The Common Good
September-October 1998

Faithful to the Story

by Martin E. Marty | September-October 1998

An evangelical primer on decisive moments

Mark Noll's brisk and elegant run through Christian history, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, displays his usual trademarks. The Wheaton College professor never has trouble keeping the plotline of a story clear, and here as always he holds the attention of readers. He is likely to grasp the notice even of those who do not like, or do not think they like, history. Give this author a 15-minute chance, and you are likely to get hooked by this book, designed to attract and hold newcomers to the subject.

While Noll always has secular and catholic readerships in mind, he speaks out of and with special passion to the communities of faith called evangelical. He has taken pains in recent years to diagnose some problems of evangelicalism, including its absence of a "mind"—an evangelicaldom-wide love of learning—and of a mind informed by history. Here, as in his much longer and more concentrated A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Eerdmans, 1992), he puts up rather than shuts up. Instead of apologizing for story and history, he offers up stories and lets them be their own justification for existence.

Why see history as a problem for evangelicals and its value as a case that requires selling? One of the strengths of evangelicalism, one to which Noll has much devoted himself, is devotion to the Bible (and its history), which often can turn to biblicism. The biblicist tends to consider that everything God had to say occurred in the times we call biblical and everything God has to say occurs in the heart of the individual sinner, convert, and Christian congregation today.

Some evangelicals do pay attention to the early centuries, when Christians fashioned creeds, doctrines, and polities on the basis of their understanding of scriptures and the thought forms of their culture. Let's call that the "hop." Then they "skip" to the Protestant Reformation and hit a few high points there. Finally, there is the "jump" to today's scene. Such a hop, skip, and jump would be enough to permit Noll and his historian colleagues to begin to make their case. But he and they would be dissatisfied. There are too many negative and positive stories, examples, and lessons along the way—some more important than others. These Noll calls "turning points."

THE APPROACH to history implied in his title does evoke controversy. Today few academic historians believe that they are able somehow to replicate and reproduce the past. Instead, they "construct" the past by doing research, putting their findings in order, developing at least an implicit thesis about the past, and telling some sort of story. One might say that there is no history until there is a historian. The past is past, dead, gone, and voiceless. The historian takes leavings of the past in the form of traces and texts and then constructs a story. Such an understanding can lead and has led some to extremely subjective and "deconstructive" approaches to history.

Noll does not belong to that school. He clearly believes that some things happened; they did not not happen. We can make certifiable sense of the traces they have left, even if we have to be suspicious of those who were responsible for the leaving of traces. So he "constructs" a story by concentrating on "turning points." Does history, does Christian history, truly have them, or do they exist only in the minds of the Noll-like? On one hand, history has a flow of the sort that Arnold Toynbee profanely dismissed as "one damn thing after another." On the other, we do find that events converge, conspirators conspire, charismatic people appear on the scene, a kairos, a pregnant special moment occurs, and there is a turn.

Test that on your own experience. The deaths of John Lennon or Kurt Cobain may have reached profoundly into the minds of the young. But they represented turning points less than did the assassinations of a president, a candidate, and civil rights leaders in the 1960s. Couple them with the Vietnam War and you have a sense of how turning points do not need a Revolutionary War or a Civil War to be decisive.

Noll has chosen his turning points well. Christianity did set out in new directions with the fall of Jerusalem and the great councils; with the invention of monasticism and official Christianity; with the divisions between East and West and between Protestant and Catholic; with modern reforms and revivals; with revolutions and the missionary spread into the world; with the ecumenical movement and current crises. This is not the place to raise any quibbles, and I have no important ones. While reviewing turning point history, it's easy to gripe about some that are left out. Noll even provides a register of some that occurred to him but that he dismissed because he wanted this to be a mercifully short book.

The author is modest; he knows that his book will not be a turning point in the writing of Christian history. But it's an excellent sampler, whose telling is motivated, the last line tells us, by the story in Acts 28:28 of why the church's story is important. Noll even needs italics for his scripture: "Therefore I want you to know that God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!"

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.. Mark A. Knoll. Baker Books and InterVarsity Press, 1997.

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