Seminary is where you go to learn the Bible. Really well. At least, that was my initial impression as I started my first day as a first year student in a four year masters of theology degree. And to a certain extent, it should be true. Students should be learning the Scriptures, both content and themes, preferably with some exposure to the original languages and various viewpoints yet understanding its primacy of place in the live of individual believers and the church as a whole. Any seminary that neglects the careful study of God’s Word is seriously depriving their students of the ongoing stimulus of their faith. Equally as important, future pastors and Christian leaders should be taught to rightly handle the tradition of faith, of which Scripture is a key component. Understanding the lives and work of God-fearing men and women who have come before us is crucial to understanding where we stand today in our faith and current theological reflection. This is the greatest thing I have come to appreciate in my seminary career.
Any Christian study (Scripture primarily, tradition secondarily) should draw us into a deeper love with our Redeemer. Recognizing the place of tradition, I have constructed a “top ten” list books which profoundly influenced my thinking and challenged me in my faith walk with Jesus Christ. Ten is simply that magical “list” number, and I have no intentions of bucking that trend. This list reflects readings from a wide-array of (orthodox) Christian thinkers and hence I offer them as recommended reading for ALL Christians. Though some may be more “academic” in content, the focus of the text has implications that every believer should consider (as evidenced in James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). Some others may be simple in its format, yet rich in its reflection (Bonhoeffer’s Life Together). Still others are essential reads for any believer despite any perceived hardships in language or syntax (please, everyone, read On the Incarnation and Confessions). Despite any of those considerations, I can’t recommend enough that every one of these texts be read by any and all believers in Jesus Christ who claim to hold to the traditional apostolic faith.
Some final considerations. First, these are in no particular order, rather, each has a reason for being on the list and have (perhaps equally) contributed to my spiritual formation. Second, this list could easily be four times as large. Narrowing to ten books (for someone who is assigned to read that many for one class) is not an easy task. I will offer a small list of “Books I Wish I Had Read in Seminary” in my following entry. Third, though some may disagree with the authors represented here and their works, each of these works is orthodox in its theological reflection and most (if not all) authors are accepted as orthodox by the broader Christian community. Hence, I am not offering any texts that would lead a naive reader into heresy or to renounce their faith. Lastly, I invite comments from those who too have been affected by Christian works (whether on this list or not). Please let me know which books have impacted you the most, seminary or not. Some have the privilege of reading texts that others have not had the time to discover or the opportunity to hear about. Please return for part two in order to see the second part of this “top ten” list. Enjoy!
1. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations. Edited and Translated by Michael W. Holmes. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007. 832 pp.
– Touted as the earliest collection of post-NT writings, the Apostolic Fathers represent writings which have a close association with the apostolic witness of the faith of Jesus Christ. Polycarp himself was a disciple of the apostle John. Numerous genres are repsented in this collection including traditional epistolary literature (Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Barnabas), apocolyptic (Hermas), martyr-narrative (Martyrdom of Polycarp) as well apologetic literature (Diognetus). Personally I have greatly been impacted by the document know as the Didache (teaching) and the epistles of Ignatius. Such writing represents a clear connection to NT teaching and witness and faithfully transmits the core of the gospel message and eschatological hope. Though remaining faithful to tradition, one can still discern proper theological reflection and development (as evidenced in the three-fold leadership, commitment to baptism and Eucharist, and serious Christological reflection). Ignatius writes to us (circa 110 CE), “There is but one physician, who is both flesh and spirit, born and unborn, God in man, true life in death, both from Mary and from God, first subject to suffering then beyond it, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Ignatius to the Ephesians, 7.2).
2. On Pascha. Melito of Sardis. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 2001. 103 pp.
– On Pascha is proof of two things: early Christian homiletics and early Christian devotion to Christ and the resurrection. While such things can be seen in the New Testament, Melito of Sardis displays the continuing growth of such practice and devotion. Concluding his homily written somewhere around 190 CE Melito says, “This is the alpha and omega, this is the beginning and the end, the ineffable beginning and the incomprehensible end. This is the Christ, this is the King, this is Jesus, this is the commander, this is the Lord, this is he who rose from the dead, this is he who sits at the right hand of the father, he bears the father and is borne by him. To him be the glory and might forever. Amen” (On Pascha, 105). Some pastors would do well to read On Pascha in preparation for their Easter sermons.
3. On the Incarnation. St. Athanasius. Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1996. 120 pp.
– Like Confessions (see below), Incarnation reads more like a devotional text than a straight forward theological monograph. Athanasius, the insightful 4th century bishop of Alexandria, solidified the Nicene (orthodox) position regarding the person and work of Christ admist the Arian debates leading up to and following the Council of Nicaea in 325. When reading Incarnation, one can’t help but perceive the intense devotion to Christ and the desire that others reflect upon him properly. Readers of Incarnation will read a Christ-follower devoted to the truth of Scripture and the proper understanding of the redemptive work of Christ. Athanasius says, “Through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection” (Incarnation, 2.9).
4. Confessions. St. Augustine. New York: Penguin, 1961. 352 pp.
– A book which is more than a biography, it is a prayer of thanksgiving to the God who saved and changed the heart of one man. Once required reading for many school curriculums, I believe it no longer can be found in the classroom. What a shame! Christians, we must take up the charge and once again claim Confessions as a crucial read to a life-long journey of faith! Lost in the midst of lust (both for physical pleasure and personal recognition), Augustine’s Confessions catalogues his spiritual journey, recognizing God’s sweet hand of providence along the way. As mentioned before, Confessions is more than a straight-forward autobiography about one of the church’s most prolific theologians, its a devotional account of God’s salvific work towards mankind. Rightly assessing our human condition, Augustine declares in the opening lines of his prayer, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions, 1.1). Is there any Christian who couldn’t say the same?
5. Recalling the Hope of Glory: Biblical Worship from the Garden to the New Creation. Allen P. Ross. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006. 592 pp.
– I read this title my first semester of my first year in a pastoral theology class focused on worship, and it remains an influential text on my theology of worship to this day. Ross is an accomplished Hebrew/Old Testament scholar and in this work he assesses the call to worship in the OT and that same call as it carries over in NT worship and beyond. Worship is a response to God’s holiness and revelation and includes both personal and corporate facets. While we are called to always live worshipful lives, Ross reminds his readers that believers have always gathered together in some fashion to celebrate the work of God while offering up prayers and caring for one another in a way which honors the God who redeemed them. Commenting on the central practice of communion in Christian worship Ross remarks, “It is the celebration of communion with the risen Christ and the true fellowship of the saints….and evert Christian group has liturgy of some kind in order to make it part of the worship. But every congregation must be constantly seeking ways to make sure that it is the meaningful and powerful part of worship it was intended to be” (Recalling the Hope of Glory, 468).