I study church history because I’m under the impression that Jesus didn’t establish a church in this world and then stopped speaking to her for two thousand years. I want to know my spiritual heritage, what my predecessors believed, the battles they fought, the successes they had—and even the failures of which they were forced to repent.
That’s why I’m very thankful for the opportunity to review Mark Noll’s latest book, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, published this summer by Baker Academic. Noll is an accomplished and respected religious historian, and I’ve seen his books quoted in multiple places. Turning Points is the first work of his that I’ve read.
In the third edition of Turning Points, Noll doesn’t disappoint. It covers a wide range of topics in such a way that not only will a Christian new to church history put the book down more informed but that regular students of our spiritual history will get something new out of their study.
Each chapter begins with a summary of a new hymn by a believer of a particular time and ends with a prayer from that same era. Each chapter also includes a bibliography for further reading; even Noll doesn’t expect his book to be the last word on your education in church history.
In addition to the main text, the book also includes pictures, maps and quotes from various authors (Anthanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word, for instance). The chapters themselves cover everything from the fall of Jerusalem to the Council of Chalcedon, from the Rule of Benedict to the Great Schism, from the Protestant Reformation to the Wesley brothers, from the French Revolution to Vatican II. This volume can only go so deep into its various subjects, considering the time span it covers, but then, this is probably more suitable for new students of church history who are learning this material for the first time.
I won’t summarize every chapter here, but I will point out a few things from some of the ones that stuck out more in my mind.
In his chapter on the councils of Nicea, Noll describes how much closer the church came to the state and—in what might be a surprise for modern readers—how it was the church that insisted that the two entities be equal but separate. (I was surprised to learn how the church’s Nicene understanding of the Son being co-equal with the Father influenced this line of thinking.) This is a helpful reminder in an age in which Christian groups are trying to get American law to reflect their and only their values.
The following chapter on the Council of Chalcedon made a solid point about how the teachings of Christianity became incarnational into another culture, going from a strictly Jewish background to now embracing Hellenistic terms to define itself. I think this, and other issues presented in Noll’s book, ought to make us consider how the church today needs to think beyond its accepted ways of thinking to bring the faith to cultures and sub-cultures that don’t embrace it.
I had known about Martin Luther’s famous words during the Diet of Worms in 1521, during which he said that his conscience was bound to the Word of God. Until I read Chapter 7 on the Diet of Worms and the beginnings of Protestantism, I did not know that, during that same diet, the imperial secretary would nearly predict exactly what would happen if Christians followed Luther over the church. In response to Luther’s insistence that he could not violate his own conscience, the imperial emperor asked the following question: if everyone was allowed to follow their conscience, as Luther insisted that he had the right to do, then how could Christians know anything for certain? I’ve seen modern Catholic apologists make a similar argument about the weakness of Protestantism: it possesses no real way of knowing for sure what the Scriptures teach, despite the bedrock Protestant claim that the Scriptures are clear.
I think Noll’s words in this chapter are significant:
“The authority of the individual conscience had been proclaimed over against the authority of the church councils, in contradiction to the weight of tradition, and in the very face of the emperor himself. Even though Luther spoke of his conscience as bound by Scripture, he had introduced, with moving power, a new principle of authority. In a word, Europe—and the church—would never be the same” (148).
I thought the chapter on the formation of the Church of England was somewhat disappointing. Instead of focusing strictly on Henry VIII’s actions, Noll instead examined the conditions that encouraged a secular ruler to inaugurate a new church. The chapter does a good job of highlighting how the early Protestants were more united in their opposition to Rome than they were in doctrinal matters, but it suffers from false advertising.
That said, Noll does bring the reader’s attention to something important: the Protestant Reformation inadvertently led to the throwing off of religious authority, something that an Augustinian monk like Luther would not have intended when he nailed his theses to the door. Writes Noll:
“Protestantism thus may have created a situation anticipating both the secularization that abandoned Christian authority and genuine Christian revival” (186).
Noll’s book also contains some great information about the Wesley brothers; the French Revolution, the Enlightenment, and the death knell to Christendom; and the about the Lausanne Congress and Vatican II. The scope of the topics covered in this book is great, and Noll covered them in such a way that you get detailed information and not just a surface-level overview.
The book isn’t without its weaknesses.
In his introduction, Noll acknowledges that several more “turning points” could have been included in his book but were left out. Among these, I thought that the Crusades and the production of various translations of the Bible deserved to be included in this book. Noll mentions other examples—St. Patrick’s missionary efforts in Ireland, for instance—but I think of all the things he could have included, the two I listed above are probably the most important. An extra two chapters would have made for a book that would have been bother longer (perhaps a downside) but also more inclusive of significant events (definitely an upside).
Readers should also know that these “turning points” are specifically related to the Western, Catholic and Protestant churches from Chapter 6 (the Great Schism) onward.
I found a typo on page 259. Anthony Ashley Cooper is identified as the seventh earl of Shaftebury. In the following sentence, though, “Shaftesbury” is treated as Cooper’s last name.
Go buy this book. It’s a well-written introduction into church history that can still provide new insight to someone who is decently familiar with the main points of the Christian story.
I received a free copy of this book as part of Baker Academic’s blog review program. I am not paid to write a favorable review, and my participation in the program is not dependent on how much I rave about what I’m reviewing.