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!



  • 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


  • 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

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Noll, Ch. 6: The Great Schism (1054 CE)

Chapter 6 may have come as a bit of a surprise to you, in that this event is not one that most of us “feel” every day – or every Sunday. The eastern and western churches have been divided for so long – nearly 1,000 years! – that we hardly notice the breach. It’s like when there was a family fight a couple of generations in the past; we know that there are long-lost cousins out there somewhere, and we hope that things are well with them, but we don’t miss them.

However, this chapter is an important part of the book, and an important part of our learning about church history, because this is where Noll teaches us about what we often call “Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” (Side note: “Eastern” is relative. If you were in Japan, they would properly be the “Western Orthodox.” Let’s just call them the “Orthodox,” since that’s what they call themselves.) As Noll says, the breach between East and West traces back quite early in church history, not least in matters of language, and then later in matters of culture, church organization, and worship. We tend to talk about the sad events of 1054 as a turning point merely because it made things official; it’s sort of like when a married couple has been estranged for a long time, but it’s only when the divorce decree is signed that it’s really final.

You may have been glad to know that there have been efforts at reconciliation, most recently in the last 50 years, especially with the pontificate of John Paul II. You may also have been excited to learn more about Christianity in Russia; many contemporary individuals still think of Russia as communist and godless, but this has actually been only a recent development. And then, you may have been dismayed to learn about some of the sad chapters of this part of our history, like the sack and occupation of Constantinople starting in 1204. (By the way, that episode really is one of the darkest ones in all of Christian history. It’s repugnant enough when we have done things like that to people of other faiths. But when we’ve done it to people of our own faith – to members of our own family? There are few words to describe the emotions that arise.)

In case you’d like to read the actual “bull of excommunication,” you can find it here:

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

  1. The Great Schism, unhealed for over a millennium, had as much (or even more) to do with the personalities of leaders as matters of doctrine. Is it inevitable that strong personalities will divide churches? What value, if any, is there in preserving these divisions persisting after the deaths of those influential leaders?
  2. In the late Middle Ages, there were strong attempts on the part of the church hierarchy to reunite the Eastern and Western churches, but these efforts were ultimately rejected by the Eastern lay-people. Do you think today that the views of “ordinary pew-sitters” can mitigate the effectiveness of progressive efforts by leaders? Is there an appropriate role for church leadership to override the opinion of the laity for a greater good? Should, alternatively, a democratic principle reign in the church?
  3. Eastern Orthodoxy for much of its history as a distinct church has been “mostly separated from current affecting other Christians” (p. 125). Other Christian traditions have developed largely, if not exclusively, in isolation from the broader body of the church (i.e., Churches of Christ, Anabaptist churches). What are the benefits and detriments of this kind of isolation?
  4. In the 1200’s, Western Crusaders did great evil against Eastern Christians. The Crusades have made dialogue difficult, at times impossible, between East and West ever since. Is there a “statute of limitations” on fallout between descendants of old crimes? In America, racial relations are affected by the history of slavery. Is a few hundred years enough to heal the breach by these crimes against humanity? Is over a thousand years enough to forgive the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders? Are some crimes (i.e., the Holocaust) so great that reconciliation is not a realistic option?
  5. A major theological dividing point between the East and the West was the “filioque” clause. How do you respond to this theological debate? Is it a pressing issue or a “disputable matter?” How might your reaction be shaped by your own religious background, particularly if it was a non-creedal tradition?
  6. The acceptance of Orthodoxy in Russia changed the history of this ecclesiastical tradition. How might the demographic shifts in modern Christianity (to Africa, Asia and Latin America, away from Europe and European-descendants) shape the future of global Christianity? How is it already doing so, to your knowledge?

Credit for image of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew:

Suggested next click: Chapter 7

Noll, Ch. 5: The Coronation of Charlemagne (800 CE)

One of the signal events of the early Middle Ages is the subject of Noll’s chapter 5: Pope Leo III’s coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in the year 800.  As Noll says at the beginning of the chapter, this event was important for a variety of reasons: it says something about the growing power and influence of the popes by this time; it says something about the changing face of Western Europe, as a Germanic tribe (Franks) had surpassed the Romans as the dominant political force on the continent’s mainland; and it speaks about the growing web of links between the secular powers and the spiritual powers (the church) of the day.

coronation of charlemagne

For many American Christians, that last item is most important. Charlemagne’s rule was significant because it was during this period that a political philosophy was built that still holds sway in many places and hearts. That philosophy essentially says this: that there are secular powers in the world (mayors, governors, presidents), and they have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: secular matters, like protecting the borders, maintaining peace, and levying taxes. There are also spiritual powers in the world (churches, priests, bishops, etc.), and they also have rules, enforce laws, and are installed by certain ceremonies. Their job is to take care of the people in the realm that God has given them: spiritual matters, like forgiving sins, conducting worship, and maintaining Christian morals.

Ideally, those two powers work together for the sake of the people and the kingdom – in a parallel sort of way – but most of the time, there is tension between them. For example, what is the best way to maintain good morals in a country? Is it effective preaching or laws that have teeth? Or who gets to appoint the leaders in the church? Is it the church itself and its people, or the secular leaders who keep everyone safe so that they can actually have church services? As you can see, this philosophy has challenges, but it shaped church-state relations until the Reformation in most of Europe, and even to the present day in the United States.

You may find helpful this link to Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne, mentioned in the chapter:

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

  1. The first long section of the chapter is devoted to the papacy. At this time, secular power had begun to accrue to the papacy, and with that power came the possibilities of influence and also various temptations.  Given the challenges that spiritual leaders (like bishops and ministers) face, what is the best balance between spiritual piety and worldly influence in a church’s leaders?  How do we negotiate that tension?
  2. Follow-up: you have probably heard the classic quote that goes like this: “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Based on what you have read and what you know from other sources, do you think the papacy affirms this idea, contradicts it, or nuances? Why do you think this is the case?
  3. Gregory the Great is one of the popes who has been highly admired by non-Catholics, including in the present day, just as many Protestants and even non-Christians admire the current Pope Francis. Is it consistent to reject the Catholic view of papal authority, and yet to still admire specific popes? Why or why not?
  4. One of the weaknesses of many church history books is the relative short shrift they give to the importance of Islam in the history of Christianity.  How did you respond to Noll’s presentation of Islam in the section “The Rise of Northern Europe?  Was this new information?  Was it surprising? What does it make you think about, in light of the current uneasiness regarding the place of Islam in American life?
  5. “Christendom” is the word we use to describe the established position that Christianity enjoyed within western culture.  Google a bit on manifestations of Christendom, and then answer these questions: How does Christendom still manifest itself in the circles you inhabit in America?  How do you see it passing away?
  6. In modern America, many Christians of Western- and Northern-European descent follow religious practices sharply differing from those of their ancestors. If you are from this background, how does it feel to think that you would most likely not have the faith that you have today, if it were not for the rise of “Christendom”? That your faith depends on your ancestors to some degree, even if your practice of Christianity sharply differs from theirs?

Image credit for Jean Fouquet’s Crowning of Charlemagne (cropped by the blogger)

Suggested next click: Chapter 6

Noll, Ch. 4: Benedict’s Rule (530 CE)

Noll’s chapter 4 moves from theological questions to practical ones: what might a Christian do if he/she really wants to live in an intentional way in discipleship to Jesus? What might the options be? Well, as Noll says, one way that that happened is in the phenomenon called “monasticism,” in which a person chooses to withdraw from “society” or “the world,” in order to live alone or in community. Noll does a good job of describing some of the important historical names and movements (Antony in Egypt, John Cassian, Simeon Stylites, etc.), but the focus of the chapter is the Italian monk Benedict of Nursia.

As Noll says, Benedict is truly the father of monasticism in the “West” – that is, Western Europe and eventually North America. The reason we can rightly call him by this name is that the vast majority of monastic orders that have arisen since then have been part of the Benedictine “family tree.” The groups that Noll discusses in his “Brief Outline” (starting on p. 91) came from Benedict’s original movement, either in direct descent or in responding to the dominant Benedictine movement in Western Europe.

Noll’s description of Benedict’s rule (starting on p.86) is quite accurate. Many of the most important elements of the rule come from its focus on the practical realities of communal life, like how to help the members of the community encourage one another, how to respond to the local conditions where the monastery is located, and how to account for various weaknesses in the monks themselves. Also, Benedict’s rule is not one that encourages only “spiritual work,” like prayer and worship, or only manual labor, but rather both. The link I’ve provided will give you a good sense of some of the elements of the rule, since it is still in use today.

Side note: there are still Benedictine monasteries all over the world, and so you can find good resources at their websites, like this one. Feel free to look, explore, and discover how Benedictine monks and nuns are still living in community today.

Here’s a potentially helpful link to some excerpts from Benedict’s Rule:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. This chapter presents the rise of monasticism as largely beneficial to Christianity. Is that how you tended to view monasticism before reading this chapter? Have your views on monasticism changed after reading this chapter? To what extent was your evaluation of monasticism affected by the presence (or lack thereof) of monastic movements in your religious background?
  2. Noll notes that knowledge of Benedict’s life does not equal our knowledge of his historical importance (p. 81). Do you find it encouraging or disheartening that work done for Christ can leave an impact that outlasts the knowledge or memory of the individual’s personality?
  3. Noll presents monasticism as a means of preserving rigorous Christianity in the face of Christendom (p. 82). In contexts where Christianity is generally accepted or at least tolerated, in what ways can the church preserve its rigorous witness? Is monasticism a viable option in areas where the church is small or persecuted?
  4. Simeon Stylites’s story is one of the odder ones of church history.  How does his narrative strike you? Did his extreme self-denial help anybody? Did it help proclaim Christ?
  5. Noll praises Benedict’s Rule for combining zeal with stability (p. 87). In religious matters, can zeal and stability be reconciled? If there is a conflict between the two, which do you favor more?
  6. Noll notes that monasticism allowed women an opportunity to actively participate in the life of the church (p. 90). Is it surprising to think that monasticism helped elevate the role of women in Christianity? Could monasticism be helpfully reclaimed by feminists today?
  7. The last portion of the chapter is a partial evaluation of monasticism from a Protestant perspective. How did you respond to that evaluation? Based on what you have read, do you think monasticism promotes legalism? How might your religious background affect your answer?

Image credit for the detail of St. Benedict from a fresco of Fra Angelico:

Suggested next click: Chapter 5

Noll, Ch. 3: The Council of Chalcedon (451 CE)

Chapter 3 continues on from chapter 2, in discussing the Council of Chalcedon of 451. In fact, the meeting in Chalcedon was the fourth of the so-called “ecumenical councils” of the early church, after Nicaea (325), Constantinople (381), and Ephesus (431). The two in the 300s were really devoted to the question of how to talk rightly about the relationship between the Son and the Father (or, in common parlance, “Jesus and God”). The two councils of the 400s dealt with the question of how to understand the relationship of Jesus’s humanity and his divinity – the “human-ness” and the “god-ness” of Jesus.

You may already have had some questions about these matters, but I found the chart on p. 63 to be very helpful. I’d use it as a resource if I were teaching this book. A couple of other notes on the chapter:

  • Noll is right to emphasize on page 65 the growing importance of Mary for Christianity. People have different theories about why people at this time might have been looking for other intercessors between themselves and God. My own theory has to do with the growth in the size of the church buildings and the ceremony of the Christian liturgy (worship rituals). Both of these, as they grow, can conspire to make Christians feel very small and insignificant; as Jesus is exalted and is physically far away (for example, as the bread and wine on the altar at the front of a very big church), then it makes sense that people would feel distanced from him. And as a result, they might feel the need for a new mediator.
  • He is also right that there were political conflicts between the various patriarchates (p. 70). Constantinople and Alexandria seem to have had a particular rivalry. If you want to see another manifestation of this, Google “John Chrysostom Synod of the Oak,” and you’ll get to read about an event decades before, when Cyril of Alexandria’s uncle was the Patriarch in Egypt, and that rivalry again reared its ugly head.
  • On p. 71, in the section about the council’s “Theological Significance,” Noll says that the “Definition” of Chalcedon sought to find a balance between various extremes in expressing the identity of Jesus. As a teacher and now colleague of mine once said, this balance-seeking is an important task in Christian theology; in fact, most “heresies” arise from well-intentioned overemphasis on one side of an argument that needs balance.
  • I had not thought about the terminology that was settled upon at Chalcedon as an example of cultural “translation” from Christianity’s originally Jewish world into its Greco-Roman surroundings. There are all kinds of ways we still do this in Christian circles (see the discussion on chapter 12), but this example was a new one to me. You might want to talk about it in your group.

A link that might be helpful is Leo’s Tome, referred to on p. 69:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. Look at the chart on page 63. Based on your understanding of the chapter, does the community of your religious background have a Christology more like Alexandria or more like Antioch? Are such questions even asked in your religious community? If not, how does this affect the way you have read about this debate?
  2. It may be surprising to Protestants to realize how important language about Mary was to this debate. Do you think such an emphasis in the debate was appropriate? What role do you believe Mary should play in the life of Christians?
  3. The Chalcedonian debates tied into matters of church politics (Alexandria versus Antioch). Are “political” struggles inevitable in the church? Do they help reveal true Christianity or do they serve to distort it?
  4. The Christological debates highlighted the importance of the humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. The conclusion was that whatever aspects of humanity that Christ did not take on, his death could not redeem. What aspects of being human is it hard for you to imagine Christ “taking on?” Is it comforting or disconcerting to believe that He did so?
  5. One result of Chalcedon was divisions in Christianity which persist until the present day. Were the issues discussed at Chalcedon worth dividing over? Why or why not? Are there issues today that could cause schism that will not be resolved 1500 years from now?

Image credit for Vasily Surikov’s “Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon”:

Suggested next click: Chapter 4

Noll, Ch. 2: The Council of Nicaea (325 CE)

The second episode Noll describes jumps ahead to the fourth century, just after the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity legal in the Roman Empire. As Noll says, bishops from around the Mediterranean met in 325 at the behest of the emperor; although they eventually discussed and made decisions on a variety of issues, the primary “presenting problem” was the description of Jesus that was going around Alexandria from the mouth of the a preacher named Arius.

This was not the first time that gatherings of Christian leaders had taken place; in fact, we know that they had been going on for many decades. When historians talk about regional gatherings, we tend to call them “synod” (from a Greek word for “gathering”); when we talk about gatherings of leaders from all corners of the Christian world – or at least as many as can make it – we call them “councils.” Since this one was held in Nicaea, we call it the “Council of Nicaea,” and it eventually the first of many “ecumenical [worldwide] councils” of the Church.

A couple of links that might be helpful:

Here are some further comments on Noll’s presentation in ch. 2, with questions to consider:

  1. Constantine was the one who called the council (notice the guy in the crown in the image at the top of this post).  It wasn’t the pope (who didn’t even go by that name yet) — it was the secular ruler.  He wanted to standardize the Christian religion in the empire.  How do you think people would react if an American president called major Christian leaders together — not to pray or consult, but to actually decide major matters of doctrine for American Christianity?
  2. Arius was extremely successful in marketing his understanding of Jesus’ relationship to God, so much so that Constantine felt the need to call the council. That tells me something about the state of Christian doctrine at that time: it was simply not the case that people said, “What, Arius?  You’re crazy!” A lot of things hadn’t been “decided” yet, and so there was diversity in the various beliefs that Christians held about Jesus.  Can you imagine living at a time in which we didn’t really have a lot of those “orthodox” Christian doctrines settled?  Or, looking forward, what doctrines do you think we will have settled in a thousand years that we don’t right now (if Jesus hasn’t come back by then)? 
  3. Obviously, the “content” of the council is hugely important, and the “Christological” content was captured in the text we know as the “Nicene Creed” (the painting on the left shows the “council fathers” holding the document).   Do you belong to a church that recites a creed every week? Have you ever belonged to one that does so?  If so, what is that like?  If not, and you have visited a church that does that, how did you react?  When you “state your faith” every week, is it odd, comforting, informative, or something else?
  4. Follow-up: What about the Christian groups that do not use creeds (for whatever reason)? Are they missing something by not having something like a creed? How might “Arian” views about Jesus flourish in a church that doesn’t use a creed (or one that does, for that matter)? What would that look like?
  5. As Noll says, the emperors in the mid-fourth-century sometimes supported what became the “orthodox position”; at other times they backed the “Arian view.” Given this historical state of affairs, how much confidence can we place in political leaders to protect various aspects of Christian doctrine, culture, and/or practice? What kinds of “protections” would we welcome? What would be unwelcome?
  6. The Nicene council is a turning point not just because it was important then, but also because it has shaped worldwide Christianity for the 1,700 years since it occurred.  Basically all Christians affirm the tenets of the Nicene Creed, even if they don’t know that text.  In fact, we hold a number of our Christian beliefs because we think “it says so” in the Bible… and yet sometimes the words come more from a creed than from the Bible itself.  For example, we believe that God made everything, but we tend to think about “heaven” and “earth” as the two parts of “all that exists” — God’s place, and everywhere else.  That’s probably partly because the creed says God is the “maker of heaven and earth.”  So: Is it odd to believe something, in part because (or knowing that) some people 1,700 years ago put it into words for you?  Most modern people want to think of things as their “own,” and yet Christian statements of doctrine, even though much of it is about God, are more the expressions of human beings than words directly revealed by God on stone tablets. Is that troubling or good news? Why?

Image credits for the two icons included above:

Suggested next click: Chapter 3

Noll, Ch. 1: The Fall of Jerusalem (70 CE)

The first chapter of Noll’s book deals with a crisis in ancient Judaism that had implications for the Jesus movement.  He starts out by talking not about Christianity but rather Judaism.  This is important because Judaism is the context out of which Christianity emerges (as he says on p. 15, Christianity was an “offshoot” of Judaism), and that emergence is the focus of the chapter.

Then, on the fall of Jerusalem itself, he describes the unimaginable horrors that the residents of Jerusalem experienced during the siege.  Reading accounts of other sieges in the Bible (drinking one’s own urine, eating newborn babies for lack of other meat, etc.) are enough to turn one’s stomach.

Finally, Noll captures the event’s significance well at the top of p. 17: it helped “to move Christianity outward, to transform it from a religion shaped in nearly every particular by its early Jewish environment into a religion advancing toward universal significance in the broader reaches of the Mediterranean world, and then beyond.”  Many of the letters in the New Testament capture various elements of the challenges in this regard that Christianity faced at this time (e.g., Galatians on following the Jewish law, Colossians on the possible influence of Jewish philosophies, Revelation on the possibility of continued interaction between Christians and Jews, etc.).

If you’d like to read some of Josephus’s eyewitness account, click here:

Here are some questions to respond to:

  1. The questions that Noll discusses on p. 18 are important.  What are other episodes in church history in which you have noticed Christians wrestling with questions like these: “What is the truth about God and Jesus’ relation to God?”  “How do we know the truth in these matters?”  “How do we put these truths into action?”  In those episodes, how did Christians answer one or more of the questions here?  Or, if you don’t know about episodes in history, how do you see that happening in our own day?
  2. It is interesting that, on pp. 23 and following, Noll describes the problem of “doing history” from scant evidence.  We don’t have that problem too often nowadays, given our contemporary glut of information.  But in some instances — for example, the death of Osama bin Laden a few years back — we are often dependent on less-than-full information.  In such cases and in your experience, how does the stance of the interpreter affect the interpretation/narration of a situation? Have you been involved in a situation like that, for example, in a car accident?
  3. Of the “three stabilizing elements” for Christianity that Noll describes beginning on p. 25 (canon, episcopacy, and creed), which has been most important for your own experience of Christianity?  Why do you think this is the case?
  4. This episode shows that racial tensions are not just something that Christians are dealing with in our own day.  How does the story of what happened in the early church affect your thinking about racial tension in the church today?
  5. The stories of Jesus’ crucifixion depict both the “Jews” and the Romans as a type of “enemy” of the Jesus-followers.  When you were reading about the “Jewish War” with Rome, did you find yourself sympathizing more with one or the other? What kinds of things do you think influenced the way that you respond to reading about that conflict?

Image credit for David Roberts’s The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem:

Suggested next click: Chapter 2