Book Recommendations: Most Important Books for Seminary Students and Books that Have Influenced Me Most
Occasionally I am asked by someone, often a seminary student, for a list of books. Most recently a beginning seminary student asked me for two lists: 1) Those 5-10 books would I want every seminary student to read before they graduate, and 2) Those books have been most influential in my own development.
This is always a challenge because I would want every seminary student to read so many books it’s difficult to narrow the list down to “5 to 10.” Also, deciding on a list of “most influential” books in my own development raises questions such as “at what point or time frame or stage in my development?” I will assume the students (and readers here) would like to know about spiritual-theological books and not novels or non-religious non-fiction books.
So, these two lists are the ones I think of today; ask me again tomorrow and perhaps they will be different ones. However, the books in these two brief lists are ones I would always want seminary students to read and ones that I always remember as having influenced my own spiritual-theological development. I will keep the two lists separate even though there could be overlap.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
First, the five to ten books that I would want every seminary student to read before they graduate. Here I will omit ones that I suspect are widely used as textbooks in contemporary evangelical seminaries. (I will also omit all but one of my own books.)
1) A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by German pastor-theologian Helmut Thielicke.
2) Good Arguments: Making Your Case in Writing and Public Speaking by Richard A. Holland and Benjamin K. Forrest. (This is a new but much-needed book by two evangelical Christian scholars.)
3) The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard.
4) The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis.
5) The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind by Mark A. Noll.
6) A Passion for Truth: The Intellectual Coherence of Evangelicalism by Alister McGrath.
7) Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin.
8) After Fundamentalism by Bernard Ramm.
9) Essentials of Christian Thought by Roger E. Olson
10) The Transforming Power of Grace by Thomas Oden.
Second, the five to ten book that have most influenced me in my spiritual-theological development. The student did not specifically limit this list to five to ten books, but I have to or else creating the list could take many hours, days or even weeks! Here, in this list, I am reaching way, way back to the formative stages of my spiritual-theological development as I struggled to understand, embrace, and defend a moderate evangelical Protestant Christian theology of my own. Most of these books are out of print, but, with the internet/world wide web, most of them can be found in libraries or in used book re-sellers sites.
1) The Ground of Certainty by Donald G. Bloesch. This was one of the first books I read when I was beginning to search for a moderately evangelical Protestant Christian approach to knowledge (epistemology) beyond the kind of authoritarianism in which I grew up and was trained as a child and youth. Bloesch became my earliest theological “mentor” from afar in those early days. (I only had the privileged of meeting him many years later.) I think I read every book Bloesch wrote—eventually. He remains—even after his death—the single most formative Christian theologian because this book and others he wrote around the same time (1960s/1970s) changed my inner world.
2) The Christian View of Science and Scripture by Bernard Ramm. This book pulled me out of biblical literalism and naïve fundamentalism and opened doors to me—about Bible interpretation—that revolutionized my spiritual-theological thinking. Of course, I went on from there to read many more books of the same genre and in the same vein. But this one was, for me, at an early stage of my spiritual-theological maturation, absolutely crucial. It, too, changed my inner world.
3) A Theology for the Social Gospel by Walter Rauschenbusch together with Discovering an Evangelical Heritage by Donald W. Dayton. When I was growing up in fundamentalist Pentecostalism, the worst thing my then spiritual mentors could label any church (after “cult”) was “Social Gospel.” That meant it was spiritually dead, a humanistic club, hopelessly “liberal” and a mission field. I don’t recall in which order I read these books, but together they rocked my world. I discovered that “evangelical Christianity” had a history of progressive social reform (19th century) and that “social gospel” did not have to be a dirty phrase.
4) Confessions of a Conservative Evangelical by Jack Rogers. This little book absolutely shook me out of my “fundamentalist slumbers” and laid the foundation, or forged the path, toward what I eventually came to call “postconservative evangelicalism.” It is autobiographical. Rogers was then (1970s) a professor of theology at Fuller Seminary. The book is his story of his own emergence out of fundamentalism and into a moderate evangelicalism. Some years ago I talked with Rogers on the phone and asked him what was his intended title for this little book. He said “Confessions of a Post-conservative Evangelical.” The publisher dropped the “Post-.” I had always suspected that because the story is not about him becoming a conservative evangelical; it is his story of coming out of conservative evangelicalism.5) God after God: The God of the Past and the Future as Seen in the Work of Karl Barth by Robert W. Jenson. This was a real stretch for me when I first read it, but it set my feet on the path that eventually led to my doctoral research project and my dissertation (which, ironically, was about Wolfhart Pannenberg!) This book changed my whole view of God (theologically) and convinced me that I needed to read Barth and eventually Pannenberg (strange “bed partners” in theology, to be sure!). After reading this book I (somewhat secretly) began thinking of the God of the Bible as truly historical and not immutable. Because of this book I began reading Moltmann and other revisionist theists while rejecting process theology as “a bridge too far.”
6) Crucial Questions about the Kingdom of God by George Eldon Ladd. Honestly, I don’t remember if I read this one first. Ladd wrote at least three books about eschatology that critiqued “dispensationalism” and “rapture theology” and promoted “historic premillennialism.” I think two of them, published under different titles, were basically the same book. But I have this one on my shelf and just touching it brings back memories of the shock and awe I felt when I read Ladd’s writings on eschatology and the kingdom of God. “Rapture fever” was rampant and profound in American evangelicalism then (at this early stage of my spiritual-theological development) and I had doubts about the so-called “rapture” and about dispensationalism—which is what I was taught to believe as a child and youth. Ladd’s books sealed the fate of that eschatology for me and I adopted his “historic premillennialism” and have held it ever since.
7) The Crucified God by Jürgen Moltmann. What can I say about this classic except that it absolutely revolutionized my own, personal spiritual-theological journey? Reading it brought about a quantum leap in that journey (for me). I have read it several times since the first time and I always find riches previously unrecognized. I suppose one thing I could say about it (among many things) is that it cause me to adopt social trinitarianism.
8) A Theology of Liberation by Gustavo Gutierrez. During seminary I “stepped out” of the seminary to take an elective course (given credit by the seminary) taught by a liberation theologian at a local Lutheran college. It was a graduate level course and the credits for it came to me at my seminary via Luther Seminary (St. Paul) where the professor was on the faculty. The class met once weekly for three hours and was an intensive immersion in Latin American liberation theology. This book opened my eyes to things I had never known or thought about. One thing it did for me was convince me that most critics of liberation theology had not really read this classic book that helped launch that movement.
9) The Struggle of Prayer by Donald G. Bloesch. As I said above, Bloesch was my spiritual-theological mentor “from afar” during my early stage of emergence out of Pentecostal fundamentalism and into the wider world of moderate to progressive evangelicalism. This has always been, for me, the best book on prayer ever written. It convinced me (to make this testimony very personal) that a person could be Spirit-filled and not be Pentecostal-charismatic. Bloesch was neither, but in this book (like his other ones) I detected a Spirit-filled life and a model for true Christian Pietism of the best kind.
10) The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen. Now, with this last book in this list, I am jumping far beyond my youth and early stage of turning away from fundamentalist authoritarianism toward a broader, even progressive evangelicalism. Years later, still trying to understand what was done to me during my college years, I came across this little but powerful, liberating book. I now had a name for it: “spiritual abuse.” Johnson and VanVonderen were the first to explain to me, through this book and another one (Tired of Trying to Measure Up?) the dynamics of spiritual abuse especially in evangelical circles. This book changed my life by helping me understand my own history and confirm that I was right to struggle out and away from that authoritarian religious ethos of my childhood and youth.
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