I often debate in my mind what books are the best I’ve ever read. By the grace of God I’ve been able to read hundreds of great books throughout my life, and trying to identify the ‘best’ is really impossible. It’s like trying to identify the best ice cream cone I’ve ever eaten.
But these are what I consider the most influential theological books I’ve yet read. They significantly altered my thinking or took me to new depths in theology that I didn’t know existed. I offer them here, in ascending order of impact, as an encouragement for you to consider reading them yourself:
- The Messiah in the Old Testament by Walter C Kaiser Jr.
I hate to confess this, but I used to think that there were only about a dozen clear prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament, and that Old Testament saints were saved by some vague faith in Jehovah. Nobody ever told me this, but I just imbibed this impression growing up in church with flannel-graph Sunday school lessons and hearing very little preaching from the first 77.4% of the Bible. By carefully exegeting 65 clear Messianic texts, Kaiser’s book rocked my world and convinced me that the Old Testament is a Messianic book with a clear Messianic center. I’ve never looked at the Old Testament the same way since. If you’re interested, I’ve written a more substantial review.
- The Doctrine of God by John Frame
I read this book at a very crucial time in my life. Having grown up in an Arminian/Revivalistic context, I began reading stuff by hard-core, somewhat combative, non-scholarly Calvinists and started going too far in the other extreme toward hyper-Calvinism. Frame’s book saved me from a lot of destructive nonsense by showing how God’s sovereignty is fully compatible with human means. By that sovereignty of God, this book was the human means the Lord used to bring me back to healthy biblical teaching. While covering dozens of technical issues with great exegetical, theological, and practical precision, somehow Frame is able to be as easy to read as the Sunday comics.
- Communion with the Triune God by John Owen
I read this book almost exclusively on the unusually enthusiastic recommendation of Carl Trueman, and I’m so glad I did. Owen must have had a brain the size of a truck and a heart the size of the Pacific. In this book he took me to new depths and heights in the contemplation of the characters of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that I hadn’t a clue even existed. It was like Columbus arriving in the Americas: beauties and glories have always been there, but you’ve been too sheltered or lazy to ever see them. It’s really too rich and profound to put into words here. I get excited just thinking about it, and want to go read it again now! The Crossway 2007 edition with editorial comments and helps by Kelly M Kapic and Justin Taylor really helped me in understanding Owen’s sometimes difficult prose.
- The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
In 2009, the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals led a unique initiative to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth by reading all of The Institutes in one year. By reading about four pages a day, the reader could make it through both volumes of the McNeill/Battles translation, while esteemed bloggers wrote daily reflections on the readings. (By the way, I wish somebody would do this for other classic theological tomes, e.g., Bullinger, Bavinck, Fuller. It’s a great way to encourage reading huge books.) I had never read The Institutes before and thought this was a pretty cool idea, so I gave it a try. Somehow I stuck with it and finished The Institutes right on time. All I can say is, wow. There’s good reason Calvin is still read 500 years later; he just might be the best theologian since the Apostle Paul. Reading Calvin also helped me understand how some of the self-taught, combative Calvinists I had read earlier in life weren’t true to either the Bible or Calvin. You really do need to go to the primary sources.
What are some of the most influential theological books you’ve read, and why? Let’s discuss them on our Facebook page.