Mark Noll on Habakkuk and Christian History


by Doug Ward

On March 21, 2010, historian Mark A. Noll was a guest speaker at Oxford Bible Fellowship in Oxford, Ohio. Noll, who at that time was the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame, has written extensively on various aspects of Christian history, and his deep insight into that history was reflected in his sermon.


Dr. Noll reminded his audience at the beginning of his message that the Bible speaks often about how all nations will come to know God. "Because of your temple at Jerusalem, kings shall bear gifts to you," Psalm 68:29 reports. "Nobles shall come from Egypt; Cush shall hasten to stretch out her hands to God," verse 31 adds. God says in Isaiah 66:18 that "the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory." Rev 21:24 predicts that "the kings of the earth will bring their glory" to the New Jerusalem. And Hab 2:14 declares, "For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea," a prophecy echoed in Isa 11:9.


Christians play an important role in making all of this happen. Indeed, after his resurrection Jesus directed his followers, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matt 28:19). For nearly two thousand years, Christians have been carrying out this directive, taking the Gospel to "the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8),


A Century of Growth

Noll observed that today, the "knowledge of the glory of the Lord" has been spreading as never before. The recently completed twentieth century was the century of most rapid Christian growth in history, especially in Africa, Asia, and and Latin America. For example, in 1890 there were few Korean Christians. Today, in contrast, there is a church in Seoul numbering 250,000 people.


In the face of this kind of explosive growth, Christianity's center of gravity has shifted to the Global South. Noll mentioned several additional examples:

Today weekly church attendance in China is greater than in all of "Christian Europe."

In each of Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda, attendance at Anglican services is greater than the combined attendance for Anglicans in England and Episcopalians in the United States and Canada. The same thing is true for Nigeria many times over.

There are more Presbyterians in Ghana than in Scotland, and more in South Africa than in the United States.

The Brazilian membership of the Assemblies of God is greater than the combined membership of the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ in the United States.

The largest national chapter of the Jesuits is in India.

The churches with largest attendance in England, France, and the Ukraine are largely black.

Korea, Brazil, and perhaps Nigeria each have as many missionaries as there were in the world in 1900.


Contrasts in Habakkuk and in Christian Mission

This rapid spread of Christianity gives us reason to reflect on Hab 2:14. Noll noted that Hab 2:14 parallels Isa 11:9, but these parallel promises appear in two very different contexts. The verse in Isaiah is part of a picture of millennial peace, while the one in Habakkuk comes in the midst of turmoil.


The book of Habakkuk is set shortly before 600 BC, in the final years of the kingdom of Judah. Within a few years the Babylonian Empire would act as an agent of divine justice and conquer Judah (Hab 1:5-11). The book of Habakkuk tells of coming judgment and then offers hope beyond judgment. God later would punish the haughty Babylonians, and knowledge of God's glory would fill the earth (2:6-14).


Noll observed that as the prophecy of Hab 2:14 was given, more false worship than true worship was taking place. The two are contrasted in Hab 2:19-20. Something analogous is true in Christian history. When Christianity spreads rapidly, time is often required before people fully submit to God. When the Gospel first came to Europe, centuries were required to conquer paganism completely. Today in many places in the world, Noll said, Christian worship is "raucous, thinly biblical, crassly materialistic, and not particularly theocentric." It may take some time for today's world Christianity to become aligned with God and the Bible.


There is another stark contrast in Hab 2:4. While the way of righteousness is through faithful trust in God, Habakkuk saw more pride than faith when he looked around him. Noll said that both faith and pride are evident in Christian missionary efforts, illustrating with the story of the Nigerian Anglican leader Samuel Adjai Crowther (c. 1807-1891). As a boy Samuel was captured by slave traders and put on a Portuguese ship bound for Brazil or Cuba. However, the ship was intercepted by the British Navy, and he and other passengers were taken to Sierra Leone, where he became a Christian.


Crowther grew up to be a skilled linguist, translating the Bible into African languages. He was also an effective evangelist to the Muslim community, exposing people to Scripture in a low key way. After training in England, he was ordained to Anglican ministry by the Bishop of London in 1843. Later, in 1864, he became the first African Anglican bishop.


Crowther was an ardent and effective bishop, but sadly, when he was in his seventies, a group of proud young missionaries from England maneuvered him out of the control of his diocese. Crowther was marginalized, and church growth stagnated in Nigeria for a time.


A third contrast is evident in Hab 2:12-14, where it is observed that although nations weary themselves with strife and bloodshed, the knowledge of God's glory continues to fill the world. Noll illustrated this contrast with the story of Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum (1922-1977).1 Luwum had a powerful conversion experience during revival meetings in 1948 and dedicated his life to Christian service, becoming an Anglican priest in 1956. After Uganda gained independence in 1962, he worked toward the goal of developing local leadership for local churches in the new nation. He also promoted charity toward the needy, working cooperatively with Roman Catholic leaders.


One of the greatest obstacles to progress in Uganda was intertribal strife, as exemplified by Idi Amin's military coup in 1971. Luwum worked tirelessly to protest and curb the abuses of Amin's regime. He became archbishop of Uganda and surrounding countries in 1974. In August 1976, he chaired a meeting of religious leaders who condemned the killings being carried out by Amin's security forces. From that time on he knew his days were numbered.


On February 16, 1977, Amin had him killed. Today he is memorialized as a martyr by a statue at Westminster Abbey. Although dictators like Amin have "wearied themselves" in persecuting Christians like Luwum, the faith continues to spread as promised in Hab 2:14.


Hope Despite Hardship

The prophecy of Habakkuk ends with a final contrast. Habakkuk will rejoice even when there is famine. Desperate poverty is contrasted with spiritual wealth in the Lord in Hab 3:17-19.


This contrast is one experienced by the vast majority of Christians in the world, Noll observed. It has been that way for two thousand years. Jesus became human and inaugurated the Kingdom of God in a world filled with problems. The kingdom began and spread not as heaven on earth, but as God-centered life in the midst of extreme difficulty.


In recent history Christianity has spread as world crises have spread. The twentieth century saw both the most rapid expansion of Christianity in history and the largest number of fatalities in warfare. Christianity has spread alongside the growing threat of self-destruction. As in Habakkuk's day, hope stays alive in a chaotic world.


Noll concluded his sermon with one final example from Christian history. On Pentecost in 1862, he said, five thousand South Sea Islanders from Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa gathered to celebrate the adoption of a new constitution, an explicity Christian one. They embraced Christendom at a time when the concept was going out of style in the West.


Western missionaries had brought Christianity to the South Seas, and there were aspects of imperialism in the Western approach to the Pacific Islands. The spread of the Gospel to the South Pacific was an example of Hab 2:14, Noll said, rather than Isa 11:9. Even so, the islanders chose to set up a Christian kingdom. At the ceremony, they marked the occasion by singing a hymn by Isaac Watts based on Psalm 72, a hymn that had been the missionary beacon of the evangelical movement. The initial stanza of this hymn expresses the vision of Hab 2:14:


"Jesus shall reign where'er the sun

does its successive journey run.

his kindgom stretch from shore to shore,

till moons shall wax and wane no more."


God is faithful, and the fulfillment of Habakkuk 2:14 continues today.


1Luwum's life is summarized by Noll and Carolyn Nystrom in Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia, InterVarsity Press, 2011, pp. 111-123.

Issue 34


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On 27 Jan 2019, 13:39.