I do it, you do it, in fact we all do it. We are all theologians by nature. We all create a god of reality in our heads based upon what we read and observe in the world around us. As to whether this god adheres to reality, and most importantly to the One True God, is another story. Flying Spaghetti Monsters … may actually be a thing. Thankfully for us everyone is doing it, and more importantly many have done it extremely well before us.
Studying theology is one of the most blessed yet daunting tasks that a Christian can undertake. It is no secret that it can be truly difficult. It incorporates the best of our biblical studies, with the intense introspection of philosophy. The late RC Sproul, determined to study under the best if he was going to study theology at all during his graduate years, took his family to Holland to study under Gerrit Cornelis Berkouwer who at the time was the greatest living Reformed Theologian.After his first lecture (which took place in the Dutch language) under another Professor, Mühlemann, Sproul was asked how he felt about Georg Hegel’s philosophy. Sproul replied that it was difficult, to which Mühlemann concurred:
“Yes, Hegel is difficult in any language.”
Thankfully, it does not always have to be difficult right out of the gate. There have been brilliant scholars and theologians who have created materials suitable for the beginner, and I have listed below a few works which I have found to be both approachable, yet rich in content. The study of theology has become something of a bygone practice, an exercise more divisive than spiritually enriching to the minds of many.
However, the study of theology is crucial to the Christian life. It seeks to answer the deepest questions about not just who God is … but what He is as well. As Michael Horton has put it:
“Many Christians assume you can just experience God in a personal relationship apart from doctrine, but that’s impossible. You can’t experience God without knowing who He is, what He has done, and who you are in relation to Him.” –Pilgrim Theology, 14.
Below you’ll find a list of works that I believe form a solid beginning to the study of theology. The criteria for my selection centered on three factors.
- Authors and/or books I am personally familiar with so as not to send my integrity screaming off into the hills.
- Books that are relatively short (i.e. less than 400 pages) so as not to send newcomers screaming off into the hills.
- Books that do not break the bank so as not to send said newcomers’ wallets screaming off into the hills.
Hegel may too much for us right now, but theology is certainly not beyond the reach of the church!
So without further ado, here are the five books that I am (fairly) certain will not cause a mass migration into said metaphorical hills.
1) God is Impassible and Impassioned by Rob Lister
I see you reaching for those hiking boots! Relax, there is a reason this is first on the list and why I shall give it a bit more attention than the others.
Arguably the second densest book on the list, it is also perhaps one of the most important. It deals with theology proper: the doctrine of God. Studying God provides the foundation by which the rest of theology (e.g. nature, humanity, sin, etc.) is developed, and so it should go without saying that to get theology right one must get God right. God is the central actor in the universe, and so everything comes into focus by nature of who and what He is.
Rob Lister, who teaches at the Talbot School of Theology, tackles this issue with care. A great shift has occurred in the past two hundred years regarding not only who people think God is, but what they think He is. This shift has resulted not only in the denial of basic understandings of God that were held universally amongst Christians for two thousand years, but are dragging Him down to earth and making Him a creature like us.
This departure has been brought on not only by rejections of past knowledge of the world and how it works, but of a basic lack of understanding of said past knowledge. The latter has been especially true amongst some professing, conservative and orthodox Christians, who modify or even reject the most basic concept of God: His impassibility.
What’s impassibility, you ask? To put it very simply, it is that God is so utterly whole, perfect, self-contained and sufficient that He cannot be affected by anything other than Himself. God is constant, perfectly in control of Himself. He does not suffer, fly off the handle, or act in any other way that is not fully loving, just, and merciful.
God cannot feel betrayed in the way that we can, because He has forever been fully aware of who He could trust. The impassibility of God means that God is the most stable, and therefore dependable being in the universe and beyond.
This definition has, understandably, led many to believe that God is devoid of emotion/passions at all. Emotions are often the result of interaction between people, and so to claim that He cannot be affected by His creation causes some to claim He is completely dispassionate towards His creation. This is exactly the dangerous misunderstanding that Lister seeks to correct.
God is Impassible and Impassioned is divided into two main parts. The first walks the reader through the history of Christian theologians grappling with the study of God through the Scriptures and their own philosophical outlooks on reality.
One of the biggest contributions the book makes to theology is challenging the misconception that the Ancient Church overwhelmingly allowed their philosophy to override how they read Scripture, when in fact by and large it gave them a framework and language to understand the God of the Bible. Furthermore, the Ancient Church did not deny that God had passions when they called Him impassible, but that His passions transcends our own experience with passions.
Lister moves on then to discuss impassibility in the Medieval and Reformation periods, highlighting that throughout the history of the church, Catholic and Protestant, God was always professed to be impassible. It has only been in modern times that this doctrine of God has been challenged.
The second half then walks the reader through how to read and understand Scripture with this understanding of God. From the Old and New Testament, Lister then walks through how these Scriptures shed light on the truth of God’s impassibility. This is perhaps the most practical part of the book for Christians who begin their study of theology. It is important to get God right at the start of your theology, but Rob Lister helps you to not forget God once you’ve “turned the page”.
2) Theology: The Basics by Alister McGrath
My own Christian Doctrine textbook in college, Theology: The Basics does just as it says. It teaches you the basics. At just under 300 pages, McGrath has written a work that will cover the essentials of the Christian faith in an easy introductory work. The book begins with the theology of Faith.
It introduces the reader to how Christians past and present have understood this vital aspect of the human experience, and its relationship to reason and the existence of God. What is faith? How is it defined and acted upon? What is reason? Do we need reason for faith, or does it make faith unnecessary? Can God’s existence be proven? Daunting questions these may be, but McGrath handles they in a superb style that will be easily accessible to newcomers.
With this foundation in place, McGrath moves on to discussing theology proper: God. How is God described in Scripture? How should we understand when the Bible says He is like something, even though He is not that things specifically? Is God personal, or impersonal? To put it another way, can we have a living relationship with God? How does God bring us to faith in His Son?
Finally, and most importantly, how are we to understand God’s impassibility? See, I told you that the prior book was important. Highly enriching, this chapter will give a solid foundation towards our own relationship with God.
From here on McGrath then converses about how Christians have understood Creation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Triune God (i.e. Trinity), the Sacraments, the Church, Salvation, and the End Times in under 300 pages! Again, this book is great place to start if you’re looking for a solid overview of each topic.
The fact that it is now on it’s fourth edition is testament to the fact this book has continually be of value to Christians and their fields of study. It doesn’t take up much room on the shelf, is written by a solid Christian Theologian, and will give you the essentials of the faith.
3) How to Think Theologically by Stone and Duke
This title, unlike the others, does not deal with the specific study of theology. Rather, it deals with how one thinks theologically. The opening statements of the book I believe best covers its purpose.
Chances are, you are a theologian. If you practice your religion, live according to your Christian faith, or even take seriously the spiritual dimension of life, inescapably you think theologically. It is a simple fact of life for Christians: their faith makes them theologians. Deliberately or not, they think -and act- out of a theological understanding of existence, and their faith calls them to become the best theologians they can be. -pp1
Theology is simple and complex at the same time, and the writers understand this and do their best to help Christians through the process.
Not everyone comes to the table of discussion with the same theology in mind. How does one’s practice and personal experience shape their theology? Are they aware of what does shape their theology? How do we even begin to form our own personal theology? What are the resources for this, and how should we handle them?
This and more is covered throughout the book which recently saw its third edition. A great practical guide, How to Think Theologically helps form the basic assumptions by which Christians should tackle theology with.
4) Classical Christian Doctrine by Ronald Heine
To those who know me, Classical Christian Doctrine had to be on this list. I was hooked on Ronald Heine as an author after finishing his Reading the Old Testament with the Ancient Church (a book I highly recommend), and this present title did not disappoint. Slightly different than the others, this book examines, through the lens of the Nicene Creed, what were the basic theological assumptions made by Christians during the first 300 hundred years after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I have continuously found this book an excellent resource. The Bible study at my church which I help lead is finishing a study of this book, and the continuity/discontinuity as it relates to our present denomination and faith. To my surprise, a lot of adults and young adults who have participated in the study have really enjoyed it, especially when they saw the struggle early Christians went through to discover how to understand God better.
It was simple enough for newcomers, yet offered a taste of our ancient faith.
Like I said, the book is divided into the basic narrative of the Nicene Creed. It introduces the subject with the creed itself, and what ancient Christians assumed about Scripture. God the Father is discussed in excellent detail, but a good third of the book is devoted to the quest to understanding Jesus and the many answers and heresies that arose from this quest.
The grand question for ancient Christians was: who is Jesus (i.e. in Scripture and relation to us) and what is Jesus (i.e. human or divine)? After this the Holy Spirit, Creation, the Church, Baptism, Eschatology, and the Resurrection each receive their due treatment and analysis.
For me, it has been important and edifying to help us understand the ancient-ness of our faith. In our quest for modernity and relevancy, we have often disregarded the past. It was important to consider how we can rightly be identified as Christian in the same way that our ancient brothers and sisters were. What was important to them?
What did it mean to be a Christian if ethnicity and lineage had nothing to do with it? How were their beliefs tied to their practice? Why do we still believe and do many of the things they did today? I love this book and recommend it more than any other book on this list.
5) Christian Theology by Millard Erickson
I told myself that I would stay away from the heavier (both literally and figuratively) materials for this list, which is why you do not see me recommending Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. But ultimately I felt that this title was worth putting on the list for the sole reason that it can be used as anyone’s “one-stop-shop” for studying theology.
The required textbook for my own seminary theology courses, Erickson’s treatment of the major fields of theology proved to not only be expansive but fairly approachable.
One of the factors that some seminaries try to keep in mind is that many students come to the ministry (i.e. called in the Baptist sense) without having had prior college experience in theology or biblical studies. I am not sure how widespread this is, but my experience with Baptist schools seems to suggest that this is at least a norm for them.
I felt my seminary struck a good balance between an author that was both well informed, yet easily apprehended by students new to the subject. A few chapters will require multiple readings -which is a good idea anyways when studying theology- while others offer their knowledge freely and openly to all comers. Overall, it was encouraging to see every student grasping the subject matter.
Erickson’s strength lies in that he does not merely give you a conservative position, or even his own position, in each chapter. He goes through the history surrounding the particular field, and then weighs in with his final analysis and proposed theological answer. This is why he is the one-stop-shop. He guides the reader through the thought process, ensuring that they are becoming theologians in their own right.
Those of a Reformed tradition will likely have one of two reactions towards Erickson. You might dislike his “soft Calvinism” (i.e. non-limited atonement) which he is not shy about, or you may truly appreciate the level of care he gives to describing his particular stance which is not without historical precedence. In either case, rest assured that you will find yourself in good company with Erickson.
He is classically minded, fair in his treatments, and ultimately encouragingly orthodox. If you ever believed that Christianity was incapable of intellectual rigor, Erickson will cure you of that soon enough.
For those of you who are not quite ready to take on the full version, an abridged version was created that will help ease the transition titled: Introducing Christian Doctrine.