Essay / Theology

On Knowing God: The Top Twelve Books

In the Torrey Honors Institute, we teach an 8-unit class called “On Knowing God.” Following our great books curriculum and a Socratic pedagogy, we give students a one-semester introduction to the classic Christian texts. In fact, when the faculty designed this intensely theological semester, we realized we had a chance to assign, along with the Bible, the Top Twelve Theology Books of Christian History. The competition was fierce and the answers can’t be final. Every time I look at the list I regret omissions. We imposed a few artificial limits: the books have to be things that generally educated adults can read and discuss profitably, and they have to come from a range of time periods and cultures. They have to be influential on multiple generations, which rules out newfangled stuff from the last couple of centuries.

Here’s what we came up with, and what we take our students through every year. Can it be improved?

1. Selections from the Bible: Paul’s Letters and John’s Gospel. It may be cheating to count these as one entry, especially since more than half of the semester (fifteen three-hour discussion sessions) is spent on these texts. Reading Paul’s letters in chronological order (Thessalonians to the pastorals) and discussing them over the course of several weeks is a remarkable experience. John’s Gospel then provides some of the crucial categories that will be taken up by the church fathers in the next centuries.

2. Irenaeus of Lyons, Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. Circa 150. If you can only read one church father from before Nicaea, Irenaeus is the man. This little book shows him at his best, synthesizing the biblical data into the big apostolic picture. Bottom line: It takes two testaments to make one Bible, and three persons to make one God.

3. Athanasius of Alexandria, On the Incarnation. Circa 325. Athanasius concentrates his thought on the life of Christ, and everything in Scripture seems to reorganize itself around this shining center. One the Incarnation reads like a suspense novel, with the making and remaking of humanity by God’s eternal Word as the plot line.

4. Gregory of Nazianzus, The Five Theological Orations. Circa 381. The grand, objective mysteries of Christian doctrine are presented here with striking clarity. Nobody can teach the Trinity and the incarnation like Gregory. His work was a major leap forward in understanding Scriptural truth, and he remains readable today.

5. Cyril of Alexandria, On the Unity of Christ. Circa 440. Cyril, for too long neglected in modern theology, had a theological grasp of what it meant that our savior was the eternal Son. This book is not perfect, and there may be a better book out there somewhere to bring together all the best from the early church’s development of Trinity and incarnation, but I can’t find it. His work crowns the classic period of Christian thought on these issues.

6. Augustine of Hippo, The Enchiridion on Faith, Hope, and Love. Circa 430. For general purposes, if you’re following this list as an actual reading program for yourself, you should definitely substitute his Confessions here. Our students have already read the Confessions (and selections from City of God) in a previous semester, so we went with a short work in which Augustine lays out the main things about Christianity: faith, hope, and love. The latest translation of it re-titles it The Augustine Catechism, a silly title that nevertheless hints at how comprehensive a handbook it is.

7. Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). Circa 1100. Most famous as a systematic account of the atonement using the categories of honor and recompense, this book is actually equally concerned with God’s character and attributes, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the doctrine of the incarnation. Anselm’s book gets so many things right that it dominated Western soteriology for some time. In addition to showing his readers the logic of what had been revealed, Anselm’s book stands as an invitation to think through these most important doctrines for yourself.

8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae selections. Circa 1270. There’s no substitute for an encounter with the big Summa itself. Not many people can or should read the whole thing, but a few hundred pages of the best questions from it will give you mental discipline and spiritual instruction that I don’t know another source for. Focus on the nature of theology, the existence of God, the doctrine of grace, and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Other anthologies may also work for you, like Kreeft’s Summa of the Summa or Bauerchmidt’s Holy Teaching, but we prefer to operate with as little commentary as possible. Once you learn your way around the Summa, you can use the newadvent.org edition to find Thomas’ answer to anything.

9. Martin Luther, Selections. Circa 1530. Luther didn’t write one comprehensive statement of his theology, so you have to read selections from a variety of his occasional writings: he was a translator, Bible interpreter, controversial theologian, catechizer, pastor, and public witness in a difficult time. Read his lectures on Galatians, his Heidelberg Disputation, his sermons on Two Kinds of Righteousness and The Freedom of a Christian,plus the Small Catechism. Luther provokes and disturbs and comforts, and just generally writes with a tone of voice that can find you where you are. This anthology edited by the late Tim Lull is The Place to Start.

10. John Calvin, The Institutes. Circa 1559. The Institutes is a book with an incredible ability to train the mind in theological insight. It deserves to be read in its entirety — not because it is some tight Euclidean system with the axiom of predestination establishing parallel lines from which everything else follows– but because it takes up the main ideas of the Bible in such good order. If you can’t make time to read it all, take generous excerpts from Book I on the knowledge of God the creator, Book II on Christ and redemption, Book III on faith, the Spirit, and election, and Book IV on the church and sacraments.

11. The Heidelberg Catechism by Ursinus and Olevianus Circa 1563. Biblical, pastoral, comprehensive, nourishing, instructive, pointed, memorable, devotional, and practical. If there’s a perfect catechism, this is it.

12. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress. Circa 1678. Bunyan’s homespun sincerity meets you on such a fundamental level that it gets into your imagination in astonishing ways. Very young children can follow most of the book, and graduate students can be stumped and stirred by some of the moves this Baptist preacher makes. Coleridge called it a Summa Theologicae Evangelicae. Try it, or if you haven’t read it as an adult, try it again. In our semester survey, we only read Part I, but Part II has some of the best stuff Bunyan ever wrote.

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