Mark A. Noll holds an M.A. in church history and theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Ph.D. in the history of Christianity from Vanderbilt University. He taught in the history and theology departments at Wheaton College and as a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame. He is currently the Research Professor of History at Regent College.
How does one give an overview of a subject as vast and complicated as church history? To tackle this difficult task historian Mark A. Noll has undertaken the strategy suggested by the title of his book, Turning Points. The book focuses on key events, or turning points, in the 2000+ years of history in God’s New Testament church. Each of the thirteen chapters focuses on one of these seminal events, beginning with the fall of Jerusalem (70 AD) and concluding in modern times with the Second Vatican Council and the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism (1962-1974). In between the reader is taken on giant leaps forward in time from the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) to the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD), from Benedict’s ‘Rule’ (530 AD) to the coronation of Charlemagne (800 AD), from the great schism (1054 AD) to the Diet of Worms (1521 AD), from the English Act of Supremacy (1534 AD) to the founding of the Jesuits (1540 AD), and finally from the conversion of the Wesleys (1738 AD) to the French Revolution (1789 AD) and the Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910 AD).
The author freely admits that his approach is entirely subjective (2). By necessity many details are left unsaid. Certain historical moments that another might see as monumental enough to be included are sometimes only mentioned in brief or not at all (3). Yet for the events chosen, Turning Points helps narrow in and offer a nuanced discussion of the relevant theological and historical factors that shaped the direction of the church. Each chapter provides the peripheral contexts of both the lead up to and the outgrowth from the event, giving both a general feeling for the historical flow of a particular era and a unified narrative under which to tie together other disparate yet important topics happening in concurrence. Noll succeeds in giving a valuable overview of church history, offering significant context and nuance while not bogging down the reader with so much detail as to miss the grander themes.
Just as it is practically impossible to recount all the important details of church history in a 300-page book, so also in a review of this length it is practically impossible to list every interesting and thought-provoking point the book makes. So I offer a relative sample.
Chapter one details the ramifications of the fall of Jerusalem for the church as it was cast out into the world to spread the message of Christ far and wide. Noll’s most thought-provoking analysis comes when he summarizes the anchors which stabilized the church at this tumultuous time in terms of canon, creed, and episcopate (23). He notes that each of the major branches of Christianity prefers to emphasize one of these three anchors as the supreme method by which God has guided his church. For the Protestant Church it is the canon. For the Orthodox Church it is the creed. For the Catholic Church it is the episcopate. Understanding this divide helps one understand that there is “a Roman Catholic, an Orthodox, and a Protestant interpretation of early Christian history, each of which depends on basic assumptions concerning the way God guides the church” (24).
Chapters two, three, and six on the Council of Nicaea, the Council of Chalcedon, and the great schism offer the deepest theological content. These are especially useful summaries of the complex battles fought over Trinitarian and Christological doctrine.
Chapter five on the coronation of Charlemagne offers a nice summary explaining the “elaborate mixing of elements” which “created a situation in which the Roman bishop was regarded unquestionably as the prime ecclesiastical figure in the West and as the personal representative of Western Christianity to the East” (108).
Chapter seven on the Diet of Worms was interesting in so far as it was a non-Lutheran (though still Protestant) recounting of the Reformation, but most pastors who have studied the time period in depth won’t find it particularly engaging.
Chapter eleven on the French Revolution struck a chord as being particularly relevant to our modern times. As the voices of anti-Christian sentiment grow louder around us, Noll’s summary of their foundation in Enlightenment-era philosophy will be a good review for anyone who hasn’t studied them recently. The chapter’s closing encouragement is particularly well-said. “[O]ver the course of the nineteenth century, the receding of European Christendom did not mean the collapse of Christianity…[T]he disruption of the Christian homeland in Europe coincided with the blossoming of Christianity well beyond Europe” (259). We would do well to remember this truth: as Christianity seems to be dying around us, it continues to blossom elsewhere as the gospel is proclaimed.
Chapters eight through thirteen, which cover post-Reformation history, might be especially useful, since at that point in church history our training takes a decidedly Lutheran emphasis. While the early and medieval church history recounted in Turning Points might be somewhat of a repeat of our Seminary studies, these final chapters are not. Every Lutheran pastor would benefit from an overview of them.
In addition to these specific examples, I offer this general take on Turning Points. Lutherans view the history of the church with Lutheran eyes. I contend that this is good. However, it is also valuable to attempt to look at facts through a different lens. Noll identifies himself as a Reformed Evangelical, which means that he generally sees the history of the church through Protestant eyes—similar, but certainly not identical, to our own. While he acknowledges his biases up front, the author has tried “to write with as much respect as possible for the widely diverse forms of Christianity that have been practiced with integrity…in all parts of the Christian church” (10). I appreciated his effort to distinguish and explain fairly the differences and developments between western (Catholic) and eastern (Orthodox) thought in the early church and between Catholic/Orthodox/Protestant thought in the later church.
With such an approach comes positives and negatives. On the positive side, I found that his treatment of several topics gave me a more well-balanced view of their historical place. For example, with good reason Lutherans do not speak very positively of monasticism. However, monasticism did have some very positive effects, such as a renewed emphasis on learning, missions, the transmission of Scripture, and service to the world in Christ’s name (94). As I was reminded, one can appreciate these blessings while also decrying the harm done.
On the negative side, Noll often downplays doctrinal differences (see especially chapter twelve on the Edinburgh Mission Conference). He indentifies them accurately enough, but he treats them as part of the rich tradition of the one church rather than as unscriptural deviations. I am willing to concede that part of this is due to the nature of the discipline. A historian must report facts. Too much theological evaluation may sully the work. But in matters of false teaching concerning the doctrine of salvation, in particular, I would have preferred a stronger rendering of judgment.
In sum, Turning Points is an easy and engaging read that moves swiftly but deliberately. It would be a valuable supplement to Bible Class material on any of these historical topics, because it not only speaks at a level most laymen could understand, but also because it offers study questions at the end of the book for consideration. For pastors who want to brush up on the broad strokes of church history or who want a quick reference guide to these events, Turning Points will be of great value.