It’s been nearly 20 years since historian Mark Noll published his book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Famous for its opening line, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” Noll criticized Evangelicalism for its excessive pragmatism and the scholarly embarrassment of several of its most cherished beliefs. In particular, Noll named Dispensationalism and young earth creationism as especially worthy of criticism.
Stigmatized painting by Paul Klee
(on the cover of The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind)
Noll would likely be pleased by the direction of the work of Martin Pierce. In his ambitious new volume Return to Genesis. Pierce, an independent scholar, takes on Dispensationalism, young earth creationism, and a host of other evangelical foibles while attempting positively to construct a more nuanced and consistently faithful reading of the Bible and Christian theology, and applying both to contemporary culture.
Return to Genesis is a sprawling work of over 600 pages, but it is written for the thoughtful lay reader. Perhaps the strongest and most original parts of the book are its sections on the nature of poetic language in Genesis and Pierce’s far-reaching view of the Kingdom of God as a holistic reality that encompasses all of creation and history.
The Book of Genesis, says Pierce, is divinely inspired in such a way that it conveys historical narrative within the contours of Hebrew parallelisms. The poetry and metaphors provide insights which help us understand that Genesis never depicted a six-day creation, a 10,000 year old earth, or a global flood. There can be compatibility in the deepest sense between science and Scripture. Moreover, the lens of poetry brings a depth to the reading of Genesis that engages the reader at the level of heart and emotion as well as mind.
Regarding the Kingdom of God in Scripture, Pierce thoroughly critiques Dispensationalism’s escapism, its negative and fatalistic view of history, and its uncritical Zionism. In its place, Pierce leans toward a positive, postmillennial view of history in which the Kingdom of God will be fully established on earth with the faithful acting as God’s servants in its establishment. In one place, Pierce explores the virtues of the Reconstructionist version of postmillennial thinking, but he does not buy into it fully. Indeed, a strength of Pierce’s writing is his persistent independence from theological labels. He explores, praises and critiques a variety of perspectives, but will not be subsumed completely under any label (except perhaps that of “biblical Christian”).
Return is more than just a book of theology. Throughout, Pierce makes practical application of his major insights to Christian living in contemporary culture. There are applicatory sections on the family, on relating faith to culture, on political involvement, on pursuing justice, and on the quest to find unity among Christians. One finds strong echoes here of the famed quote of the Dutch Reformed theologian and politician Abraham Kuyper, who said “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!’”
As one who frequently teaches in seminaries, it has been fascinating for me to observe the many scholars and leaders who have taken up Mark Noll’s call for the re-development of the evangelical mind. Return to Genesis is one man’s labor of love not only to further that quest, but to renew Christians in the process.
David Greiser is a pastor and part time seminary professor. He lives in Baltimore.