A “Must-Read” Booklist For Those Who Want To Study Theology (Part 1)

I received this question recently:

Thank you for all the material you put out. I have benefitted quite a bit. Do you have a list of books/reading that you would recommend as “must read” for someone wanting to grow theologically? I am a part-time worship pastor and full-time elementary music teacher. Previous experience as lay/part-time church planter, youth pastor, and young adult pastor. No seminary, relatively studied, conservative theologically.

As it’s nice to receive such requests (I remember doing the same thing many years ago) and I want to encourage study I thought I would respond in full. I intend to split my lists between “Introductory” and more “Advanced.” I know that not everyone is drawn to study or even read theology (there is a difference). I am pretty useless at many things, but it appears I have some ability to do Theology. I love it, my bookshelves are full of it, and I have taught it at various levels from Sunday School to Graduate level for years. But how to write a decent list of books for those interested in it? I have already provided some help on Systematic Theology here (but that list badly requires updating), and Biblical Theology here (I need to add a few more volumes), and I did a booklist for Dispensationalism too.

What I have decided to do is jabber. I hope that decision is not the wrong one, but here we go. Naturally, there are books that could be in the list but aren’t, either because I have to be limited or because I have forgotten them (I am writing this away from my library). I will give my selections on the various topics with a little banter added.

For Those Beginning Their Theological Journey:

The first book any believer ought to be studying constantly is of course the Bible! Get to know it. That means you will have to be discipled to read a lot every week. When I started out I was blessed to be challenged by a missionary by the name of Dean McClain to read ten pages of the Bible per day. That came out as going through the Word of God about four times a year. There is no substitute. Commentaries won’t do it. Seminary won’t do it (since when did students read the Bible constantly at Seminary?). I don’t know how many graduate students (yes, Masters degree students) I have asked about their Bible reading who put their hands down once I reached “5 times” reading it through. I don’t think anyone has any business doing a Masters in Bible or Theology until they have read the whole Bible at least 10 times. You will have to do it. Not only will your soul be fed and your mind properly furnished, you will develop a sense of whether what you read elsewhere has any merit. It won’t turn you into a great theologian, but there is nothing like it for honing your theological chops.

Be careful which Bible you choose. Don’t have anything to do with paraphrases. Neither mess around with dynamic equivalence translations like the NIV. I recommend the NKJV or the NASB or the old KJV. The ESV is alright, although it has its problems, particularly in various prophetic passages. As far as Study Bibles go, there are several good ones if you wish. For a start, as a budding theologian you want one which will give you the cross-references that help you link the doctrines together. For this reason I personally don’t recommend the Scofield Bible. It is good, but it is geared toward Dispensationalism, not so much for Theology, which means that it often fails to provide the cross-references to study Systematic Theology. Better is the Ryrie Study Bible, and the MacArthur Study Bible. But I don’t want to get into Study Bibles here, so I will move on. I’m actually not a big fan.

After the Word of God itself there is one other book you must read: The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This book hardly needs a recommendation from me, but it should be read and reread. There are many good editions. My favorite is the one edited by C. J. Lovik. There’s a really well done Study Guide by Maureen Bradley.

With that under our belts we are ready to push off from the shore. The first two subjects to look to are the doctrine of Scripture and the doctrine of God. On the former I recommend The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture by Rene Pache. This is a superb treatment for those investigating this essential doctrine for the first time. There is also a good book with the same title by A. W. Pink. Since it is arguably the most assailed doctrine of all, another good book to read is Noel Weeks’ The Sufficiency of Scripture.

Approaching the doctrine of God I would go for the inevitable Knowing God by J.I. Packer. I am not Packer’s biggest fan, mainly because he was too willing to compromise on issues (see also John Stott below). But this is a great book. I do have to say that I was very impressed when I heard Packer lecture on Laurence Chadderton in London years ago. He was very impressive as a scholar and as a humble man. The Attributes of God by A. W. Pink contains great thoughts on God’s majesty and perfections. Books on the Names of God by Andrew Jukes or Nathan Stone ought to be purchased.

Turning to the Person and Work of the Savior, I think there are some stand-out volumes for the “beginner.” Here are some of the best: First there is F. F. Bruce’s Jesus: Lord & Savior. Bruce was a great NT scholar and this popular work is backed by his immense erudition. In a similar vein I like Everett Harrison’s A Short Life of Christ. Don’t worry that these are older books. The newest are certainly not always the best. On that note, I would try to get a copy of Christ the Controversialist by John Stott. It’s a great look at the way the Lord interacted with His enemies; a little book, but exceedingly insightful. The Cross of Christ by Stott is one of the best treatment available, but quite readable. Then there is the always judicious Robert Lightner’s Sin, the Savior, and Salvation. Need I say to avoid Jesus Calling like the plague!

On the Holy Spirit some very worthwhile “basic” works include J. Dwight Pentecost, The Divine Comforter, and/or Charles Ryrie, The Holy Spirit. Please be careful what you read on the Third Person as a lot of Pentecostal/Charismatic nonsense slips in. Another really good old work is H. C. G. Moule’s Veni Creator.

To close off this installment I will commend some surveys of Theology. The book i keep referring people to for a good readable all-round work is Charles Ryrie’s Basic Theology. It is balanced, accurate, and readable. On the more Reformed side I like James Montgomery Boice’s Foundations of the Christian Faith, which was the first full Systematic Theology I read many moons ago. It’s sermonic, which may encourage some to try their hand. I also want to put a word in for T. C. Hammond’s In Understanding Be Men. Basic Christianity by John Stott is a superb introduction to the key doctrines, but don’t get the newer version, which has been revised to be more politically correct.

Finally, there are two more books I would advise a beginning student to get. Firstly, the compact but more challenging Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen. This is an important study on discerning true Christianity, and is needed. Then there is Paul Lee Tan’s really good book The Interpretation of Prophecy, a clear premillenial study.

I’ve just started. I’m going to have some fun with this. Next time I shall focus on a few more doctrines before expanding the list to include some books on the Christian Life, Biblical Studies, and Apologetics.

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There are 3 Comments

josh p's picture

This is great Paul thanks. Some books here that I've never even heard of. The Lightner book in particular looks interesting. 

Bert Perry's picture

Especially the endorsement of older books.  They may not address our modern issues directly, but the mere fact that they're still in print a century later implies that they're likely to be more worthwhile than books that haven't withstood the storms of time.  (same thing with music, I think)

One warning on older books is that they tend to be written for those who are intellectual "one percenters", so it's a harder read than we're used to today.  That said, it's well worth the effort.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Paul Henebury's picture

I agree that older books challenge the modern reader's comprehension level.  That is why I have not included more in my list.  I am a big advocate of reading older works; partly because they increase ones historical sensibilities, and partly because their insights and wisdom can often be overlooked by the moderns.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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