Marvel Comics, Sci Fi and Karl Barth
These top ten lists are so fascinating to read, especially the lists that mingle great books with those admittedly not-so-great books that made a big dent on the list-maker at a certain age. Those lists are such quirky autobiographical documents. They require an uncommon degree of self knowledge, and an unfalsified memory of early life, to compile. C.S. Lewis’ wonderful list was that sort. I think most of us would be surprised to see the list of the books that really did the most to make us who we are. Perhaps that reckoning will be part of the opening of the books on judgment day? Such a list, for me, would include a lot of Marvel comics, science fiction, Mad magazine, and whatever happened to be on the shelf of the library at the public school. For most of us it would include a large number of books we could no longer recommend as worthwhile, even books which in retrospect we can see as having more dangerous toxin than nutritious ideas. I can’t imagine making such a list without thinking through my autobiography, perhaps with some professional help!
Instead, what I’ve got is a list of favorites, inevitably emphasizing theology and unfortunately ignoring fiction. It’s basically the same list as the one on my home page, but with new commentary to incite you to read them.
1. Ephesians. The best book of the Bible. I’m not talking about a canon within the canon, but there is an Ephesians fan club running down through history, from Irenaeus through Jerome and Calvin and J.N.Darby to me, and (however else we may differ) we look to this little letter as the capstone of progressive revelation. I remember a senior theologian telling me once that Romans was the special favorite of all Protestants, and that after that the Lutherans opt for Galatians (“my wife,” as Luther said) while the Reformed go for Ephesians. As a Wesley guy, I realize I’m supposed to opt for 1 John. But I can’t help it. Ephesians found me, and I have stayed found.
2. Church Dogmatics Volume IV (Karl Barth). Let me first direct five seconds of ritual hatred toward Barth’s lapses from my own sterling evangelical orthodoxy, especially on the doctrine of Scripture. Grrrr. Okay, now check out how rich and involving this amazing dogmatic work is. Volume IV, the Doctrine of Reconciliation, is astonishingly good and stimulating. From the exposition of grace at the beginning, to the rejection of infant baptism at the end, this is theology that reads like an adventure novel with doctrines as the main characters. In the words of Flannery O’Connor, “I distrust folks who have ugly things to say about Karl Barth. I like old Barth. He throws the furniture around.” Nowhere does the furniture fly faster than in volume IV.
3. The Hidden Life (Adolph Saphir). A nineteenth-century Hungarian Jew converted to Christian faith by Scottish Free Church missionaries, Adolph Saphir had a prodigious beard, a consecrated heart, and an unparalleled mastery of the great themes of the Bible. He got a lot of mileage out of the “I’m a Hebrew, I read the whole Bible from the inside” schtick, and I find that his books can say things to me that I don’t give anybody else permission to say. Saphir had perfect evangelical poise; things that seem to have lost their center in recent decades were all deftly held together in his ministry. This is his best book; watch for a new edition of it soon from Kregel.
4. The Spirit of Christ or With Christ in the School of Prayer (Andrew Murray) or just about anything else by Andrew Murray. These things are for sale anywhere with cheesy “I’m A Devotional Book” covers. But this is where they keep the good stuff. I once gave an Andrew Murray book to a friend of mine, a profound Christian philosopher who had just had a baby. It was a book about raising children to love God, and like nearly all Murray books, it was divided into 30 chapters so you could read one each day for a month. It also had a sentimental, icky, cheesy cover, which publishers insist on putting on all Murray reprints. My friend thanked me for it politely. A few months later, he came back to me and said, “When you gave me that book, I was sort of disappointed in you, that you would give me some dumb devotional book about parenting that you just grabbed at the Christian bookstore. But then I read it. WOW. This is the real stuff.” Indeed.
5. Mere Christianity (C. S. Lewis), especially Book Four, “Beyond Personality.” Here’s a test of a great book: Can it grow up with you? Book Four of Mere Christianity was one of the books (along with a key chapter of Packer’s Knowing God) that introduced me to the doctrine of the Trinity when I was seventeen and didn’t know much about much. Then I read it again after earning a PhD on the doctrine of the Trinity, and I found it even more impressive. How can a man write in a way that edifies and instructs folks at both extremes of the educational spectrum? There may be a “too smart for C.S. Lewis” stage of theological puberty, and it may be a helpful part of coming of age (though some bishops may be stuck in it), but the interesting stuff happens when you grow back into C.S. Lewis.
6. A Compendium of Christian Theology (William Burt Pope) Pope. 1822-1903. Unjustly neglected, bypassed in an age of controversy because he fixed his attention on the main, broad lines of Christian thought and emphasized continuity. Theological genius. Three-volume Methodist dogmatics. He handled theological themes as if they were holy things. If all Methodists did theology like this, I’d become Methodist and never look back.
7. The Principles of Theology (W. H. Griffith-Thomas) If all Anglicans did theology like this, I’d become Anglican and never look back. All the solidity of the Anglican tradition (in form, the book is a commentary on the 39 Articles), all the fire of evangelicalism (he collaborated in the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary), all the details of close attention to Scripture, and all the breadth of an organic systematics. No novelties, but “Deep simplicities and simple profundities which will strike his readers as new revelations,” said J.I. Packer of Griffith-Thomas’s work. Rather patrician, almost Olympian in his broad-mindedness and his mastery of the great tradition. So he’s inerrantist, premillenial, and Keswick. Deal with it.
8. There is no better way to become a theologian than to work straight through the Institutes of the Christian Religion. I’ve been through it five times, three with students, and can’t wait to do it again. It is specifically designed, by this master craftsman who knew the arts of Renaissance humanism and applied them to the task of teaching Christian doctrine, to lead theologians through the tensions, dangers, and possibilities of theology. Calvin brings the alternatives before your vision, weighs them, and reminds you that your doctrinal decisions are being made in real time, coram Deo: before the face of God.
9. The Heidelberg Catechism (Ursinus and Olevianus) I recently talked with a woman who had grown up in a Dutch denomination that imposed the Heidelberg Catechism on its congregational life in a way that made it seem (to her, at least) to be a cold and heartless system. Though I believe that she experienced it as such, I am astonished that this is possible, because this little masterpiece is systematically geared to summarizing the main ideas of Scripture and applying them, personally and pastorally, to the believer. The opening question is, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” and repeatedly throughout, the catechism explores part of the work of Christ and then poses the question “What benefit do you derive from this?” The answers are well worth writing on your heart.
10. Tie: The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Walter Marshall), or The Life of God in the Soul of Man (Henry Scougal) For practical purposes, there’s no theological decision more important than figuring out how justification and sanctification cohere in the Christian life. Mistakes here can tie you in knots that take years to untangle, knots that go deeper than ideas. Marshall’s book is great and comprehensive, but not the greatest reading experience. Scougal’s book is a delight to read, and makes its main point in the first few pages. Lively minds like Susannah Wesley and George Whitefield knew where to go next after getting pointers from Scougal.