I will turn 40 later this year. That is a big number. Statistically, my life is now more than half over. It is a good time to reflect. Specifically, I would like to briefly reflect on 10 books that, as best I can tell, have shaped my thinking about God, life, and the world we live in. I have not included the Bible, because it is in a category all to itself. The following are not “ranked” in their level of importance according to where they appear in the list. As you will see, it is an eclectic group of works. Moreover, I do not necessarily agree with everything written in them or hold to the larger beliefs of their respective authors at every point. If that were the criteria for a helpful book, I do not suppose I could read anything.
Here I Stand:
A Life of Martin Luther
I am prone to doubt. It comes and goes. Bainton’s biography of Luther, particularly his explanation of how Luther dealt with his own doubts, has always been a great source of encouragement to me. A few pages are worn quite thin such as Bainton’s observation that “Luther felt that his depressions were necessary. At the same time they were dreadful and by all means and in every way to be avoided and overcome. His whole life was a struggle against them, a fight for faith.”
Living by Faith:
Justification and Sanctification
If you’ve ever felt like you cannot escape self-judgment or the judgment of others, Bayer can help. This is a very small volume (86 pages in all), but it grips me every time I read it. He captures my Christian experience in statements such as “The hidden God is both inaccessibly distant and obtrusively close at the same time.”
Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul
Hays masterfully explains how Paul’s letters are teeming with references to Israel’s Scriptures and how important the interpretive impact of recognizing those references really is. There is no greater hermeneutical key to understanding Paul than discerning how his writings “echo” the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. Hays taught me that, and I am truly grateful.
What Are the Gospels?
Richard A. Burridge
I did not really understand how to read the Gospels until I read Burridge. His discussion and explanation of how to read the Gospels in light of Greco-Roman biography is summarized and stapled to the wall in my office.
The Resurrection of the Son of God
Some who know me will be surprised to see this on the list. Nevertheless, Wright’s emphasis in this work, and elsewhere, on the importance of bodily resurrection in Second Temple Judaism and Early Christian Theology has resulted in a far better understanding of what the gospel ultimately promises.
A Contemporary in Dissent:
Johann Georg Hamann
I will not pretend to fully understand Hamann’s philosophy. Nevertheless, Hamann’s challenge to quit splicing our thinking into categories such as objective and subjective has become a personal dictum. Any time I catch myself separating theology from practical ministry, or the coherent nature of Paul’s theology from its occasional nature, I hear Hamann’s warning about becoming a “master of divorce.”
The Art of Rhetoric
This work gets cited a lot, but I would encourage more people to read it cover to cover (it’s really not that long). Aristotle’s well-known rhetorical objectives, ethos-logos-pathos, are obviously not biblical. But he has tapped into something about communication that transcends all centuries. From my humble perspective, he sheds even more light on what it means to be made in the “image of God.” It means that human beings are designed in such a way that they need speakers to be relatable/believable (ethos), rational (logos), and inspiring (pathos).
Bauckham has convinced me that the New Testament has an even more robust Trinitarian theology than subsequent church councils, theologians, and the like combined. His argument for Christological monotheism within the 1st century era has been foundational in my own theological formation.
Praise and Lament in the Psalms
Nothing has shaped my understanding of the Psalter and the theology of suffering quite like Westermann. As strange as it may sound, his form critical analysis of the Psalms became the basis for the “pattern” of Christian experience that I see in myself and other today. It is the constant oscillation between “promise, suffering, the cry of distress, deliverance, and praise” (repeat—until He comes).
Christ Our Righteousness:
Paul’s Theology of Justification
Mark A. Seifrid
My students probably get tired of me using the phrase “crucified and risen Jesus.” They can blame Dr. Seifrid. His insistence that our righteousness (and everything else) is to be found in the actual person of the crucified and risen Jesus, rather than the best attempt to explain the process of justification, has changed me in countless ways.
There are other works that did not make the list, but on a different day I might include them. I hope you will take the time to read some or all of the works mentioned here.