Over the years, I’ve had a number of readers email me to ask what books have been most influential in my studies.
Well, it’s hard to put a finger on just a few, as I’m a compulsive reader. I have a pretty huge personal library.
So I’ve had to think about it for a while. I’ll list these in chronological order — that is, in roughly the order that I encountered them. And maybe you’ll want to read two or three of these during that last summer trip to the beach.
Although the progressive or grace-centered movement in the Churches of Christ has roots going back to Barton W. Stone and the Campbells, the contemporary manifestation of that movement is, in my opinion, largely a result of the publication of the New International Version and New American Standard Bible translations in the early 1970s.
I was attending David Lipscomb College at the time, and these two translations were revolutionary — because the students could finally read the Bible without having to go to the dictionary to look up “sepulchre” and “bowels of compassion.”
The ease with which the Bible could be read — and understood — compared to the King James Version, which dominated our congregations at the time, allowed our members to read and study for themselves. No longer were the Churches as dependent on a preacher-school trained minister to explain (or explain away) the text. Commentaries mattered far less.
Church periodicals lost subscribers by the tens of thousands, as the ordinary pew sitter found far more truth and help in the pages of his NIV or NASB than in the writings of the editors.
My personal choice at the time was the Interlinear NIV Parallel New Testament in Greek and English, which includes the KJV, NIV, and Alfred Marshall’s interlinear Greek in parallel. I’ve worn out three copies. (I have no idea why Amazon charges so much for this text now.)
I’ve taught thousands of Bible classes out of this text, and I’ve learned far more Bible from, you know, the Bible using this resource than all the rest combined.
I no longer use the NIV much. It’s too paraphrased for serious study of books such as Romans and Galatians. I instead find myself largely in the English Standard Version. I link to the ESV Thinline Bible because the preacher for my son’s recent wedding, a close family friend, gave my son and new daughter-in-law this Bible from which he preached their wedding, with his speaking notes taped in. It was a very special gift.
Next up is the QuickVerse Bible Suite. Actually, I used the Windows 95 version. All the eBooks listed on this site were written using this software. When I upgraded my computer to Windows 7, the software no longer worked, but it was time to upgrade anyway. I now use BibleWorks 9, which is much more expensive but a truly marvelous, powerful program.
Many readers use free software that has many of the same features, especially eSword. Try out eSword. If it meets your needs, don’t buy the fancy program. But if you need more, especially in terms of Greek and Hebrew resources, BibleWorks is the choice to make.
I guess it’s kind of cheating to cite to the Bible as my most influential book — too obvious and too easy — but that’s reality. I spend far more time in the Scriptures than reading anything else.
But I owe a lot to a number of uninspired works, as well. These include —
Mere Christianity, by C. S. Lewis. It is, of course, a classic. I read it for the first time in high school, I think. I’ve read it several times. I’ve given away several copies. It is a classic work of Christian apologetics or evidences, written in a brilliantly clear style, understandable by just about anyone — and yet profound and deep. (I may go read it again.)
In a high school Bible class, we studied Neil R. Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible, a brief but excellent text introducing the reader to textual criticism and the evidences for the reliability of the biblical text. It was most recently updated in 2003. I wish we taught materials of this substance to high schoolers today.
While we’re on the subject of Christian evidences, Batsell Barrett Baxter’s I Believe Because… A Study of the Evidence Supporting Christian Faith was hugely influential to me. We studied this in another high school Sunday school class (my copy has mash notes from my girlfriend of the time). Many better, more comprehensive books on Christian evidences have been released in the last 40 or so years, but this is the one that impacted me.
I was fortunate to attend a class taught by Br. Baxter out of this text at Lipscomb. And he argued vehemently that science and the Bible do not and cannot contradict. He further rejected young-earth creationism, saying that he’d ridden down the Grand Canyon and seen the geological layers — and they plainly did not result from a single flood.
Agree or disagree, Baxter gave me the freedom to accept both science and the Bible — indeed, to see science as another means of God’s self-revelation.
However, the most influential teacher I had at Lipscomb was Harvey Floyd. He taught a class on the Holy Spirit, based on A Theology of the Holy Spirit by Frederick Dale Bruner, which continues to be the gold standard so far as I’m concerned. Lately, I’ve learned a lot more about the Spirit not covered in that book, but it remains foundational for my thinking.
Dr. Floyd also introduced me to Francis Schaeffer. We had a course based on his trilogy The God Who Is There, He Is There and Not Silent, and Escape from Reason (Now available in The Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: Three Essential Books in One Volume.) Schaeffer was dealing with Postmodernism before the term was invented — and did so much more clearly and helpfully than most of what’s been published since.
These books introduced me to the conflict between contemporary culture — and the philosophies that shape it — and Christianity. They helped me see how very far removed Christianity from the world that surrounds us, even when the world is speaking in Christian words.
But the most valuable class I took at Lipscomb was on Romans, taught by Dr. Floyd, and the only text was Romans. I caught my first glimmer of grace and began to realize that I could read the Scriptures for myself. In fact, I even began to resent the many false teachings I’d suffered through, and so I decided it was time to investigate the Bible for myself.
After graduating, I began to study the Restoration Movement. At the time, very little was published on the subject, and much of that was very poorly written, even dishonest in its presentation of our history.
But I discovered Christians Only: A History of the Restoration Movement by James D. Murch, written from the perspective of the independent Christian Churches by a man who’d been involved in much of the 20th Century history of the largely forgotten unity movement between the Churches of Christ and Christian Churches. It was eye opening — to say the least. I learned that much of what I’d been taught about our history was simply untrue.
Later, I found Leroy Garrett’s seminal The Stone-Campbell Movement: The Story of the American Restoration Movement, written from the perspective of the a cappella Churches of Christ.
Both books are excellent reads, and both destroy the pretense that the 20th Century Churches of Christ taught what Stone, the Campbells, and Walter Scott taught. Indeed, they taught the very errors that the Restoration Movement was founded to oppose!
Some time later, Church of Christ publishing houses began to put out some excellent books on our history —
J. M. Powell’s The Cause We Plead: A Story of the Restoration Movement is not the best history of the Restoration Movement, but it was the first book I could get my hands on that honestly reported the actual words of the founders of the Movement — proving beyond all doubt how far the 20th Century Churches of Christ had strayed from Restoration principles. (The foundational Restoration Movement texts are now available on the internet for free, of course.)
He quoted the full text of Thomas Campbell’s 13 propositions from his “Declaration and Address.” Suddenly, I realized how very radical and truer to the Bible the founders had been than what I’d been taught.
He also sent me in search for a copy of Alexander Campbell’s Christian System, where Campbell lays out his theology in some detail — a theology that would get him damned from about half our pulpits. It’s was just so astonishing how much clarity the Campbells provide, opening my eyes to the Scriptures by giving me the courage to believe what’s written (all while their opponents claim them as heroes).
Discovering Our Roots: The Ancestry of Churches of Christ, by C. Leonard Allen and Richard T. Hughes, delves into our roots beyond the Restoration Movement, back to the Anabaptists, Calvinists, and Lutherans. It’s a great book.
Distant Voices: Uncovering a Forgotten Past for a Changing Church, by C. Leonard Allen, reveals parts of our history that have been swept under the rug by the 2oth Century editors. For example, Lipscomb’s pacifism and rejection of participation in civil government has been nearly forgotten. Why? What changed? Was the result better than what was left behind?
As you can see, much of my early studies were focused on Restoration Movement themes. They were great, life-enriching studies and very useful for my work as a Sunday school class teacher and author. But I was largely unaware of what was being said in the larger, evangelical world.
I wrote a draft book on how Christians could influence civil government through lobbying and such like. I was 100% Moral Majority/Christian Coalition in my thinking. I sent a draft to a few people, and my brother — who is six years younger than me and therefore not supposed to know more than me — introduced me to N. T. Wright and Stanley Hauerwas. (And that book is buried.)
Especially important to my thinking was Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon. (I started a series on this a while back that I really need to finish.) This is a foundational text for the neo-Anabaptist Movement. It’s also one of the most readable.
I’m not sold on the entire neo-Anabaptist agenda, but their critique of contemporary evangelicalism and the Constantinian compromise — selling out the power of Christ to gain the power of the state — is spot on. Lipscomb would have loved this book. (Buy it. Read it. Teach it in small groups and Bible class!)
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter is a devastating critique of much of modern evangelicalism. It corrects some errors I also perceive in the neo-Anabaptist Movement while destroying the arguments made by those who want to take over the government via the church. It’s one of the most important works on how to live in the modern world ever written. I’ve read it twice and will likely read it again (so little time … so much to read).
My first exposure to N. T. Wright was What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? It just blew me away. I mean, Wright’s teachings meshed very well with much of what I’d been teaching and yet he approached the subjects from a very different perspective that dramatically impacted the meaning and depth of what I’d already learned. He didn’t so much change my theology as open doors I had completely overlooked.
I’ve since read nearly everything written by Wright, including his Christian Origins and the Question of God trilogy (not for the faint hearted or unmotivated). These are very scholarly works. His popular works often take themes from these works and present them more simply, and yet Wright remarkably often manages to bring even greater depth to the topics in his popular books.
My thinking has likely been most changed by Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church and by Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. These are very accessible, easy reads and yet profoundly worldview changing. (Mandatory reading and great for group study.)
Now, while we’re on the subject of heaven, I have to mention Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment. If you combine Fudge’s teaching (conditionalism) with Wright’s doctrine in Surprised by Hope, the afterlife suddenly makes so much more sense and countless scriptures spring to life. Both testaments become so much easier to read and understand — and so much more joyful to study.
Somewhere in my reading, I came across The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, another founder of the neo-Anabaptist school of thought. He didn’t persuade me to become a pacifist, but he did teach me what it means to follow Jesus. Ahh … chapter 7 is huge.
But perhaps the most influential book (other than the Bible, of course) is Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology. That’s not the catchiest title, you know, but Gorman synthesizes Orthodoxy, Wright, the neo-Anabaptists, and others into a simple, easy to teach (not so easy to live) theology that is 100% Christ and cross centered.
When I re-start the Atonement series to consider the Orthodox view, it will be through the lens of this book — because I think Gorman’s insights change everything, pointing us more truly toward what so many other authors are trying to find and explain. That is, he gives the framework by which all else must be judged; he tells us how to live the cross.
In the realm of hermeneutics, most influential to me is a lengthy lecture given by Ray Vander Laan — which is just beyond amazing. We have members at my church that have downloaded these to CD and listened to all 11 CDs over six times. It’s that good.
Vander Laan very powerfully demonstrates how much better we can understand the New Testament if we understand the Jewish mindset and how to read the New Testament in light of the Old. It’s an incredible experience to see the New Testament — from Matthew to Revelation — much more clearly and richly thanks to his insights. (Mandatory listening, and great for group study.)
Finally, I have to add the works of Scot McKnight, who blogs at Jesus Creed. Particularly helpful to me is his The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, dealing with narrative hermeneutics, that is, how to read the Bible as a whole.
Oh, and I have to add John Mark Hicks’ series on narrative hermeneutics at his blog.
That should be enough to fill your time at the beach.