A Biographical Sketch of the Author
Mark A. Noll is a prolific writer and essayist on church history and the history of Christian theology in North America in the early 19th century. Currently, he is a professor of history at Regent College in Vancouver and a Protestant Evangelical. Before coming to Regent, he held the same position at the University of Notre Dame between 2006 and 2016. Noll obtained his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University in 1975. He launched his career as a professor the Wheaton College, where he taught for 27 years.
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He is one of the co-founders of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at the college. He has written extensively about the Great Awakening of the 1700s, the American Protestantism, early Christianity, and the Reformation theology, among others. He has authored and co-authored several books and review essays on church history that examine the intellectual foundations of Christianity among evangelicals.
Summary of the Contents of the Book
The text, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, is structured around twelve turning points presented in the 13 chapters of the book. The introductory part presents a cogent argument for the book’s organization of the turning points in church history and an admission of the possibility of failing to capture certain milestones.
Chapter 1 centers on the fall of Jerusalem, which marked an outward spread of the gospel to nations beyond the Jewish context in 70 AD. As Noll writes, the destruction of Jerusalem was a major turning point in church history because “it forced the new Christian church to develop on its own apart from its roots in Judaism”.1 After the fall of Jerusalem, factors such as Roman peace, pervasive Hellenistic culture, and the planting of Jewish synagogues fueled the spread of Christianity.2 However, the church’s strong stand against heresies led to the emergence of church canons, creeds, and episcopacy to organize the church.
In chapter 2, the doctrinal issue of faith is explored as a defining moment in church history. In particular, the early church misunderstood the concept of the Holy Trinity. Noll writes that Arius, an elder of a Presbyterian Church in Alexandria subordinated Jesus under God.3 However, the bishops council meeting under the auspices of Emperor Constantine denounced Arius’s doctrine as heretical and later created the Nicene Creed that advocated for the orthodox view – Holy trinity – that exists up to today.
In chapter 3, the turning point is the emergence of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) that undertook to translate the scriptures for the Hellenistic world.4 The Chalcedon helped unite two opposing early church perspectives: the Alexandrian and Antiochene.5 Thus, the doctrine of Christ’s full humanity and full spirituality can be ascribed to the Chalcedon.
In chapter 4, Noll evaluates the contributions of monasticism to the early church through bible translations, hymnal composition, and missionary expansion of Christianity. He considers monasticism in the church an important turning point in church history. The monks were the “conscience of Christendom” and authored Benedict’s rule to guide Christian life.6 However, monks introduced legalism and asceticism into the church.
The significant turning point explored in chapter 5 is the political influence of the papacy and its role in the coronation of Charlemagne as the emperor of Rome. The coronation was a strong indication of the “papacy’s gradually expanding influence” in Roman politics.7 The chapter also explores how the curtailment of the growth of Islam in N. Europe allowed Christianity to spread outwards from Rome. The Roman Catholic Church evolved into the principal church of Christendom centered on the sacramental system and ‘saving grace’.8
In chapter 6, the other turning point was the “Great Schism of 1054 AD”, which created the East-West division due to historical and theological differences is examined.9 The 1095 crusading movement cemented the East-West division and heralded the emergence of orthodoxy in the Eastern Church. Chapter 7 focuses on the origins of Protestantism movement led by Luther. The defining event here was Luther’s “Theology of the Cross” that he conveyed through his sermons.10 Chapter 8 examines the reformation in the Western church in the face of a Renaissance in politics, economics, and nationalism. However, “differences of scriptural interpretations” affected Protestant teaching on foundational issues touching on salvation.11
Chapter 9 focuses on the Catholic reformation and the establishment of the Jesuits in the sixteenth century. The reform initiatives started by the Council of Trent sought to rebut the Protestant assertions and promote the church dogma.12 The reformation of Catholicism was an important event because it inspired wide-ranging “active steps to translate the Christian faith into reality” in Europe.13 The important turning point examined in chapter 10 is the conversion of the Wesleys who spearheaded the adaptation of the Reformation message.14 It also discusses the rise of Pietism, which was started by Jakob Spener.
Noll writes that Spener’s six proposals for the church reformation revived Luther’s message of the Protestant Reformation. ‘Pietists’ and evangelicals contributed to the spread of the Christian faith during this time.
Chapter 11 explores the French Revolution of 1789 and its contribution to the fall of Christendom. The production of wealth and economic disparities during this time developed without the “guidance of the church”, hastening the demise of Christendom.15 It describes the various people in the intellectual, social, and evangelistic spheres who contributed to the fall of Christendom and the emergence of secularism in the contemporary church.
The turning point examined in Chapter 12 is the rise of ecumenism in the 19th century through the efforts of the Edinburg Missionary Conference.16 It involved greater consciousness towards the ecumenical mission and indigenization of the gospel. Chapter 13 suggests 20th-century turning points, including the spread of Pentecostalism, the visibility of women in church leadership, and the immense strides in Bible translation.17
Review of the Book
Author’s Purpose and Its Fulfillment
Noll’s purpose in this book is to put into perspective the Christian history by focusing on important turning points in an orderly and chronological manner. Identifying such significant milestones is a Herculean task considering that Christian history is long and involves many events. However, Noll masterfully examines the complex theological issues that precipitated these turning points and includes maps to ensure a contextual understanding of church history. The illustrations, e.g., the cities of the councils, help illuminate the issues.18
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A vivid picture of the Protestant Reformation is given along with Martin Luther’s theological understanding. Overall, Noll excels in the orderly development of the church history and identification of the important paradigm shifts. However, Noll seems to pass over important historical figures such as Cromwell and Henry III. The violent side of the “benevolent dictator”, Oliver Cromwell, who oppressed the dissidents, is scantly explained (231).19 Additional details would have helped illuminate his concessions to the Catholic Church in the 1600s.
The Book’s Uniqueness
The unique thing about this book regards its chronological development of the important events in Christian history and theological interpretations. Noll presents the 12 turning points that mark the important paradigm shifts in church history. He traces the history of Christianity from its Jewish roots through the Hellenic era to the contemporary faiths. Unlike other works that focus on a few defining moments in the history of Christianity, the book gives in-depth analysis and interpretation of multiple historical events in a sensitive and balanced manner.
In particular, Noll asserts that Martin Luther’s theology – based on a subjective interpretation of the bible – was controversial because he chose to follow the scriptures, as opposed to the clerical leader’s counsel (166).20 Another unique thing about this book relates to the extensive use of illustrations and maps tied to the text to enable the reader to understand the historical contexts for the 12 turning points.
The Author’s Style
Noll’s style involves breaking down the broad subject of church history into a series of 12 key turning points. In this way, greater focus is placed on the specific events and historical figures that shaped the history of Christianity. Each chapter begins with a hymnal song and ends with a prayer used during the historical period under focus. In this way, the author contextualizes the historical events, enabling the reader to understand the issues.
The analysis focuses not only on the historical roots but also on the developmental trajectories of Christianity from the Jewish religion through the Hellenistic traditions and the Roman culture. This allows the reader to appreciate the theological and cultural perspectives defining church history. The writing style in the book is simple and candid, making it a good read for both laymen and scholars.
The Author’s Biases
Noll addresses the issues of church history with great sensitivity and balanced analysis. However, there are a few instances where he displays bias and ambiguity. In examining the Catholic Reformation, Noll passes over the biographies of Henri III and Cromwell, portraying them as a “nation builder” (172)21 and a “benevolent dictator” (231).22 The portrayals ignore the historical figures’ imposition on the moral sense of their subjects.
Conspicuously missing in the analysis are the big events that occurred in the 20th century. Although the authenticity of the 12 turning points is indisputable, the inclusion of relevant 20th-century events, including the religious struggles in the Middle East, would have enriched the analysis. Noll presents Christianity from a balanced, global perspective without introducing his Protestant evangelical persuasions. However, he displays bias in the way he interprets the Catholic Catechism. In his view, the Catechism is “the official dogma of the church” that is not grounded in the scriptures (296).23 To Catholics, the Catechism is a dogma inspired by the scriptures.
In this text, Noll presents church history in a series of defining moments from its Jewish roots to the 20th-century ecumenical mission. The book’s thesis centers on 12 turning points that are organized and developed in chronological order. Through an in-depth analysis of the past events and figures, it gives the reader a glimpse into the historical journey of the contemporary church.
Noll, Mark A. Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.
- Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 27.
- Ibid., 29.
- Ibid., 43.
- Ibid., 80.
- Ibid., 81.
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 117.
- Ibid., 122.
- Ibid., 134.
- Ibid., 166.
- Ibid., 193.
- Ibid., 207.
- Ibid., 213.
- Ibid., 223.
- Ibid., 254.
- Ibid., 271.
- Ibid., 310.
- Ibid., 44.
- Ibid., 231.
- Ibid., 166.
- Ibid., 172.
- Ibid., 231.
- Ibid., 296.