You read a lot of books in seminary. Like, a lot. There have been many books that I’ve read, enjoyed, and been edified by (and some that have been like crawling through a swamp). I’ve tried to compile a list of books I’ve read while in seminary that were beneficial to me and that I believe would be beneficial to any Christian that reads them. I also include what class or classes I read the books in. Hopefully, people reading this list will buy some of these books and read them. I pray that your faith in Christ will be strengthened by reading them. I know my faith was!
Class: Bible Study Methods and Hermeneutics
As a Christian, being able to read and understand the Bible is slightly important, but often we haven’t been taught how to do this well. Dr. Zuck was a long time professor at DTS and has written a very helpful and foundational book on how to read and interpret the Bible. The subtitle calls the book “A Practical Guide to Discovering Biblical Truth” which encapsulates the purpose of the book well. Zuck introduces the many difficulties of the interpretive task, including: the cultural gap, the grammatical gap, the literary gap, figures of speech, allegory, parables, types, symbols, prophecy, and finally how to move from interpretation to application. As you can see, a lot is covered in this book, but it’s all very digestible. To aid comprehension, many chapters have exercises that help readers engage in Biblical interpretation themselves (answers are supplied in the back of the book). I am confident that this book will teach you about how to read the Bible and even make you eager to do so. Ultimately, however, the goal of reading Scripture isn’t simply to know the Bible, but to know Christ. Zuck says it like this, “Heart appropriation, not merely head apprehension, is the true goal of Bible study.” I pray this book helps that happen.
Pastor and prolific writer Timothy Keller has written an outstanding invitation to examine the Christian faith. This book is written for both skeptics and believers alike. Keller says this in the introduction, “I commend two processes to my readers. I urge skeptics to wrestle with the unexamined ‘blind faith’ on which skepticism is based, and to see how hard it is to justify those beliefs to those who do not share them. I also urge believers to wrestle with their personal and culture’s objections to the faith. At the end of each process, even if you remain the skeptic or believer you have been, you will hold your own position with both greater clarity and greater humility.” Keller dedicates the first half of the book to the seven biggest problems or doubts people in the post-modern West have with Christianity. These chapters include: There Can’t Be Just One True Religion, How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?, Christianity is a Straightjacket, The Church is responsible for So Much Injustice, How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?, Science Has Disproved Christianity, and You Can’t Take the Bible Literally. Keller deals with every issue at its foundation, i.e. “What are you, at the most basic level, believing about reality when you believe one of these problems to doubt Christianity?” The second part of the book is on “Reasons for Faith”. Chapters include: The Clues of God, The Knowledge of God, The Problem of Sin, Religion and the Gospel, The (True) Story of the Cross, The Reality of the Resurrection, and The Dance of God. Ultimately, it comes down to Christ. He is both cornerstone and stumbling block: “In the Christian view however, the ultimate evidence of God is Jesus Christ himself. If there is a God, we characters in his play have to hope that he put some information about himself in the play. But Christians believe he did more than give us information. He wrote himself into the play as the main character in history.” I pray this book challenges you to think deeply about your faith and helps you come away knowing the truth of the Gospel more clearly.
Classes: All Systematic Theology classes
This three volume work written and edited by Theology Professors at Dallas Theological Seminary covers the basic doctrines of the Christian faith: “Creation, Scripture, and the Triune God” (Volume One), “Creation, Fall, and Salvation” (Volume Two), and “The Church, Spiritual Growth, and the End Times” (Volume Three). The introduction to the series states the purpose of the books, “Exploring Christian Theology will offer introductions, overviews, and reviews of key Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical tenets without belaboring details or broiling up debates. The three ECT volumes, compact but substantial, provide accessible and convenient summaries of major themes; they’re intended as guidebooks for a church that, overall, is starving for the very doctrine and it has to long avoided.” I’m not sure I need to say much more, that pretty much covers it (but because I want to talk this book up I’ll continue). The authors avoid picking sides when there are interpretive/theological options within the boundaries of Orthodoxy, making these books tremendously valuable across denominational lines. These books are relatively short (around 250 pages each), are theologically rich, and yet very accessible to any reader. The books are also set up in an easy-to-use fashion. Each doctrinal tenet is introduced (dubbed the “High Altitude Survey”), the readers are given “Passages to Master” (Bible verses) that pertain to the doctrine at hand, next is the history and development of the doctrine (“[doctrine] in Retrospect”), then a short list of “Facts to Never Forget” about the doctrine, followed by a short list of the most important “Dangers to Avoid”, rounded out by “Principles to Put into Practice” and quotations from other theologians on the doctrine (“Voices from the Past and Present”). Additionally, every section ends with a detailed list of recommended books for further study. As you can see, a lot is covered in a short space. Yet, the authors/editors have done a great job of covering a vast amount of material without making the reader feel overwhelmed. The series is really quite an enjoyable read! I am definitely biased (I have studied under several of the authors and some of them have made huge impacts on my life for Christ), but I think every Christian would find great benefit, learning, and encouragement from these books. I’ll end with one more quote from the introduction that frames the rest of the series, “Most people seeking to grow in their faith want practical principles, not theoretical concepts. They want to know God, not just know about Him. Yet the fact is that we can’t experience real spiritual growth without solid spiritual truth. We can’t know the true God without knowing God truly.”
Class: Spiritual Life
A deep read. A convicting read. Dallas Willard was a philosopher, a professor of Philosophy at USC (for almost 50 years), and a pastor. He has written several great books, but The Spirit of the Disciplines may be his best. Willard says the book was written “to aid you in understanding the absolute necessity of the spiritual disciplines for our faith, and the revolutionary result of practicing these disciplines intelligently and enthusiastically through a full, grace-filled, Christlike life.” These disciplines include what Willard calls “disciplines of abstinence” and “disciplines of engagement”. The former includes (but is not limited to) solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, and chastity and the latter includes (but is not limited to) study, worship, prayer, fellowship, and confession. One of the main idols that the western church worships (and that I often worship) is comfort. This may be, in part, the reason for the downfall of the spiritual disciplines in the Church. Engaging in these disciplines is not legalism, but a Biblical way to keep our normally compartmentalized lives de-compartmentalized and united in devotion to Christ. Read this book and follow in the footsteps of Christ himself, the Apostles (especially Paul), and many other brothers and sisters in Christ who engaged in these spiritual disciplines often, giving their whole-selves to God.
Class: Introduction to World Missions
The Mission of God’s People is written as “A Biblical Theology of the Church’s Mission” (the subtitle of the book) by a renowned Old Testament Scholar, Christopher Wright. Wait, the book is about the Church’s mission, but it’s written by an Old Testament scholar? Yep! And that’s what makes this book so spectacular: Wright focuses a lot of attention on explaining how the Old Testament impacts the church’s understanding of its own mission. He puts it this way: “We need to think carefully about what the Bible as a whole has to say about who exactly are ‘God’s people’, and in what sense they are (and always have been) a people with a mission. That is why I make no apology for including so much exposition of Old Testament texts in the chapters that follow. After all, the New Testament church did not actually have a New Testament when they set out on the task of world mission. It was the Scriptures of the Old Testament that provided the motivation and justification for their missional practice, as well as the underlying theological assumptions.” So, what is the Church’s mission? It is taking part in God’s mission, which is “the story of how God in his sovereign love has purposed to bring the sinful world of his fallen creation to the redeemed world of his new creation.” How does the Church take part in that? Wright answers this question in each chapter of his book by sweeping the grand narrative of Scripture and focusing on the characteristics of God’s people. The church’s mission is accomplished, God’s mission is accomplished, when His people are: a people who know the story they are a part of, a people who care for creation, a people who are a blessing to the nations, a people who walk in God’s way, a people who are redeemed for redemptive living, a people who represent God to the world, a people who attract others to God, a people who know the one living God and Savior, a people who bear witness to the living God, a people who proclaim the Gospel of Christ, a people who send and are sent, a people who live and work in the public square, and a people who praise and pray. This book will galvanize you to live for God, to live for His mission; that’s why we’re here anyways!
D.A. Carson is a leading Biblical scholar and president/co-founder of The Gospel Coalition. This book is short (only 75 pages), but man is it dense. The book, as you may have guessed, is about the love of God. Of all the complex or philosophical doctrines of Christianity, God’s love seems relatively uncomplicated. However, all too often, God’s love is grossly misunderstood, both by Christians and non-Christians alike. Carson argues that there are “five distinguishable ways that the Bible talks about God’s love”. These include: (1) The peculiar love of the Father for the Son, and of the Son for the Father. (2) God’s providential love over all that he has made. (3) God’s salvific stance towards his fallen world. (4) God’s particular, effective, selecting love toward his elect. (5) God’s love is sometimes said to be directed toward his own people in a provisional or conditional way — conditioned, that is, on obedience. Carson argues that if any of these are “absolutized” or made “the controlling grid” (which often happens) by which we understand God’s love then disaster will ensue. Instead, “we must hold these truths together and learn to integrate them in biblical proportion and balance. The rest of the book dives into a discussion as to how to do that, covering big themes such as “God’s Love and God’s Sovereignty” (chapter 3) and “God’s Love and God’s Wrath” (chapter 4). I believe this book (and the topic it covers) is pertinent for today’s church and I pray that it will help you reach a better understanding of God’s love, but also result in the worship of our God for His love, shown especially in His Son.
Class: The Parables of Christ
Though I read this book for a class on Jesus’ parables, it isn’t a must-read solely for the study of Jesus’ parables, but also because of the comprehensive study of Jesus Himself. Bailey has long been known as a skilled interpreter of parables and the cultural context of Jesus’ life and ministry. In this book, Bailey discusses the birth of Jesus, the beatitudes, the Lord’s prayer, the dramatic actions of Jesus, Jesus and women, and the parables of Jesus. Bailey’s focus in discussing these items is geared toward understanding the ancient cultural context and how that then sheds light on understanding Jesus’ actions and words. Bailey takes the reader through hugely popular stories about Jesus, that Christians and non-Christians alike will be familiar with, and then turns those stories on their heads. By looking closely at the cultural context of these stories, their true meanings begin to jump off the page. He says this about interpreting parables, “Simply stated, our task is to stand at the back of the audience around Jesus and listen to what he is saying to them. Only through that discipline can we discover what he is saying to any age, including our own. Authentic simplicity can be found the other side of complexity. The theological and ethical House of the Parables of Jesus awaits. May all enter with great expectations!” You will never read Jesus’ actions and words the same again. Buy this book and enjoy it.
3. On the Apostolic Preaching (or known as The Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching) by St. Irenaeus of Lyons
Class: Historical Theology
Some of you are probably wondering, “Who the heck is Irenaeus of Lyons?” It’s ok, I was in the same boat. Irenaeus was the bishop of the church in Lyons, France (Gaul at the time) in the 2nd century. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was a disciple of…John the Apostle. In this work, Irenaeus sets out to write a concise summary of the Christian faith. This summary of the faith is essentially a biblical/systematic theology. Do you see how crazy this is?! A guy who was taught by a disciple of John (who was taught by Jesus in case you forgot) is writing a concise summary of the Christian faith in the second century! Whoa. We should probably read this. It’s only about 60 pages, but man does this book pack a punch. Irenaeus begins with a brief introduction to the faith and specifically the doctrine of God. He says, “Without the Spirit it is not possible to see the Word of God, and without the Son one is not able to approach the Father; for the knowledge of the Father is the Son, and knowledge of the Son of God is through the Holy Spirit.” Next, he begins in Genesis and moves through the Old Testament, showing how Christ’s person and work is foreshadowed. Then, he moves through the New Testament showing how Christ is the fulfillment of the Old Testament. A brief example, “So, by means of the obedience by which He obeyed unto death, hanging upon the tree, He undid the old disobedience occasioned by the tree.” Reading this book will not only inform you historically as to what Christians have believed since the beginning, but will also inform your understanding of how the whole Bible points to Christ.
A classic work on a central belief of Christianity, the incarnation of the Son of God. St. Athanasius, the African theologian, scholar, and pastor was Bishop of Alexandria in the early 4th century and a stalwart of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. In this book, Athanasius sets out to explain and defend that Jesus is both God and man. It is beautifully written, deeply theological, and yet very accessible. C.S Lewis introduces the book in this edition, “When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece…only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.” Quite a statement from quite the thinker. The book itself is only 70 pages, but they are dense and packed with theological gems; be sure to take your time as you read this fantastic work. I remember the first time I read this, I read the second paragraph about 10 times because it was so deep and so worshipful. A snippet of this paragraph shows what I mean, “We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the one Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” Whoa…read that a few times and reflect on it. Reading this book, will lead you to be amazed at what Christ has done for you, for the world. I’ll let Athanasius say the last word: “From the Scriptures you will learn also of his second manifestation to us, glorious and divine indeed, when he shall come not in lowliliness but in His proper glory, no longer in humiliation but in majesty, no longer to suffer but to bestow on us all the fruit of His cross–the resurrection and incorruptibility. No longer will He then be judged, but rather will Himself be Judge. Amen!
This is the book, other than the Bible, that has most deeply impacted my life. Michael Reeves has written an amazing “Introduction to the Christian Faith” (subtitle) that will absolutely transform your understanding of, and love for, the Triune God. The introduction to the book ends with this invitation: “The irony could not be thicker: what we assume would be a dull or peculiar irrelevance [the Trinity] turns out to be the source of all that is good in Christianity. Neither a problem nor technicality, the triune being of God is the vital oxygen of Christian life and joy. And so it is my hope and prayer that as you read this book, the knowledge of Father, Son and Spirit will breathe fresh life into you.” Reeves begins with “What Was God Doing Before Creation?” (chapter 1) and he dives into deep theological reflection, starting with John 17:24. From there, the chapter titles overview the book well. Creation: The Father’s Love Overflows (chapter 2), Salvation: The Son Shares What is His (chapter 3), The Christian Life: The Spirit Beautifies (chapter 4), and Who Among the Gods is Like You, O Lord? (chapter 5). Reeves continually expresses that as Christians, whether we know it or not (hopefully the book helps this), we are thoroughly Trinitarian. “When you start with the Jesus of the Bible, it is a triune God that you get. The Trinity, then, is not the product of abstract speculation: when you proclaim Jesus, the Spirit-anointed Son of the Father, you proclaim the Triune God.” Why is God love? Why can we be saved? How are we able to live the Christian life? The answer: because God is triune. I pray this book leads to the discovery and worship of our awesome God: Father, Son, and Spirit.