20 Books from the 20th-Century to Put on Your Reading List

When it comes to good reading in biblical and theological materials, one has to be choosy. You will never have time to read everything that is out there, but reading a wide variety of thought-provoking works has tremendous value for any student of or communicator of the Word of God.

We get caught up in "the latest and greatest" and often spend the majority of our time reading contemporary works. After all, these are people who understand our current cultural climate and may be the best suited for helping us communicate the Gospel in the age in which we live. So our bookshelves may become filled with the works of Francis Chan and David Platt on the popular level.....or the more scholarly works such as the latest from N. T. Wright or D. A. Carson. While I continue to benefit from insights from each of these and countless other contemporaries, I also encourage us not to neglect some of the "older" books. And this list doesn't even go WAY back...just to some of the books published in the 1900s that have benefited me.

The ones listed here are in no particular order of priority. Some of these authors may look more familiar to you than others (my entire list could have been the works of C. S. Lewis because he's that good), but I hope you'll check out the ones you have not already read.


1) Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1939)

This is simply the most insightful book on Christian Fellowship that I have ever read. Every page is filled with quotes about the need for a healthy interdependence in the body of Christ. It's only about 120 pages, and it is a must-read for your library.








2) The Rise of Christianity by Rodney Stark (1996)

I only discovered this one recently. Stark is a sociologist of religion, and his work here goes beyond the pages of the Bible and into the timeline of the first four centuries. It explores the factors at work in the Christian faith growing from a small Jewish sect to being the dominant religion of world empire...in about 300 years...and not by means of the sword. Its insights into what attracted people to Christianity THEN still have relevance NOW.





3) The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton (1925)

Anything by Chesterton is going to be heavy in content, so don't expect a fluffy read. But of all his works I've read, this is my favorite so far. It is a witty, insightful retelling of the history of the world's search for God and for answers to our deepest longings. This story culminates in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the One who clarifies the entirety of history.  




4) The Heart of the Yale Lectures by Batsell Barrett Baxter (1947)

Outside of Timothy Keller's new work on Preaching, this classic collection of excerpts from the annual lectures on homiletics at Yale Divinity School between 1871-1944 is the best book on preaching that I have read. Some of the material may feel dated, but the majority of it is timeless. Baxter surveys 70 years worth of lectures to find the best insights and then arranges them thematically.





5) Reflections on the Psalms by C. S. Lewis (1958)

Everything by Lewis is amazing, but I thought I would share this under-appreciated work because it is the closest Lewis comes to sharing a biblical commentary. His work here traces 10 themes in the Psalms, including some of the darker themes such as imprecatory prayers. You will come away with an even greater appreciation for the vast insights the Psalms provide into both theology and humanity.






6) The God of the Towel: Knowing the Tender Heart of God by Jim McGuiggan (1996)

I have had the privilege of hearing Brother McGuiggan speak a few times at the annual Faulkner University lectures, and I am always encouraged by his passion and his scholarship. He knows how to bring profound ideas into memorable application, which is precisely what you will find in this powerful devotional book. This is an exploration of the character attributes of God, focusing chiefly on the willingness of God to take on flesh and even the form of a servant in order to redeem a lost humanity. This book will rekindle your love for the God who has first loved you.




7) If You Will Ask by Oswald Chambers (1963)

Like most of the published materials by Oswald Chambers, this was originally published long after his death. It is a collection of his insights from sermons on prayer. The chapters are short but profound. If you only read one book on biblical prayer, this may be the one to read. 






8) Christ and Culture by H. Richard Niebuhr (1951)

Even if you don't agree with all the views of the Niebuhr brothers, their contributions to analysis of the interaction of the Christian faith with society cannot be understated. Without really endorsing one particular view of Christ and culture, Niebuhr surveys 5 historical approaches to understanding the relationship between the followers of Christ and the culture in which they live. Questions about how we live "in the world" while remaining not "of the world" are relevant to every generation, and this book will help you see how believers of the past have wrestled with these questions.



9) Hard Sayings of Jesus by F. F. Bruce (1983)

Published in the year of my birth (so bonus points for Bruce), this is one of the greatest contributions from one of the 20th-century's finest scholars. As part of a larger "Hard Sayings" series with volumes from other scholars, Bruce focuses on the words of Jesus Himself as they are recorded in the Gospels. By "hard," Bruce means both sayings which are difficult to understand and those which are difficult to live. So if you run across questions about the meaning or application of difficult teachings of Jesus, consult this tremendous resource. 





10) A Theology as Big as the City by Ray Bakke (1997)

Since I am involved in ministry in a metropolitan culture (the area around Washington, D. C.), I consulted 2 of Ray Bakke's works on city ministry. Bakke spent many years working in inner-city Chicago. While I benefited from The Urban Christian, this follow-up work is the more insightful one, in my opinion. While I do not agree with all of his conclusions, Bakke does a tremendous job of surveying the "city" themes in each of the Bible's books. From Sodom to Jerusalem to Babylon to the Mediterranean cities where 1st-century mission work was focused, we learn principles from each of these on how to understand the culture of a city and how to be the people of God who "seek the shalom" of the city in which you live. 

11) The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today by Everett Ferguson (1996)

Dr. Ferguson's contributions to scholarship in early church history and background studies have been astounding. This is perhaps his magnum opus in dealing with the biblical text itself. I can't think of any more detailed book on the understanding of the church that Jesus established.








12) The School of Calvary by J. H. Jewett (1911)

This is a short series of reflections on the cross and seeing the vast array of lessons learned from the scene on the hill of Calvary. It is available for free at... http://www.ccel.org/ccel/jowett/calvary.html

13) Evangelism Made Slightly Less Difficult: How to Interest People Who Aren't Interested by Nick Pollard (1997)

This is my favorite book on personal evangelism. Pollard draws from years of experience with campus evangelism to present what he has found to be the goals of evangelistic conversations. As he divides conversation partners into 4 categories, one of the greatest insights from this book is that the goal is not usually conversion through one conversation. Rather, it is to leave a stone in a person's shoe - something that will continue to roll around and occupy their mind until they resolve the problem.


14) A Theology of the New Testament by George Eldon Ladd (1974)

I can think of no greater book for seriously exploring the themes of each book of the New Testament. This work is detailed and designed for graduate students in biblical studies, but any serious student of the Bible will find plenty of material to stew on, even if you don't agree with every word. 






15) Look to the Rock: An Old Testament Background to Our Understanding of Christ by Alec Motyer (1996)

This is another resource that is not necessarily best suited for new Christians but has some outstanding material for more mature students of the Bible. Motyer goes beyond just the most obvious and surface connections between the Old and New Testaments. The overall thrust of the book is seeing Jesus as the fulfillment and resolution of all the great themes and questions raised in the Old Testament.






16) The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann (1978)

The greatest strength of Brueggemann's work is his ability to highlight contemporary practical socio-economic themes in the pages of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The thesis of the book is basically that God's prophets have always breathed new energy into community life by criticizing the corruption of the established order and "imagining" a hopeful order instead. Brueggemann follows these themes from the earliest prophets of the Old Testament through the prophetic work of Jesus Himself.



17) A Complete Literary Guide to the Bible (edited by Leland Ryken, 1999)

This one's release in '99 barely made it eligible. But it's here because I have gleaned tremendous insights into the literary components of Scripture from this compilation of essays from a wide variety of biblical and literary scholars. If you want to go deeper into your understanding of biblical narrative, biblical poetry, and all the other genres used by God to convey His Word, these essays are essential. After some introductory material, most of the book's essays cover literary components of one book of the Bible - commenting on genre, structure, tone, imagery, and other figurative language. The wealth of material in this one volume is impressive.


18) Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (1978)

I can't praise the contents of this book enough. Spiritual disciplines are neglected by most of us - at least to the extent that Christians of the past have practiced them. Foster breathes new life into this field by reaching back first to the principles within Scripture and then into the insights of other men and women of God who practiced sound methods in their devotional life. Foster reminds us that discipline is a path to joy.






19) The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom (1971)

Corrie ten Boom's account of the Nazi invasion of her native Holland is a gut-wrenching and faith-building exploration of the realism of Christian ethics in the face of unimaginable evil. I learned from real stories how deep the love of God can run in our hearts to compel us to love our neighbor and love our enemy even in the direst of circumstances.








20) The Knowledge of the Holy by A. W. Tozer (1961)

Tozer's work explores attributes of God such as His holiness, His justice, His grace, His love, etc. The strength of this book is two-fold: it stays grounded in Scripture and still makes theology practical. If you're not already convinced, this book will help you see why what we know about God is vital in learning to be the people that reflect His character.








To His Glory,


Caleb Cochran

Preaching and Outreach Minister

Rockville Church of Christ