Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.
Three major themes grace Mark Noll’s Turning Points in the History of Christianity: the development of a cohesive doctrine of faith, the relationship of church and state, and the spread of Christianity from the Middle East to Europe and the rest of the world.  The themes overlap in many ways, which Noll also illustrates.  However, these themes may not be the message that Noll is attempting to deliver to readers.  In the introduction he sets out four reasons, which he specifically aims at fellow believers, that church history is an important topic (Noll, 15).  Noll believes that it is important to recognize that Christianity is more than “simply a set of dogmas, a moral code, or a picture of the universe,” (Noll, 15) but that it is also “the acts of God in time and space, centrally the acts of God in Christ,” (Noll, 15).  This means that to “study the history of Christianity is continually to remember the historical character of the Christian faith,” (Noll, 15).  The remaining three reasons Noll believes it is important to study the history of Christianity: to place the study of scripture into historical perspective, to examine how Christians interact with various cultures, and to separate what is truly an aspect of genuine Christian Faith from things that are not core beliefs (Noll, 18), illustrate that this is not the typical historical work.   Rather, it is primarily designed for the laity and new students, not scholars (Noll, 13).  Turning Points is specifically written for an audience that is mostly composed of Christians of certain denominations, and Noll accepts this bias, while at the same time pledging to be as fair as possible within those limits.
The development of a cohesive and standard doctrine of faith dominated both the early history of Christianity and the beginning chapters of Turning Points with good reason.  It was as necessary for early Christians to define what they believed in, as it is to start a discussion of church history with the beginnings of the church.  Noll traces the adoption of the books of the New Testament by examining their content, the earliest dates they are referred to, and the Jewish tradition of consulting sacred texts for understanding the divine, as well as the social environment of the first and second centuries.  Noll’s attributes the necessity of developing a canon of accepted writing to what the Second Epistle of Peter calls the errors of “ignorant and unstable people,” (Noll, 35).  An example of the challenge posed by different interpretations of the New Testament is the canon provided by Marcion, who heavily edited the Gospels and other writings to support his belief that the loving God of the New Testament was at war with an evil and restrictive God of the Old Testament (Noll, 35).
The doctrinal result of the Marcionite heresy was for early church leaders to develop their own cannon, so that by 200 A.D. a familiar canon of New Testament writings appeared, which included writing believed divinely inspired, as well as writings that should be read and understood.  The New Testament as modern civilization understands it was largely in place by 367 A.D.  The canon was only the first tool the church used to develop official doctrine.  Other tools were the development of a church hierarchy, the use of creeds to teach and affirm what believers stood for, and the use of councils for resolving disputes over matters of faith.
Creeds hold a special place both in religious services and in Turning Points, because they represent a concrete and coherent synopsis of the foundations of Christianity.  Examining differences between chronologically divergent creeds allows us to understand the issues that previous generations struggled with, or that were central enough to their belief system to necessitate spelling out.  They were also used to protect believers from outside heresy (Noll, 44).
Turning Point’s second theme, the relationship of church and state takes center stage with the Council of Nicaea in 325, which also shows the commingling of the three main themes of the work.  Nicaea was the result of both a need for 4th century Christians to establish the nature of the Trinity and divinity of Christ, but it also provided the Emperor Constantine an opportunity to use the church to enhance the stability of the Roman Empire (Noll, 51).  Constantine’s main goal in calling the council was not so much to resolve the Arian heresy, as it was to remove a potential source of stress in the Empire.  Other than the previous Roman persecution of Christians, this represents the first official involvement of Christianity with the state.  This is where Noll turns to the obvious issue: what is the proper relationship between the church and the state?
The Emperors obviously thought that they should be in charge, after all, that was why they became Emperors.  The leaders of the church, predictably, believed otherwise, which comes into clear focus when Ambrose refused communion to Theodosius saying “the Emperor is in the church, not above it,” (Noll, 60).  This debate continued to flare between rulers and church leaders: Holy Roman Emperors challenged the authority of the Pope, Henry VII of England separated from Rome and was declared the head of his church, and modern Roman Catholic Bishops threaten to refuse communion to Democratic Party candidates who support abortion.
The marriage of church and state is not always a happy one, which Noll tends to gloss over.  The carnage of the Crusades is largely absent from Turning Points, as are the torture and death of the Inquisition, and the suppression of the Templar Order.  This could be overlooked if it were not for the selection of the French Revolution and its attempt to dechristianize France (Noll, 252).  Noll introduces this topic as part of the greater discussion of the end of Christendom, but it is difficult to see how such an emphasis on assaults on Christians by atheists is justifiable in the absence of discussions of the assaults by Christians on others.  The neglect of these issues can hardly be covered by his statement that “Throughout the entire history of Christianity, problems have constantly arisen when believers equate the acts of the church with the acts of God, when Christians assume that using the name of God to justify their actions in space and time is the same as God himself acting,” (Noll, 15).  To be fair, Turning Points acknowledges the horror of the Latin sack of Byzantium as the endgame of the Great Schism, and that the capture of Jerusalem saw the slaughter of all of its inhabitants (Noll, 141).  However, it depicts them as mere aberrations of behavior without further examination.
The final theme of Noll’s work is the spread of Christianity from the Middle East to Europe and beyond.  This concept is pervasive throughout, and Noll attributes it primarily to the forced separation of Christianity from its Jewish roots after the destruction of the Temple of Solomon by the Romans (Noll, 26).  Noll finds the destruction of the Temple particularly important as it transformed Christianity from a mere offshoot of Judaism “toward universal significance in the broader reaches of the Mediterranean world, and then beyond,” (Noll, 27).
At first the spread of Christianity was encouraged by the pax Romana, which allowed easy travel and communication within the broad reaches of the Roman Empire.  Noll believes that it was also aided by what he calls “ a widespread dissatisfaction with the inherited religions of the Mediterranean,” (Noll, 29).  However, he does not back this last claim up with any evidence, either assuming that it is already general knowledge, or that it should be taking it as an article of faith.  The spread of Christianity continued throughout the Roman Empire, sometimes sporadically, but rapidly enough that Constantine the Great made it the official religion of the state in the 4th century.  Strangely, Noll makes no mention of the contributions of European pagan traditions to the practice of Christianity: no mention of changing the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, of the placement of Christmas at Yuletide, the use of fertility symbolism at Easter, or the connection between Samhain and All Saint’s Day.  Is this an example of the bias that Noll admits he brings to the Project, an oversight, or does he truly believe that none of these items have any relation to the success of Christianity in Northern Europe and the Roman Empire?  Similarly, Noll makes no mention to the resistance of some female Scandinavian rulers to Christianity because they believed that they would lose status in a Christian system as James Reston suggests in The Last Apocalypse: Europe in 1000 A.D.
The real meat of the growth of Christianity beyond the Mediterranean world comes in the discussion of missionary work by Catholics and Protestants after the 15th century.  Although missionaries traveled to the New World shortly after Columbus’ first voyage, Noll believes that most important and pioneering missionary work began with the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in the 16th century.  The Jesuits early missions took them to India, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Japan (Noll, 202).  The problems they experienced, Noll claims, are important because it directly relates to missionary issues of the 20th century.  The central debate was how to appropriately deliver the message of Christianity to radically different cultures.
This debate came about after Francis Xavier began missionary work in Japan, but adopted Japanese modes of dress that violated the spirit of Jesuit principles.  Xavier wore expensive clothes to impress Japanese rulers and used the patronage of Portuguese traders to gain influence and protection.  These steps not only violated his vows of poverty, but also the Jesuit tradition of independence from everyone but the Pope (Noll, 216).  The debate over how to proselytize to other cultures intensified when Matteo Ricci wore the clothing of China’s literati and worked to include Confucian ancestor worship into a Christian metaphor (Noll, 216)
By 1659 the Catholic Church was makings strides to work out the problems of cultural adaptation by sending a document to missionaries in what is now Vietnam, which said that they should not try to change any of the customs of the Vietnamese unless they were inherently immoral (Noll, 218).  However, it is difficult to reconcile this document, which says, “What would be sillier than to import France, Spain, Italy, or any other country of Europe into China?  Don’t import these, but the faith.  The faith does not reject or crush the rites and custom of any race, as long as these are not evil. Rather, it wants to preserve them,” (Noll, 218) with practices in the Americas, where missionaries attempted to change all aspects of Native American life without respecting those cultures.  The same was largely true of the Polynesian experience.  Again, Noll seems to provide the most agreeable view of missionary efforts without acknowledging abuses against other cultures.
Turning Points is a valuable work, in that it lays out the development of Christianity in an easily understandable form and includes a large amount of documentation related to the subject matter, including hymns and prayers from the eras and traditions discussed.  It provides great historical context for the development of Christian tradition and thought, so that readers understand the cultural and political environments Christians experienced in different ages.  However, the reader must be prepared to either accept a rosy picture of the development and spread of Christianity, or be willing to supplement Turning Points with outside sources that specifically deal with the issues that Noll avoids.

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