Building a Library

Jeffrey C. Waddington
Thursday, May 3rd 2007
May/Jun 2005

I don’t know about you, but I am mechanically challenged. That means that any time I need to repair something I turn to my trusty “how-to” manuals. There is nothing quite so helpful as instructions written by someone who has been through the process of building or repairing the very thing for which I need help. I especially appreciate the useful discussions of the tools I need to repair the sink or to replace the light switch. Some of you may feel equally at a loss about building a useful library: “How do I know whether a given book is worth adding to my collection? I don’t want to waste my money on a book I will never read.” Frankly, we want to eliminate dust collectors. Building a useful library of Christian books involves planning and intention. My goal is to help you make good choices that will assist you in your growth and understanding of the Christian faith by building a basic, but solid, Christian library.

The goal of reading is to develop a Christian mind. In other words, our goal ought to be to make our reading program an intentional part of the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctification. The Apostle Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 that we should not allow the world to conform us to its mold but that we should be renewed by the transforming of our minds. Reading good books is a means to just that end. A good library should be organized and so our discussion will reflect that. For organizational purposes, we will move from books on the Bible (Old and New Testaments and biblical theology) to biblical interpretation, from church history to systematic theology and apologetics, and conclude with books on practical theology or Christian living. To make our list user-friendly, we will note for each title whether it is written for a beginner (B), intermediate (I), or advanced (A) reader. Our list is not exhaustive nor does it include secular titles. My assumption is that you will want to read the great classics of literature, history, philosophy, politics, culture, and current events.

The Bible

As Christians we want to begin our development of a Christian mind with books that will help us understand the Bible. One of the most significant things we affirm about the Bible is that it is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. J. I. Packer’s helpful volume God Has Spoken (B) offers a lucid discussion of verbal inspiration for the interested layman. If Packer’s little volume whets your appetite for more, B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (A) will offer much food for thought. Warfield’s volume is one of the most significant books on this topic, and he writes in a clear and understandable style.

The Bible did not drop out of heaven in one setting; rather God moved human authors to write over a period of nearly 1,600 years. The Bible reflects what has come to be called progressive revelation. It has been said that the New Testament was latent in the Old Testament and the Old was patent in the new. Australian Graeme Goldsworthy offers a helpful introduction to the unfolding progress of revelation in According to Plan (B). A more challenging treatment of the same subject can be found in Willem Van Gemeren’s Progress of Redemption (I). If, after these two books, you think you can tackle a more substantial discussion of the organic development of revelation from the Old to the New Testament, Geerhardus Vos’s Biblical Theology (A) is must reading.

For under-standing each of the books of the Bible in terms of issues of author-ship, date of composition, and historical setting, William Hendrickson’s Survey of the Bible (B) is a good place to start. For an in-depth discussion of these matters and the contents of the Old Testament, Raymond Dillard and Tremper Longman’s An Introduction to the Old Testament (I) is useful. For a more dated, but still insightful treatment of similar matters in the New Testament, J. Gresham Machen’s New Testament: An Introduction (B) is a must. For heartier souls, Donald Guthrie’s New Testament Introduction (A) contains a wealth of detail.

Biblical Interpretation

A proper handling of God’s Word is important and so we want to turn to trustworthy guides to help us understand God’s Word correctly. D. A. Carson’s Exegetical Fallacies (I) offers fascinating discus-sions of the “sins” of interpretation while also offering positive alternatives. Let the Reader Understand (I) by Dan McCartney and Charles Clayton provides a thorough treatment of various issues of interpretation, including how to properly handle different genres of Scripture (poetry, law, history, etc.) and how this relates to worship, witness, and guidance. For a thought-provoking, in-depth theological treatment of the Trinitarian basis of the proper understanding of the Bible, readers will profit from Vern S. Poythress’s God-Centered Biblical Interpretation (A).

Church History

The Holy Spirit did not begin his ministry in the church with our current generation. He was at work in the church before we came on the scene. For a quick overview of church history, Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language (B) will repay the reader. Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition (I) provides a more thorough treatment of the development of Christian doctrine through the centuries. For a helpful discussion of the Reformation, Diarmaid McCulloch’s new volume The Reformation (I), is learned, thorough, and eminently readable. For further focus on the development of Calvinism, see both John T. McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism (I) and Philip Benedict’s recent Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed (I). For the development of Christianity in America, the standard for some time has been Sydney Ahlstrom’s A Religious History of the American People (A), which has recently been ably augmented by Mark Noll’s America’s God (A).

Systematic Theology and Apologetics

A good place to begin reading systematic theology would be R. C. Sproul’s Grace Unknown (B), which offers a helpful introduction to the Reformed faith, as does David Hagopian’s Back to Basics (B). For a different approach and more detailed treatment, Cornelius Van Til’s An Introduction to Systematic Theology (A) is a must. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (I) rightly deserves its place at the foundation of Reformed theology. An updated form of Calvin can be found in the fine work of James Boice in The Foundations of the Christian Faith (I). A stellar example of Protestant scholastic theology can be found in Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology (A), which served as the primary theology textbook at Old Princeton until it was replaced by Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (A) in the 1870s. Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (A) is finally getting fully translated into English. Bavinck provides his own summary of this set in Our Reasonable Faith (I). No list of Reformed systematic texts would be complete without Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology (I), which is very accessible and provides insight on almost every issue it treats. For an insightful discussion of various theological and historical aspects of the significance of the Westminster standards, see J. Ligon Duncan’s three-volume The Westminster Confession into the 21st Century (I). No Reformed library would be complete, of course, without a copy of the Westminster standards and the Three Forms of Unity on the shelf.

We not only want to include general treatments of systematic theology in our libraries, we also need volumes that address specific aspects of theology or particular matters of concern. On the issue of justification, for instance, R. C. Sproul’s By Faith Alone (B) stresses the need to return to a proper Protestant (and biblical) understanding of justification by faith alone. For a somewhat dated, but nevertheless helpful and thorough discussion of nearly all aspects of justification, James Buchanan’s Doctrine of Justification (A) cannot be surpassed. For an assessment of the current debate over the New Perspective on Paul from a Reformed perspective, Guy Prentiss Waters’s Justification and the New Perspectives on Paul (I) is required reading. On sanctification, R. C. Sproul’s Pleasing God (B) is excellent for the new Christian. If you find you want more after digesting Sproul, a classic volume on the subject is Walter Marshall’s The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (I), which stresses the centrality of union with Christ to a proper understanding of and appreciation for sanctification.

Apologetics is about the defense of the Christian faith in the face of attack and the critique of other forms of religion and unbelief from a Christian point of view. For a historical overview and selection of significant apologetic writings, one of the most useful books is L. Russ Bush’s Classical Readings in Christian Apologetics (I). For a classic example of apologetics at its best, Augustine’s City of God Against the Pagans (A) presents the Christian view of history as linear against the cyclical view of paganism. B. B. Warfield offered his own brand of apologetics in Collected Works of B. B. Warfield (A) and his Selected Shorter Writings (I). As many readers are no doubt aware, apologetics has historically interacted with philosophy so an examination of philosophy from a Christian perspective is invaluable. Two such volumes are Gordon Clark’s Thales to Dewey (I) and Cornelius Van Til’s Christianity and Conflict (I). Van Til’s Christian Apologetics (I) provides an overview of his presuppositional method of apologetics, which seeks to defend an explicitly Reformed understanding of the Christian faith. More recent contributions include William Edgar’s Reasons of the Heart (B) and Scott Oliphint’s The Battle Belongs to the Lord (B) that stress the biblical basis of apologetics and the need for the average Christian to participate in the adventure of apologetics. For an interaction between, and assessment of, the various schools of apologetics, Kenneth Boa and Robert Bowman’s Faith Has Its Reasons (I) and Steven Cowan’s Five Views of Apologetics (I) will prove useful.

Practical Theology

What we believe affects how we behave. The best practical direction comes from authors who are steeped in Scripture. A classic in this category include Augustine’s Confessions (B) which virtually invented the category of autobiography. Augustine recognized the central truth that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God. Other classics include John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (B) and Jonathan Edwards’s biography of David Brainard, missionary to the Native Americans in pre-Revolutionary War America. Speaking of Edwards, his Religious Affections (I) remains helpful. Written to provide criteria for determining true from false religious affections, it has not been surpassed for insight. Another of the older works of practical theology is Charles Hodge’s Way of Life (B), at one time one of the author’s most popular works.

Practical theology is not limited to the distant past. More recent writers include J. I. Packer, who has written such modern classics as Knowing God (B) and Keep in Step with the Spirit (B) and John Piper (building on the insights of Jonathan Edwards), author of Desiring God (B) and A Hunger for God (B). R. C. Sproul has provided insights into God’s character with his now classic The Holiness of God (B) and provide solace in his Surprised by Suffering (B).

And so we have come to the end of our building project … for now. As Solomon so wisely noted many years ago, to the making of books there is no end (Eccl. 12:12). We have not looked at all the books one may want for a good library. And undoubtedly I have left out many titles that you may think would be better candidates for your bookshelves. But I trust you get the idea. As we seek to build a Reformed library, we should do it to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

Thursday, May 3rd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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