revolution.  “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men to myself.”  “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”  Those are divine promises.  Why do we limit them to what we have already seen, or to what we can imagine or comprehend? 

All God’s deeds transcend our vision, our imagination, and our comprehension.  Christ is the golden key to all of history and therefore, to future ecumenism.  Let us not dare to cut down the full Christ into understandable and predictable pieces.  That’s exactly what all the heresies tried to do. 

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I think this ecumenical unity must wait until Christ in Protestants and Christ in Catholics see each other.  That is, until they see the same Christ, until you have what you might call “evangelical intimacy.”  And see more Christ in the other.  The same is true of Eastern Orthodox.  They must see the adoration and the beauty of Christ in us or else reunion will be a watering down.  And with the Jews!  The Jews must see us as more Jewish, more faithful, more martyrs, than the Jews.  The same with the Muslims.  They must see their “islam,” their absolute submission to God in us, and their spiritual warfare, their right jihad.  And the Buddhist must see in us a greater peace, a greater mindfulness.  And even the worldings and sex maniacs.  They must see in us the joy that they’re seeking and not finding. 

That’s necessary, that’s not an option, not an ideal, it’s necessary because of gravity.  There’s not choice, it’s the nature of things.  Like physical gravity.  It can be impeded, just as gravity can be impeded by a hand catching a falling apple, but only temporarily.  Art can’t change the nature of things, nature always take over eventually.  Grass grows through abandoned buildings, and Christ is more like grass than like buildings.  So let’s not limit His growth. 

Those are some bold and speculative thoughts, and I would appreciate your reactions to them in questions.

 


 
Q: What is God's most powerful unifying force?  Himself. 

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