Where should Christians start if they would like to expand their base of knowledge on Scriptural and theological matters? It goes without saying that the Bible is the single authoritative source of ultimate truth, but a large number of authors have written awe-inspiring books that offer new ways of looking at and understanding the world. The Bible awakens a dormant imagination within all of us, and these books build upon that foundation to make clear specific aspects of the wonder that is Biblical illumination. As a result, we become aware of and can see the potential in people, institutions, and ideas just when we think there is nothing left.
This list could easily be dozens of books long, but for the sake of brevity, I will limit it to ten volumes. The list is in no particular order, and personal experience has proven these works to be highly valuable and treasured sources of enlightening wisdom to me.
So, here are the ten books every Christian should read:
The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Edition by Walter Brueggemann. This revolutionary work of theological insight inspires and transforms perceptions of reality. Brueggemann challenges readers to rethink their current discernment of reality while illuminating an alternative consciousness that the Biblical prophets so vigorously championed. The author calls attention to the fact that, in contemporary society, we have drifted away from the ideal and have instead adopted a mixture of ideologies that serves to oppress rather than to liberate.
Like the prophets, Brueggemann challenges readers to consider that the way things have been done is not, in fact, the way God intends His people to live. He calls for the prophetic ministry to evoke an alternative community that penetrates numbness and despair in order to dismantle the current paradigm, so that a brand new human beginning can commence with the freedom that God intended. This book will change the way readers perceive and interact with the world, reveal tremendous theological insight, and inspire spiritual leaders to stand up to the challenges of the modern world.
On the Incarnation by Athanasius. This is a powerful and persuasive apologetic exposition on the Incarnation and the divinity of Christ written by a theological genius. Athanasius wrote this book in defense of Christ’s full divinity and against Arianism, an emerging theology of his time (the 4th century) that suggested Christ was begotten from the Father, therefore not eternal, and thus subordinate.
Why does this book matter? It explains exactly why God had to come into the world as Jesus (being fully God and man) in order to reconcile with humanity. If you’ve ever pondered why Jesus came into the world as miraculously as He did and why He had to be a man as well as being God, then read this book. It explains one of the most critical yet often misunderstood central tenets of the Christian faith.
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a timeless, treasured, and elite book that stands head and shoulders above most of its peers. The book is a theologically rich yet practical exposition on discipleship and the Christian walk by a genuine suffering servant of Christ. This book not only challenges the imagination to consider what discipleship truly means, but it also reveals how costly that choice becomes in contemporary society. In Bonhoeffer’s own words, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”
In a modern world full of opinions, Bonhoeffer’s words, written more than 50 years ago, are as potent and powerful today as they were then. No longer are we fit to call ourselves “Christians” when we incessantly waver between opinions. As the author makes very plain, there are only two ways—Christ or the world—and to choose the latter invariably leads to death. This is a highly inspirational, intellectually stimulating and empowering masterpiece.
Confessions by Augustine: one of the greatest books ever written, by (arguably) the most influential theologian of all-time. Confessions is, essentially, the story of one man’s spiritual journey from a life of sin (self-centered) to a life of faith (God-centered). At the same time, the book is a personal narrative in which Augustine of Hippo describes his quest from humble beginnings in North Africa to a position of authority in first century Milan, Italy. Readers are invited to join Augustine as he battles with his own sin and the different ideologies of the time, starting from his youth and proceeding well into adulthood. Augustine begins as a true skeptic, raises a multitude of doubts about the Christian faith, then systematically uses scientific, philosophical (he even draws up the ancient Greek philosophers), religious, and logical arguments to debunk alternative theories, and finally reaches the overriding conclusion—that there is only one truth and that truth is found in God. Confessions ends up being a love letter written by one man to his Creator.
Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr (LTE) (Library of Theological Ethics) by Reinhold Niebuhr discusses Christian ethical approaches to the myriad of dilemmas in the modern world. Niebuhr has written prolifically on social ethics, and this text is a collection of essays with a particular emphasis on the topics of love and justice. In Niebuhr’s formulation, perfect love equals perfect justice, an ideal in which people embrace selflessness and relinquish their rights for the sake of others. Generally, much of Niebuhr’s writings stem from his realization that although humans are innately unable to achieve perfect love, they still strive to fashion a society with the elusive goal of perfect justice. In reality, due to the pervasiveness of self-interest, the war against injustice can only achieve marginal victories at best. This is where this book shines: it succinctly provides readers with an ethical roadmap to navigate such areas and discusses the practical application of theological principles to contemporary issues.
The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics by C. S. Lewis. I’m cheating with this selection because Signature Classics is actually seven books in one. Regardless, it is a cumulative masterpiece of Christian thought and commentary.
Whether a devout Christian, an uncompromising atheist, or simply curious, this compilation takes readers through a series of philosophical, logical, and intellectual analyses to decipher some of the most basic, yet simultaneously complex, details about life and the universe. This task was first attempted with reason and logic, yielding unsettled results, and then adequately resolved using a Christian lens. All of this is accomplished through nonfictional commentaries and fictional stories. C. S. Lewis was once a devout atheist, and we are given front-row seats to observe his methodical self-scrutiny of all of his beliefs in order to arrive at a series of well-refined conclusions.
On First Principles by Origen lays the foundation upon which subsequent Christian thought and doctrine was developed. In fact, even though this was written more than 1,000 years ago, Origen’s exposition on systematic theology and Biblical interpretation has stood the test of time. In addition to explaining basic theology, he articulates the distinction between the different meanings of Scripture and provides a blueprint on how to properly decipher the Biblical text. Essentially, this is a textbook on systematic theology written when systematic theology didn’t exist.
The Case for Faith: A Journalist Investigates the Toughest Objections to Christianity (Case for … Series) by Lee Strobel is a simple, easy-to-read apologetic for those within Christ’s house sadly looking out the window and for those outside curiously looking in. To address both cohorts, Strobel asks the tough questions (e.g., If there is a God, why does evil exist? and How could a loving God approve of eternal torment in hell?) that many people either ignore or have no answer to. Strobel does this in order to produce a stronger belief system through a critical stance. This book is very accessible and is written in plain language. Whenever I meet someone who is curious (but hesitant) and eager enough to take a step in the path of faith, I direct them to this book.
Proslogion: including Gaunilo Objections and Anselm’s Replies by Anselm of Canterbury. Anselm of Canterbury sought to use reason in order to explain faith. He helped to induce a paradigm-shift in thought about God by providing the first, best-known, and widely influential argument for the existence of God using reason alone. The first five chapters of the Proslogion deal with Anselm’s “ontological argument” (a term not used by the author), which assumes that the greatest conceivable being cannot exist in the mind alone. As an added bonus, Anselm attempts to explain divine justice and mercy, why evil exists, and why bad things happen to good people.
Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem. For those who want to know what the Bible says about a theological issue, they can find out here. This book’s value rests not so much in its revelation but in its organization; that is, each topic is a self-contained chapter without the need to look elsewhere for more information. This book will challenge your mind and force you to contemplate what you believe and why you believe it. The fact of the matter is many people can read the Bible and not “get it” because there’s so much to get. This book neatly organizes all the topics and thus makes “getting it” much easier.
Systematic Theology relies heavily on the Scriptures (as it should), and even though this book deals with some weighty topics, it presents them in a manner that is very digestible. This book is almost as long as some Bibles (1000+ pages), so one ought to devote a significant amount of protected study time to get through it.
Some may ask, for example, “Where’s Tertullian, Luther, Calvin, Spurgeon, Jonathan Edwards, Kierkegaard, and Tillich?” to which I would respond, “Indeed, but the list is only ten books long!”
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal