As promised, here’s a list of old books that are worth your time and might even change your life. The only rule for this list is that they were written before the Industrial Revolution.
I’ve resisted the urge to include some of the classics from the Western Canon. Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, etc. These authors are, of course, worth your time. But I think it would have been tough for me to include these authors without sounding just a bit pretentious in a patches-on-the-elbows type of way.
Anyways, I wanted to make a more personal list. I’m not suggesting that the books below are the absolute best books ever written in history. But they are some of the old books that have shaped me in the profoundest ways. And they’ve provided me with perspectives and insights that would be otherwise hard for me to access from my 21st century perspective.
Two caveats. First, just because a book appears on this list does not mean I entirely agree with it’s contents. Second, I haven’t included the Bible on this list because I personally don’t feel comfortable putting the infallible book that God wrote in the same category as fallible human books.
Augustine, Confessions. I’m always amazed at how contemporary this 5th century autobiography feels when I read it. Somehow, though we’re separated by 15 centuries and the Reformation, I feel as though Augustine knew everything there is to know about me.
Thomas A’ Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. A’Kempis’ devotion to Christ and his desire to live a Christlike life is always edifying and challenging at the same time. Even the early Protestant Reformers still read and commended this book–and that’s saying a lot!
Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae. You can’t understand the history of Christian theology without having a grasp on the theology of Thomas Aquinas. His work was a synthesis of a thousand years of Christian thought and Reformed theology was, in many ways, a response to and critique of Thomistic theology.
Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will. To what extent do humans have freewill and how does God’s sovereignty affect our personal freedom? At one point or another we all wrestle with this question. I find it helpful to read the perspective of this brilliant 16th century monk-turned-Reformer.
John Calvin, The Institues of the Christian Religion. What can I say? If you’re Reformed, this is Mt Everest. Interesting to note that Calvin’s Institutes have relatively little to say about Calvinism if by that you mean predestination. He saves his discussion of predestination until Book IV (there are only five books total) and does not dwell on that issue. As a whole Calvin’s Institutes are far more devotional and less academic than most people realize.
John Flavel, The Fountain of Life Opened, or a Display of Christ in his Essential and Mediatorial Glory. Could someone tell me why books don’t have titles like this anymore? I hold a PhD in Puritan Studies so I’ve logged an awful lot of hours with the Puritans. Flavel is my favorite Puritan and this is my favorite book by him. Enough said.
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. I’m pretty sure that the title itself is a sufficient description of what this book is all about. No surprises here. Just good, solid encouragement that the pursuit of holiness is one of the deepest joys this life affords.
William Ames, The Marrow of Theology. Okay, I admit it, this one is a little boring. But it’s the best comprehensive articulation of Puritan theology ever written. Had you been a student at Harvard in the 17th century, you would have been forced to memorize this book. Yep, the whole thing. It was that foundational to early Colonial theology.
John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. A few years ago Colin Hansen wrote a book called Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalists Journey with the New Calvinists. For some odd reason he chose to include a little profile of me in the book. Towards the end of that section he quotes me as critiquing the theology of John Owen. John Owen was quite possibly the greatest theologian to write in the English language (except maybe Jonathan Edwards) and there I am, taking a shot at his doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, I didn’t expect my comments to make it into the book. And I’ve always felt slightly bad since then although I’m sure Mr Owen won’t hold it against me. Since, all things considered, it’s not likely that I’ll be profiled in any more books any time soon, let me just take this opportunity now to say: I Love John Owen!! I have read his works with great benefit to my soul and I commend his works to you. No one, ever, has written better about the problem of indwelling sin than John Owen.
Jonathan Edwards, Original Sin. Reading Edwards on revival is always wonderful and encouraging. But I think most fans of Edwards will agree with me that his work on original sin really is his masterpiece. It’ll stretch your mind and force you to take a position on this very difficult doctrine.
Okay, there’s the list. Some very old books that are admittedly very difficult to read but will be very good for your soul (with maybe the exception of that Icelander one which I just couldn’t resist including). Why not choose just one and try to read it during the coming year? If you do, please let me know, I’d love to learn along with you.