What Can Catholics Learn from Evangelicals?

Part Five: Reflecting on Creation and the Cross with our Evangelical Friends

I will close this series of articles by sharing with you my excitement about two areas of Christian doctrine, areas in which I have done some research and writing over the past few years — and in BOTH of them it was the work and witness of Evangelical Christians that was crucial in helping me to see how the Catholic Church can deepen and clarify its own grasp of these mysteries of the Faith.

The first one is the vexed question of Creation and Evolution. Since the 1960s, the standard Catholic “party-line” among scholars has been to say that there is really nothing about the Neo-Darwinian theory of biological evolution that necessarily contradicts the Catholic Faith. Human bodies may have evolved as many scientists say, but as long as we are not talking about the evolution of the human soul, then there is no problem. And if we read the book of Genesis not as a scientific textbook (which it was never intended to be anyway), and as long as we keep in mind the ancient literary conventions the biblical author was using, and the ancient audience and concerns he was addressing, then there is really nothing about the theory of evolution that contradicts the Bible either. Genesis was meant to tell us who made the world, and why: that He made it good, a fit habitat for all life and for human beings made in his image. It was never meant to tell us either the chronology or the biology of how God made the world… or so we are told.

Usually Catholics are also told that the viewpoint of the “creationists” (that God created the world by a series of miracles in six 24 hour days, not more than about 10,000 years ago) is based on a naïve biblical literalism, and is scientifically completely indefensible.

Well, in a nutshell, I agree that Young-Earth Creationism, well-intentioned as it is, is indeed biblically unnecessary and scientifically very problematic — and I am afraid that pursuing this position is one of the things that has tarnished the reputation of Evangelicals as being anti-science (or at least, failing to take science very seriously). But what the Catholic Evolutionist party-line rarely adds is that Young Earth Creationism is not the only other option. There are other forms of creationism which I found to be far more convincing, both on biblical and on scientific grounds — such as Old Earth or Progressive Creationism — positions which have been explored and developed in depth and detail by some Evangelical scholars, and that actually fit remarkably well with the findings of the new “Intelligent Design” movement in science and philosophy. As a result, I spent a couple of years researching this option, and co-authored a book on the subject with an Evangelical biochemist from Trinity Western University, Dr. Paul Brown. Entitled More Than Myth: seeking the full truth about Genesis, Creation and Evolution (Chartwell Press, 2014). Our book is an ecumenical milestone, as far as we know: the first ever collaboration on this subject by Catholic and Evangelical scholars.

In the process of working on it, I also got to know an amazing Catholic scholar from Poland, the Dominican priest Fr. Michael Chaberek. He not only publishes throughout the world on the new synthesis possible between Progressive Creationism and Intelligent Design, but has also just published the first complete history of Catholic reflection on this whole subject, entitled Catholicism and Evolution (Angelico Press, 2015).

For my part, I have mostly focused on the biblical and theological issues involved (understandably, because I can claim no expertise on the scientific side of things). Is it right to say that acceptance of Neo-Darwinism poses no problems for Catholic doctrine? On the contrary, I think it still poses significant problems for the Catholic understanding of God, original sin, and salvation — and that too much of the Catholic writing on this subject over the last 50 years or so has been shallow and ambiguous.

And is it right to say that if we avoid a naïve literalism in our exegesis of the first chapters of Genesis, then we can easily eliminate any contradiction between biological evolution and the biblical story of creation? On the contrary, I argue in More Than Myth that even when we use all the tools of modern historical-critical scholarship (that is, paying close attention to what the inspired author of Genesis intended to teach, the ancient literary forms he used, and the audiences he was addressing), it’s still clear that the author meant to tell us that God created the world in six time periods (six ages or epochs, if you will) as the foundation of the whole Sabbath system on which the Israelite religion was based, and that He created all living things within stable boundaries of “natural kinds” (the whole of Genesis I is about the boundaries God embedded in his creation) — and all of this not just by an unfolding of laws or processes established at the beginning of the cosmos, but through repeated, direct, and miraculous action in His world, as Genesis tells us, by His “Word” of command: “Let there be.” All of these elements are unique to Genesis among all the ancient stories and myths about the creation of the world, and they are repeatedly emphasized by the author in the Genesis text. In addition to that, I argue that “any way you slice it,” Genesis clearly teaches that God made the bodies of our first parents by direct action, from the “dust” of the ground, that is, from non-living material, by fiat miracle.

I know I have just opened a huge “can-of-worms,” and there are issues here that are very important that we just do not have the space to address in this series. But you can read all about these things in our book More Than Myth. Suffice it to say that if you read my own contributions to this book, you will see just how much some Evangelical scholars (such as Hugh Ross, Robert Newman, Fazale Rana, Wayne Grudem, and Millard Erickson) have helped me along the way. The simple fact is that most Evangelical explorations of this topic are more in-depth than anything you can find on the Catholic side. And if we are going to come to deeper appreciation together of God’s work of creation, accessing their insights is simply indispensable.

The Doctrine of the Cross. So we come now full-circle to where I began this series. In the talk delivered in Saskatoon in the spring of 2015 by Gordon Smith, he paid special tribute to the Catholic Tradition for opening up to him, and to many Evangelicals in our time, a deeper appreciation of Christ’s saving work as a multi-dimensional mystery. It has so many parts and aspects, he said, and cannot be reduced solely to the simple phrases that Evangelicals sometimes use in their preaching and discourse. Yes, Jesus died for us on the Cross as our substitute, to pay the penalty for our sins — but there is so much more to it than that. …For example, there is Christ on the Cross, the divine Son of God, sharing our lot, right into the very depths of human suffering and affliction; there is Christ on the Cross showing us the Father’s patient and forgiving love; there is Christ by His death and resurrection winning the decisive victory over Satan and all the forces of evil that had been unleashed upon Him; there is Christ, perfectly obedient to the Father in life and in death, meriting for us by His loving obedience all the graces we need for our sanctification and salvation; there is (as our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters like to emphasize), Christ’s death ushering Him into His risen and glorified state, from which He can effectively bestow the grace of “divinization” on all who are united with Him, and finally, there is Christ our Advocate at the right hand of the Father, who ever lives to make intercession for us, eternally pleading for us before the throne of heaven that all the benefits of His passion might be poured out upon the world. Christ’s work of atonement is indeed a multi-dimensional mystery. …

And yet, sadly, for many Catholic writers today, it seems easier just to “swim” around among all these dimensions of the mystery without sufficiently clarifying any of them, or coming up with a clear and convincing Gospel of the Cross — or even showing how these dimensions begin to fit together. Unfortunately, I found this vagueness and ambiguity about the Cross even in many of the most widely read books about the Catholic Faith today: books such as Bishop Robert Barron’s best-seller Catholicism, Fr. Gerald O’Collins’ scholarly work entitled Christology, and Fr. Michael Gaitley’s popular book The One Thing is Three — sadly, even the great two-volume work by Pope Benedict XVI entitled Jesus of Nazareth swims in mere metaphor when it comes to the Cross. Metaphor is great, of course, for only poetic metaphor can begin to convey the inexpressible depths and nuances of any holy mystery, but if we neglect also to locate the degree of literal or ontological truth that our metaphors convey, we end up replacing doctrinal clarity and profundity with poetry alone.

By way of contrast, in his classic work The Cross of Christ, Evangelical theologian John Stott showed that there were several very good reasons why the Evangelical heritage emphasizes the idea of Jesus as our substitute, paying the penalty for our sins on the Cross: for example, because it is fairly comprehensible, and therefore preach-able as an evangelistic message; and second, because without it, some of the other dimensions of Christ’s saving work on the Cross do not really make much sense. For example, it’s not clear what Christ actually did to “defeat” Satan on the Cross, or to “demonstrate” the Father’s love for us on the Cross, if on Calvary He did not shed his blood to take away the penalty due to us for our sins.

Moved by John Stott’s book, I did some further research and found that this dimension of Christ’s saving work, so much neglected among contemporary Catholic writers, can be found in the works of several of the ancient Fathers of the Church, such as St. Augustine, St. Cyril of Alexandria, and St. Gregory the Great (in other words, it was not an understanding of the Cross invented only in the Middle Ages, or even later by Luther and Calvin). In fact, it is deeply embedded in the worship traditions of the Church as well, especially in the liturgy for Good Friday, when Catholics every year read the great passage from the prophet Isaiah so crucial to understanding the death of the Messiah: “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. … Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquities of us all (Is 53: 3-6).

This understanding of the Cross is not foreign to the Catholic tradition. The Catholic Catechism even tells us in entry 615 that (quote) “by His obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant. …  Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.” Finally, I was thrilled to discover that the message of Jesus paying the penalty for our sins on the Cross was also central to the witness of probably my favorite Catholic saint of all: St. Alphonsus Liguori, the founder of the Redemptorists!

So who is going to help Catholic theologians and writers today recover this aspect of our heritage, and this important dimension of the mystery of Christ’s saving work? And who is going to help us deepen our understanding of it, so that it finds its rightful place at the center of the Good News of what Jesus our Savior has done for us on the Cross? I suggest that in God’s providence, it is our Evangelical friends in Christ who are going to help us here.

Let’s face it: the “New Evangelization” that the popes have been calling for over the past few decades is not going to get very far if we do not have a clear gospel message to preach, and if even our best authors today are operating a bit “in the fog” when it comes to the Cross of our Savior.

In short, the Doctrine of the Cross is “Exhibit A” of why we need each other! Catholics need to recover the doctrine of penal substitution at the center of this holy mystery, and as Gordon Smith said, Evangelicals need to rediscover the many other dimensions of the mystery. Clearly, We need each other at the foot of the Cross! And that’s another reason I pray constantly for the breaking down of all barriers to dialogue with our Evangelical brothers and sisters. In fact, it was all there long ago, in that heart-rending hymn that I heard as a teenager at the end of every Billy Graham Crusade:

“Just as I am, Thy love unknown, has broken every barrier down; now to be Thine, yeah Thine alone, O Lamb of God, I come.”


Robert Stackpole, STD

© The Fellowship of Catholics and Evangelicals, 2016