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Great Books for Christian Reading

There is a danger that writing a blog post about book lists, book recommendations, and books generally, gives the impression that in order to be a good Christian or pastor, you need to love nothing more than being nose deep in a pile of dusty pages. I appreciate the danger, and want to dispel that particular impression. After all, at least some of Jesus’s early followers were illiterate fishermen! Being a bookworm is certainly not a prerequisite to being an efficient and faithful servant of God and neighbour.

However, I do believe that the gift of books, the ability to read them, and the wide availability (perhaps, embarrassingly so) of countless good books on meaningful topics is an opportunity worth taking up by someone serious about the Christian life. I could fill this post with appeals to read, to learn to read better if you cannot yet and to learn to enjoy reading as an activity, but perhaps that is a conversation for another time.

What I intend to do is expand upon the list of books I discussed in the latest episode of Deep Roots Podcast. This is a list of significant books that have shaped my journey as a Christian, student, pastor, and theological educator. I was asked to produce this list by a former student and friend who wanted recommendations for important Christian reading. I ended up producing two lists – the first was ‘Must Reads from the 20th Century Onwards’, and the second was ‘Must Haves from the First 20 Centuries of the Church.’ The Podcast features books from the first list, and this post hopefully fills some of the spaces from both. I hope you’ll be introduced to books that you’ll benefit from in the ways that they’ve benefited me.

Must-Reads from the 20th Century onwards

There are so many to choose from, and you will find blogs online arguing for the best Christian books that you actually must read. For me, these must-reads are those that, in retrospect, are so good, or proved to be so influential to me and my theological thinking, that I think they should be read. 

In the podcast, I spend some time chatting through five of them: Kevin DeYoung’s excellent commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Thomas Weinandy’s seminal work on divine impassibility, Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead, Todd Billings on suffering, and John Webster’s sermons. I say enough about these on the episode, so won’t add anything additional here.

A few of the books on this list are just really great introductions to important, key topics. Scott Swain’s The Trinity: A Short Introduction is my go-to recommendation on the Trinity. I wanted a short, readable introduction to the Trinity that brought centuries of classical Reformed reflection into conversation with rigorous hermeneutics as it spoke in a worshipful key, all the while introducing concepts and frameworks that the best of trinitarian theology through the centuries has agreed upon. Could such a book exist? Apparently, it could, and does. I’ve also got Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God, to show how the doctrine of the Trinity alone makes sense of evangelical commitments; Jeffrey, Ovey, and Sach, on the atonement (Pierced for Our Transgressions); Sinclair Ferguson on The Holy Spirit; Tim Ward on scripture (Words of Life); Michael Horton’s two-volume Justification; and Alec Motyer’s stunning commentary on Isaiah, which serves both as a weighty technical tool and a devotional guide. I don’t claim to have covered all the doctrinal or biblical bases in the list; but these are books that I have absolutely loved and gained plenty from. 

Some of the books might be a little more unexpected. Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, along with other books on Christology by Tanner, introduces some vital themes and ways of making sense of the incarnation in the broader context of the doctrine of God that I have found truly illuminating. Her concept of the person of the Son as the perfect shape of sonship, into which human nature is assumed at the incarnation, unlocks some complicated theological ideas that make a lot of sense. In a similar vein, Rowan Williams’ Christ the Heart of Creation is an extraordinary text, bringing together decades of reflection upon the person of Jesus as the human existence of perfect filial love, with a sophisticated account of the relationship between infinity and finitude that cuts through many issues theologians have sometimes had with the incarnation of the Son.

There is some biography on the list – George Marsden on Jonathan Edwards is one of the best books I’ve read, from a historian who is a great writer and story-teller. In his detailed account of the life of this famous pastor and theologian, Marsden cites one of Edwards’ opponents, as Edwards was getting sacked from the pastorate, as observing that one could discern in Edwards a man “whose happiness was beyond the reach of his enemies.” That’s found its way into a sermon or two since I read it. In addition to this, Sheldon Vanauken’s autobiographical reflection on the nature of love, grief, and God, A Severe Mercy, looks back on his life and marriage, and friendship with CS Lewis, as he navigates the pain of loss and the power of faith. 

Finally, I wanted to mention a few of the entries that touch upon the theology of the Christian life. Kris Lundgaard’s Through the Looking Glass is a contemporary re-working of John Owen’s Meditations on the Glory of Christ, in which he takes Owen’s material on the contemplation of Christ and modernises it, putting it in accessible sections with plenty of illustrations and anecdotes. Tim Keller’s Prayer is my favourite of his books, and is a fantastic book on piety (I do also like Hans Urs Von Balthasar’s Prayer, in a slightly more contemplative key). One that I’ve found to be a real powerhouse of a book on the Christian life is Grant Macaskill’s Living in Union with Christ. It’s the worked-out application of his scholarly Union with Christ in the New Testament, and sets out the way in which union with Christ should function at the root of our understanding of what it means to live out a moral life in the power of the Spirit. It is not a return to self-effort, with the Spirit acting like some dietary supplement that gives us a boost at being better versions of ourselves; rather, the Spirit unfolds the sonship of the Son in the particulars of the Christian’s life, such that the Christian is joined to Christ the Son and shares, in a creaturely way, in that relation of sonship to the Father. Macaskill is a gift to the church, and this book is a lovely treatment of a vital topic.

Must-Haves from the first 20 Centuries of the Church

This is, in one respect, a more objective list, inasmuch as there are just some absolute classics that everyone holding themselves out as a handler of Christian things should have spent some time considering, and learning from. Again, there are plenty of lists like this around the place, and some much more extensive bibliographies of the ‘great tradition’ that will give a lot more detail. 

I think everyone should be ready and eager to hear the Christians from the early, medieval, and Reformation church speak, and to pay attention to how they think about God and the nature of Christianity. I’m not going to get into knotty questions of tradition, or the act of retrieval, here. There is a lot of good stuff being written and presented on the importance of evangelicals being willing to accept correction and instruction from previous fathers (and all too occasionally, mothers) of the church, letting the ‘breeze of the centuries’ blow through a narrow parochial view of the faith and refresh it, renewing the church’s life. Again, it’s not my place to get into that here. I think enough is said by referring to what C. S. Lewis famously suggested, that in addition to the need for breeze, that for every new book someone reads, they should read an old one. In pursuit of that goal, I put together this second list of classic texts that Christians should read and digest and allow to expand their view and vocabulary of faithfulness to the gospel.

Whether it’s Irenaus’s redemptive-historical survey in Demonstration of the Apostolic Teaching, Athanasius’s rebuke of the Arians or his On The Incarnation, Basil On the Holy Spirit, Gregory of Nazianzus’s Theological Orations, or any of Cyril’s works on the incarnation (Unity of Christ is a later, summary work), the ‘patristic’ heritage of Christianity is loaded with texts of universal significance. Special mention perhaps for a work not as well known – John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, comes towards the later part of the period often associated with patristic theology, and offers a neat summary and presentation of a range of Christian up to that point.

Augustine is, in my view, in a league of his own. His Confessions is a lesson in prayer, and the power of a robust doctrine of God in Christian devotion. City of God is a rich and complex mix of the nature of sin and idolatry, the church’s relationship to the state, God, Christ, salvation, judgement, the beatific vision, and a whole host besides. His homilies/sermons on the gospel of John are as rich in practical exhortation as they trinitarian theology. And his On The Trinity is a stunning lesson in contemplating God and reading Scripture. Augustine’s trinitarian theology was often attacked by people in the twentieth century as beginning from and ending with the oneness of God at the expense of the three persons, and that he represents a totally different path to the warm, dynamic relationality of the Cappodocians (Gregory, Basil, and Gregory). Thankfully, serious scholarship has debunked this myth, but there is no remedy like simply reading the man himself. 

The Middle Ages and Reformation are also treasure troves of important theological work. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is unparalleled in its detailed analysis of early Christian material, biblical handling, and influence on later generations. If you can’t afford the entire set, then the Prima Pars is the first bit that deals with God and creation, and might be a good one to start with. Luther’s Freedom of a Christian and Calvin’s Institutes are indispensable to the pastor, and stand out as Reformation texts that capture what evangelical theology was about at that time. 

The post-Reformation Reformed theologians stand as heirs of the early Reformers, and of the catholic faith reaching further back. Sometimes, they get a kicking for being too rationalistic, too forensic, too precise. Sometimes, they are. But more often than not, their careful approach was because of a desire to bring all the tools available to them to Scripture in order best make sense of the gospel. Turretin’s Institutes is a great example of this, and is a valuable text to have on the shelf. I am also partial to John Owen, and Stephen Charnock, both of whom have had their Works published by Banner of Truth. The later works of Herman Bavinck and Geerhardus Vos (Reformed Dogmatics x2) pick up this Reformed tradition and express it again, in their own context. Bavinck in particular is one I would encourage everyone to invest in.

As I close, let me underline that the purpose of my list(s) was not to provide a check list of books to churn through so that they have been read. As Mortimer Adler says in his classic How To Read A Book, “In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.” That’s wise, and who knows: maybe some of the titles covered here will get through to others in the same way they’ve had a significant impact upon me.


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