Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president, famously declared, “I cannot live without books.” Thankfully, Jefferson never had to test the theory. A visit to his historic home, Monticello, reveals that the library had a central place and that books played a distinctive role in the life, thought and action of Jefferson and his fellow founders. Indeed, Jefferson’s personal library became the heart of the Library of Congress before his death.
Most preachers understand Thomas Jefferson’s hyperbole. Though we might well live without books, we could not preach so well without them. Our dependence on the written word, beginning with Scripture, follows in the proud tradition of a preacher who serves as a far greater role model for servants of the word than Thomas Jefferson. No less than the apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, urgently asked Timothy to bring the “books and the parchments” to him as he was entering the final phase of his earthly life and ministry (2 Tim. 4:13).
Every New Year brings an opportunity for the consideration of books that are particularly worthy of addition to the pastor’s library. This year, as in most years, publishers released an avalanche of books intended for a Christian readership. By some estimates, books directed at ministers and other Christian leaders now account for upward of 10 percent of all the professional books sold in the United States annually.
The following 10 books are representative of some of the best volumes that will add value to the preacher and the preaching ministry, long after the year has passed.
God Has Spoken: The History of Christian Theology (Crossway) by Gerald Bray
Gerald Bray is one of the most dedicated and insightful theological scholars serving the Christian church. For many years professor of divinity, history and doctrine at Beeson Divinity School, Bray now serves as director of research for the Latimer Trust. In God Has Spoken, Bray brings a lifetime of Christian scholarship and theological reflection to what only can be described as a magisterial history of Christian doctrine and theology.
After surveying two millennia of Christian theology, Bray concludes:
"Whatever else happens, we can be sure that the existing theological traditions will endure. 200 years from now theologians will still be arguing their case from the Bible, the fathers of the church, and the universally acknowledged theological giants of later times—men like Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, and John Calvin. Many of the trends and theories that we are familiar with today will fade away, some of them into the deepest oblivion, but the classics will remain and future generations will continue to cut their theological teeth on them. The real question is whether, and in what way, the currently received tradition will expand and add new works to its canon."
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God (Dutton) by Timothy Keller
Christian bookstores are filled with books on prayer, most of them easily ignored and profitably forgotten. The great exception to this is the persistence of classic considerations of prayer throughout the Christian centuries. Modern classics on prayer are rare and often released by smaller publishers whose works rarely find their way into trade bookstores. Today, the great exception to this rule is Prayer by Timothy Keller.
Keller, founder and senior minister of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, has written a series of books that secular bookstores likely are to classify under spirituality. However, to Keller’s credit, he blends keen pastoral insight with genuine theological reflection. Keller has the unique gift of communicating timeless truth in a way that is contemporary and compelling.
Keller has written his book against what he understands very well to be the confusion of religion and spirituality in the Western world today. He describes what he calls “a set of powerful crosscurrents causing dangerously choppy waters from many inquirers” about prayer. Most urgently, Keller urges Christians to learn to pray. His book is a good way to begin that journey.
For the Glory of God: Recovering Biblical Theology of Worship (Baker Academic) by Daniel I. Block
Daniel Block, now professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, has been known by his friends to have been working on this project for many years. Students at a succession of theological schools have benefited from Block’s careful, biblical and deeply respectful presentation of a biblical theology of worship. While so many churches are engaged in what has been described as worship wars, Block takes us back to the sources.
The strength of this single volume is its combination of biblical theology and a keen heart for authentic worship. Any pastor will be exhilarated by its content, educated by Block’s scholarship, and made more competent and equipped to be faithful as a leader in Christian worship.
Block defines worship in such a way that it “involves reverential human acts of submission and homage before the divine Sovereign in response to his gracious revelation of himself and in accord with his will.” Therefore, Block argues, “any authentic Christian worship must aim toward the promotion of the worshiper’s awe and reverence for the one true and living God.”
In the place of widespread confusion about the very nature of worship, and as a correction to the artificial worship services found in far too many churches, Block never loses sight of the fact that, as the Book of Hebrews says most emphatically, we worship the God who is “a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29).
George Whitefield: American’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press) by Thomas S. Kidd
The year 2014 marked the 300th anniversary of George Whitefield, by any measure one of most influential preachers ever to set foot on American soil. Anyone who might believe such an assessment to be an exaggeration must reckon with the fact that in his day, George Whitefield had higher publicity, given the standards of the day, than Billy Graham in the 20th century.
Furthermore, Whitefield was singularly influential at virtually every stratum of society. He, along with Benjamin Franklin, helped establish what became the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin, who inclined toward skepticism, evidently was not certain about theism, but he was certain George Whitefield’s faith was a great testimony to God’s existence.
In his new biography, George Whitfield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father, Thomas Kidd presents a new biography of Whitfield for our times. Kidd, professor of history at Baylor University, has combined the two greatest strengths of previous biographies of Whitefield—a keen understanding of history in terms of the academic discipline and a genuine respect for George Whitefield. In this way, Kidd provides an excellent example of respectful, believing history in a work that will be respected greatly by secular academics and by Christians who look to George Whitefield with undiluted affection. Previous biographers have tended to address themselves to one of these constituencies at the expense of the other. Kidd has accomplished what many would have believed to be unlikely—a biography that will be respected by the academy and embraced by believers.
In his preface, Kidd sets the ground rules for his scholarship quite clearly:
"Writing biographies, and writing religious biographies in particular, present significant challenges. The temptation to write hagiography—the biography of a pristine saint—is ever present. In placing Whitefield within the new evangelical world, I am not offering an unsullied picture of a sanctified man, nor is my primary aim to edify readers spiritually. Yet historians today know that none of us is fully objective—personal perspectives matter. So let me admit it up front: I have a high regard Whitefield. I identify personally with the religious movement he helped start."
Preachers will be fascinated by this biography of George Whitefield and will find not only much to consider but also much to emulate.
The Crucified King: Atonement and Kingdom in Biblical and Systematic Theology (Zondervan) by Jeremy R. Treat
The subtitle to this book may be a bit daunting to preachers, but the approach Jeremy Treat brings to this book will be of tremendous benefit to every preacher. Far too many approaches to biblical theology take a singular theme as the methodological focus and trace that theme, often at the expense of the fullness of the biblical testimony. In particular, recent attempts at biblical theology have tended to swing between the polarities of the kingdom and atonement.
As any preacher must know, these two themes are found everywhere one looks in Scripture. To separate them is to create an imbalanced approach to theology and the Christian life, as well as to mislead a congregation about how to read Scripture and understand Scripture as a whole.
Treat, who has experience as pastor and professor, has written a book that is a tour de force in biblical theology, tracing the relationship between atonement and kingdom as they unfold in redemptive history. Given the task preachers face—the task of preaching every text of Scripture within the context of the entire canon—this kind of scholarship, reverent exegesis and insightful theological application is exactly what every preacher should be aware of and appreciate.
Treat pulls no punches and makes his own theological convictions quite clear, while also inviting readers to think through the deepest themes of biblical theology in order to come to a holistic understanding of how to understand the Bible—thus how to teach and preach it.
Taking God at His Word: How the Bible is Reliable, Necessary and Enough and What That Means for You and Me (Crossway) by Kevin DeYoung
Massive works on biblical inspiration and authority fill theological libraries, the reason being quite straightforward: There is simply no more pressing question on the modern theological scene than how we can know anything about God, the gospel or God’s intention toward humanity. The doctrine of revelation is the singular answer to that question.
The most important dimension of the doctrine of revelation is the doctrine of Scripture. Furthermore, Scripture must be the central preoccupation of the Christian preacher—to preach and teach what we know to be nothing less and nothing other than the Word of God.
Kevin DeYoung, a pastor who writes with deep theological ability and insight, has not written a massive tome on the doctrine of Scripture. To the contrary, he has written a book that is important for the preacher precisely because in fewer than 120 pages, he has written a compelling presentation of the nature and authority of Scripture.
As DeYoung writes:
"What we believe and feel about the word of God are absolutely crucial, if for no other reason than that they should mirror what we believe and feel about Jesus. As we’ll see, Jesus believed unequivocally all that was written in the Scriptures. If we are to be his disciples, we should believe the same. Just as importantly, the New Testament teaches that Jesus is the Word made flesh, which means (among other things) that all the attributes of God’s verbal revelation (truth, righteousness, power, veracity, wisdom, omniscience) will be found in the person of Christ."
Accordingly, DeYoung demonstrates that our growth in obedience to Christ is dependent on our growth in the understanding of Scripture. Or in his words, “Our desire, delight, and dependence on the words of Scripture do not grow inversely to our desire, delight, and dependence of Jesus Christ. The two must always rise together.” This short but explosively powerful book belongs in the hands of every servant of the Word.
God Dwells Among Us: Expanding Eden to the Ends of the Earth (IVP Books) by G.K. Beale and Mitchell Kim
Preachers are the church’s most powerful teachers of biblical theology. The vast majority of Christians who have lived have come to know biblical theology through the preaching they’ve experienced in a Christian church. While far too many preachers seem to be unaware of the fact, every preacher who opens the Word of God, reads it aloud, teaches and then applies that Word, is functioning as the only biblical theologian most Christians will see.
That basic truth underlines the importance of the pastor gaining a clear vision of biblical theology and the preaching task. This new book will serve as a stellar introduction to biblical theology for the preacher.
G.K. Beale, professor of biblical theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, is well-known in theological and biblical scholarship for his magisterial contribution to biblical theology, the temple and the church’s mission. That book, one of the most influential works in modern biblical theology, has been read and appreciated by an entire generation of preachers. Nevertheless, its size and complexity may present a challenge to the preacher, who may be looking for a shorter and more accessible introduction to the theological vision of Holy Scripture.
This new book, written by Beale along with Mitchell Kim, will serve very well in that role. The subtitle serves as a concise summary of the approach—understanding the flow of biblical history in terms of creation as God’s temple and evangelism as the expansion of that temple throughout the earth. This biblical theology finds its ultimate fulfillment when God’s final act of bringing glory to Himself expands the temple to the ends of the earth—indeed into a new heaven and a new earth.
This approach to biblical theology, soundly exegetical and powerfully persuasive, not only will help the pastor place every text of Scripture within the context of the entire canon, but also understand every text of Scripture in terms of the everlasting purposes of God.
Handbook of Religion: A Christian Engagement with Traditions, Teachings and Practices (Baker Academic), eds: Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland and Gerald R. McDermott
We live in a day that seemingly is unbounded with religious diversity. Furthermore, the headline of almost every daily newspaper brings news that only could be understood in the context of world religions, ranging from resurgent ancient traditions to the latest religious expressions. Sadly, most preachers understand themselves to be quite ill-equipped to understand and interpret the various religions of the world. In previous generations, this may have been an issue of fairly low consequence for most preachers. In today’s context, it can be deadly dangerous.
We no longer are facing the pastoral challenge of equipping our people to imagine those who hold to very different belief systems and worldviews far away. Now, any suburban residential block could include Mormons, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, various devotees of New Age religion and spirituality, Christians, those with no religious affiliation, and the baffled and confused.
While the church’s task is to preach the gospel—not to be a think tank for the consideration of religion worldwide—a credible knowledge of world religions is now necessary in order for the preacher to accomplish the apologetic task, which is a live and pressing issue for many Christians today, as well as for the development of an adequate missionary vision.
Handbook of Religion may well represent the most accessible one-volume approach to world religions available today. Each of the major world religions is treated with respect and honest consideration. The book is wide in scope and focused in subject matter. Each of the world religions is considered from outsider and insider perspectives, offering a genuinely thoughtful approach that will allow preachers to gain a great deal of information, while evaluating every worldview through the lens of external critics and the adherence of the belief system.
The preacher’s responsibility is to understand these rival belief systems, at least to the degree that apologetic questions can be answered and the church can come to a deeper knowledge of its missionary opportunity and responsibility.
A Change of Heart: A Personal and Theological Memoir (IVP Academic) by Thomas C. Oden
In order to understand Christian theology in the 19th century, one must read John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. In order to understand Protestant theology in the United States in the 20th century, one must read A Change of Heart by Thomas C. Oden. Though the theological trajectories of Newman and Oden are by no means parallel, both memoirs offer theological insights that only can be derived through the crucible of theological transformation.
In the case of Oden’s transformation, it is a shift from the ardent embrace of theological liberalism to a more ardent embrace of the classical and continuing tradition of orthodox Christian theology. This memoir only could have been written by Thomas Oden, who combines the keenest autobiographical insights with the most perceptive theological analysis. Oden is not easy on himself, and the challenges of the day clearly were not easy. In this book, described as “A personal and theological memoir,” Oden provides yet another great gift to the Christian church.
The great value in reading this book not only is found in tracing Oden’s personal pilgrimage, eloquently and vividly portrayed. To the contrary, the greatest value is in what the preacher will experience in the process of reading this book: a personal awareness of the transformations and shifts that have taken place in our own thinking. Sadly, many preachers and Christian leaders fail to take account of the development that is taking place in their own minds, hearts and patterns of theological thinking.
A Change of Heart takes readers where Thomas Oden has been, bringing them into a conversation with some of the seminal theological minds of the 20th century and walking them through the tumultuous decades of Thomas Oden’s lifespan. By any measure, these have been some of the most consequential and controversial in the history of the Christian church. More than anything else, this book will help every preacher come to a deeper understanding of what it means to embrace biblical Christianity despite facing a highly secularized age.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution (Simon and Schuster) by Walter Isaacson
Walter Isaacson is one of the best-known chroniclers of our times and the lives that have made them. He catapulted to the top of The New York Times bestseller list with his biography of Steve Jobs. As Isaacson makes clear, this volume grew out of that project.
The subtitle cleverly indicates the content, span and scope of the book. Isaacson helps us understand the development of the digital revolution and the information age. He describes the development of the computer, software, transistors, microchips, video games and the Internet.
With journalistic force and the power to tell a story exceedingly well, Isaacson actually helps readers believe each of these developments changed the world. Of course, in one sense, that challenge was less monumental than we might expect. Virtually all these inventions did change the world.
While preachers profitably will spend the majority of their time reading books that are explicitly directed at biblical and theological themes, as well as the practical task of ministry, the wise preacher allocates a certain proportion of reading to books far outside the theological realm. Isaacson’s latest book, The Innovators, may well be the single most important work of the year in helping preachers understand the world we engage every single day, if not every single hour, online and up close.
Isaacson tells the story of the seminal individuals whose insight, eccentricities and seemingly outlandish theories led to today’s modern world. That world is constantly online, socially engaged and increasingly marked by anarchy. Any attempt to make sense of that world will aid the preacher in understanding the challenges of our time. Furthermore, the stories, anecdotes and observations in this book will serve every preacher well and are not to be missed.
Of course, every preacher, if reading to any degree of adequacy, will have a list of favorite books for any given year. That list of books may, in the end, reveal more about the preacher than the publishing world. That’s fair enough—and unavoidable. In the end, one of the greatest opportunities found in such a list of books is that we encounter books we otherwise might not read or might not have understood to be important.
So this list of 10 books I believe every preacher should read ends with the invitation for every preacher reading this list to share a similar list for the benefit of others. The year 2015 is sure to bring yet another cavalcade of titles. Together, let’s seek out the best of them.
R. Albert Mohler is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.