Turning Points:
Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity

Mark A. Noll

Baker Academic 2012
A book review by Danny Yee © 2021 https://dannyreviews.com/
The thirteen chapters in Turning Points are not narrowly focused on the "decisive moments" in their titles and the book is, as a whole, close to a general history of Christianity, though it makes no attempt to be comprehensive. The chapter "The Church Pushed Out on Its Own: The Fall of Jerusalem (70)", for example, is a fairly general account of the spread of Christianity around the empire and of the development of a New Testament canon (though Noll avoids any treatment of the life of Jesus), while the chapter "The Beginnings of Protestantism: The Diet of Worms (1521)" is a general introduction to Luther and the Reformation.

Noll presents clear and accessible narratives and explanations, with good explanation of background for readers who may not, for example, know much about the Roman Empire or the French Revolution. But his evangelical Protestant perspective makes Turning Points hard to recommend, at least as history. The overtly devotional elements — a hymn at the front of each chapter and a prayer at the end, both taken from the period covered in the chapter — are not a problem, nor is a kind of study guide at the end of the book. But elsewhere the embedding of theological and religious judgement alongside historical analysis is much harder to untangle, and likely to confuse the unwary.

Noll is ecumenical and provides solid coverage of Catholic and Orthodox history. But he makes no bones about his allegiance: his evaluation of Catholic missionary activity, for example, is the doctrinal judgement of a Protestant and not of a historian. And his tolerance only goes so far: his dismissive comments about non-Christian religions in the early Roman empire suggest a distinctly uncritical use of sources, while he repeatedly refers to Christianity as going "beyond" Judaism. It is, similarly, a theological judgement, and not a historical one, when he describes Chalcedon as "a triumph of sound doctrine over error".

His perspective also constrains the kind of questions Noll is interested in: his focus is on beliefs, doctrines, and institutions and much less on ritual and practice and everyday life. This is worse in the earlier chapters, where the default assumptions of readers, based on experience of modern Christianity, are likely to mislead. Noll doesn't try to describe how Christians in the first few centuries lived, for example, making no attempt to put them in any social context. And he doesn't really touch at all on Christianity's effects on the broader world: there's no mention of Weber's idea that Protestantism played a role in the development of capitalism, for example, and apparently the only "costs" to Christian missionary activity have been the deaths of missionaries and converts.

I found it interesting to read an evangelical perspective on Christian history, but utility there presupposes a reader with enough background knowledge and historiographical savvy to be able to untangle a mix of historical analysis, evaluation against modern Protestant doctrine, and attempts to convey contemporary thinking. Undergraduates or perhaps school students are the obvious audience for Turning Points, but those are exactly the people it should really be kept away from. Which makes it hard to recommend for anyone, unless perhaps it's the only way to sneak some real history into a course at a faith school or university.

March 2021

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%T Turning Points
%S Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity
%A Noll, Mark A.
%I Baker Academic
%D 2012
%O paperback, 3rd edition, references, index
%G ISBN-13 9780801039966
%P 356pp