Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (3rd edition)

9780801039966If someone were to ask me right now for one or two books to read, in order to get an overview of church history, one of the first things to come to my mind would be Mark Noll’s Turning Points.  Readers of the CHEF will not be surprised here, as I have thought enough of this book to create a curriculum for working through this book in a church education or book club context.

If you were to ask why this book in particular is one that I’d recommend, I’d have a lot to say.  First, it is very readable.  As a scholar myself, I know the challenges of writing for a “lay” audience — people who are interested in your material but don’t have the background to understand a lot of technical jargon.  Noll does an excellent job writing an accessible introduction to church history that doesn’t require a glossary.

Second, the book is not just text on a page.  Instead, there are several bonus features that can help all kinds of readers manage the material, like maps, charts, readings from primary sources, and bibliographies at the end of each chapter in case you want to learn more.  Also, to illuminate the event or time period from a more personal perspective, Noll begins each chapter with a Christian hymn that is connected with the event or period, and he concludes it with a prayer that is also germane to the topic.  Non-Christian readers may find these helpful for their historical value, but Christian readers will likely appreciate the spiritual connection that this framing device provides.

Finally (and I could list more, if you want, so just let me know), Noll’s method is especially useful for non-scholarly readers.  Education researchers tell us that experts have an easier time absorbing new material on a topic than do novices because they already have a framework about that topic, into which they can fit the new information.  Noll knows that lay readers likely don’t have that framework for church history — it’s why they’re reading the book!  So, in each chapter, in addition to discussing the event in question, he talks about the other events, people, and movements that led up to it (in other words, the background) and also the things that happened as a result of that event (the aftermath).   It’s hard for me to imagine a better way to help interested non-specialists to come to a greater knowledge of a set of historical topics.

There are a few things that one might wish for in a possible fourth edition of the book, as I note below in the “cons” section, but these may be more wishful thinking than anything else.  And besides, one of the virtues of a good introductory book is that it’s not too long.  If Noll and the publishers put in the things I mention below, the book will get longer and more expensive, which becomes counterproductive.

If you do choose to pick this book up, I hope it’s a blessing to you as it has been to me!

_______

Pros:

  • An excellent introduction to some of the major events, people, and movements of church history
  • Nice breadth of “coverage” in terms of chronology and concerning the most populous branches of the Christian family — there is material from the 1st century to the 21st, and he “covers” Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Catholicism
  • An exemplary method: background, the event itself, and then the aftermath
  • Helpful supplemental resources (maps, primary sources, bibliography, an index, study questions, etc.)
  • Has been “vetted” by lay audiences, as Noll notes in his introductory material

Cons:

  • Leaves out some important elements of church history (how could it not, since it’s an introduction?!?); some consideration of Islam would make sense for a contemporary audience
  • Does not consider some of the elements of history that are traditionally marginalized (women, non-Western/European Christianity, the Oriental Orthodox churches, etc.)
  • Images and maps are in grayscale when color might enliven the book

Image credit: http://bakerpublishinggroup.com/books/turning-points-3rd-edition/223385

Suggested next click: Back to the Book Reviews home page

In The News: Saint Mother Teresa

teresaYou may have seen the note in pre-Christmas news that Pope Francis has “approved” the second miracle that Mother Teresa’s advocates needed to have her eligible to be recognized as a saint.  Specifically, current regulations require that a miracle be attributable to the person’s direct intercession with God for healing.  One miracle qualifies someone as one who is “Blessed,” and a second qualifies them to be “Saint.”  (This version of the story at USAToday has a nice summary of the four steps of the process.)

For many Catholics, this is good news, as the USAToday story notes.  Mother Teresa has long been admired as an example of the Christian virtues of humility and service.  For many Christians, the posthumous revelation of her doubts and spiritual struggles have been a blessing, as they testify that “even saints” deal with questions in their faith.  Further, it is encouraging to have saints to admire and pray to who come from one’s own era; there is no question of whether or not she understands what it’s like to live in the modern world.

For many Protestants, though, this news is just another example of the canonization process that they don’t fully understand.  Some examples:

  • Does this mean that the pope “made” her a saint?  (Answer: no.  As this link explains, in a longer and more technical description of the process from a Catholic perspective, the church merely “declares” or “recognizes” her as a saint.  In other words, the idea is that she is a saint; it’s only now, by means of these miracles, that the church can know for sure that this is the case.  The reason is that, following traditional Catholic belief [derived from Revelation 6:9-11, among other places], the saints are those “already” in heaven with Jesus, thus enabling them to make intercession for those still on earth.)
  • Has it always been done the way it is now?  (Answer: no.  The Wikipedia article on “canonization” has a nice section on the historical development of the process.)
  • Is it possible that the church could be wrong about canonizing someone?  How does the church know that it’s right?  (Answer: wellllll… that’s a tricky question.  The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas actually took up that very question in a class lecture once (Quodlibet IX.8).  His answer?  As usual, it was complex.  He said the church can not err in matters of faith, but that it can err in judging disputes about things like possessions or crimes, because of the problem of false witnesses.   He says that the matter of saints lies “in between” these two, in terms of relative certainty of judgment.  As a result, while it is technically possible for the church to err, he says that the honor with which we consider the saints suggests that it is more pious to think that the church cannot err, because it will cause too many problems with people’s spiritual lives.

In other words, whether or not we agree with what’s happening in this story, it’s a way that Christians today are participating in a process that has long historical roots and that will contribute to church history in the future.

Image credit: http://www.storypick.com/10-quotes-by-mother-teresa/

Suggested next click: Back to the In the News home page

Welcome

IconBlueWelcome to the CHEF: Church History for Everyday Folks!  The primary goal of the CHEF network is to be a blessing to “regular folks” by enriching their knowledge and appreciation of the history of Christianity.  This website helps to accomplish this goal in a variety of ways, including the following:

  • By sharing and reflecting on news items that involve elements of church history
  • By providing reviews of books that will be instructive for people who want to know more about church history
  • By hosting a reading group dedicated to some of the “classics” of Christian literature
  • By providing curricula for people that want to teach/lead classes of their own regarding church history
  • By offering extended essays on the relevance of church history for various aspects of the modern world

Feel free to explore the site as you see fit.  There will be opportunities to share posts that you like, to follow the CHEF on Facebook, to subscribe so that you see the latest posts in your email, and to interact via the comments section on all the posts.  Finally, if you’d like a humorous take on church history, you can follow the CHEF Tumblr account at churchhistoryforeverydayfolks.tumblr.com.

Noll, Ch. 13: The Second Vatican Council (1962-65 CE) and the Lausanne Congress (1974 CE)

As Noll notes in the Preface to this third edition, this chapter is a bit of a gamble, because the “interpretation of recent history is always risky.”  Nonetheless, he discusses here two very important events of the past 50 years, one from the Catholic family of Christianity, and one from the evangelical-Protestant sector.

The first, known as the “Second Vatican Council” is the most recent “ecumenical council,” which you learned more about in chapters 2 and 3. (It’s called the “Second Vatican Council” because it was the second council held at the Vatican in Rome.)

The second event also gets its name from its location. The Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization was held in Switzerland in 1974. The focus of this meeting places it in the tradition of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference, which was the subject of chapter 12.

Both of these events share a theme: how to respond to the modern world. The Catholic church had spent the 400 years since the Protestant Reformation “circling the wagons,” as it were (see chapter 11). Especially as the world changed rapidly in the 19th century (think of the Industrial Revolution and the impact of Darwin’s theories, just to name two elements), the Catholic church rejected “modernism” and stuck to its traditional emphases. However, by the mid-20th century, it had become clear to many that the world was passing the Catholic church by. The Council was devoted in many ways to “aggiornamento,” or bringing the church “up to date.”

Similarly, the Lausanne Congress reflected a changing Christian world in a variety of ways. First, despite some of the images that are available, the delegates to the conference were much more international in representation. Second, as Noll notes, the conference explicitly responded to weaknesses they saw in the work of the World Council of Churches; they certainly felt that the need for traditional “conversion to Christ” had not passed, even as Christianity had spread across the world. Third, the conference also saw the challenges of the contemporary world, especially in social justice issues. They sought to address the changing world through their meeting (and future ones), and through the covenant that they shared.

Two links that might be helpful here:

So, some questions to consider:

  1. In the quotation from him given in the chapter, Karol Wojtyla (later Pope John Paul II) suggested that Vatican II dealt with “the type of faith which corresponds to the life of the modern Christian….”  As you look at the primary expressions of Christianity that surround you, which ones do you think “correspond to the life of modern people,” and which ones (however valuable they may be) are rather “old-fashioned”?
  2. Noll notes that there were “conservative” and “progressive” sub-groups within the Catholic church, as gathered at the Second Vatican Council. Do you see similar sub-groups in your own faith tradition? Around what issues do they have conflict? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the possibility of reconciliation between these groups? Why or why not?
  3. The Vatican Council is now over 50 years old, which means that the changes it enacted have become quite widespread within the Catholic church. In your experience, do Protestant understandings of Catholicism reflect the changes that have taken place? Or do they mirror more a traditional, pre-Vatican-II Catholicism? If the latter, why do you think this is so? How could Protestants become more aware of the new developments in Catholicism?
  4. Noll provides excerpts from the Lausanne covenant (and the link to the whole is above). When one compares this text with earlier ones from the “conservative” wing of Protestantism (say, for example The Fundamentals from the early 20th century), one notices continuity in theology, but a much greater concern for social matters.  As you consider the Christian expressions around you, do you see a greater focus on theology (e.g., thinking correctly) or social matters (e.g., doing things about the problems of the world)?  Or is there a balance there, in your mind?  Why do you think this is so?
  5. The Lausanne Congress was a type of “ecumenical” meeting, as they were discussed in chapter 12. What benefits do you see in meetings like these – where people from different denominations come together to discuss a particular topic? What negatives are (or could be) there?
  6. Noll spends some time describing the role that people like Billy Graham and John R. W. Stott played in the Lausanne Congress. How have you seen individual personalities shape religious movements (or aspects of Christianity)? How can this be a positive thing? How can it be negative? Feel free to give examples!

Image credits: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Second_Vatican_Council and https://www.lausanne.org/about-the-movement

Suggested next click: Turning Points Home

Noll, Ch. 12: The Edinburgh Missionary Conference (1910 CE)

Noll’s chapter 12 is devoted to the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910.  Many people consider this event the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement. The 19th century did see some important progress in missions (and other ministry activities) via various “voluntary societies” – Noll notes how many more people became Christians during that century. However, it was not until the 20th century that we saw true ecumenical cooperation, that is, joint work at the level of whole denominations.

Two other notes about the chapter before we get to the discussion questions:

  • First, a contemporary reader will likely note that, while this conference seems really important, it doesn’t seem to represent worldwide Christianity. Indeed, this early event was pretty Anglo- and Protestant-focused. Happily, the later ecumenical movement was much more diverse.
  • Second, I was impressed to see the Moravians come up yet again.  They are not a large group within Christianity, numerically speaking, but they seem to keep showing up via their missionary and theological emphases.

Edinburgh, 1910

Two potentially helpful links on this material:

Now, for some questions to consider:

  1. This “worldwide conference” on missions was overwhelmingly represented by people with English or other European ancestry, and it was entirely Protestant. Do you know of examples of groups (religious or otherwise) that are supposed to be “representative” but are actually skewed so as to represent only one or two sub-groups? How can this skewing affect the life of that group?
  2. The missionaries at the Edinburgh conference saw the evangelization of the entire world as imminent. Do you think this goal is one that can be truly achieved, or is it simply an ideal to aim for? What shapes your opinion on this question?
  3. Another question that the conference took up was how much Christianity, in the forms they knew it, should be considered as the single, true revelation of God to humankind. In your opinion, how much of God is revealed in other world religions? How would you address that question with a friend from another world religion?
  4. One aspect of Noll’s chapter has to do with the question of “indigenization,” that is, making Christianity “native” in a new culture. This indigenization can happen by means of music, cultural influences, worldviews, etc. What are some ways in which Christianity has become indigenized in the United States?  (Two manifestations I can see, on the positive side, are the use of American English in our worship services and the native composition of most of our worship songs.  On the other hand, one negative manifestation would be the creeping individualism that is growing in our churches as it grows in our culture.)  What do you think?
  5. Some missionaries and many early converts to Christianity lost their lives for their faith. How do their stories strike us, given our cultural condition in which the Christian faith is protected and (generally) accepted by outsiders? Are these stories simply to be admired? Do they inspire us in some way? How so?
  6. Many historians and culture-observers note that, relatively speaking, Christianity is on the decline in the United States as it has been in Europe for many decades. Can you imagine a world in which North American Christians are actually on the fringes of world Christian society?  In other words, can you imagine a world in which “southern” and “eastern” Christians come to North America to encourage the Christians here?  What would that be like?

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1910_World_Missionary_Conference (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 13

Noll, Ch. 11: The French Revolution (1789 CE)

The history of Christianity in the modern West has been a challenging one. Things have not often become as hostile as the aftermath of the French Revolution; Christians have not always had their churches turned into “Temples of Reason,” as was the case in the drawing below at the famous Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris. In fact, the story of the Revolutions of this time period often causes tension within many Western readers; we appreciate the emphasis on freedom that was celebrated here, but we don’t like the rejection of religion that we see in the France of that time.

However, because we live in a world that is becoming rapidly “post-Christian,” it is good for us to understand how our world has come to that point, especially in places (like Europe and North America) where Christianity was so important and dominant for so long. Noll does a good job describing some of the many factors here – things like secularization, Enlightenment philosophy, the rise of modern science, changing attitudes about how to study the Bible, etc.

Another important part of the chapter consists of Noll’s discussion of how Christians have responded to these challenges. Sometimes we may feel helpless in a hostile world, or uncertain of what we might do in the face of the challenges we face. However, the section toward the end of the chapter covers many different responses, from missions and evangelism, to different kinds of theology, to returns to tradition, to social relief efforts. Happily, over the recent centuries, Christians have found many ways to bring God’s kingdom more fully into the world as we know it.

Two very different links that might be helpful on this material:

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Noll talks about “secularization,” meaning the lack of a religious “core” that governs a society. Does political secularization necessarily harm Christian faith? How? Or if not, why not?
  2. Many of the important social reforms of the post-Enlightenment era, particularly Wilberforce’s anti-slavery campaign in England, had Christianity as their energizing force. Does Christianity still seem to promote helpful social reforms in Western society? In what ways do “secular reform” efforts borrow tools, themes, or impetus from the West’s Christian past?
  3. Noll notes that some American Christians were hopeful that the French Revolution would promote Christianity. Historically, it did not. Is violent political revolution consistent with Christianity? In what situations might it be appropriate?
  4. Noll divides Christian responses to a secularized Western society into social, intellectual, and evangelistic reactions. Which one of these do you see as most important? Which one do you see as most effective? Can these impulses work together or are they necessarily in tension?
  5. “Liberal Christianity” was an attempt to preserve Christianity in a new modern context, in that it sought a Chrsitianity that was free from many traditional practices and/or points of view (“liberated” and “liberal” are related words). To what extent was “liberal Christianity” successful in this? To what extent, if any, do you think it was a betrayal of historic Christianity?
  6. Noll presents a history of Christianity slowly but surely losing its public influence in the West from the 1700’s on. What do you think was God’s role in all of this?

Image credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_of_Reason

Suggested next click: Chapter 12

Noll, Ch. 10: The Conversion of the Wesleys (1738 CE)

This chapter focuses on John and Charles Wesley (depicted below, center and left, with Francis Asbury), and the Methodist movement that emerged from their ministry.  The chapter opens with the discussion of John Wesley going out into the “highways and byways” to preach, rather than sticking to church buildings and Sundays. That’s not something we find troublesome nowadays, but in that time and place, as Noll says, it was working directly against notions of public order.

Wesley Wesley Asbury Stained Glass

A few other notes on things that I found interesting in the chapter:

  • Wesley was often not an innovator himself, but rather one who implemented successfully the plans, ideas, and practices of others.
  • Pp. 219-220 describe Wesley’s famous moment of self-dedication (not exactly a conversion). Many Christians have moments like this – single times that they can point to as episodes of personal dedication. But others’ experiences are more gradual. Neither is normative (or should be), but sometimes we wish we had something like what others have had.
  • Did you notice how we again see the emergence of conversations about Christendom, as was the case (among other places) in chapter 5 on the coronation of Charlemagne?
  • The section on the hymn-writing of Charles Wesley was interesting; you may not have realized how many of his songs we still sing, as Noll notes. (See also this link: http://www.cyberhymnal.org/bio/w/e/s/wesley_c.htm)
  • The section on Pietism is interesting because of the different ways in which that movement’s ideas have influenced modern Christianity, perhaps most strongly in the idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

If you’d like to see some of the resources that Wesley developed for use in his small groups, check out http://www.goforthall.org/articles/jw_dscplshp.html

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. As Noll says in the beginning of the chapter, Wesley preached in places that were considered scandalous.  Where are the forbidden zones these days?  Where would it be scandalous to preach or find preachers? Are those places in “real life,” on social media, or in other online locations?
  2. One of the aspects of this chapter that may connect with many readers is his description of the small-group model that began in the Pietist movement and became mainstream via the Methodists. What has been your experience of the kind of small-group Bible study and fellowship that the Pietists emphasized? Positive? Negative? What factors lead to “good” small-group experiences?
  3. Noll describes the doctrine of “Christian perfection” that Wesley held – one that has been somewhat controversial since he began to teach it. How would you put that teaching into your own words? Did your own religious background teach this doctrine? Do you believe this teaching to be justified by the Bible? Why or why not? Do you think it is realistic? Coherent? Helpful in our modern day?
  4. Evangelicals in the 18th century were more strongly dedicated to cross-cultural evangelism than the more established “state churches” in Europe at that time. Given what you already know and have learned in this chapter, why do you think that might have been the case?
  5. Noll notes that a variety of political views were accepted among early evangelicals. Do you see diversity on political matters among evangelicals today? What topics seems to have more diversity, and which don’t? Do you think that the current state of political opinion among evangelicals as an improvement or a fall from the range of early views in evangelicalism?
  6. One of the things that studying history does is to give us more resources as we look forward into the future. Given Noll’s discussion of the Wesleys’ innovation, I wonder: what are the most effective ways people are using social media and other new technologies in the service of religion? What are things you are seeing that are working well? What things are not working well?

Image credit for the stained-glass depiction of Charles Wesley, John Wesley, and Francis Asbury, in a church in North Carolina, USA: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charles_Wesley,_John_Wesley,_and_Francis_Asbury_(stained_glass_–_Memorial_Chapel,_Lake_Junaluska,_North_Carolina).jpg (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 11

Noll, Ch. 9: The Founding of the Jesuits (1540 CE)

Founding of Jesuits

Chapter 9 complements chapters 7 and 8 in a couple of important ways. First, as Noll says, his Protestant background and commitments lead him to emphasize the Reformation above other events in church history; as a fellow Protestant, I fully agree with that emphasis. As a result, more information and thought on that time period is helpful in understanding it better. Second, and contrastingly, one can’t tell the entire story of the Reformation without including the Catholic(/Counter-) Reformation that went alongside it. Chapter 9 does not focus on the Protestants themselves but rather on their Catholic brothers and sisters who were also recognizing the need for reform in their ranks.

Given the specific focus on the Jesuits, it is fully appropriate that Noll begins the chapter with Ignatius Loyola the group’s renowned founder. Some of you may belong to the group of readers who know almost nothing about the Jesuits or Loyola, but who know about or have experiences with his Spiritual Exercises via an “Ignatian retreat.” For Protestants, the Exercises are probably Ignatius’s most important contribution to church history, in that they have provided a way for many people to deepen their spiritual lives and to connect more closely with the life of Jesus.

Noll also discusses several important parts of this part of our history. He describes the various contributions that the Jesuits made to Christian history, most importantly their work in missions and education. He explains how the Jesuits were not the only new “order” that arose at this time but rather were part of a whole movement of new groups. He discusses the importance of Franciscan ideals for many of these groups (compare the importance of the Benedictine tradition, as discussed in chapter 4). Finally, he discusses the landmark meeting called the “Council of Trent,” at which there were both “conservative” and “progressive” voices (compare the discussion of the Vatican II in chapter 13), but in which the conservative voices ultimately prevailed in massive ways. As a result of the Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic church preserved many of its medieval characteristics all the way into the 20th century!

If you’d like a little more on the Spiritual Exercises, see the beginning of the text at http://sacred-texts.com/chr/seil/seil09.htm.  (Note: you can explore more of the text at this site as well. The attitude toward sin sounds rather “medieval,” which is not surprising, but the prayer of confession is one that most Christians can resonate with.)

Here are some questions for discussion:

  1. Catholic missions of the 1500’s led to a more ethnically and culturally diverse Christianity. The New Testament emphasizes a need for ethnic and cultural diversity in the church (i.e., Matt. 28:18-20; Gal. 3:28; Rev. 7:9.) To what extent does your own faith community reflect this value of New Testament Christianity? Where could it improve? What could your local faith community learn about ethnic diversity from Catholic missions of the 1500s?
  2. In the 1500’s, the Catholic church combined its interest in correctly defining doctrine with passionate world mission (which far exceeded the efforts of the Protestant churches at the time.) In the tension between Christians’ having correct action and correct belief, which do you tend to see as primary? Why do you think you lean that direction?
  3. The “Chinese Rites” crisis was concerned with whether traditional Chinese cultural practices, which were often grounded in non-Christian religions, could be appropriately practiced by Chinese Christians. Which side of the debate did you find yourself supporting? Why? Are there examples in our world of a “native” belief or practice that is controversial for Christians to hold?
  4. There has been a shift in Protestant historiography from referring to the efforts of the Catholic church in the 1500’s as “the Counter-Reformation” to “the Catholic Reformation.” What value, if any, is there in using terminology which does not offend outsiders?
  5. Noll admires the fervor of Ignatius Loyola, even though in the religious struggles of the Western church at that time, he favors the Protestant cause. How do you make sense of admiring the religious virtues of people from traditions with which you don’t agree?   Do you find a tension there or not?
  6. If the Catholic and the historically Protestant churches can agree that salvation is completely the work of God and that Christians should carry out good works, what reason would you give to explain the still-remaining divisions between these two families of Christianity?

Image credit of Jan Kryštof Handke’s fresco Approving of bylaw of the Society of Jesushttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Society_of_Jesus (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 10

Noll, Ch. 8: The English Act of Supremacy (1534 CE)

This chapter’s topic is the English Act of Supremacy in 1534, that Parliamentary action by which the English church and Henry VIII “officially” broke away from the Roman patriarchy of the Catholic Church.  As Noll effectively shows at the beginning of the chapter, this action was not in isolation from other things happening during this time. Rather, there was quite a bit of continuity from the “pre-Reformation times” with those that came during and after.

Also, Noll does a good job describing the different ways that Protestantism developed in the 16th century. It is easy for us to think of the Protestant movement as one “thing,” flowing directly from Martin Luther. But as Noll explains and shows, it really did vary quite a bit, depending on where one lived. Those differences are not the direct cause of our modern denominational situation, but they did play a part in it, and the various doctrinal and practical particularities do often still exist in our various churches today.

One other note, specifically for American readers: on p. 170, Noll says that the “general effect on Christendom” came through its effect on England, namely, the emergence of “self-consciously local, particular, and national forms of Christianity.” I would argue that there might be a second effect, one that came through England’s effect on the future United States. As many of you know, part of (but not all of) what drove some settlers to what became the English colonies in the “New World” was the promise of religious freedom. It’s hard to miss in that desire for freedom from overbearing superiors an echo of Henry’s push to be free from Rome. Is it possible that some of the seeds for the American Revolution were sown by an English king’s actions nearly 250 years before?

If you’d like to see more of what emerged from the Reformation in England, see the Thirty-Nine Articles of Queen Elizabeth I: http://www.victorianweb.org/religion/39articles.html.  (Note: this text illustrates well the variety within Protestantism that Noll describes at the end of the chapter. For example:

  • articles 1-5 represent classic Christian orthodoxy
  • article 6 sounds quite Protestant, generally speaking
  • articles 11 and 17 take up issues dear to the hearts of Luther and Calvin, respectively
  • article 28 seems to reflect the Catholic doctrine of the real presence of Christ in Communion [although transubstantiation is repudiated]
  • article 39 seems to interact with Anabaptist teaching on oaths)

Here are some questions for everyone to discuss (international readers: feel free to adapt these to your native situation):

  1. Imagine the possibility of our President serving as the “Supreme Head of the Church of the United States.”  Aside from political concerns — where you may agree or disagree with the current President about this or that issue — how might that affect church life in America?  What are the possibilities?
  2. Noll notes that “worldly preoccupations” often entangled church leaders in the 15th and 16th centuries; further, the English Act of Supremacy was clearly as much about political as religious freedom.  Where do you see “worldly preoccupations” besetting modern American Christians?  Are we too involved in politics, or not enough?  Why?
  3. The English Act of Supremacy and its effects demonstrate how, when a specific church is “established” by the state, minority religions (and even expressions of the same faith) can be persecuted. Does knowing this history affect the way you think about the idea of a “separation between church and state”? How? Does it matter if one is a part of the dominant religious tradition, or one of those on the fringe?
  4. Late in the chapter, Noll describes conflicts that took place between the various state churches and the Christians called “Anabaptists.” As you read these sections, where did you find your sympathies? Were they with the radical, persecuted Anabaptists? Or with the more traditional, more prominent state churches? How do you think your religious background or present faith commitments shape your viewpoint?
  5. A recurring theme of the chapter is how Reformation Christianity preserved much from the late medieval period, while also striking out in new ways.  Imagine what Christianity in America will be like in 50 years — toward the end of your lifetime.  What will still be in place, in terms of church and spiritual life?  What do you think will/must change?
  6. Optional: Noll’s chapter describes two different types of humor being employed by Christians in this era: first, religious satire by Desiderius Erasmus, and then second, the sadistic “black humor” of those who drowned Anabaptists as a response to their desire for adult baptism. This intersection of religion and humor continues today on websites like theonion.com (non-Christians poking fun at everyone, including religious people) and larknews.com (Christians poking fun at themselves). When and how is humor appropriate in discussions of religious matters? When is it not?  (Side note: if you want some reactions to the larknews.com site, see these two Christianity Today stories from years past:)
    1. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/mayweb-only/31.0a.html
    2. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/january/21.38.html

Image credits for Joos van Cleve’s portrait of Henry VIII and Henry A. Bacon’s The Landing of the Pilgrimshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_VIII_of_England and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plymouth_Colony

Suggested next click: Chapter 9

Noll, Ch. 7: The Diet of Worms (1521 CE)

Compared to chapter 6, chapter 7 probably did not surprise you at all in terms of its appropriateness for the book. Most Western Christians belong to either the Protestant or Catholic families of the Christian faith, and no matter which side one is on, the events of Martin Luther’s reforms have shaped our expressions of that faith irrevocably. Protestants look back to this event (and those surrounding it) as the beginning of pretty much everything. Catholics long saw this event as a great apostasy but more recently understand it as a catalyst for reforms in their own church, some of which took place at that time and some of which only came with the Second Vatican Council (see chapter 13).

Further, this set of events may have been familiar to you via the excellent 2003 film entitled simply Luther. Starring Joseph Fiennes (and featuring Peter Ustinov and Alfred Molina, among others), the film tells the story of Luther’s life up until the acceptance of the Augsburg Confession. The scene of the Diet of Worms is particularly powerful, even if it does (inevitably) take a bit of artistic license. (By the way: the film also presents the most compelling picture of how the sale of indulgences would have worked, and why it would have been attractive to people beyond just the simple possession of forgiveness of sins.)

Noll is right, though, that countless people have looked back at this particular meeting as crucial for Protestantism and modern individuality. The fact that Luther appeals to Scripture rings true to Protestants; that he appeals to reason and his own conscience mirrors the later Enlightenment and the resultant modernity. But Noll is also right to include the response that Luther received (which does not appear in the film, incidentally). The Catholic response was prescient in terms of the sad fragmentation that has marked the Protestant branch of Christianity ever since.

Luther’s 95 Theses might be useful for you; if so, you can find them here: http://www.luther.de/en/95thesen.html

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on this gripping chapter:

  1. Noll notes that, at the Diet of Worms, church leaders responded that Luther’s teachings would remove all certainty from Christianity. Has history borne out this assessment? How have you seen the challenge of uncertainty in matters of faith manifest itself?
  2. Luther promoted violence against Jews (and Anabaptists). How do these actions color your reading of his life and work? Is it possible for a theological writer to have merit despite promoting grievous evils?
  3. When we read about people with whom we disagree, it can often be challenging to sympathize with them. If you are a Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into the viewpoints of the Catholic hierarchy in their reaction to Luther? If you are not Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into Luther’s viewpoint? Or, taken from a different viewpoint: did you at any point find your sympathies “cutting against the grain” of your own religious background?
  4. In America, Protestant theology is largely the “default mode” of Christianity in the broader culture, affecting even non-Protestants. How do you think your cultural as well as religious background colors your reading of this part of church history?
  5. Noll acknowledges how his own commitments as a Protestant shape his reading of this time period of church history. How do you think our religious convictions shape our understanding of church history? Is it necessary for people to acknowledge their religious commitments before assessing church history?

Image credit for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther

Suggested next click: Chapter 8