Like a lot of my friends, I set myself a goal to read more in 2021. And for me that didn’t necessarily mean reading a higher number of books; instead, I focused on reading longer and older works than I typically do.
This year saw me poring through a lot of aged theological works — that is, whenever I could, in between working and parenting two small children and trying to stay sane in the midst of “COVID Pandemic Season 2: Variant Boogaloo” (may it be swiftly cancelled before we get a Season 3!).
But I also tried to strike a balance between old and new. Reading deeply to grow my own knowledge base while also reading widely to find books I could happily recommend to others, that they would find accessible. Oh, and I also read up a lot on Anglicanism to get more familiar with the tradition I’m now a part of, so that has shaped this list, too.
In other words, I’ve tried to follow that wise maxim laid down by C. S. Lewis: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
So here are the books I found to be the most beneficial reads this year, either for my own learning or as resources you all might find interesting. They are listed here in no particular order.
On the Incarnation, by Saint Athanasius of Alexandria.
In this surprisingly short but powerful treatise, one of the finest theologians in the history of the church summarizes why the Son of God came into the world as a human being. I read it during Advent, which was as perfect a pairing as milk and cookies.
It’s remarkable how well Athanasius’s discourse has aged. The work reads like a passionate sermon, striking a fine balance between philosophy, apologetics, and devotion, and it definitely deserves its reputation as the classic condensation of orthodox Christology.
It’s no wonder C. S. Lewis considered this his personal favorite work of classical Christian thought. Anyone seeking to have their understanding of the gospel enriched and their appreciation for the Savior deepened should take up and read.
What Christians Ought to Believe: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine Through the Apostles’ Creed, by Michael F. Bird.
This is an excellent overview of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith, organized around the Apostles’ Creed. Bird unpacks each line of the creed with sufficient depth but without going off-topic, his writing is very easy to follow, and he remains laser-focused on just what his title says: the things every Christian ought to believe.
I especially appreciated Bird’s approach on what each statement in the creed was designed to affirm, versus where there is flexibility. For example, in affirming belief in God as “Creator of heaven and earth,” Christians ought to affirm that God created the world from nothing, but from the time of at least St. Augustine there has been diversity in articulating precisely how he did so and how long it took. Also very helpful were Bird’s treatments of the Trinity, the virgin birth, the atonement, and the Holy Spirit. Really every chapter was good, but those are ones I remember standing out for me personally.
Bird also makes a convincing case for the value of the early church creeds in Christian life and worship, and his bibliography/recommended reading sections are very helpful for those looking to go deeper on specific topics. I’d highly recommend this as an introduction to theology in general or to the Apostles’ Creed specifically. It would make a great resource for newer believers looking to go deeper in their faith, or for use in group studies or classes.
Simply Anglican: An Ancient Faith for Today’s World, by Winfield Bevins.
This will be the book I recommend to anyone needing a quick primer on Anglicanism. It’s brief, accessible, and winsome in its presentation of the Anglican way of Christianity as a balanced and charitable “middle way” between many different Christian streams. I’m happy to have found a resource that neatly sums up many of the reasons why I’ve been drawn into this tradition.
Bevins hits all the important points (history, liturgy, prayer book, sacraments, hierarchy, mission, and culture) without getting too lost in the weeds. On some points he could have gone into greater detail, but this is meant as a very basic introductory work, so he can’t be faulted much there. He also helpfully provides study questions and recommended reading at the end of each chapter, making it perfect for group study or as a launching-point for further learning.
Against Heresies, by Saint Irenaeus of Lyons.
This was a challenging book to finish but also one of the most rewarding. Challenging for multiple reasons: It’s ancient (composed around 182 AD, making it one of the earliest extended works of Christian theology in history). Its rhetoric is very complicated. And it is THOROUGH.
Possibly too thorough. Irenaeus goes to great lengths in setting out the views of his Gnostic opponents — views which, he successfully shows, were ridiculously obscure, self-evidently absurd, and overly complicated (thus making it difficult to wade through the first two parts of this five-part work, which are primarily given to summarizing the Gnostic teachings before systematically dismantling them).
And yet, there were so many portions of this work that I found incredibly enriching, and the overall read was deeply informative when it comes to understanding early Christian history, theology, and even everyday practice. Irenaeus was a monumental thinker for his time, and because of his thoroughness we have what I think is the single most important Christian writing of the second century — a work which not only snuffed out Gnosticism almost singlehandedly for the next millennium and a half but also left a lasting influence on pretty much all subsequent Christian orthodoxy.
If I can find the time, I hope to write more about St. Irenaeus’s work in the future. Definitely a read that will stick with me.
The Resurrection of the Messiah, by Christopher Bryan.
I reviewed this book on the blog already (check it out here), and technically it was a re-read, so I won’t say too much about it here. But as I said before, it’s one of my favorites. It’s a fantastic treatment of the historicity of Jesus’s resurrection, with excellent commentary on the resurrection passages in the New Testament, and the endnotes are a treasure-trove of academic discussion. This was one of those books that, when I first perused it in seminary, was a timely read for me in a season when I was struggling with doubts about my faith, so it has a special place in my heart. Well worth checking out. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And those were my top reads of 2021. I’ll go ahead and throw out some honorable mentions to Scot McKnight’s eminently readable little book defending infant baptism, It Takes a Church to Baptize, as well as David deSilva’s Introducing the Apocrypha, both of which were enjoyable and informative.
Let me know in the comments what you think of this list. What were your top reads of 2021?
Have a happy New Year, and I’ll see you in 2022 (probably with my nose in a new book)!
Categories: Book Reviews, General, Resource Recommendations
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