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Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has written many books that attempt to bridge some of the disagreements between Roman Catholics and Protestants. From his one-time membership as a Reformed Church of America Protestant, Kreeft, now a Catholic, believes he is objectively qualified to examine differences between Catholics and Protestants. In particular, he examines the Eucharist, which also allows him to touch on baptism, grace, faith, and other key denominational issues.

In his book, Symbol or Substance? A dialogue on the Eucharist with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and J.R.R. Tolkien (Ignatius Press 2019), Kreeft has four disclaimers: 1) it is not a scholarly treatise; 2) he allows himself considerable poetic license and therefore does not always “speak” like his participants might; 3) he tries to be fair to the non-Catholic position, but writes as a Catholic; 4) he does not claim to have settled anything—although he does claim, at the end of the book, to have shared the “ecumenical passion” of Christians.

The title of the books reveals the essence of the dialogue: Graham believes the Eucharist is primarily a memory feast, Tolkien believes the “Real Presence” of the Lord is in the physical bread and wine, and Lewis is somewhere between the two in his comments. In practice and personality, Tolkien can be characterized as the theologian, Lewis as the philosopher, and Graham as the literalist (sola Scriptura and sola fide).

Tolkien believes that the Catholic Church represents the direct apostolic succession from Peter and the Apostles and that Luther fractured the Church. Quite simply for Tolkien, everything would have been OK if Luther had not started the Reformation. Until then, in Tolkien’s view, everyone understood the Eucharist as the “real” body and blood of Christ. In other words, the early Church “always” thought Christ to be present both in body and soul—and not simply in a spiritual sense. According to Tolkien, Catholics are saved by the Eucharist and fed again and again by his presence and grace. This, of course, is not the view of Graham, who sees the Catholic view as bordering on magic.

The argument goes back and forth along these lines: either take the words of Christ literally, i.e., “This is my blood,” or take them symbolically, “This wine represents my blood.” For Tolkien, and hence for Catholics, “baptism saves you,” just as the Eucharist does. For most Protestants, this is a reliance upon the counter-reformation position of the Church, which was resolved at the Council of Trent and upon other occasions. It does not have the authority of the Bible alone but, for Catholics, their position is just as authoritative. Tolkien outlines how important tradition is to Catholics: it is part of the Church dogma and was articulated and represented by the church fathers (not mothers) and has equal weight with the written word of God.

Tolkien returns repeatedly to the sacrament of the Eucharist (and Baptism) to declare that “He instituted the sacraments as normal ways by which He saves you and puts His own eternal life into you.” Graham compares that to a dependency on good works and not faith alone. There follows a long debate on faith and works.

At one point Lewis deciares “I do not agree that Christ is present in the sacraments only if we have faith. I believe He is really present, objectively present, independent of us.” Graham takes this to mean that the sacraments are independent of faith because Lewis says that “our faith can’t cause the Real Presence.” An argument and explanation of efficient cause and final cause follow,, where efficient cause does not make the sacraments happen, but the final cause is “to test our faith and to elicit our faith and to strength our faith.” There then follows a discussion on feelings and faith with Lewis claiming that “the thing that looks like a wafer of bread really is the Body of Christ.” In this view and expressed by both Lewis and Tolkien, Christ is somehow in the wafer. This physical manifestation of Christ in the Eucharist is the bone of contention that separates Protestants from Catholics. For Catholics it follows that “if the communion wafer is not eaten, or if the wine is not drunk” we do not get grace. Although Lewis claims to believe in the “Real Presence” of Christ, he claims there are points “where I do not go as far as the Catholics go: the necessity of the formula of Transubstantiation and the authority of the Church that supports it.”

Is there a possibility of compromise on the issue? Tolkien claims not: you either believe in the Catholic position as truth or you are in error, although some non-Catholics might slip in the “back doors into Heaven.” He insists that the body and blood of the Eucharist are described by the Church as “the extension of the Incarnation.”

According to Tolkien, the (Catholic) Church not only gave us the Bible, but it gave us its authority (tradition) even before we had the Bible. Tolkien makes other claims that may seem heretical to many Protestants, such as the validity of prayers to saints, the veneration of Mary, the use of relics by the Church, and its view of Purgatory, which according to him, goes back to the history of the Church and “were never denied.”

There is no real compromise or conclusion to the book that completely satisfies the participants (or probably most readers). Although the avatars remain friends and have understood the positions of each other better, that is about all. Perhaps it was enough for Kreeft, the author, and it will have to do for his readers as well.

Karl Franklin


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