Some of my friends on Facebook have been sharing ten books that had an impact on them, so I thought I’d get in on the trend. I nearly didn’t, because the truth is that I find it hard to finish a book.
I’m not a great reader (that surprises some people), and it amazes me how quickly some people can read piles of books. If the writing is particularly dense I have to read it slowly or read it several times. Sometimes the problem is that the writer thinks he’s saying something really profound and I don’t see it, so I look really hard to find it, only to end up realising that he has simply overestimated himself (it’s usually a he) and there’s nothing of interest to find. The upshot of the way I read, I think, is that I come away really understanding what I’ve read, but the downside is that I don’t get a huge amount of reading done – certainly not as much as I’d like to. Plus, a book has to really hold my interest. If a book engages me then things are different and I can go through it pretty quickly, but I’m just not committed enough to stick it out if the writing is too dull. My attention span shrinks to nothing. That’s partly why so much of my learning in the issues that interest me has come not from reading long books but from following the conversation in journal articles and essays.
Anyway – here’s my list. Remember, these aren’t necessarily my favourite books, nor are they necessarily books I would agree with in any detail now. These are just books that I remember having an impact on me. I wasn’t certain of the order in which they should go, so consider the ranks to be approximate.
1 Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil
I think it was 1997 when I read this, although the book was already nearly twenty years old (published in 1978). I was studying music and had just married Ruth. One of my classes was an elective in critical thinking and I had fairly recently acquired a taste for philosophy of religion (but had read virtually nothing in the field). At about that time my friend Matt Flannagan had not long ago started a Master of Social Science degree, writing a thesis on Alvin Plantinga and the rationality of theism (looking mostly at the notion of theism as a properly basic belief). I was more interested in theology than philosophy (I was to go to Bible College in 1999), but as I found philosophy of religion fascinating, I got Plantinga’s book God, Freedom, and Evil out of the local library.
I loved this book mostly for its writing style, actually. I had read some philosophy of religion (my first ever exposure was from New Essays in Philosophical Theology which was fairly dated but still very good reading), but Plantinga’s style in this book had a stark, simple directness. I had never seen questions about Christian belief discussed with such rigour before. “You can write like this about God? Wow! I need to read more of this!” Thank goodness my first Plantinga book wasn’t The nature of Necessity or out of pure dread I would never have opened another philosophy book! Although even at the time I didn’t agree with everything I found in it (I remember being sympathetic to Kant’s objection to the ontological argument), this book revolutionised my direction in thinking and got me well and truly hooked on analytic philosophy of religion.
2 Greg L. Bahnsen, No Other Standard: Theonomy and Its Critics
Theonomy is a dirty word for some people. It’s the view that all biblical ethics, including Old Testament law, is applicable today. Bahnsen’s larger work, Theonomy in Christian Ethics, generated a small storm of controversy, with evangelical scholars from both the Reformed and dispensational schools of thought launching salvos in his direction. This book is a response to his critics, and in a word, it’s devastating. This book, along with my own subsequent research (this book prompted me to write a Master’s dissertation on the subject) opened my eyes wide to the fact that so many respectable evangelical scholars are like emperors without clothes, holding to views and rejecting views that they “ought” to hold and reject, but without having even the slightest ability to credibly defend the positions they hold or to articulate good arguments against the positions they reject. Both in terms of reason and in terms of Scripture, they profess allegiance to both and yet made a mockery of both in their tortured responses, and Bahnsen showed this clearly. From Wayne House to Thomas Ice to Meredith Kline to Rodney Clapp, the critics of theonomy were virtually clambering over themselves to offer up shoddy arguments.
This book was an important juncture in my growth, not just because of the view that Bahnsen held, but also as a clear wake-up call about the partisan nonsense that goes on within the evangelical establishment and the appalling reasoning that would-be gatekeepers of that establishment are prepared to employ to fend off views that we’re not supposed to hold (I see a very similar thing when it comes to critics of annihilationism, and I have often privately compared the two disputes for that reason). Reading this book created an impression on me that has encouraged me considerably in more recent controversial issues and reminded me not to fear anybody because of their pedigree. Big names say stupid things all the time when it’s their job to do so. But while Bahnsen made his critics look foolish, he never called them fools. He showed that their arguments turn out to be downright idiotic at times, but he never called them idiots. This, too, made an impression on me. The most devastating criticism is one that is delivered forthrightly but without any trace of malice.
3 Sidney Hatch, Daring to Differ: Adventures in Conditional Immortality
I read this book in my late teens (1993 or 1994). I had been mortified to learn that our youth group leader didn’t hold to the traditional view of hell as a place of the eternal torment of the damned. He didn’t believe that we have immortal souls, but rather that we are mortal creatures who really die – we don’t survive as a disembodied soul and slip away to heaven (or anywhere else for that matter). Eternal life, in the end, was a gift, and those who reject the God who offers this gift will not have eternal life at all. They will come to an end. I didn’t realise that any Christians believed that, and I certainly wasn’t interested in changing my mind. So he lent me this book, which I read as somebody who was pretty hostile to the view of the author. One chapter at a time, the author winsomely began to win me over to the view I now hold – both on human nature and the doctrine of the last judgement. I actually don’t recall how persuaded I was by the time I finished the book (more persuaded than not, I think), but I’d certainly had my eyes opened.
I realise that for a lot of people who hold to an “annihilationist” or “conditionalist” view, the author most responsible for persuading them is Edward Fudge in his magisterial work, The Fire that Consumes, now in its third edition. Fudge would quite possibly have been that author for me, too, had Hatch not gotten to me first.
4 St Athanasius the Great, On the Incarnation of the Word
This is the first work of one of the Church Fathers that I read, which may also have something to do with its impact, being my introduction to the patristic writings. Still, I think Athanasius’ writing style appeals to me more than probably any of the other Fathers. This work is an inspiring / inspired treatment of the Incarnation of God in Jesus, the Word made flesh. It paints a bold outline of Christian theology as a whole, too, from the fall and its consequences to the necessity of the Word becoming flesh, and even to an interesting foray into historical apologetics, offering responses to various objections to the authenticity of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. So much for those who think that “apologetics” is a modern phenomenon!
5 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death
I think Peter Singer is horrendously wrong. But this book helped to bring the landscape of disagreement about bioethics – well, abortion in particular for me – into stark relief. He explained in a manner reminiscent of a number of Christian apologists, actually, but as a hostile witness, or so it seemed, that (and this is my summary of him) once you strip away all that religious mumbo-jumbo, there’s no intrinsic distinction between us and farm animals. Newborn babies are no more rational or self-aware than newborn pigs, and it is only a social and religious construct that allows us to feel that they have more value. We (and this is still my summary, not my own view) frankly need to get over our constructs and face the facts. Forget this nonsense about the image of God and admit that the unborn (and probably the newborn) are worth only what they are worth to us. Or at least that’s what I took from this book, and I felt as though my eyes had been opened: They do realise (some of) the implications of what they are saying, and they say it anyway. I read this book and thought: He gets it. Disputes about human dignity and value are religious disputes. I wish more people got it.
6 William Watkins, The New Absolutes
The inclusion of this book may surprise people. It’s a voice in the Evangelical “culture wars,” you might think (if you’ve read it), it’s reactionary, it’s conservative and so on. Heck, it even got an endorsement from Norman Geisler (but that’s somewhat balanced out by the fact that it also got an endorsement from Francis Beckwith). But firstly, I’m somewhat conservative myself! Secondly, remember that I’m talking about books that, biographically, had an influence. And this one did (plus I agree with a lot of it). This is probably the first book I read that could really be thought of as part of the culture war, a book about secular influences eroding traditional Christian values in American society (although the observations ring true for much of the developed world). This was my introduction to an important aspect, not so much of Evangelical theology but Evangelical culture – even Evangelical sociology. The basic thesis of the book is hard to deny: Contemporary, irreligious liberal culture is sometimes thought of as taking a relativist stance on all sort of moral and social issues, so that dogmatism is viewed with a certain suspicion. The truth, however – and this is the message of the book that really sank in – is very different. When it comes to religion, the sanctity of life, marriage, sexuality, gender, race and other things besides, what we are seeing is not the abandonment of hard-line absolutism in favour of more open-mindedness. All we are seeing is the rejection of one set of absolutes and the substitution of it with another – another perhaps even more dogmatic.
7 Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights
If you’re ever involved in pro-life work, especially among students, you should have a copy of this book. It’s the standard. Yes, there are more in-depth treatments of the subject, but this is eminently accessible. Does it deal with those who take the stance of Peter Singer or Michael Tooley who would say that sure, their view on abortion commits them to defending infanticide, and they accept that? No, but the truth is that the people you speak do in this social conversation almost invariably find that position horrific anyway. When I was involved in campus and youth pro-life work, this was an indispensable resource, and one that can be really encouraging to people who want to speak up about the issue but don’t know what to say. Would I read it again now? No, but I’m no longer the target audience. When I was the target audience, this book brought home to me the fact that the most obvious reasons to be pro-life are far more compelling than the arguments that most abortion rights activists use.
8 James Blunt, Undesigned Coincidences
The full title is Undesigned coincidences in the writings both of the Old and New Testament: an argument of their veracity: with an appendix, containing undesigned coincidences between the Gospels and Acts, and Josephus. I love old book titles (this one was published in 1851). They always tell you what you’re in for.
This is a book that Tim McGrew alerted me to. There’s a wealth of books from centuries gone by on assessing the credibility of the Gospels that a lot of us today are simply unaware of (they’re out of print and just aren’t being republished). Blunt’s book is excellent and really opened my eyes to the quality of some of that work. In it he highlights the way that different writings in the Bible unintentionally reinforce each other, so that apparently innocuous details in one Gospel make best sense in light of apparently innocuous details in other Gospels, in such a way that it is implausible to think that anyone conspired to plant those details there, and in which such details and their explanatory function bolster the case for the reliability of the accounts that form the basis of the Gospels that we have.
9 Philip Quinn, Divine Commands and Moral Requirements
Although not a long book (176 pages), this is the best defence of a Divine Command Theory of ethics in print, I think. It is also the first book I read on the subject, which may account for why the theory has always seemed to attractive to me, given how good the book is. Although published back in 1978, to date it does not seem to me that anybody has successfully overthrown it.
10 Brian Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil
Most people who are interested in apologetics are familiar with the various responses to the problem of evil; that is, the responses that exist within the world of Evangelical Apologetics. Davies’ work is refreshingly different, approaching the same problem but from a much more historical position, that of classical theology (his specialty appears to be Thomas Aquinas). Over the last half-decade or so my thoughts have been turning in a much more classical direction when I think about theology, and Davies’ book helped me immensely along that journey.
There are other books, of course, that have played important roles in my thinking and learning. Nicholas Wolterstorff and Robert Audi in Religion in the Public Square prompted my PhD dissertation. The multi-authored volumes In Search of the Soul (now republished by Wipf and Stock) and What About the Soul? helped to focus my thinking about human nature. The book by Paul Eddy and Greg Boyd, The Jesus Legend, gave me a better coverage of the question of the historicity of man Jesus of Nazareth than any other book. And so on.
One book that very nearly made the list is Antoine de Saint Exupery’s children’s book The Little Prince. I am not a fan of fiction books, but this one is a masterpiece with so many applications to theology and philosophy. But I think (although I could be wrong as self-diagnosis is notoriously difficult) that these ten books may be those that have had more of an impact on my trajectories in thinking than any others. I didn’t list the Bible because, well duh.
What are the ten books that have served this role for you?
- Book recommendation: Philosophy for Understanding Theology
- He's making a list, he's checking it twice…
- A Godless Public Square?
- Looking for an article by Peter Van Inwagen
- Catalyst Books
- Book announcement: Ashgate Research Companion to Theological Anthropology