Turning Points by Mark Noll

Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012. ISBN 9780801039966. xii + 356 pages. Includes index.

Available for purchase here:

This book takes an unusual, and interesting, approach to telling the story of the church by focusing on key turning points throughout the church’s history. Noll describes this approach as “one of the most interesting ways to grasp a general sense of Christian history” (2). The process of identifying these turning points is necessarily subjective, yet he argues that it yields several advantages:

  • “It provides an opportunity to select… and so to bring some order into a massively complicated subject.”
  • It 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 that are so often obscured in trying to recount the sweep of centuries.”
  • It 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.” (2)

The turning points Noll chose can be seen in the table of contents, seen below. [N.B.: The numbers in parentheses for each chapter are dates, not page numbers.]

Introduction: The Idea of Turning Points and Reasons for Studying the History of Christianity

  1. The Church Pushed Out on Its Own: The Fall of Jerusalem (70)
  2. Realities of Empire: The Council of Nicaea (325)
  3. Doctrine, Politics, and Life in the Word: The Council of Chalcedon (451)
  4. The Monastic Rescue of the Church: Benedict’s Rule (530)
  5. The Culmination of Christendom: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800)
  6. Division between East and West: The Great Schism (1054)
  7. The Beginnings of Protestantism: The Diet of Worms (1521)
  8. A New Europe: The English Act of Supremacy (1534)
  9. Catholic Reform and Worldwide Outreach: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540)
  10. The New Piety: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738)
  11. Discontents of the Modern West: The French Revolution (1789)
  12. A Faith for All the World: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910)
  13. Mobilizing for the Future: The Second Vatican Council (1962–65) and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization (1974)

Afterword: The Character of Christianity and the Search for Turning Points

Noll emphasizes that “the fourteen turning points singled out for special attention … are by no means the only ones that could have been selected” (3). He explains that the process of selection itself is an important and useful exercise, and notes that “if the book inspires others to think about why the turning points found here are not as important as other possibilities, it will have been a successful book” (4). He then briefly outlines the structure of each chapter, noting that he always begins with “a relatively detailed account of the turning point itself” followed by more theoretical discussions of “why, how, and so what” (4). Additionally, each chapter features a hymn and a prayer from the general time period of the chapter as well as several longer quotations from people involved in the events of the chapter.

After explaining the structure and nature of the book, Noll takes up a larger question: why be concerned about church history at all? Noll offers several reasons why the study of church history is valuable.

  1. “Studying the history of Christianity provides repeated, concrete demonstration concerning the irreducibly historical character of the Christian faith” (5).
  2. It “provide[s] perspective on the interpretation of Scripture” (6).
  3. “The study of church history is also useful as a laboratory for examining Christian interactions with surrounding culture” (7).
  4. Because “God sustains the church despite the church’s own frequent efforts to betray its Savior and its own high calling, … study of the past can be useful … in shaping proper Christian attitudes” (8).

In the introduction, Noll mentions a few of his own convictions which influence his portrayal of the events of church history. He generally prefers the term “history of Christianity” over “church history,” partly because he believes that “‘Christianity’ means something definite with boundaries that are fairly well defined by the major creeds.” Beyond that, Noll writes with “evangelical Protestant convictions” that “lead [him] to think that revitalized forms of Reformation faith are the truest and best forms of Christianity” (9–10). Noll qualifies this belief, however, with the observation that “historical study has convinced me that confessional Protestants have sometimes honored the ideals of the Reformation more in words than in reality. Historical study also shows that believers in other Christian traditions regularly display Christlike virtues and practice humble dependence upon God’s grace more than my confessional Protestant convictions tell me they should.” As a result, he has “tried to write with as much respect as possible for the widely diverse forms of Christianity that have been practiced with integrity, and continue to be practiced with integrity, in all parts of the Christian church” (10).

Of course, Noll’s statements regarding Catholicism reflect his perspective as an endorser of Evangelicals and Catholics Together in 1994. I think it is useful to read authors from outside my own tradition, but that does not obviate the need to read with discernment.

Noll’s book is helpful for a number of different reasons.

  • By approaching the history of Christianity from the vantage point of key turning points, he provides an interesting and unusual perspective. This also enables the chapters to stand on their own while still making sense to a reader who reads the book through from beginning to end.
  • Noll’s writing style is simultaneously lucid and dense. He is capable of drawing complex connections between seemingly unrelated events, yet throughout the process his ideas remain incredibly clear. My students all said that they enjoyed his writing, but that he always forced them to think carefully.
  • Over the course of the book, he develops several key ideas into recurring themes. One example appears in Chapter 1, where he argues that the fall of Jerusalem created a new problem for the Christian church. Suddenly severed from any connection to its Jewish roots, the church was forced to emerge as an independent entity while maintaining a connection to its apostolic roots. The need to establish apostolicity could be resolved in three different ways: by appealing to the authority of the New Testament canon, by appealing to the authority of the emerging episcopacy, or by appealing to the authority of the apostolic creeds. What is interesting about these three distinct sources of stability is that Protestants, Roman Catholics, and the Orthodox each tend to place more emphasis on one of those three, as displayed in the chart below:

    Tradition Stabilizing Element
    Protestants Canon
    Roman Catholics Episcopacy
    Orthodox Creed

    As the history of the church progresses through time, Noll quite effectively shows how these three contrasting sources of authority shape future conflicts within the church.

    Another example of a recurring theme throughout the book is the concept of Christendom, the idea which began to develop in the post-Roman European world that Christ’s kingdom extended to a specific geographical location (Europe), and that thus church and state ought to be deeply entwined. The idea of Christendom appears to climax in the coronation of Charlemagne, and much of the spiritual and political energy of the Medieval period is wrapped up in preserving that (un)holy (un)Roman (un)Empire.

Although each chapter is interesting and carefully researched, it does become evident that some chapters play more to Noll’s strengths than others. From time to time, he indicates in a footnote that he is depending upon another secondary source for much of his material in a chapter. In other chapters where the subject material is within an area where he has done extensive research, he writes with considerably more freedom as he draws upon his own extensive knowledge. An example of one of his stronger chapters is chapter 10 on the Evangelical Revival under the Wesleys (his name appears twice in the “Further Reading” section at the end of the chapter), and an example of one of his weaker chapters is chapter 9 on the Jesuits. Still, his skills as a researcher shine throughout, and there is a remarkable uniformity of quality throughout.