Last week I had a friend of mine ask me for a list of books I would recommend for someone wanting to start seriously studying theology. Naturally I was pleased to answer, and I also thought it would be good to share that list here on the blog.
Important disclaimer: the Bible should be our first and foremost resource for shaping our theological thinking. None of the entries on this list are meant to replace the regular reading of Scripture, but they are helpful in supplementing it and in helping us to better recognize and understand sound doctrine.
Also, I’ve tried to prioritize books that focus less on telling you what to think, and instead are helpful for teaching you how to think for yourself. To help narrow down my choices, I kept in mind people who might not be able to attend seminary but would still like to do some self-educating in their spare time.
Some of these titles have shown up in previous posts (like my Recommended Resources for New Believers, Best Books to Help You Understand the Bible, and Top 10 Theology Books That Have Impacted My Life), but they still qualify for this one, as well. There are a lot more that I could have listed here, but I’ve tried to force myself to keep the list short enough that it hopefully isn’t overwhelming. (I probably haven’t succeeded!) Also I may update it depending on if I come across some even better books in the future!
So that said, here’s what I would say is my current shortlist of books I think everyone should read if they’re wanting to start getting their feet wet in studying theology and the Bible more deeply.
Getting Your Bearings
Definitely start by reading Who Needs Theology? An Invitation to the Study of God by Stanley Grenz & Roger Olson. This short book introduces what theology is, why it’s important, and what tools and methods theologians use. It may sound basic, but don’t skip it! This book will get you in the right frame of mind before setting out into deeper waters.
Next I highly recommend The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity by Roger Olson. Olson’s book is a bit of a one-stop shop for learning what Christians have believed through the centuries on the most central theological topics. It helps lay out the differences between essential doctrines we all should agree on vs. non-essential convictions where there is room for various perspectives.
Another great primer on essential Christian doctrines is What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed, by Michael F. Bird. Bird goes through each line of the Apostles’ Creed, explaining what is being affirmed in this ancient summary of the Christian faith and showing where each subject is found in Scripture. He also includes recommended reading sections for further study.
Then supplement that with Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology by Gregory Boyd & Paul Eddy. Boyd & Eddy designed this book specifically to introduce students to the different opinions evangelical Christians have on pretty much every major current theological debate — stuff like Calvinism vs. Arminianism, young-earth vs. old-earth creation, spiritual gifts, women in ministry, etc. It’s a really helpful resource for getting familiar with the common conversation topics.
And then while it’s more on the technical side, one of the better textbook introductions to theology you ought to have on your shelf is Christian Theology: An Introduction by Alister McGrath. He focuses especially on how doctrines have developed through history, but also covers theological methods and controversies. It’s a lot of information, but it’s a good resource to have handy for getting up to speed on all things theology.
There are a handful of modern theology books that are either popular enough or influential enough that every new theology student ought to read them. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis is certainly one of them. What I think Lewis does best is he shows you how to think theologically with creativity and joy. It was the first theology book I read when I became a Christ-follower, so I can’t help but recommend it every chance I get!
Another personal favorite is The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer, a study of the traditional attributes of God, written in devotional language. Even though there are a few areas where I might take a different view than Tozer, he communicates with passion and demonstrates how the study of God should fuel our worship of God. Same goes for Knowing God by J. I. Packer. I don’t quite share Packer’s hardline Calvinist theology, but there are still a lot of great gems in his book and I return to it often.
I also highly recommend reading The Gospel of the Kingdom by George Eldon Ladd at your earliest opportunity. It’s one of the best works of New Testament theology (in my humble opinion). Ladd’s book has shaped all subsequent discussions of what the Kingdom of God is according to Scripture, and why Jesus preached “the gospel of the kingdom.” It’s also influential for understanding end times prophecy.
Historical Classics & Church History
Good theologians don’t just learn from modern authors. You should definitely read some of the older classics from throughout church history to get an idea of how Christian theology has developed over the centuries.
You can find a ton of them available online for free at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (ccel.org)! Among the most ancient works, I highly recommend Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching by St. Irenaeus, On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius, and Confessions by St. Augustine.
When you’re really ready to go deep, try reading one of the oldest systematic treatments of Christianity, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith by St. John of Damascus. And if you find you just can’t get enough of classic works of historical theology, jump into the writings of the Reformers — like John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, Anglican Richard Hooker’s The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, or Methodist Richard Watson’s Theological Institutes.
And for getting up to speed on church history itself, the single best resource I know is The Story of Christianity (2 volumes) by Justo González. It may be long but Gonzalez is a great writer and this is the most readable survey of church history out there. His treatment of the early church is especially enlightening. If you find Gonzalez too daunting, try Henry Chadwick’s The Early Church.
Another fantastic resource is J. N. D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines, which surveys the theology of the early, undivided church. Every serious student should have it on their shelf.
Start with Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright. It’s a fantastic little book about the nature and role of Scripture in the life of the church and in theology. I think every Christian should read it. Then, to start getting a grasp on the unifying storyline of Scripture, read God’s Big Picture: Tracing the Storyline of Scripture by Vaughan Roberts. This helps lay the foundation for understanding biblical theology.
Exegetical Fallacies by D. A. Carson is absolutely a must-read for learning how not to interpret Scripture. It helpfully points out the most common mistakes people make when trying to exegete or preach biblical passages. When you’re ready to go a little deeper into the art and science of interpretation, be sure and read Grant Osborne’s The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation.
I also recommend picking up 6 Ways the Old Testament Speaks Today by J. Alec Motyer. Motyer offers helpful reflections on how to appreciate the value of the Old Testament for Christian life and belief, which is important since so many people today either undervalue the OT or feel too intimidated by it.
Getting to know the background and context to each book of the Bible is also critical for developing theologians, so having at least one really solid Old Testament and New Testament introduction is a must. My personal favorites are:
For New Testament: An Introduction to the New Testament by D. A. Carson & Douglas J. Moo. That one’s a must for serious students or pastors, but for the everyman they also have a shorter version: Introducing the New Testament: A Short Guide to Its History and Message.
And finally, every serious student of Christianity should own at least one good systematic theology (preferably several, from different viewpoints, to help complement each other). These are books wherein a Christian scholar aims to summarize and synthesize all the doctrinal truths of Scripture into a coherent system of belief. They take topics (like the Trinity, sin, salvation, etc.) and seek to explain the full scope of what the Bible teaches on those topics.
So far my favorite systematic is Classic Christianity by Thomas Oden. I like it because Oden focuses on what the majority of Christians have believed through the centuries, so this is a great resource for historical theology, too. It’s also not as overly technical as a lot of other systematic theologies.
I’ve heard some great things about Michael Bird’s Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, which I hope to read soon and might be another good one for new theology buffs. Another one I really need to make time for soon is the four-volume A Constructive Christian Theology for the Pluralistic World by Veli-Matti Kärkkäinen, but that one’s probably not for the faint of heart!
And that’s it! I know that’s a ton of reading I’ve just recommended, and I’m under no illusions that everyone will read every single volume listed (although a guy can dream, can’t he?). But these books have been incredibly helpful in my own journey of learning, and I think they represent the cream of the crop.
My sincere hope is that this list will be both a help and a source of excitement to many aspiring learners of good Christian theology. There are great resources out there, and even though the sheer breadth of stuff that gets published can be intimidating, with the right starting points you can get your bearings and develop your own theological “muscles.”
If you found this list helpful, let me know in the comments! Were there any titles you were surprised I included or left out? Feel free to leave suggestions to help me improve it!
See you down the path.