Some Good Summer Reading (Recommended New or Forthcoming Theology Books)

Some Good Summer Reading (Recommended New or Forthcoming Theology Books)

Summer is a time when I try to catch up on reading. During the academic year books tend to pile up on a table in my home study. Eventually, usually during the summer, I get around to reading some. I’m often reading (or listening to) several books at the same time (don’t take that too literally!). I’m usually writing one book while finishing the “details” of a previous one (e.g., creating its index) and planning the next one. So I’ll start with what I’m working on (books-wise) and then mention some good books I’ve recently read or am reading right now.

My magnum opus will probably be the forthcoming The Journey of Modern Theology: From Reconstruction to Deconstruction scheduled to be published by InterVarsity Press later this year. My teaching assistant Jared Patterson and I are working on the index now. The manuscript is 900 pages; the book itself will probably come in a little over 700 pages. It’s up at Amazon without the cover (as of the other day when I checked). I’m not sure why the cover doesn’t show yet. The cover will feature Friedrich Schleiermacher and Karl Barth—“bookends” of modern theology (in terms of approaches to modernity). Journey is a comprehensive revision and expansion of 20th Century Theology: God and the World in a Transitional Age written with Stan Grenz and published by IVP in 1992. It’s really a completely new book that incorporates some material from that earlier one. The theme of Journey is theological responses to modernity (including postmodern theologies). It includes new chapters on: Kierkegaard, Thomas Reid, Coleridge, Bushnell, Hodge, Dorner, Catholic Modernism (Tyrrell, Loisy), Troeltsch, and many more including the final two chapters on Hauerwas (postliberalism) and John Caputo (deconstructionism).

Right now I’m writing a book with my friend Christian Collins Winn entitled Reclaiming Pietism. That will be published by Eerdmans sometime in 2014. My next project is a book on contemporary versions of ancient heresies for Abingdon. That’s slated for 2015.

I’m also working on a couple of articles and talks—for churches and professional society meetings.

So, here are some excellent books you should read. Some are already published; a couple are forthcoming—watch for them (I’ve read them in pre-publication forms):

Scot McKnight, A Long Faithfulness: The Case for Christian Perseverance (Patheos Press available in Kindle edition only). It’s an extremely concise but thorough biblical and theological examination of the doctrine of “eternal security of the believer” or “perseverance of the saints” aimed at defeating deterministic theologies of salvation. You can see my endorsement at the Amazon page for the book. I think this little book (only 64 pages!) presents one of the strongest challenges to the doctrine of “inamissable grace” (its technical name) ever. Scot’s thesis is that IF the Bible contradicts that doctrine and actually teaches amissable grace (the real possibility of apostasy), then deterministic salvation (monergism) is false. The book is irenic toward those with whom Scot disagrees; it is not overly polemical, but it is pointed.

David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier (Jossey-Bass). The authors are pastors and seminary professors; the book is aimed at the broader evangelical (and post-evangelical) community about being missional in a post-Christendom culture. The book resonates with the recent “Missio Alliance” gathering (at which I spoke) in Arlington, Virginia. Clearly these authors are not satisfied with the two main options in contemporary evangelical and post-evangelical church life: “Neo-Reformed” (e.g., The Gospel Coalition and Together for the Gospel) and “Emerging” (or “Emergent”) as that is represented by Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Doug Padgitt, et al. They think both of those have much to offer that is valuable, but ultimately they see them as either too defensive and authoritarian or as too enamored with conversation that ultimately goes nowhere. They talk about developing “welcoming and mutually transforming” communities of faith and offer both general and specific paths toward them. People who consider themselves broadly evangelical but not satisfied with either Neo-Reformed or Emergent/Emerging types of contemporary church life may find this book helpful and rewarding. Underlying it and in its background is a generally Anabaptist approach to Christianity, but one that is sensitive and relevant to contemporary (postmodern) culture.

Peter C. Blum, For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press). This is a series of previously published essays in which the author experiments with comparing John Howard Yoder and key postmodern thinkers such as Foucault, Derrida and Levinas with an eye toward community Christianity. The author opposes “top-down,” authoritarian, foundationalist modes of Christian theology and church life and favors an Anabaptist model informed by such postmodern ideas as openness to “the Other.” I’ve only read the first half and found it familiar territory, but that’s because I’ve read quite a bit of literature like this in recent years and have already noticed the points of compatibility between certain themes of postmodern philosophy and Yoder’s approach to Anabaptist theology and ecclesiology.

Nicholas Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs (Princeton University Press). Heavy sledding but definitely worth the work. Here Wolterstorff argues against that basic human rights are inherent in persons and not dependent on communities and their orders. I was not familiar with this debate before diving into this book and am still struggling with understanding why anyone, especially a Christian, would think that basic human rights are granted by communities and their orders rather than inherent. So far I’m finding that I have agreed with Wolterstorff’s position for a very long time without knowing it was controversial. He is definitely giving me a lot of philosophical, biblical and theological reasons to continue believing what I have believed.

Gregory Boyd, Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty (Baker, forthcoming). Without doubt (pun intended) this is one of the best books on this subject. (Others include the classics The Myth of Certainty by Daniel Taylor and The Christian Agnostic by Leslie Weatherhead.) In this book Boyd reveals much about himself, his personal and spiritual biography, as well as his mature theology. The thesis is that absolute certainty is humanly impossible—even in spiritual matters—and that we Christians need to learn to live with doubt and even embrace it. One of Greg’s main themes throughout his ministry and writing is “Be real!” He believes too much of contemporary evangelical (and, again, I use the term very broadly) religion revels in a kind of unreality—expecting Christians to rise above mere humanity into perfection. One myth attached to that is that “real Christians” rise above doubt about God, the Bible, etc., and achieve absolute certainty. Greg thinks that sets Christians up for disillusionment when they realize that isn’t happening for them or anyone they know. Greg’s alternative is faith, what Lesslie Newbigin (in Proper Confidence) calls “proper confidence.”

Alan P. F. Sell, Confessing the Faith Yesterday and Today: Essays Reformed, Dissenting, and Catholic (Pickwick). I’ve been asked to review this for Evangelical Quarterly—a British theological journal—so I won’t say much about the book here. Let me just say that Sell is one of my favorite Reformed theologians even though most neo-Reformed (fundamentalist and hard core confessionalist) types in the U.S. would probably consider him not truly Reformed. But, then, he might return the favor. Sell used to be theological secretary of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (now called the World Communion of Reformed Churches)—an ecumenical group of over one hundred Reformed denominations worldwide. (By the way, the Remonstrant Brotherhood of the Netherlands, the direct descendent denomination of the original Remonstrants, is a charter member of the WCRC!) Sell wrote two little books many years ago that had a great impact on me: The Great Debate: Calvinism, Arminianism, and Salvation (Baker) and Theology in Turmoil: The Roots, Course and Significance of the Conservative-Liberal Debate in Modern Theology (Baker). Both are excellent books. But my favorite Sell books (which I reviewed for Christianity Today) are his three under the over arching title Doctrine and Devotion (unfortunately they are now out of print and hard to find). Sell is a British Congregationalist, a “Dissenter,” and one of his main theological heroes is P. T. Forsyth, also one of mine. Forsyth was a progressive evangelical of a century ago—someone who managed to avoid the pitfalls of both fundamentalism and liberalism.

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  • Curt Day

    I am reading Wolterstorff’s book, Justice: Rights And Wrongs, right now. It definitely is not a book that you can easily speed read through. In fact, I think I can use it for the high school class at church but that means I have the be selective in terms of what I will have them read.

    • Roger Olson

      Wow, kudos to you–for using such material in a high school class at church. I would have loved that when I was in high school. Good luck. I hope you have some really bright students.

      • Curt Day

        Thank you Roger. One reason why I would like to use him is the reading level. I want the books we study to challenge the reading level. 2 years ago we used the cost of discipleship by bonhoeffer.

        The trick is getting it approved by the session. And since this is an OPC church, I am hoping that Wolterstorff’s Reformed background helps.

  • Jeff Borden

    Great and challenging list of reads. Thank you!

  • Jon Rising

    Thanks very much for the recommendations, Roger! Your book on the journey of modern theology and Boyd’s book are of particular interest to me.

  • I’m looking forward to getting my hands on your book, “Reclaiming Pietism.” I’ve really enjoyed some of your works and can’t wait to read more.

  • ianpacker

    Thank you for this list of books, Roger. Very glad to see your forthcoming book. I very much enjoyed 20th Century Theology (with Grenz) when it first appeared when I was beginning seminary.
    Very glad to see work on the interface between Anabaptist thought and philosophy too.
    On Wolterstorff – if this is something you are keen on pursuing further, I recommend looking at the ongoing conversation, especially Oliver O’Donovan’s critiques of Wolterstorff. Though I have loved much of what Wolterstorff has written elsewhere, I think O’Donovan is right in this particular debate on rights and ‘right order’.

  • William

    Downloaded A LONG FAITHFULNESS. You should get commission. Do you endorse Robert Shank’s ‘Life in the Son’ (on perseverance)?

    • Roger Olson

      It’s been too long since I read it to remember whether I can endorse it unconditionally or not. Shanks is (or was) Church of Christ, as I recall.

      • William

        I think he was Calvinistic Baptist who then rejected OSAS. I think his exegesis/arguments are helpful and you would agree with the gist, but not all exegetical details. His other book (Elect in the Son) argues for corporate vs individual election. I think they are good, readable books, if not dated. Your Long Faithfulness tip was appreciated (not as much detail, but more current).

  • res2

    As I responded in my article, I don’t think “missional” will help institutionalized Christianity towards fundamental reform. It pretends “progressiveness” where there really is no “transformation” beyond banner and headline. And I’m not so sure David Fitch-and-company have helped the cause of postmodern, emergent Christianity by seeking to supply Evangelicalism with a veneer of relevatism to society that really isn’t in the hearts of the church’s saints and congregants preferring the ease of classical statement as inbred within itself. I would hope I am wrong but Emergent Christianity as I have experienced it is one where transformation begins with the Spirit before it reaches one’s words (even as I had once experienced it in the early days of my Evangelical upbringing). Thanks for the reading list. – Russ

    Article – “Are You Missional or Are You Emergent? Is There a Difference?” –

  • Ben Trigg

    Wow “Journey” sounds great. Will definitely make a note to look forward to that!

  • res2

    Hi Roger. I received your book today… looks like a great digest of Christianity. Would you have any recommendations for a similar review from a Philosophical perspective over this same time period? (Probably for me I’d like to see it through the eyes of Ricouer, Heidegger, Caputo’s “Radical Theology” rather than the standard fare of classical interpretation). Thanks! – Russ

    • Roger Olson

      Yes–See the three volume set Christianity and Western Thought published by InterVarsity Press. The author of the first volume was Colin Brown (a Fuller Seminary professor) and the authors of volumes two and three are Alan Padgett and Steve Wilkins. It’s an excellent resource for just the kind of information and interpretation you are asking for.

      • res2

        I ordered Vols 1 & 3 (Couldn’t afford Vol 2 just yet). Am quite interested in Volume 3’s Postmodernity discussion. For readers here’s the link –
        The last Christian History book I read was LaTourette’s “History of Christianity.” A great read written with an eye towards historical event; am looking forward to your “narrative” story of Christianity.
        Many thanks. – Russ

        • Roger Olson

          I had to read Latourette’s large volume on seminary. I’ll have to admit it was difficult. One of my professors studied under him at Yale and said the students called him “Uncle Kenny” behind his back (his first name, of course, was Kenneth) because he was so spiritual and a very warm-hearted, pietist Christian.