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?

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Suggested next click: Chapter 12

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