Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College

Books to Read Before You Start Seminary/Divinity College September 14, 2012

I wish students were a bit more literate before they started theological education. So my top books – mostly short books designed for lay folks – to read before starting seminary or divinity college are:

Andrew Cameron and Brian S. Rosner (eds.), The Trials of Theology: Becoming a “Proven Worker” in a Dangerous Business (Fearn, Ross Shire: Christian Focus, 2010).

Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How To Read the Bible For All Its Worth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003).

Christopher Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006).

N.T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus (London: SPCK, 2000).

Philip S. Johnston (ed.), The IVP Introduction to the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2006).

Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997).

Tony Lone, The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought (Oxford: Lion, 1996).

J.I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993).

John Stott, Basic Christian Leadership: Biblical Models of Church, Gospel, and Ministry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002).


That is nine books, what should number ten be?


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  • Duncan B

    You’ve already got one John Stott book but I’d go for “The Cross of Christ” by Stott. If you didn’t want to go for another Stott book I’d choose “The Big Picture Story Bible” one of the easiest ways for people to get the idea of Biblical Theology and one overarching narrative … and then it’s great to keep using with your kids. 🙂

  • David Burnett

    i greatly appreciate you adding “The Challenge of Jesus” to this list Mike!

  • Michael Jensen

    Duh – it has to be How to Write a Theology Essay, by me!! 🙂

  • Pete Head


  • Chris Tilling

    Some nice picks. It is Tony Lane, by the way, not Tony Lone. Great little book

  • Didaktikon


    Ummm … how about the Bible?

    Hoo, roo.


  • danzac

    Epic of Eden is a great intro to the overarching narrative of the bible

  • Wes Vander Lugt

    I heartily recommend Kelly Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians, which was just published by IVP.

  • John Anderson

    10 should maybe be something dealing with the Old Testament, since that is a) a vital and necessary part of Christian Scripture and b) something they’ll actually encounter and have to wrestle with in seminary also.
    My current recommendation? Carolyn Sharp’s Wrestling the World: The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Believer

  • Wright’s “The Challenge of Jesus” seemed unnecessarily weak on the divinity of Jesus when I examined it for classroom use.

    • That’s funny, because when I read it (for a seminary class), it helped me immensely in trying to understand Jesus’ divinity (at a time when I had a lot of questions and doubts).

      • Glad to hear that. To me this particular work of Wright’s seemed to emphasize a kind of FUNCTIONAL divinity (Jesus as the one who reflects the ways and heart of God) and was much less clear on the ONTOLOGICAL.

        • I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, I can see that distinction you are making in what he seems to be emphasizing.

  • Brett

    Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson; Four Quartets, by T.S. Eliot; In the Beauty of the Lilies, by Updike… and Augustine’s Confessions. Throw in Rowan Williams’ The Wound of Knowledge as well.

  • Some books on Christian formation/education are needed on this list. I would recommend The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter or Grounded in the Gospel by Packer and Parrett.

  • Two suggestions:
    How to Read a Book, the classic by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren (A prof during my time in grad school told me he re-read this book every year).
    How to Think Theologically by Howard Stone and James Duke (I’ve been using this in a seminary orientation class for over ten years. The third edition is due out May 2013).

  • Jason B. Hood

    I’d echo the Kapic, Epic of Eden, and whole English Bible recs.

  • Just a heads up, you spelt Tony Lane’s name incorrectly. A typo I’m sure.

  • Justin Borger

    Kapic’s A Little Book for New Theologians is fantastic. I’d also recommend Christopher Wright’s Knowing Jesus through the Old Testament.

  • Danny Kahr
  • Drew

    Any one of these Eugene H. Peterson books on pastoral theology: The Contemplative Pastor, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Working the Angles. While any of these might be better suited for making the transition from seminary to parish, Peterson knows how to dispel a lot of romantic notions of ministry (and pastoral ego, especially) that linger in seminarians minds.

  • Jordan Barrett

    Minor note: Noll’s book just came out in a 3rd edition

  • Scot McKnight

    No Mark Twain? No Hemingway? No Joseph Epstein? No Mere Christianity? Too much theology books makes for a boring seminary student and minister. The obvious: how many seminary students have read the Bible front to back before entering?

    • PrescottJayErwin

      “There is certainly something wrong with the religious life of a theological student who does not study. But it does not quite follow that therefore everything is right with his religious life if he does study. It is possible to study — even to study theology — in an entirely secular spirit.” — B.B. Warfield, “The Religious Life of Theological Students”

    • loudestenemy

      I don’t think Clemens is appropriate for the seminary student haha.

  • My list would be somewhat different from yours, and would certainly include “Mere Christianity” by Lewis, “Knowing God” by Packer, probably “Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God” (also by Packer), and a few others which you didn’t include. I like Scot McKnight’s suggestion (below) for some classic fiction, but I don’t know that I’d feature that on a “required reading” list of only 10 titles in preparation for seminary. Christopher Wright’s “The Mission of God” is an EXCELLENT book to include, but the size of the book might intimidate some pre-seminary readers.

    It might also be good to include “The Celebration of Discipline” by Richard Foster. It might not be the greatest theological work available, but it’s still the standard on the topic of spiritual disciplines (though I might prefer Don Whitney’s book myself), and all seminary students should be intentional about growing in Christ personally even as they learn more about him intellectually. I haven’t read Kapic’s latest book yet (which others spoke well of below), but it might be even better in this regard. Anyway, it’s certainly fun to think about this – and to try to encourage others to be far more intentional about reading GOOD, Christ-honoring books!

  • Mike Farley

    The Drama of Scripture by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen. I used if for years as a college text for undergraduates in an introductory theology class. I don’t know of a better one-volume presentation of the biblical grand narrative of creation , rebellion, and redemption, and consummation.

  • Max Weismann

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    I cannot exaggerate how instructive these programs are–we
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  • I did see a couple of Eugene Peterson books down there, but I recommend his “Christ Plays In Ten Thousand Places.” It captures theology on a number of levels, including the author’s tone and his commitment on nearly every page to remind us of the main purpose of the process of theology : to get to know God better and to teach people what we’ve gotten to know.

  • David A Booth

    Obviously the tenth book, which should have been the first book, is the Bible. That may sound like I’m stating the obvious but a surprisingly high percentage of students start seminary without having even read the whole Bible through one time. If the student also reads the introductory material to each book in a Study Bible they will also find this helpful.

    Second, it would be a great benefit to most seminary students if they became familiar with a catechism like the Heidelberg Catechism or the Westminster Shorter Catechism prior to seminary. This will provide hooks to start building their theological vocabulary and thinking on. This is even more helpful than a book like Packer’s Concise Theology.

    Third, some narrative history would be really helpful. Justo Gonzalez’s “The Story of Christianity” is a delightful introduction to church history which is both based on good scholarship and very accessible to someone without prior training.

  • Larry

    Warfield’s “The Religious Life of Theological Students” should be included though it’s a short pamphlet type of work.

    Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” would be a good one as well, probably better for seminarians than the one you listed. They will get plenty of history. But understanding the failure of thinking in evangelicalism is a better introductory work for those preparing for the life of the mind.

    Stott’s “The Cross of Christ” is also needful.

    So I would switch Noll and Stott in your list for these two Noll and Stott book’s, and add Warfield as the 10th.

  • Kevin

    Love Your God With All Your Mind, by J. P. Moreland.

  • If it was an American student, I would highly recommend Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival, America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” Not enough Christians in the US are answering the questions the rest of the world is asking, and it reflects badly on the church’s mission in the world.

    The Bible, first and foremost. 🙂

  • Carlos

    Many seminarians become enamored with the academic life and want to become academics/teachers. A timely/sober(!) read is Ben Witherington’s “Is There a Doctor in the House.”

  • Jeff

    Is not the real problem the fact that it is one of the only Master’s degrees out there where you do not need to have a similar Bachelors to get in. The MDiv used to be a Bachelor’s program which explains the amount of credits, but it is counter to the way the education system is run in every other area

    • student

      Actually, I would argue that the majority of Master’s degrees do not require prior training in the area to enter (the big exceptions are STEM areas). Even med schools are looking more and more into those not “trained” in biology and chemistry, and this is because one of the biggest criticisms of doctors has been a lack of general communication skills.

      This is largely because graduate schools want to teach you their ethic of the discipline that you enter into.

      • Jeff

        What you are saying is simply not true. For med school you need to at least take biology, chemistry, physics courses with labs, which practically is half a degree right there!

    • PrescottJayErwin

      The real answer, of course, is given by several other respondents: theological students need to be more interdisciplinary. There really is something to be said for students who enter seminary with some level of expertise in some other area and even, perhaps, with some degree of real-world experience in that area. It is one thing to leave high school, matriculate into Bible college or enter upon a religious studies degree at a liberal arts university, and upon graduation proceed immediately into seminary or divinity school studies, never having had any other than religious experience, and it is quite another to have labored in a field for a significant period of time and then embark upon theological training. There often seems to be an air of inauthenticity and a lack of compassionate understanding among many who hop from one degree to the other without getting their hands dirty. (I hope that doesn’t come across wrong…)

    • Acintyabedhabedhadasa

      In the old days, an undergraduate major in philosophy or classics was traditional. Now we’re seeing a lot of mid-life career switching.

  • I’m surprised no one has suggested any patristic writings? I’d say everyone should read at least a collection of the apostolic fathers’ writings, and maybe a few later ones – Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation” comes to mind. It seems sometimes that our church history begins at Augustine, but it is vital, I think, to properly look into the early Church.

    (ETA I haven’t been to seminary, so maybe this is something they pile on, but I know several people who have been through seminary and could only name “Augustine” as an early church writer)

    • That is a shame as a seminary student, the should be able to talk of Justin Martyr, Origen, and many others.

  • globalsouth

    I echo what some others have said… the Bible. Honestly, I am shocked by the lack of Biblical literacy in new Seminary students and Seminary grads. I wish our students read THE Bible just as much as they read ABOUT the Bible. Call me old fashioned:)

  • How about Bonhoeffer’s, “Cost of Discipleship”?

  • Personally I’d like to see some fiction on the list. Graham Greene is a personal favorite of mine. He has a particular talent for wrestling with Catholic theology from within the realities of living in a fallen, imperfect world. “The Heart of the Matter” comes immediately to mind — a great moral challenge to wrestle with. “The Power and the Glory” is his classic, of course. But for my money “The End of the Affair” is probably his over-all best work.

  • Joel Cordon

    I agree with Scot, and perhaps would suggest a firm base of philosophy, history, science, math, literature, politics, sociology, critical thinking, education, religion, writing, film, music, and so on. One cannot avoid being interdisciplinary, and either does it well or poorly. I would venture to say that more seminary communites would be more benefited and benefit the church and world through engaging all that is extra-biblical. If I were to recommend theology (who am I, anyway?) I might recommend Hans Kung who is model for interdisciplinary work.

  • Definitely something inter-disicipinary! One short but very incisive example, for science and faith would be “Two Great Truths: A New Synthesis of Scientific Naturalism and Christian Faith” by David Ray Griffin (just 114 pages!) There needs to be something substantial representing process theology. (This example is on just one angle, but foundational and very important. Similarly, something lay-oriented but substantial on approaching the Bible from outside Evangelicalism/orthodoxy, like “Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but not Literally” by Marcus Borg.

  • I believe that Gerhard Forde’s “Where God Meets Man” ( a tiny little book) is terrific.

  • Jehu limma

    How about , ‘Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith, and Get Ready for the Real World!’ By

    Alex Chediak

  • I agree The Bible should be on there first and foremost. But besides this the other two areas where students often come with little to no understanding is hermeneutics and philosophy. So I would suggest:

    Hermeneutics: An Introduction to Interpretive Theory – Stanley Porter & Jason Robinson

    Philosophy for Understanding Theology – Diogenes Allen & Eric Springsted

  • A list that begins in 1993 seems a bit short-sighted. As a seminary prof for more than 25 years, I wish that my students had read far more widely in great literature (“Twilight” does not count), history, philosophy (especially Plato), that they had some grasp of the history of art and music, and that they were able to use a second modern language. Pre-seminary reading in theology is also good, but it will be far more helpful if it is embedded in the humanities.

  • Kevin C.

    Cicero’s *The Nature of the Gods*

  • JG

    “The World-Tilting Gospel” by Dan J. Phillips, and “The Jesus You Can’t Ignore” by John MacArthur.

  • Introducing Christian Doctrine, 2nd ed., by Millard Erickson and Arnold Hustad.

  • J Stricklin

    Dangerous Calling by Paul Tripp

  • Carl Moerschbacher

    Depending on which seminary or divinity school one plans to attend, their list of books could appear much differently. For those applying to or accepted at more academically-focused divinity schools such as The University of Chicago Divinity School or Harvard Divinity School, programs which are not solely theology-based, my (eclectic) list of top-ten books, in no specific order of importance, is as follows:

    1. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001).
    2. E. P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin, 1993).
    3. Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (4th ed; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
    4. Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2007).
    5. James Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007).
    6. Timothy Barnes, Constantine and Eusebius (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).
    7. George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jewish Literature Between the Bible and the Mishnah (2nd ed; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005).
    8. Simon J. Gathercole, The Preexistent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2006).
    9. Sidnie White Crawford, Rewriting Scripture in Second Temple Times (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2008).
    10. Michael F. Bird, Are You the One Who Is to Come?: The Historical Jesus and the Messianic Question (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009).
    Bonus: Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985).

  • JWY

    A Little Exercise for Young Theologians by Helmut Thielicke. This is what students really need before Seminary or Grad school; all that other stuff will be covered in class and homework.

  • Spurgeon’s Lectures to my students would shine light upon the work to be done and the seriousness involved in being a pastor.

  • ana

    …the Bible being a given…George J. Zemek, Doing God’s Business God’s Way: A Biblical Theology of Ministry (Eugene Oregon, Wipf And Stock,2004)

  • Maxwell

    Number one should be the Bible and why not the KJV particularly? It is the seedbed for much of our thought and literature, and the focus of much modern disdain. To read the theology of our fathers we must understand their Bible.
    But your concern was for literacy so why not Laurence Perrine’s ‘Literature, Structure, Sound and Sense’?

  • PrescottJayErwin

    I don’t know that I could come up with a better list, after all, who am I? But I do recall a smallish booklet I was assigned my first year in seminary that left a big impression: “The Religious Life of Theological Students” by B.B. Warfield. In it he made the astounding assertion that one who is preparing for Christian ministry might actually want to be saved:

    “God had but one Son,” says Thomas Goodwin, “and He made Him a Minister.” …You can, of course, be a minister of a sort, and not be God-made. You can go through the motions of the work, and I shall not say that your work will be in vain — for God is good and who knows by what instruments He may work His will of good for men? …But what does Paul mean when he utters that terrible warning: “Lest when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway?” And there is an even more dreadful contingency. It is our Savior Himself Who tells us that it is possible to compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when we have made him, to make him twofold more a child of hell than we are ourselves. And will we not be in awful peril of making our proselytes children of hell if we are not ourselves children of heaven? Even physical waters will not rise above their source: the spiritual floods are even less tractable to our commands. There is no mistake more terrible than to suppose that activity in Christian work can take the place of depth of Christian affections.

  • janelleful

    I think this is a good list, but I disagree slightly with your premise. Seminary seems to be designed to challenge and shift the paradigms of the students. I have had to read plenty of these books IN seminary, and I am grateful for the time I have had with them in the context of being a student (especially Mission of God. People. If your program does not have you read it, go read it before Fall Semester.)

    The summer before I went to seminary, I tried to become more acquainted with the Church Fathers and the writings of Calvin and Luther. From a reformed view, I would add reading up on Dutch Reformed thinkers like Bavinck and Kuyper. I wish I even knew their names before seminary. I think becoming more well-read in historical Christianity and philosophy is a huge advantage.

  • Mike

    Athanasius’ On the Incarnation (or any good Patristic work, for that matter)

  • Caleb

    The Politics of Jesus – Yoder

  • Anonymous Asian

    J.Calvin’s Book IV – Of the Holy Catholic Church in his 1959 Institutes reflects a thorough ecclesiology that every theological/seminary student should be able to grasp.

  • Phillip

    I wrote a book for those entering seminary that I think is helpful: Finding Your Way: A Guide to Seminary Life and Beyond (Cascade, 2009). But I agree with a couple of other posts, the big one is the Bible (I have a chapter on that in my book).