Most of the books recommended in the various categories we have considered in this series so far have been books written for laymen and laywomen. Even those that are of great importance to the Christian ministry – think of Augustine’s Confessions or Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Lewis’s Mere Christianity or Martyn Lloyd Jones’ Sermons on Romans – were written to be read by Christians or people generally. But there is an immense library of Christian writing that is intended for the professional class: scholars and learned ministers. Commentaries on the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible, studies that interact with trends in theological scholarship, and so on are typically books that lay people will find of little practical use. They are not typically “page-turners” either. They are often technical to the point that they can do double-duty as cures for insomnia! To be honest, there are plenty of books devoted to biblical, theological, church-historical, and liturgical study that I have had to force myself to read in hopes of learning something important. The hard work is not always repaid!
But in that class of works read chiefly by ministers and biblical/theological scholars there are a great many books that thoughtful Christian laymen will also find of great value. Serious Christians want to deepen their understanding of their faith and to go deeper one must read more serious and often more challenging books. What follows, you will appreciate is a small sampling of a very large library.
One of my top ten books for recommendation to young ministers is Michael Green’s Evangelism in the Early Church. It was an epoch in my life when I first read that book. It is a big book, with much detail, and heavily annotated, but it richly repays a careful reading. How did the early church spread the faith? Green’s is a serious study of that large question by a competent patristic scholar, but he writes well and his argument is accessible to the interested layman. I suspect some of you will find that book nearly as valuable and encouraging as I did.
There is a series of theological studies, entitled Contours of Christian Theology, currently being published by InterVarsity Christian Press. It is intended to cover the main loci or subject areas of theology with works by different authors. The individual volumes are of a consistently high quality and some, in particular, are outstanding. If you wish to take the next step in the mastery of your faith, you would do well to read these books. Start with Gerald Bray on The Doctrine of God, Donald Macleod on The Person of Christ, Sinclair Ferguson on The Holy Spirit, or Edmund Clowney on The Church. Similar theological studies that are both accessible and really valuable are John Stott’s The Cross of Christ and Anthony Hoekema’s three books, Created in God’s Image, Saved By Grace, and The Bible and the Future. If you can find a copy, also read J.I. Packer’s booklet What did the Cross Achieve? It is the work of a professional theologian doing professional theology, but it is still a great read for an interested Christian.
There are, in the same way, volumes of church history and Christian biography that, though they are not “popular” works in the usual sense, are, in fact, highly regarded works of original scholarship, are nevertheless very accessible to an avid lay reader. Nothing will give you a better sense of patristic Christianity than Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine or J.N.D. Kelly’s of Jerome and Chrysostom. Speaking of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, have you read a serious study of the life of great reformer, such as that of T.H.L. Parker or Alister McGrath? There is a new series of biographical studies called American Reformed Biographies being published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing House. They are critical, that is scholarly evaluations, of prominent figures in American Presbyterian history. Three have appeared so far, Sean Lucas on R.L. Dabney, D.G. Hart on John Williamson Nevin, and John Muether on Cornelius Van Til. Each of these studies, well written and highly interesting, opens a window or several windows on issues being faced by the church today.
All of us have been affected, to some degree, by what are now quaintly referred to as “the worship wars.” The war is pretty much over and those of us who favor the sort of worship practiced at Faith Presbyterian lost. One of the most depressing features of the liturgical revolution that overtook the church in recent years was how little serious thinking by the ministry or the laity went into the debate. Protestants (including Presbyterians) were so poorly instructed in the history, principles, and controversies of Christian worship that ill-considered and uninformed opinion offered off the top of one’s head was widely mistaken for learned argument. The liturgical biography is immense, alien to most of us, and little of real value has been written for the lay reader. But there are some books, written primarily for ministers, that are serious and informative on the one hand, and accessible on the other. One such book is PCA minister Jeff Meyers’ The Lord’s Service. I don’t agree with everything in the book, but it is a very good place for an interested church-goer to begin who wants to know the what’s, how’s and why’s of historic Christian worship.
And so it is with regard to any and every subject of interest to Christians. Books largely intended for ministers and scholars are, at least sometimes, sufficiently readable to prove both interesting and valuable to lay readers as well. A great book on reading the Old Testament is Gordon Wenham’s Story as Torah. You will learn a lot and if you keep your Bible open and your pen in hand as you read, the margins of your Bible will bear eloquent witness to how much you learned from Wenham’s book. Every Christian family should have a systematic theology at hand (e.g. Louis Berkhof or R.L. Dabney or R.L. Reymond) and consult it frequently when questions arise. Bruce Waltke’s superb An Old Testament Theology will serve a similar purpose. When a Christian consults such works, his or her understanding grows. With the growing understanding comes a growing interest and a greater capacity to understand and appreciate more serious books. There are many Christians who would tell you that some of their most satisfying and valuable experiences have been discovering the wonderful things there are to learn about Holy Scripture, our Christian faith, and its history in the world. You don’t want to confine yourselves to books that teach you only what you already know! Remember, what counts for time and eternity it is not that you read, but what you read and that you really learn.