The Top 25 (Or So) Books for a Young Theologian to Own (And Read)

If ever in history there were a non-event, this is it: my top 25 (or so) books for a young theologian to own (and read). A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me his list of twenty-five books and it “got me to thinkin.” So here’s my list, but before I give the list, allow me to make several comments.

First, I’ve focused this list mainly on Christian doctrine and systematic theology, and certain other types of books that relate closely to those tasks. I’ve left out numerous wonderful books that fall in other categories (pastoral theology, biblical studies, etc.).

Second, this list includes quite a few books with which I disagree vigorously. A theologian’s library should contain more than a few books written by theologians outside of our “theological family,” so that he can come to the theological roundtable, listening and speaking in an informed and compelling manner.

Third, this list encourages the young theologian not to be a chronological snob (by limiting his reading to recent publications), but instead to read the old books, slowly, patiently, receptively.

Fourth, I’d like to hear your thoughts about what you would have included that I left out, and maybe what I included that you would have left out. I started out aiming to provide 25 recommendations, but ended up exceeding my own limit.

In fact, my list begins with (1) nine towering theologians in church history, followed by (2) three towering theologians in Baptist History; (3) ten more books; (4) intellectual history, worldview, and culture; (5) global theology; and (6) theological satire.

Nine Towering Theologians in Church History

Irenaeus’ Against the Heresies: In this book and other writings, Irenaeus argues that the heretics’ interpretations go awry precisely because they do not use the apostolic interpretation of Scripture, because they do not set biblical passages within their home environment, the entire canon of Christian Scripture. Another option is Irenaeus’ Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. I consider Irenaeus to be one of the most exemplary theologians in church history.

Athanasius’ On the Incarnation: In this book, Athanasius argues that the Son was begotten and not made, and therefore is of one substance with the Father, and which is “perhaps the single most important statement made in the history of Christian thought” (Widdicombe). As Athanasius battled the Arians, one notes that his theological and apologetic method included biblical exegesis, historical arguments, logical deduction, and the use of available philosophical terms and categories.

Augustine’s City of God: Augustine wrote this powerful theological treatise in response to the fall of Rome. He argues that the Graeco-Roman narrative of the world is but a minor narrative subsumed under the more comprehensive biblical narrative. In spite of its deficiencies (e.g. residual Platonic dualisms), this book is a model of how a theologian can communicate the Christian faith in a way that is (biblically) faithful and (contextually) meaningful. I recommend the abridged version with a foreword by Vernon Bourke.

Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae: This book is perhaps the most enduringly influential text in Christian history, apart from the Bible. This book is too much beholden to Aristotelian philosophy and as such not tied closely enough to the biblical narrative, but is a must-read for the informed theologian. The first time reader will want to buy an abridged version, such as Summa of the Summa, edited by Peter Kreeft. (Note: The Summa is not a hot page-turner; it reads like a prolonged excursion into the earnest world of doctoral dissertations.)

Martin Luther’s Commentary on Romans: Luther’s Romans is a fascinating and slim little volume that arises from the lectures he gave on the book of Romans from 1515 until 1516, as he was coming to a realization of justification by faith. If he had rewritten the lecture later in life, surely he would have revised them further, but they stand as a very significant piece of his work. (Note: Just for fun, the reader can count how many of the verses in Romans issue forth in a pointedly witty comment about the Pope.) Also, a bonus: Luther’s Table Talk is a riotously good read; it is a selection of recollections of Luther’s informal comments about numerous topics, theological and otherwise.

John Calvin’s Institutes: Calvin’s Institutes is an enduringly influential text, easy to read, and pastoral in nature. Although it is two volumes of substantial prose, every young theologian should read it slowly, carefully, and critically.

Friedrich Schleiermacher’s On Religion or The Christian Faith: Schleiermacher is the father of modern theology and the fountainhead from which most liberal/revisionist theology flows. On Religion is his first major publication; it reflects his early thought, is brief, and is relatively difficult to read. The Christian Faith reflects his mature thought, is not at all brief, and is a bit easier to read. For the student who wants lighter fare, try Christmas Eve Dialogue on the Incarnation, a very brief and fascinating book written in the form of a Christmas mini-drama, and which was written during the period in between On Religion and The Christian Faith. (Note: Just for fun, the reader can assess how much residual influence Schleiermacher has, even on evangelicals and Baptists.)

Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology or Church Dogmatics: Barth is the dominating theologian of the 20th century, known especially for rejecting the Schleiermacherian tradition. Any 21st century theologian must reckon with him. The main issue I have with Barth is his deficient view of Scripture, which led to a deficient method, which led to some heterodox conclusions (such as his implicit universalism). For young theologians who want to read something readily comprehensible, one option is Dogmatics in Outline, but the problem is that this shows Barth’s early and unseasoned thought. A better option is to read Evangelical Theology, which shows his more mature thought, but unfortunately it is not a dogmatics text. The final option, Church Dogmatics, is the best option, but is wickedly difficult to read because Barth unfolds his arguments slowly and circuitously, rather than in a straightforward and linear fashion. His sentences sometimes last half a page. The Dogmatics are rewarding, but not an easy read for the uninitiated. (Note: The first time I read a volume of the Dogmatics, way back in 1996, I felt like a ferret swimming in a bucket of Codeine ®.)

Carl F. H. Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority: Henry does not quite have the stature of the other eight theologians, but he did provide the most notable evangelical critique of Schleiermacherian and Barthian theology. God, Revelation, and Authority is a multi-volume treatise on, um, God, revelation, and authority. An alternative selection is Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, in which Henry calls for a new kind of robust evangelical scholarship that engages with the larger world, rejects cultural separatism, engages culture in all of its complexity, and works with a type of theological “triage” in which evangelicals can unify and cooperate despite disagreement on more secondary and tertiary issues.

Three Towering Theologians in Baptist History

Balthasar Hubmaier’s The Christian Baptism of Believers: Lively treatise on believer’s baptism, written by a man who surely would have become a prolific and powerful theologian had he not been burned at the stake.

J. L. Dagg’s Manual of Theology and Manual of Church Order: First systematic theology by a Southern Baptist. Pastoral in nature, very accessible for the young theologian. Unfortunately, he elects not to interact with historical and philosophical theology.

A. H. Strong’s Systematic Theology: Strong is probably the most significant Baptist theologian of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He held a high view of Scripture, but unfortunately held to an exclusively inductive view of theology and to some questionable views on other matters (e.g. ethical monism). This book is not quite as accessible as Dagg’s, but is still manageable.

Ten More Books

Herman Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith: Herman Bavinck’s Our Reasonable Faith is a mini-theology which represents a distillation of his multi-volume Reformed Dogmatics. Although I differ from him sharply in some respects (ecclesiology), I find Our Reasonable Faith to be a powerfully-argued, elegant, and concise treatment of Christian theology.

Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture: Bartholomew and Goheen have given us a fine biblical theology, organized around the biblical narrative in six plot movements. Although I differ from the authors in some respects (e.g. ecclesiology), I recommend this as one of the first few books a young theologian should read, especially in light of the fact that systematic theology ought to be lashed to biblical theology (rather than being so entirely beholden to philosophical theology). Christian doctrine arises from within the narrative.

Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: This is perhaps the best little “historically-informed” systematic theology. Its strength lies in its ability to immerse the young theologian in the great theological conversation stretching over the past 2,000 years.

Thomas Oden’s Classic Christianity: Oden is a Methodist theologian who brings to bear a wealth of historical theology upon his systematic. In particular, he has been influential in urging theologians to draw upon the church fathers. Again, I differ from him in many respects, but this book is well worth the time.

J. Rodman Williams’ Renewal Theology: This text is a systematic theology from a charismatic perspective. Given the fact that charismatic churches are experiencing explosive growth worldwide, the young theologian is well-served to pay close attention.

Richard McBrien’s Catholicism: This massive tome is a guide to one Catholic theologian’s view of the Catholic Church’s origins, teaching, traditions, and developments. I’ll warn you, however, on two counts: First, this book is nearly 1300 pages. (The covers of this book are too far apart.) Do not read it in bed. I fear that you will doze off (that’s a reasonable fear, I assure you) in mid-sentence and be crushed to death. Second, McBrien is a liberal/revisionist who is excited by many of the radicalisms of the 20th century (he is farther to the left than Sam Donaldson’s part); conservative Catholics don’t prefer him. But I still recommend the book because he does a fine job of historical theology, mediating the Roman tradition. An alternative book is the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Millard Erickson’s Christian Theology: This book by Erickson is the finest Baptist theology of our generation. Erickson is a top-shelf mind who has put in the hard work to give us a theology that arises from the Scriptures and is conversant with historical and philosophical theology.

J. I. Packer’s Knowing God: This book is an incisive and powerful pastoral theology, in which Packer unpacks the doctrine of God in a way that will challenge anybody from a teenager to a Ph.D. For a young theologian wanting a model of how to write theology, this is your book.

John Stott’s The Cross of Christ: Like Packer’s book above, Stott’s The Cross of Christ is a powerful pastoral treatment of the cross, in which Stott teaches the doctrine of the atonement and applies to Christian life, worship, and mission.

C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity: This book is a little piece of theological dynamite, one of the most popular introductions to the Christian faith ever written, and was voted by Christianity Today the best book of the 20th century. Lewis’ prose is lucid and beautiful.

Contemporary Intellectual History, Worldview, & Culture

Richard Tarnas’ The Passion of the Western Mind: Tarnas’ book is perhaps the best one-stop intellectual history describing the development of the Western mind. For the reader who wants an accessible introduction, this is probably the best choice. For the young theologian who would like a companion volume which supplements Tarnas, John Carroll’s The Wreck of Western Culture is a fine choice. Carroll shows how secular humanism has failed the West. Tarnas and Carroll do not write as believers.

Francis Schaeffer’s How Should We Then Live?: Schaeffer was a towering figure in the 20th century evangelical world. His compassionate and learned apologetic for Christianity finds its fruition in this book, which is an analysis of the decline of Western culture, and a proclamation of the truth of Christianity.

Michael Goheen & Craig Bartholomew’s Living at the Crossroads: This slim volume is an excellent one-stop worldview text. Goheen & Bartholomew begin by expounding the Christian worldview as it arises from the biblical narrative, and follow this with an exposition of Western intellectual history, a brief treatment of contextualization, and finally a brief exposition of how to think and live Christianly in various areas of public life (arts, education, sports, etc.).

Lesslie Newbigin’s Foolishness to the Greeks: Newbigin served for nearly 40 years as a missionary in India, after which he returned to Europe and began asking the question, “What would it mean to confront Western culture with the gospel?” This book is an elegant an incisive distillation of his answer to that question. He is the towering influence behind many of the theologians and church planters who are asking that same question today.

Global Theology (Selectives)

Global Theology: The young theologian would do well to read theology written in other contexts. One might start with Timothy Tennent’s Theology in the Context of World Christianity, which is a systematic theology compendium of essays written by global theologians, or one of Veli-Matti Karkkainen’s multi-volume set (e.g. The Doctrine of God: A Global Introduction).

Global Issues: As the globe becomes more and more hyper-connected (and hyper-aware of this connectedness), theologians are well-served to read books that analyze the world situation. Over the past two decades, books such as Samuel Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Robert Kaplan’s The Ends of the Earth, and Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat have served this purpose.

Theological Satire

Ken C. Johnson and John H. Coe, Wildlife in the Kingdom Come: This little 126-page book is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read; only a person with a petrified diaphragm could fail to laugh out loud. Johnson and Coe’s book is a light-hearted satire on all types of Christian theology. Johnson and Coe are not prejudiced; they are equal opportunity offenders and nobody gets off un-teased.