It’s that time of year again—Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, Christmas decorations are going up, it’s starting to get dark outside before you get home from work, and various bibliophiles online are sharing lists of the best books they read during the previous eleven months. Some of these lists only include books published during the calendar year. My list is different. My list consists of books I finished reading in 2019, regardless of when the book was published. The following are ten books (two of the ten are multivolume works) I read this year that I found helpful or enjoyable in one way or another. They are not listed in any particular order.
Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, vol. 2, Faith in the Triune God
Volume 1 of Mastricht’s Theoretical-Practical Theology is a relatively small volume that covers introductory matters and the doctrine of Scripture. I mentioned it in my 2018 list of favorites. Volume 2, which was published in 2019, covers the various questions involved with the doctrine of God. Mastricht’s work is a masterpiece of Reformed scholastic theology, and one reading of it will dispel many myths about the so-called dry and dusty nature of such theology. Here is a theological precision, pastoral warmth, and practical heart rare in theological works published today. Take up and read!
Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology, vol. 1, Revelation and God
For many readers, Beeke’s work is going to be intimidating. Volume 1 is more than 1,300 pages, and it is only the first of four projected volumes. That said, I would like to encourage those Christians who might be put off by such a work to rise up to the challenge. Each chapter concludes with a psalm or hymn and numerous discussion questions. The book contains fifty-five highly readable chapters. If a person were to read only one chapter per week, he could finish the book in about a year. Seriously, for those who know that theology is important but who can sometimes get frustrated by the jargon, Beeke is a great place to begin the adventure that is the study of Christian theology.
J.V. Fesko, Reforming Apologetics (Review)
In the Reformed world, an intramural debate over apologetics has been going on for more than seventy years. For much of that time, Dr. R.C. Sproul was almost a lone voice crying in the wilderness in defense of traditional Reformed apologetics. There is some evidence that a change may be underway. One indicator is the publication of this fascinating book by J.V. Fesko. He carefully notes some of the most important differences between classical Reformed approaches to apologetics and the Van Tillian approach that became the majority view among American Reformed theologians in the twentieth century. For those interested in this debate, this book is a must read.
Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church
The second century was a time of great transition for the church. Kruger’s examination of the events and personalities of this century is highly informative. It is also very practical. The church’s relationship to the surrounding culture in the West today is coming to resemble more and more the relationship that existed during that time. We can learn a lot about how to deal with our changing cultural context by examining how the second-century church dealt with its own context.
Matthew Barrett, None Greater
I had the honor of working with Matthew Barrett when I contributed a chapter to a book he edited titled Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. His book None Greater is a very helpful overview of the attributes of God. With as much confusion as there is now on these doctrines, even among professing evangelicals, they are teachings with which all believers should become more thoroughly acquainted. Barrett’s book is a great place to start.
Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, second edition
The first edition of Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity was published in 2004, and it was well reviewed. I suspect the same will be true of his revised and expanded edition that was published this last year. Some readers may differ with Letham on a few points, such as the doctrine of the covenant of redemption. Regardless, there is much of great value in this book, and it remains probably the best Protestant work on the subject.
J. Todd Billings, Remembrance, Communion, and Hope
Todd Billings reminds us in his book that the Lord’s Supper is not an intellectual puzzle to solve but instead is a means of grace, an instrument of the gospel. He builds on the work of John Calvin to show how the supper is intimately connected to the good news of Jesus Christ. I have reservations about his view of ordained ministry and how it relates to the administration of the supper, but all in all this is a book that can be read with great benefit by all Christians.
Christopher Watkin, From Plato to Postmodernism
Watkin’s book is a cultural history of the West. There are numerous one-volume histories of philosophy but precious few that examine the impact that changes in philosophy have had on literature and art. Watkin’s work helps readers see the bigger picture of the cultural forces that have shaped the world in which we now live.
Frederick Copleston, A History of Philosophy, vols. 1–5
Copleston’s nine-volume History of Philosophy was written and published decades ago, and I have dipped into it many times over the years because Copleston, unlike many of the philosophers he discusses, is a clear writer who provides clear explanations. It is an outstanding resource. This year, however, I set myself the task of reading it in its entirety from cover to cover. I failed that task and completed only five of the nine volumes this year. For this reason, I hesitated to include this work in my list. Ultimately, I decided to include it because I did finish the first five, and they are well worth reading. An ignorance of the history of philosophical ideas and their profound effects is causing much damage in the world and church today. Copleston’s work is not the solution to the problems caused by bad philosophical ideas, but it is a solution to a lot of the ignorance about those ideas.
C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia
Perhaps one of the reasons for my failure to complete Copleston was my first reading of the entire seven volumes of The Chronicles of Narnia this year. I am a huge fan of the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and my students have had to listen to obscure Tolkien references for years. When they discovered that I had never completed the Chronicles of Narnia, some were quite vexed. On my previous attempt at reading this work years ago, I had only made it halfway through The Horse and His Boy (volume 3) before stopping. I didn’t enjoy it the first time I attempted to read it for a number of reasons, but I promised my students that I would go back and read all seven volumes starting at the beginning, and I am glad I did. I saw them differently this time through. There is truth and goodness and beauty in Narnia that can serve those who live in other places and times. I’m not going to comment on each volume. Suffice it to say that the last few paragraphs of The Last Battle are worth the price of the entire journey. Further up and further in!