The following is a list (in no particular order) of some of the most interesting theological books published in 2011. Needless to say it’s been a banner year.
Lutheran Theology by Steven Paulson
What is Lutheranism? Rather than answering this question by outlining the history and development of Lutheranism, Paulson goes back to Luther himself to rediscover its long-lost soul, using Luther against Lutheranism and its many failed representatives throughout history. By far, this book is Lutheran theology at its best. Positively, this Lutheran theology is a theology that must be preached and therefore it is the message of the justification by faith for sinners. This central thesis captures Luther’s both polemical and pastoral concerns in a genuinely exciting way. But the most striking feature of this book for me is that the book is also structured to be a commentary on the book of Romans: Lutheran theology is also the theology of the apostle Paul. In this way, this book represents a remarkable synthesis between systematic, historical, and exegetical concerns unseen in much of theology today.
The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael Horton
At nearly 1000 pages long, this book is as massive as it is impressive. Presenting a systematic theology from an unabashedly classically Reformed perspective, Horton’s book is a much needed addition to current systematic theology. But one would be wrong to simply dismiss this book as yet-another book on reformed theology. What is most impressive about this book is how it interacts with a wide range of current theological works. Horton does not simply repeat the standard reformed line, but places reformed theology within many of the current theological debates. If I had to buy only one book of systematic theology, this would probably be it (and I’m not just saying that because Horton is the speaker for the upcoming spring 2012 Mockingbird Conference). [See also JDK’s full review!]
Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse by Robert Jenson
Any Mockingbird list of the top theological books would be remiss without mentioning Jenson’s slim assessment of popular Lutheran catch-phrases. The book assesses whether contemporary usage of such terms like sola scriptura, sola fide, or simul iustus et peccator is in line with Luther’s own usage of the terms. Jenson’s book is largely negative, often criticizing many of MB’s own theological founding fathers. In this way there is a strong mistrust of the type of creative readings of Luther that make him so vibrant. Nevertheless this book remains a worthwhile endeavor as it aims for a much-needed clarity and precision of terminology.
Jesus + Nothing = Everything, by Tullian Tchividjian
King’s Cross by Tim Keller
In the realm of theology, it’s common that books about Jesus pale in number compared to books about Paul. Paul is viewed as the theologian par excellence while the gospels are implicitly given secondary status by virtue of their less straightforward narrative framework. In “Kings Cross”, Keller offers a coherent reading of Gospel of Mark that is theologically and pastorally fruitful. Like his other works, this book addresses both the skeptic and the believer while also engaging in a wide-range of literature. It’s not often you find a book that defends substitutionary atonement while also referencing Homer! For these reasons, as well as Keller’s earnestly thoughtful tone, I consider this to probably be the best popular book on the gospels released this year. I’m not alone in this as the book also received a glowing endorsement from Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Please forgive Keller’s second appearance on this list, but truth be told, it’s hard to find good books on marriage. So when fellow MB contributor, Bryan J., tells me that this book is the best thing he’s ever read on marriage, it’s inclusion on a “best of” list of books is almost automatic. Far too often books on marriage are heavy on the “how to’s” of marriage with very little acknowledgment of either the Christian gospel or the reality that marriage can be difficult. Thankfully, this book avoids both these standard pitfalls to offer a vision of marriage that is unafraid of reality while still holding fast to the hope and joy of the gospel.
The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs
This book technically isn’t a theology book (perhaps we can broadly categorize it as ethics?), but it’s too good to pass up – especially for a blog post on books! For most everyone in this technological age, the idea of reading of book cover-to-cover is a tremendous burden – I think of all those book reviews I had to do in high school for books I never wanted to read. This problem is compounded by the prevailing wisdom on reading, which understands reading as a means of self-help or self-improvement. We are told to read because reading makes us a more educated, well-rounded, more enjoyable person (for example, see this clip from Portlandia). Instead, Jacobs offers the simple suggestion that reading should be fun and one should read whatever one wants. Rather than slogging through “The Old Man and the Sea” because its classic work of fiction, read those comic books hiding in your basement. You get the theme here? Freedom and creativity rather than the burden of the law.