When I get a little money, I buy books. And if there is any left over, I buy food. —Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch Renaissance scholar and theologian
Reading books has been an obsession of mine since my conversion to Christianity as a college sophomore. I sensed my mind really mattered in serving the Lord; so I began a serious pursuit of the “life of the mind” to the glory of God. Today I have a personal library of between 3,000 and 4,000 books.
Because of this background, I’m often asked for book recommendations, especially in philosophy, theology, and apologetics. The three timeless books listed below are my top recommendations for any serious thinker trying to grapple with the claims of Christianity.
If I had to live on a deserted island, I would need to take these books with me.
A lay Anglican theologian and versatile Christian apologist, “Oxbridge” literary scholar C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) is perhaps the most important conservative Christian thinker of the twentieth century. Lewis’s work Mere Christianity, published in 1952, was the first Christian book I ever read and it impacted my thinking powerfully.
With lucid style and single-minded focus, Lewis explains and defends Christianity’s central truth claims, the very essence of the faith. Knowing the core elements of historic Christianity and being able to articulate them with clarity to believers and nonbelievers alike can help all Christians fulfill their God-given role in drawing others to follow Christ.
Over the years I have come to disagree with some of the theological positions Lewis held, but he certainly deserves respect for his clear, insightful, and courageous witness for the Lord Jesus Christ. I am grateful to Lewis for his careful discussion of such issues as the triune nature of God, the Incarnation of Christ, and the moral argument for God’s existence.
In his short life span, French thinker Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) accomplished much as a mathematician, physicist, inventor, and an intuitive Christian thinker and apologist. Pascal had been preparing a book on Christian apologetics when he died prematurely at 39.
His unfinished apologetics work (consisting mainly of a series of organized notes, outlines, and fragments) was published subsequently under the French title Pensées (pronounced “Pon-sayz” and roughly translated “Thoughts”). While Pensées is more of an outline than a complete book, the content is so compelling it remains a perennial bestseller.
Pensées reveals three distinctive Pascalian apologetic themes.
- Pascal argues that Christianity uniquely explains the enigma of man as a paradox of “greatness” and “wretchedness” (great because man is created in God’s image but wretched because humans are fallen).
- He speaks of “reasons of the heart,” meaning that while religious belief is not contrary to reason, nevertheless there are limits to human reason and the human heart plays a critical role in intuitively forming one’s most basic beliefs.
- Pascal introduces his famous “Wager” argument in which he attempts to shake people of their indifference to ultimate issues (God, death, immortality) by appealing to the ultimate cost-benefit analysis of belief.
I recommend this version: Pensées (New York: Penguin, 1995).
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside those of the New Testament. History knows him as a theologian, philosopher, church bishop, and a gifted and tenacious defender of orthodox Christianity. A prolific classical author, Augustine wrote more than five million words, with three of his works becoming both Christian and literary classics of Western civilization. Confessions is his best known and most popular book.
One of the first autobiographies in Western culture, Confessions chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The book’s title can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his thankful confession of the greatness of God.
Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the Psalms), Confessions also serves as thought-provoking devotional literature. Augustine quotes and expounds the Scriptures throughout and suffuses the text with profound theological, philosophical, and apologetic insights. The book may really be about every human soul’s search for God.
I recommend this version: Confessions (New York: Penguin, 1961).
Skeptics and Christians alike will benefit from familiarity with these significant works. As classics they are readily available in paperback—so there should be money left over for buying food.
-- Kenneth Richard Samples