John W. Nevin, The Mystical Presence—Published in 1846, this volume provides both a defense of Calvin’s eucharistic doctrine and a wonderful introduction to the soteriology of the Mercersburg Theology movement we associate with John Williamson Nevin and Philip Schaff. In it, Nevin called out much of the American Reformed community for its rationalistic Zwinglianism and lack of sacramental sensibility. It also provoked a heated debate between Nevin and Charles Hodge over the nature of the Reformed tradition. In the opinion of most historians who have studied the matter, Nevin won the debate on points! More accessible is Nevin’s The Anxious Bench, a surgical dissection—both theological and psychological—of Charles Finney’s revivalism.
Here are ten books (actually more than ten are mentioned) that I regard as theologically formative. By “theologically formative” I don’t mean the most important or the most influential. Rather, I’m speaking of books that have been particularly significant, for a variety of reasons, for me personally. In some cases, they are widely regarded as theological classics; others are more niche, but all have stood the test of time.
St. Irenaeus, against All Heresies
This early patristic work is much more than a catalog of Christian Gnostic heresies; it articulates a redemptive-historical view of salvation as participation in Christ, the Second Adam, who fixes what the first Adam did wrong and so “recapitulates,” or sums up under a new head, human history. I have found that the later theologians with whom I particularly resonate tend to have Irenaean overtones (e.g., Calvin, Nevin, Torrance). Here I think, for example, of Julie Canlis’s wonderful Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Eerdmans, 2010), with its unpacking of the Irenaean, participatory dimension in John Calvin’ theology.
St. Augustine, Confessions
This classic of Christian religious autobiography serves as a fitting introduction to the greatest of the Western church fathers. Augustine’s Christian Platonism, with its themes of “faith seeking understanding” and participation in God, was dominant in the West until the high Middle Ages, and it continues to be retrieved in the Nouvelle Theologie and Radical Orthodoxy even today. Here I had to choose between Augustine and Athanasius’s On the Incarnation. Athanasius is attractive in that he reminds us that the purpose of Christ’s saving work was much more than an abstract forensic exercise; it is to reconnect us with God, who is the source of light and life. Alas, the nod went to Augustine because I am, after all, a Western Christian.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
Reading though the Institutes carefully reminds us that the Reformed tradition is broader and deeper than the later federal theology codified in Hodge and Berkhof. Calvin’s theocentric piety and focus on union with Christ continue to be as relevant today as they were in the sixteenth century. And that opening paragraph of Book III of the Institutes is pure gold: “How do we receive those benefits which the Father bestowed on his only begotten Son—not for Christ’s own private use, but that he might enrich poor and needy men? First, we must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us.” I can think of more than a few theologians today who should strive to emulate Calvin’s “lucid brevity.”