Review of Mark Noll’s Turning Points

Mark A. Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is an acclaimed and well-known historian whom Time magazine named one of the most influential evangelicals in America. His work has helped define and refine evangelical Christian convictions in light of history. In his work Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, the author seeks describe the twelve most important or formative events in the past 2000 years of Church history. The work grew out of a pastoral need in his Church to teach a history course to adults and would eventually become a seminary course itself at Wheaton College. Dr. Noll specializes in Christianity in America and Canada, Christianity during the Civil War era, and Global Christianity. The author has penned over twenty other books including The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith, and Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Dr. Noll has been awarded numerous accolades including the National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush in 2006.

Noll builds his work around twelve decisive moments that shaped the church for years to come. The first decisive point was the Fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Roman and Jewish antagonism reached its peak with the destruction of Jerusalem which ended the sacrificial system, the priesthood, and the temple services. Before the rupture, Christianity was viewed as an appendage to Judaism in very important ways. The canon, the creeds, and the episcopate held the church together and moved it into other regions and in contact with other cultures outside of the Jewish world after the Romans decimated Jerusalem. Chapter two concerns the council of Nicaea which convened in 325. Nicaea was the first ecumenical council brought together to deal with one of the most important doctrines in Christianity, the deity of Jesus Christ. The council was called by Emperor Constantine to hammer out theological issues which had been inflamed by political maneuvering in the church. It represented one of the most important moments in Christian history for two reasons. Noll writes, “…Nicaea bequeathed a dual legacy—of sharpened fidelity to the great and saving truths of revelation, and also on increasing intermingling of church and the world. (63)” Before Nicaea, there was a clear demarcation between the Christian church and the world. The Council began the wedding of the two entities that lasted for a thousand years.

Chapter three concerns the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Again, the issue was doctrinal clarity concerning the person of Christ. How did the humanity and deity of Christ work or coexist together in one person? Concerning the council, the author notes, “…Chalcedon was a three-fold triumph: a triumph of sound doctrine over error in the church, a triumph of Christian catholicity over cultural fragmentation, and a triumph of discriminating theological reasoning over the anti-intellectual dismissal of philosophy, on the one hand, and over a theological capitulation to philosophy, on the other hand. (67)” The next chapter is about the monastic rescue of the church through Benedict’s rule, the first handbook for monastic living. To combat the great spiritual and moral dryness of the church, monastic communities arose to rejuvenate the Christian religion. Noll writes, “For over a millennium, in the centuries between  the reign of Constantine and the Protestant Reformation, almost everything in the church that approached the highest, noblest, and truest ideals of the gospel was done either by those who had chosen the monastic way or by those who had been inspired in their Christian life by the monks. (84)” The monastic revolution affected various theologians and pastors including Gregory, Bernard of Clairvaux, Patrick, Cyril, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, Athanasius, Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther.

Chapter five discusses the coronation of Charlemagne in A.D. 800. Though not nearly as important as Nicaea, the coronation did lay the groundwork for Medieval Christianity. Dr. Noll writes, “It stood for a new form of Christian existence that was replacing the Christianity passed on from the time of Constantine, or even of Benedict. This event also anticipated the future, for the way that the great King Charles and the pope, the supreme head of the Western church, conducted their business on that fateful Christmas Day outlined the shape of Christian life in the West for at least the next seven or eight centuries. (109)” The papacy, sacramental theology, and Islam all arose during this period. The next chapter is about the great divide between the Eastern and Western church that occurred in 1054. The author does a great job explaining how the great schism was a culmination of years of theological, cultural, and ecclesiastical differences between Christianity in the East and in the West. He says, “The Great Schism of 1054 was a major turning point in Christian history because it brought to a head centuries of East-West cultural disengagement, theological differences, and ecclesiastical suspicion. It also symbolized the isolation that would attend the Eastern churches for most of the millennium to follow. (134)” Only in the last century has there been a move between the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic church to openly dialogue about catholicity and orthodoxy.

Chapter seven is about the Diet of Worms and the Protestant Reformation began by Martin Luther. Though he sought merely to reform the Roman Catholic Church, Luther’s protest eventually created the rise of Protestantism which fractured the “unity” of the Western church. His theology and commitment to the Bible alone as the final authority laid the groundwork for those who would come after him. Luther’s contribution was part of larger movements sweeping Europe during his time. Mark Noll comments, “The claim that Luther’s work represented a significant turning point in the history of Christianity hinges in part on his participation in the broader social and cultural changes at work in the sixteenth-century Europe. (173)” Chapter eight discusses another blow to the Roman Catholic Church—the English Act of Supremacy. Henry VIII desired a divorce so as to guarantee a male heir to his throne and Pope Clement, for political as well as possible moral reasons, refused. What was the outcome? The English broke away from the church. Though the first generation of Protestants were on the same page concerning certain, fundamental questions relating to salvation and authority, those that followed would possess many answers to such queries.

Chapter nine concerns the founding of the Jesuits in 1540 as well as the Roman Catholic Counter-Reformation. Protestantism exposed many errors and pitfalls within the church that needed to be addressed. The Counter-Reformation created a renewed sense of catholicity, missionary activity, as well as doctrinal reform that set the tone for the RCC until Vatican II. Chapter ten concerns the conversion of John and Charles Wesley as a defining moment in Protestant Christianity. Much like the RCC, the Protestants also possessed periods of theological and spiritual laxity. The rise of Pietism as well as the missionary and evangelistic activities made common through the Wesleys and George Whitfield invigorated the churches once again. The work of such men laid the groundwork for what would be called evangelicalism. Noll writes, “On the foundation of their experiential Biblicism, evangelicals and pietists thus erected a new form of Christian faith. It was Protestantism clearly marked by the inheritance of the Reformation, but also one that in its willingness to discard tradition, its eagerness to adjust to widely diverse social realities, and its zeal for the practice of piety represented a significant new stage in the history of Christianity. (242)” Our hymnody and ways we discuss theological have been radically affected by such men and their labors.

The last two chapters of his work discuss the French Revolution and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910. The French Revolution was massively important because it represents the demise of Christendom as well as the rise of secularism as a movement. Whereas the church had a significant role in the center of common, European life, the French Revolution exalted reason and created suspicion where trust once existed. The death of Christendom did not equal the death of Christianity but only it’s spread to other areas of the world. The Edinburgh Missionary Conference stands as a pivotal moment in the Protestant missionary endeavor. Noll notes, “The missionary conference in Edinburgh was, therefore, the beginning of the twentieth-century ecumenical movement. It also represented the high tide of Western missionary expansion, which had gathered all throughout the nineteenth century. (271)” The last chapter mentions other important events that occurred in the twentieth century: the rise and spread of Pentecostalism, the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church, the emergence of women inter greater public visibility, the massive reproduction if new Bible translations, and the survival of Christianity in the Communist regimes.

The author’s purpose was clear from the beginning of his work. He sought to list, describe, and elucidate the twelve most decisive moments in Christian history. The endeavor possessed a level of subjectivity yet he mentioned it did have its advantages such as:

  • “It provides as opportunity to select, to extract from the immense quantity of resources available for studying the history of Christianity a few striking incidents and so to bring some order into a massively complicated subject.
  • Concentrating on the turning points of church history also provides an opportunity to highlight, to linger over specific moments so as to display the humanity, the complexity, and the uncertainties that constitute the actual history of the church, but which are often obscured in trying to recount the sweep of centuries.
  • Studying specific turning points more closely also provides an opportunity to interpret, to state more specifically why certain events, actions, or incidents may have marked an important fork in the road or signaled a new stage in the outworking of Christian history. (12)”

I found that he accomplished his goal. The twelve turning points he chose were significant and engaging. He was humble enough to admit there were other turning points, or honorable mentions.

The author’s work was a unique exercise in Christian historiography. I’ve had multiple church history classes and, unfortunately, have never used this specific book until now. I found building the book around turning points gave me an aerial view of big moments of the past 2,000 years. It was a worshipful read in light of three things: (1) how he opened the book providing a small account of the great commission as well as reasons why Christians ought to care about church history in general, (2) how he included a piece of hymnody and liturgy before and after each chapter, and (3) his personal writing style which allowed his pastoral concerns to bleed through the academic nature of the writing. My knowledge of Christian history was increased as well as my gratitude to God for sustaining his church through some dark periods.

The author was very clear, concise, and articulate in his writing style. The writer accomplished the difficult task of taking complex yet profound situations and communicating them in a simple fashion that was engaging and stimulating. He was also upfront with his biases throughout the book. He made mention multiple times that he thought Protestantism was the correct view of Christianity, he was a male, he was Reformed, and he was an evangelical. He did not veil his convictions. For example, he writes, “My own conviction is that ‘Christianity’ means something definite with boundaries that are fairly well defined by the major creeds treated in the first three chapters, Furthermore, my own evangelical Protestant convictions lead me to think that revitalized forms of Reformation faith are the truest and best forms of Christianity. (20)” However, I was impressed to find his honest and academic integrity on showcase when discussing Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox successes and failures.

Turning Points is an accessible work that could be used in seminaries as well as the local church to further our knowledge in God’s work in the world. The strengths of the book include its brevity, its depth, and its engaging writing style. I greatly appreciated the hymns, liturgy, and biographical boxes peppered throughout. The work greatly encouraged my faith and sparked a desire to read more works of Christian history this summer. I found no notable weaknesses as I perused the text. I would recommend the book to anyone seriously interested in understanding how God continued to work throughout church history after the 1st century. It is a great example of scholarly work that beckons to be appreciated by both those in and outside the church.

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