In the spirit of that much overused genre, “If I was king of the world, and could get everyone to do exactly what I thought best”–along with all of the quasi-delusional fantasies that necessarily attach themselves to such a project–I offer here some reading recommendations for the Christmas season (and beyond). I often suggest to Harvard students, in light of their busy schedules and demanding classroom obligations, that the two most important times during their college years to intentionally pursue important Christian reading projects are 1.) the various holiday breaks and 2.) summers. Don’t waste these opportunties for sustained spiritual growth and for serious study of God’s Word, as well as various important authors who have been graced with incredible insight into the ways of God through His Spirit!
One possible route you might wisely commit yourself to this year would be a Bible reading plan such as this one. It will take you all the way through the Scriptures in a year, and also helpfully includes a number of catch up days each month for when you inevitably fall behind.
However, while the desire to preserve the unique role and supremacy of the Bible in the life of Christians is both good and important, it can at times lead believers to forget that the Holy Spirit has long been at work before our own historical arrival, and certainly prior to our quite ordinary experience of interpreting the sacred pages of this book. In functionally ignoring what important Christian authors and theologians have been saying for thousands of years, we put ourselves in peril of ignoring the God who was at work in and through them to make Himself known (as others have often pointed out).
Next week I will make mention of a number of more recent Christian works that are worthy of prolonged study. However, heeding C. S. Lewis’ warning against the incipient “chronological snobbery” that uniquely marks our age, I begin with a short survey of some of the most important and brilliant Christian writings throughout the history of the church. Of course, such a list is by definition highly subjective, and I freely admit that my choices mark me out as an evangelical Protestant. For instance, a Catholic or Eastern Orthodox believer might go in quite different directions on a number of choices. In the comments, feel free to share disagreements and alternative choices! Potential readers should be aware that even though I provide the Amazon link to each book below, because of my longstanding conviction that each book is deserving of permanent inclusion in every Christian’s personal library, most of these works are also free public domain and can easily be found and read online with a quick google search.
Basically, my two criteria for evaluating what historical works merit particular consideration by believers today are 1.) the subjective influence and importance they have actually wielded within the church over the centuries, and 2.) the objective excellence and faithfulness they possess when measured against the Scriptures. So, without further ado, here is my list of recommended reading from church history:
1.) The Apostolic Fathers: the earliest post-biblical Christian writings, this famous collection is notable not only for the glimpse it offers into the generations immediately following the apostolic era, but also for the often tremendous insights they give into early Christian practice and thought within the community of faith.
2.) Dialogue with Trypho by Justin Martyr. While scholars debate how much history and how much fictional license lay behind this memorable conversation between the Jewish Trypho and the Gentile Justin, it is a fascinating look into primitive Christian self-understanding, hermeneutics and apologetics. Note especially Justin’s attempt to ground the truth of the gospel in the Old Testament writings which point to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
3.) The Confessions by Augustine. Often considered the pioneer work in the genre of autobiography, this book is the best entryway into the thought of Augustine–arguably the most important Christian theologian to ever arise after the apostle Paul. The first nine chapters detail his early life before he finally becomes a fully-devoted follower of Jesus, and the intricate, often sin-filled process of his spiritual journey. The latter sections focus on such theological quandaries as God’s relationship to time and the nature and role of human memory. But all of it is written self-consciously in the presence of God, as one intricately complex prayer to his sovereign redeemer. Another worthy (and challenging!) choice would be Augustine’s massive The City of God, though it is surely not for the faint of heart.
4.) The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken. Though only published in the last few years, I include this sterling piece of scholarship because it focuses on the distinct contributions of the early church (primarily focusing on various theologians in the first five centuries), and because it marvelously captures the essence of early Christian thinking on a number of important topics: worship, the life of the mind, Scripture, the person of Christ, community, etc.
5.) On the Incarnation by Athanasius. Following a classic modern introduction by C. S. Lewis, saturate yourself in the powerful meditations of the early church’s most important thinker on the Trinity and the dual nature of Jesus Christ. The famous opponent of Arius gives mature voice to the orthodox, Nicene view that arose out of passages such as John 1 and Philippians 2–namely, that at the turn of the ages God Himself took on human flesh and entered into our suffering and lostness to redeem and rescue. Jesus Christ is revealed to be, as all subsequent Christians have acknowledged, both fully divine and fully human.
6.) Cur Deus Homo by Anselm. Why did God become human? Each and every Advent season, we ought to once more ask this crucial question of ourselves. Anselm’s provocative work on the atonement has drawn significant criticism from certain modern theologians and philosophers, but his basic thrust in this work has inspired the moral imagination of the Christian community ever since. In a nutshell, Anselm argues that God became a human being because (on the one hand) our sin has accrued such a monumental spiritual debt that only God could ever pay it off, and yet (on the other hand) justice demands that human beings suffer the consequences of their own misdeeds and reap what they sow. Therefore, only one who is fully God and fully man could ever truly save the human race from sin and death. In this edition, other important works by Anselm–such as the Proslogion,–are included as well.
7.) The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis. The classic medieval work that collects a host of wise sayings and spiritual insights from the Catholic monk. The devoted Christian life, whatever else it consists of, must center itself on the imitation of our forerunner and the author of the faith, as many New Testament passages consistenly imply. And Thomas provides an important reminder for the dangers of a vain intellectualism: on judgment day, we shall not be asked what we have read, but what we have done. Like Scripture itself, the goal of this reading list is not self-congratulation or the chance to impress others with name dropping, but rather love that flows out of a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith. Everything on this list is a means to that distinct telos.
8.) Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas. A daunting five-volume work, though also worth consulting is Peter Kreeft’s condensed summary work here. It is notriously difficult to summarize the Summa, but Aristotle and the Christian faith receive their most profound synthesis in Aquinas. Philosophical arguments for the existence of God and profound discussions of the attributes of God abound from the pen of medieval Christianity’s most important thinker.
9.) The Freedom of a Christian by Martin Luther. Luther’s historical influence on the Protestant Reformation far outweights that of any individual work he himself produced, but this little gem comes close to representing the essence of Luther’s reclamation of the gospel of grace. Another notable piece from Luther, and one that is as significant historically as it is intrinsically, is his commentary on Galatians.
10.) Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. Perhaps the most caricatured, misunderstood, and least-read Protestant theologian–yet also indisputably the most important. If you are worried in view of his reputation, take heart: discussions on predestination take up at most a few pages in this massive work. Written to provide a comprehensive overview of the faith to new Christians who are preparing to read through the Scriptures seriously for the first time, Calvin gets around to most of the big themes. Latter parts of the work are more polemical and (therefore) more dated, but I know of no other work that combines rigorous theological vision with profound and passionate devotion for God than this. I am tempted to say that it is the most important work ever written by a Christian outside of the New Testament era–but regardless of one’s incredulity at that outlandish claim, the Institutes are not to be missed. If you can afford it and are sufficiently motivated, the modern translation by Ford Lewis Battle’s is a gigantic improvement on the old Beveridge edition I list above for the sake of price.
11.) Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. The Christian thinker who has influenced me more than any other, America’s theologian was the preeminent vital figure in the first Great Awakening, which remains the most important revival ever experienced by the church in North America. Edwards devoted much of his life to theological and pastoral evaluation of the various ups and downs of the Great Awakening, and Religious Affections is his most mature and developed attempt to sort out what was from God, what was merely from human fleshliness, and what even might be ascribed to Satan. In particular, this work is memorable for its insistence that God-centered human emotions are absolutely indispensable in the normal Chrisitan life; duty alone will not suffice. Right doctrine and external behavior are necessary but not sufficient–there must be a passionate fire in the heart directed immediately at the Lord Himself, and arising for the right reasons and motives, if God is to be truly known and honored in our lives. Let Edwards convince you that at the heart of our calling as Christians is the command to “delight ourselves in the Lord.”