Ten Books That Every Christian Should Own and Read
is no new idea to suggest a â€œtop tenâ€ list of Christian books, which, when read carefully, will ground a new believer in the basics of what it means to be a part of the historic, orthodox Christian faith. I've seen several such lists in the past, and, as the beginning of a new year seems to be a popular time for composing such lists, I've recently come across a couple more. I've always felt it a little unbalanced that almost all such lists (at least composed by Protestants) are drawn exclusively from the past several hundred years of an almost two-thousand year history of orthodoxy. The occasional nod to Augustine is usually the only exception to this bias toward the relatively more recent â€“ and I think we are the poorer for it, and less able to sort through the plethora of doctrinal and practical woes which abound everywhere in these dark days. That said, I would like to throw my own â€œtop tenâ€ list out there, with a mind to take the whole history of Christian literature into account. It is, of course, a most difficult thing to boil down two thousand years of solid writings into a mere ten suggestions, and for every book I picked I could have picked ten others just like it. But, in the end, I had to make some hard decisions, which is simply the nature of the exercise. Here are the final selections:
1. Dialogue with Trypho, by Justin Martyr
My first selection had to encapsulate the primary struggles of the apostolic age with the following century. During this time, the Christians had at least a twofold doctrinal struggle, with Judaizers and other heretics of largely pagan origins, as well as a struggle of blood with the persecuting Roman government. Several other works could have been chosen: Irenaeus's â€œAgainst Heresiesâ€ is important and the writings of the apostolic fathers are indispensable â€“ in fact, the closest competition Justin had was the essay, â€œAd Diognetum,â€ likely written by the apostolic father Polycarp; but it was simply too short to carry the weight needed for this important choice. So I finally decided on Justin Martyr's dialogue, not just as the outstanding example of argumentation against the ever-present problem of the Judaizers, but as an example of how the early fathers dealt with the OT Scriptures on the whole. Justin Martyr's magisterial exposition of the Christ-centered nature of the Hebrew scriptures is logical, grammatically-reasoned, and utterly convincing. While I may not agree with all the minutiae of his interpretations, I would trust his basic way of dealing with the scriptures, overall, much more readily than that of many Old Testament scholars writing today.
2. The Five Theological Orations, by Gregory Nazianzen
My second choice had to deal with the overwhelming problems of the later centuries of early Christianity, which could be summed up in one designation: the anti-trinitarian heresies. The problem with this selection was simply that there was so much material that could have been chosen. Augustine's monumental treatise on the Holy Trinity could easily have been selected, as well as Hilary of Poitiers', or else The Incarnation of the Word, by Athanasius â€“ but in the end, I decided that Gregory's orations were the perfect mix â€“ brief, easy-to-follow, passionate, thoroughly orthodox, reverent, historically-important, and so on. A definite must for any trinitarian Christian.
3. The Confessions, by Augustine
Augustine was a no-brainer. Probably the most influential father, he carries tremendous weight not just among those who still profess allegiance to Rome, but also with many of the reformers and their successors. The Confessions was a difficult choice: I could have gone with some of his anti-pelagian writings, given their importance for the doctrinal struggles that have ever since plagued the Church, regarding human inability, the sovereignty, necessity, and sufficiency of divine grace, etc. His City of God would have been a good choice, but a bit too massive for the purpose at hand. In the end, the Confessions just seemed like a good mix: an opportunity to meet Augustine the man, an introduction to his beliefs about sovereign grace and human inability, a taste of his hermeneutical methods from the first chapters of Genesis, etc.
4. Cur Deus Homo, by Anselm
I felt a distinct need to include something from the vast tracts of time between the church fathers and the Reformation, and the only work that really stood out to me, from the medieval era, was Cur Deus Homo. Perhaps that is only because my knowledge of the Medieval Church is a bit more sketchy than that of any other era, but Cur Deus Homo is certainly a worthy read. A solid treatment of the central aspect of the Christian faith, which likewise introduces the reader to some of the weaknesses of the scholastics â€“ a too great dependence on Aristotelian logic and worldview, a tendency toward rabbit trails and dabbling in insignificant questions and details â€“ but on the whole a work most worthy of being read, which could handily put to silence a few unsatisfying theories of the atonement in currency even today. It is important to note that this work is only a rather seminal precursor to the full-fledged treatment of penal substitution seen in Calvin and others; and in fact, I think there is much more explicit penal substitution to be found in many of the church fathers than may always be discerned even here in Anselm.
5. The Bondage of the Will, by Martin Luther
The significance of Martin Luther is indisputable, and I think this is his most important and foundational work. When you get this foundation right, everything else falls into place. The vast weight of corrupt Roman dogma must crumble to the ground when you put the shovel of Luther's treatment of the human condition to its foundations â€“ but so, too, must crumble a thousand different Protestant errors. Everyone should read this, bottom line.
6. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin
This is doubtless the most important book on the whole list. Calvin discusses church history and the fathers, showing just when and where Rome went astray, and encapsulates the true condition and need of the Church in his era; and at the same time he lays out a systematic treatise of what is absolutely most important for a Christian's faith and practice, that has never since been outdone. Reverent, humble, incisive, avoiding peripheral matters, true to the scriptures. Probably the best non-inspired piece of literature ever written. If you had to whittle the top ten down to the top one, there would be no need for hesitation. This is it.
7. The Pilgrim's Progress, by John Bunyan
The Puritans are an absolutely outstanding group of Christian writers in Church history; and where they really shine is in their ability to deal with the very practical matters of sanctification, growth in holiness, the Christian life, etc. Therefore, this choice was one of the most difficult of all: a hundred others could have been picked instead. But in the end, the practical and eminently useful nature of this work just couldn't be passed up. It truly deserves a place on the list, and it is no shame that it has proven one of the most influential pieces of literature in history.
8. The Glory of Christ, by John Owen
I knew I had to pick a work by Owen, but vacillated between his amazingly helpful works on sin, temptation, and the Holy Spirit, and this. But really, I just couldn't pass this by. It's one of the most soul-stirring, gospel-rich works I've ever read, full of practical wisdom and deep spiritual knowledge. The Puritan Paperback is perfect for the young Christian, and the advanced reader could dig into the entire tome comprising the first volume of Banner of Truth's sixteen volume set of the Works of John Owen.
9. Redemption Accomplished and Applied, by John Murray
I needed something on the list that would sum up the Reformed understanding of the gospel, including justification by faith alone, penal substitution, the imputation of the obedience of Christ, etc.; and while I briefly deliberated over a few others, this brief little volume just seemed to fit. A perfect introduction to redemption, or in other words, the gospel.
10. Bible Overview, by Steve Levy.
My list had to have a good, redemptive-historical example of biblical theology in its broadest application. I almost chose Edward's wonderful History of the Work of Redemption, and would still encourage everyone to read it â€“ but the only strike against it was the historicist interpretation of Revelation with the outdated version of postmillennialism he uses the Apocalypse most confidently to affirm, which was such a central part of the third section. Owen's recently translated Biblical Theology, while truly excellent and thoroughly interesting, was a bit too comprehensive, esp. in matter of world history, for the average reader. Vos was both too little explicitly Christ-centered for my taste and a little too heady for the normal Christian. Graeme Goldsworthy was valuable, but didn't quite make it. But the relatively little known Steve Levy was perfect. Probably the easiest read on the list, but truly outstanding. A full overview of redemptive history in Christ-centered fashion, it's become the first book I recommend to young, untaught believers needing some grounding in basic bible teaching.
Although I didn't put them on the list, given their nature, the historic creeds and confessions of the church must occupy a central role in any library of good, Christian literature. Every Christian should be very familiar with the four ecumenical creeds (the Apostle's Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition), as well as the Three Forms of Unity (The Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dordt, and the Belgic Confession), the Westminster Standards (Confession and Larger and Shorter Catechisms), and the creedal affirmations of the other main branches of Protestantism (the 39 Articles, The Augsburg Confession, The Smalcald Articles, Luther's Large and Small Catechisms, The London Baptist Confession of 1689). There are many other works I would love to have included, such as The Bruised Reed, by Sibbes, the abridged, one-volume commentary on the whole Bible, by Matthew Henry, a good Systematic Theology (Berkhof's, Grudem's, Reymond's...), etc. â€“ so if your favorite isn't on the list, don't take it too personally.