A few weeks ago I listed the ten “popular” spiritual books that have had a strong hand in shaping my soul. These were some of the books that I read before I was 20 years old, and that have remained on the bookshelf of my heart ever since because of the ways that they set the table for the rest of my spiritual life. None of these books were “scholarly.” None of them were written in the academy or for the academy. They were written for ordinary Christians living ordinary lives as members of ordinary churches.
This week I turn to another category of “defining” books for me, what I am calling my “serious” collection. These are ten of the books that have had the greatest influence on my theological formation. How I think about who God is and what I understand God to be about have the tendrils of my soul all over these books. They are the veritable lattice work that has held me up and given me direction as I have grown. In fact, on my own personal spiritual Mount Rushmore, it would be four of these theologians who faces would appear – Augustine, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Brunner. These ten books demand more of the reader than the ten books that appeared on my “popular” list a few weeks ago, but none of them are beyond the capacity of a serious reader who is prepared to go slowly and thoughtfully.
Before giving you my list, let me first honor the man whose personal and professional example provided me with the example of how genuine believing and critical thinking can combine in a life of great faithfulness. Dr. William Richardson was one of my professors of New Testament and Church History at Northwest Christian College in the early 1970’s. He “had me” the day he began a lecture by opening his Greek New Testament and translating the text that we were going to be discussing that day right there on the spot. I knew then that when I “grew up” I wanted to be just like him. Dr. Richardson was brilliant, insightful, whimsical, engaging and fully invested in the learning process. He was instrumental in showing me what Jesus meant when He told us to love God with all our minds (Matthew 22:37). Paul talked about the foundation he laid that others would later build upon (I Corinthians 3:11). Well, Dr. Richardson laid my theological foundation that these ten thinkers with their defining books later built upon. Even now, with every book I read, every sermon I preach, every article I write, and every thought I have, I do so knowing that I stand on the foundation that my “wise master builder,” Dr. William Richardson laid so skillfully in my head and heart some 40 years ago, and my life and ministry of “thinking believing” has just been “a poor attempt to imitate the man.” My desire and capacity to read books like the ones that appear on this list were instilled in me by the way that I watched Dr. Richardson’s faith seek understanding. He inspired and empowered the same pursuit in me.
As I studied theology I often found myself captivated by what a certain theologian had to say, and that would send me off to the library to read a biography of them. More often than not, the gap between the kind of people they turned out to be, the bad moral and spiritual choices they made on a personal level, and the profundity of their insight into the truth of Christianity staggered me. It was and remains a mystery to me how somebody can grasp the meaning of Christianity with the brilliance of a great theologian, and not be seized by its truth in a way that produces a Christ-like character in that theologian who is thinking those thoughts and giving them such powerful expression. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was the great exception. His life was the laboratory in which he worked out the truths that he explored in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship. Ostensibly a commentary on Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, this book challenges “easy-believism” and “cheap grace” as terrible substitutes for the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5) to which we are called by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If you were to read just one book from the list of 10, make it this one! It has the power to change your life.
My sister gave me a copy of Albert Schweitzer’s Quest for the Historical Jesus for my 12th birthday. It was not because she perceived me to be a theological prodigy that she bought it for me. No, it was because the book cost $2.95 new in 1965, which met her budget requirements, and it had “Jesus” in the tile, and she knew that since I was “religious” that I would probably like it! It wouldn’t be until my first year in seminary, more than 10 years later that I would actually read this book with any degree of understanding. But once I had, I knew that the questions it asked were among the most crucial for the Christian Faith. Like Bonhoeffer, the example of Schweitzer’s life is a stirring endorsement of the things that he concluded about who Jesus Christ is and why He matters. And while I don’t wind up in exactly the same place as Schweitzer did, I nevertheless believe that he got many things right, and it’s those things that have become and remained some of the most basic presuppositions in my own thinking and talking about Jesus Christ to this day. This is a great book of stunning theological importance, one of the most crucial of the 20th century.
I was sitting in the second floor student lounge at Brite Divinity School in the spring of 1976 when the door opened and a box of books were flung in. A wild-eyed student stood there in the doorway for just a moment after throwing in the box of books before announcing, “I quit!” And then as he turned to walk away he muttered that the books were ours for the taking, if we wanted them. The dozen student sitting there fell instantly on that box of books like a pack of hyenas tearing at a fresh carcass. Every so often from the middle of the scrum a book, a “discard” would get tossed out, apparently holding no interest for the alpha dogs, and that’s how I came into possession of my copy of Gustaf Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Faith. Peter said of Jesus Christ, “the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (I:2:7), and that’s kind of how I feel about this book. I got it because nobody else wanted it, and through the years it has become one of my “go to” systematic theologies. Aulen had a perspective on the meaning of Christ’s death on the cross that recovered the ancient church’s understanding of the atonement as God’s confrontation with the powers of darkness and His triumph over them in the Resurrection, Ascension and Second Coming of Jesus Christ that has real power in our world today. It’s this strand of interpretation together with his keen awareness of the reality of evil in the world that makes Aulen’s The Faith of the Christian Church one of those books that I’ve read multiple times throughout my ministry, and to which I turn frequently for understanding and strength. If I was told that I could just have one systematic theology from my library of dozens for the rest of my life, this is the one that I would gratefully take with me and continue to use until that day when my faith finally becomes sight.
Seminary, at least in the Mainline Protestant tradition, breeds a kind of skepticism about what is perceived to be the naiveté of the affirmations that the church makes in her historic creeds. You are taught to be suspicious of every faith claim and critical of every belief no matter how central or precious it has been to your spiritual development and vitality. It was Karl Barth who helped me find my footing in this intellectual storm, and it was his book The Epistle to the Romans that sounded the clarion bell of God’s revelation of Himself and His purpose in Jesus Christ that provided me with my sense of spiritual direction in those days when everything was up for review. Barth is not an easy read; there is still so much in what he wrote that I struggle to understand; but with that said, the broad sweep of Barth’s argument is clear enough for any of us to grasp, and for me, it has proven foundational. Someday I intend to take a year or two to read Barth’s magisterial Church Dogmatics in its entirety (14 volumes… thousands of pages… very small print…) but until then, his Epistle to the Romans keeps me spiritually grounded and properly oriented. Barth staked out the theological middle ground between the uncritical theological conservatism of my Christian College days and the hypercritical theological liberalism of my seminary days. I owe him my soul.
I love this book, and have for years. I read it for the first time in Christian College in a class on culture as part of the missions’ curriculum. And I knew, even as I was reading it for the very first time then, that its importance and insights transcended the narrow application that we were making in that class. In many respects, H. Richard Niebuhr lived in the shadow of his brother, the theological giant Reinhold Niebuhr. I mean no disrespect to the other brother’s genius. Reinhold Niebuhr may very well be the most important theologian that America has ever produced; although Jonathan Edwards might have something to say about that. But the Niebuhr I love most is H. Richard, and the book that I cherish the most is his Christ and Culture. Since the moment that Jesus Christ first sent His disciples into the world with the warning that they were not to be “of the world” (John 17:16), the church has struggled with how to remain faithful to Christ while actively penetrating that world. The categories that this book establishes as the way the church has gone about this throughout history are the continuum of alternatives out of which the church still operates today. Robert Webber wrote a kind of “Cliff’s Notes” version of this book called The Secular Saint, and it is a good place to begin the exploration of this question. But don’t settle for Webber’s introduction alone. Read Webber as a way of dipping your big toe into the water, and then jump into the deep end to Christ and Culture, I think you’ll find the plunge to be invigorating!
The late Donald Bloesch showed me how to be a serious theologian with Evangelical convictions serving in a Mainline Protestant denomination (The United Church of Christ). I chose his 2 volume work Essentials of Evangelical Theology for my list because it is easily his most accessible work, and because it is his comprehensive exploration of what it means to be an Evangelical Christian, but I could have easily chosen his 7 volume Christian Foundations series, or his absolutely magnificent book on the theology of prayer (The Struggle of Prayer), or any of his incisive books on the state of the church’s life and faith at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century (Crumbling Foundations: Death and Rebirth In An Age of Upheaval, The Future of Evangelical Christianity, or The Evangelical Renaissance). Bloesh was not fancy. He rarely dazzles. He was no flash in the theological pan, an intellectual acrobat turning spectacular somersaults in a phosphatized suit high on the flying trapeze to the amazement of the crowds below. Instead, Donald Bloesch undertook the proverbial “long obedience in the same direction,” and for that I am forever grateful. His theological breadth, depth and maturity was always a powerful encouragement to someone like me who has spent his life and ministry trying to walk the same path that he travelled.
Back in the days when I was reading Karl Barth for the very first time, and really struggling with the complexity of his thought and expression – again, he is not an easy read – somebody told me that for English speaking readers, the writings of Barth’s contemporary and sometimes rival, theologian Emil Brunner are so much more accessible. And so on my next trip to the theological bookstore, I picked up a copy of the first volume of Emil Brunner’s Systematic Theology – The Christian Doctrine of God – and dug in. Before I had gotten through the first 10 pages I was hooked. I now have dozens of books that Brunner wrote, all dog-eared and thoroughly highlighted. If I cut my theological teeth on Francis Schaeffer, it was Emil Brunner who then seasoned and deepened my theological appetites. Whoever it was who pointed me in Brunner’s direction did me a great favor. I understand Brunner, and I deeply appreciate his perspective, the same perspective that Barth had, only in a much more approachable way. His little book Our Faith is the perfect introduction to both his particular theological perspective and to the scope of systematic theology as a whole in my opinion, and it’s online @ http://www.religion-online.org/showbook.asp?title=2075. This easy and even entertaining little book will give you a good feel for his style and his perspective, and if it whets your appetite to go deeper, then I think that the three volumes of Brunner’s Systematic Theology are as good a set from the school of Neo-Orthodoxy as you will find.
I came out of Christian College thinking that everything that was wrong with Christianity could be laid at the feet of just 2 men – the Emperor Constantine and the Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Needless to say, when I went to the bookstore to get my textbooks for the first theology class that I took in seminary, I was more than just a little bit alarmed to discover that John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was going to be our primary text. I swallowed hard and bought the set. And then the next few months were spent reading and discussing what Calvin had to say, and slowly I came around. Today I am a Calvinist in the same way that Jacobus Arminius was a Calvinist, which is to say that I regard John Calvin to be the formidable theological force from the Reformation era that can’t be ignored or avoided. You can’t go around him; you’ve got to go through him, and when you do, Calvin changes you. You may disagree with him and his conclusions, but you can’t dismiss him, especially if you purport to be working from Scripture on matters of faith and practice. In many respects John Calvin has become my theological baseline, the theologian I use to check the things that I am going to say about God as a preacher and a teacher. I don’t want to be found “misrepresenting” God (I Corinthians 15:15); the stakes are just too high (Matthew 18:1-9; James 3:1). And so I let John Calvin function as my theological speed bump. He forces me to slow down and to think carefully, reasoning all of my positions, theological and moral, from Scripture.
If Calvin is the theological giant you can’t avoid from the Reformation era of Christianity, then Augustine is the theological giant you can’t avoid in the era between the Apostolic age and the Reformation. He is the station through which every train of thought must pass, and the turnstile into this station is Augustine’s spiritual autobiography, Confessions. This book is part of the canon of Western Civilization. It would be hard to think of yourself as educated and not to have spent some quality time with this book. Written in the form of a prayer, Augustine reviewed the journey of his soul with God, reflecting on the experiences, encounters and ideas that brought him into a meaningful relationship with God in Christ. It is timeless, however, everything depends on the translation. People who complain that they just don’t “get” Augustine, are usually the victims of a lousy translation. The two best that are out there are Frank Sheed’s and Maria Boulding’s. I also highly recommend that you companion read Augustine’s Confessions with Peter Brown’s Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Brown’s work puts Augustine in context and that’s a key to understanding, and understanding Augustine is crucial for an informed faith. After the New Testament, Augustine is the next great voice that echoes down the corridors of time. You need to hear what he was saying.
I went to Fuller Theological Seminary in 1976 to study with George Eldon Ladd. I had been introduced to his work in Christian College, and I found him to be both challenging and clarifying for my faith at the same time. Another Evangelical in a Mainline Protestant church (American Baptist), I viewed him as another role model for serious scholarship. The New Testament Theology class that I took at Fuller was supposed to be taught by him, but health concerns precluded him from being able to do so. And so I studied his book with his hand-picked substitute. I felt like Dr. Ladd was being “channeled” by this teacher, and it was probably the next best thing to actually having Dr. Ladd there himself. And the end result was positive, spending an intensive semester working through Dr. Ladd’s A Theology of the New Testament. This experience, in my first semester of seminary, was the theological bridge between my spiritually nurturing undergraduate experience at Christian College, and my spiritually challenging graduate experience at seminary. And I have always been grateful that it began with three months of drilling down hard into Dr. Ladd’s text. It set out the markers for the field on which my consciously Biblical faith has played ever since. The way I think about what the New Testament is and what the New Testament teaches were both decisively shaped by this book. In fact, next to the New Testament itself, this just might be the most important book that I have ever read; it certainly has had the most enduring consequences for my believing and my behaving.
So, there it is, my list of the ten “defining” serious books in my life. Just like the last list, there are so many others that deserve to be here – books by Carl F.H. Henry, Alister McGrath, Thomas Oden, David Bosch, Bruce Metzger, T.F. Torrance, P.T. Forsyth, Anthony Hoekema, Roland Allen, Hermann Bavinck, Gordon Fee, Harvey Cox; books and authors who have challenged my thinking and impacted my believing. But these ten are somehow the most “foundational.” Together they form the slab on which my life and ministry have been built. DBS+