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Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Turning Points, 3rd Edition" (Mark A. Noll)

TITLE: Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity
AUTHOR: Mark A. Noll
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012, (356 pages).

This is the third edition of the very popular book on Christian history. With additional material in the last chapter, especially the two new turning points of the Second Vatican Council and the Lausanne Congress of World Evangelization, the third edition continues the impressive framework of using pivotal moments of the past as a way to study and understand the history of Christianity. Even then, such an exercise can be very subjective, open to questions of why some are chosen while others are omitted.That said, the advantages clearly outweigh the disadvantages. First, it helps to frame the huge quantity of information into a recognizable structure. Second, it enables readers to zoom into details without losing sight of the bigger picture. Third, it helps to highlight the complexity of events, and uncertainties during that time. Four, it allows modern readers to do their own interpretation of history.  Five, it is a very useful tool for teaching, and to do a general sweep of Christian history.

Noll also makes a case why we ought to study history of Christianity. Some of the reasons include the need to be reminded on how easy we are to fall into disobeying God's Ten Commandments; how history repeats itself; how God acts; how we can interpret the events in the light of Scriptural truth; how the Church has interacted with culture through the ages; how God sustains the Church through the various eras; and many more.

Fourteen turning points are described in the book.
  1. In the "Fall of Jerusalem (70)," Noll looks at the background of the fall of the great city, and how the Church, even when it is marginalized, the events and its suffering sow the seeds of the growth of Christianity.
  2. In the "Council of Nicaea (325)," Christianity becomes the defacto religion of Europe that marks the turning point of a persecuted religious movement to a popular institutionalized religion.
  3. In the "Council of Chalcedon (451)," as the Church gets threatened with disunity and deep controversy, doctrinal problems (against heresies like Nestorianism, disputes over Christology) need to be dealt with.
  4. In "Benedict's Rule (530)," we read about the rise of the Monastic movement through the Middle Ages.
  5. In "The Coronation of Charlemagne (800)," we see Christianity peak in influence and stature, and how the Church becomes the power center of society.
  6. In "The Great Schism (1054)," we see how the Church splits into East and West, partly political and largely theological differences like the filioque and the iconoclasmic controversies, etc.
  7. In "The Diet of Worms (1521)," is an important milestone that marks the rise of the Protestant movement, that splits from the Roman Catholic Church.
  8. In "The English Act of Supremacy (1534)," we read of how political and theological tensions spread across the continent. This turning point sows the seeds of multiple expressions of different Protestant movements.
  9. In "The Founding of the Jesuits (1540)," we see how the Roman Church begins to take back both credibility and inner renewal of the Church, to say that if the Protestants can do it, so can we.
  10. In "The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738)," we read of how the religious revival leads to societal reforms.
  11. In "The French Revolution (1789)," we read about the beginnings of secularism, as the peasant people revolts against the establishment.
  12. In "The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910)," we read about the world mission movement that leads to present day evangelism and missions. 
  13. In "The Second Vatican Council (1962-65)," we read about how the work of the Holy Spirit has led to a revival and a renewal of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as major shifts in doctrinal standing in the Vatican.
  14. In the "Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization," is the Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic Church's second vatican council. It leads to present day evangelicalism.

My Thoughts

This book does a great job in distilling two thousand years of history into a small book. It is no easy feat to decide on 14 critical turning points. Why only 14 points? Why not more? How do we measure an event is more significant than the rest? What about the history of Christianity in other parts of the world? These questions are not easily answered. That said, the idea of Turning Points remain a useful framework to look at the events throughout history. One can argue that anything can be interpreted as a turning point. One way to use this book is to have it as a companion text to a more traditional history book that is written in a chronological manner. Whether it is Roland Bainton's "Christianity," Justo Gonzalez's "The Story of Christianity," or the recent book by Diarmaid MacCulloch, "Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years," one will benefit more by having these read side by side with Turning Points.

The discussion questions at the end of the book provide a more indepth challenge to readers to decide whether to agree or disagree with Noll's interpretation of Church history and the selection of that turning point. I must say that Noll's book continues to be one of the best selling history books for Church history simply because of its compelling title and idea. It arrests readers' attention and reminds us that we are all part of the turning points of history. Determining whether we are before, after, or during makes us active participants of history in the making.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Graf-Martin Communications and Baker Academic Publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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