Kreeft vs. Talcott: Luther's Break with the Catholic Church

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About 50 students gathered in the lounge at lunchtime Wednesday Mar. 21 to watch the much-anticipated debate between Dr. Peter Kreeft and Professor David Talcott. Organized by the interregnum committee, the debate was on the question “Should Martin Luther have left the Catholic Church?”

Dr. Kreeft, a well-known Christian apologist and distinguished visiting professor at King’s, sided with the Catholics in saying that Luther was not justified. Professor Talcott, a first-year professor of philosophy at King's, defended Luther. Both debaters delivered seven-minute opening statements, which were followed by three-minute rebuttals and an extended Q&A session with the audience.

Kreeft initially said the topic was beyond the scope of a 20-minute debate. According to Kreeft, if one is Catholic, he believes that Luther was not justified, and if one is Protestant, he will believe he was.  Since Kreeft and Talcott operated under two different premises, namely the conflicting claims of Catholicism and Protestantism, Kreeft said those premises would have to be debated in full to answer adequately the question of Luther’s justification.

Making a comprehensive case for Catholicism, Kreeft pointed out, cannot be done in seven minutes– it can’t even be done in seven hours. “I don’t really know where this is going,” Professor Kreeft said, drawing laughter from the audience.

Kreeft did argue that Luther should have remained in the Church to “mop the floor.” Kreeft pointed out that Catholic doctrine and Lutheran doctrine do not, in fact, contradict each other. Therefore, Kreeft proposed that this doctrinal compatibility should have enabled Luther to reform problems from within the church.

On a humorous opening note, Talcott said that while he and Kreeft might disagree on Luther, they both agree on the joy of surfing. On the topic of Luther, Talcott began with a few clarifications. First, he distinguished between the Roman Catholic Church and the universal church– the church that all believers are a part of. Second, Talcott said that “if you look at the historical record, Luther didn’t leave [the Catholic Church]; he was kicked out.”

Based on these clarifications, Talcott posed two questions. First, he asked whether Luther should have stopped teaching and preaching the things that lead to his expulsion from the church. To that Talcott’s answer was no. Talcott even quoted Kreeft’s own writing on the topic: “The reformation began when a Catholic monk rediscovered a Catholic doctrine through a Catholic book.” Talcott concluded that Luther’s teachings were correct, and hence the Catholic church shouldn’t have thrown him out.

Second, he asked whether Luther would still have been justified in leaving the Church if he hadn’t been excommunicated. To this Talcott answered yes, adding a new point: Luther should have left the Church because the Church prohibited him from getting married. The Church was wrong to do this, and if an authority wrongly forbids one from doing something, he is not obligated to obey, Talcott said. According to Talcott, it is wrong to infringe on the sacrament of marriage, and therefore Luther was justified in leaving the Church.

CampusJohn Sailer