Here are some books I’ve found useful. Unless otherwise noted, I have read these books in full or part. I hope to expand this list as I have time. What topics should I add?1
(Note: Although some of these books are certainly among the best on their topics, this is not a true “best books” list. This could be called an abbreviated “best of what Dwight has read” list. But many equally good books remain unread on my shelves and wish lists! If you want to see true a “best books” list covering many biblical and theological topics, I recommend Dr. Blomberg’s Biblical Biographies. See also Denver Seminary’s Annotated Old Testament Bibliography and New Testament Exegesis Bibliography, both updated annually.)
Choose a Topic
|Biblical Interpretation||Biblical Theology||Church History|
|Bible Surveys||Bible Backgrounds||Baptism|
|Bible Commentaries||Biblical Canon||Eschatology|
♦ = Books I’ve read in full (though perhaps not the latest version).
◊ = Books I’ve read in part (though perhaps not the latest version).
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This book is probably the one on this list that is most widely used by evangelicals. (It has also been used at Faith Builders.) Strengths: focus on genre; focus on application and not just exegesis; plenty of examples using Bible passages. Weaknesses: Authors present some conclusions—such as their preference for dynamic translations and their support of women in leadership roles—in a manner that seems to downplay or ignore evidence to the contrary; also, the narrow focus of the book on genre means other topics are left out. (Note: this review is based on the 3rd edition.)
♦ Guthrie, George. Read the Bible for Life: Your Guide to Understanding and Living God’s Word (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Books, 2011). 352 pages.
This exceptionally good book reads as a series of journalist interviews. The people interviewed are mostly Bible scholars, but also include a musician (Michael Card) and Guthrie’s wife (Pat). The middle of the book provides solid guidance for reading OT and NT genres. But the ends of the book reveal its unique strengths, with chapters such as “Reading the Bible for Transformation,” “Reading the Bible in Times of Sorrow,” “Reading the Bible with the Family,” and “Reading the Bible with the Church.” Suitable for beginners, and nourishing for everyone. Perhaps the best first book on the topic (or see Plummer).
Hendricks, Howard G., and William Hendricks. Living by the Book: The Art and Science of Reading the Bible, Rev. and updated. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 2007). 400 pages.
Its exceptional strength is teaching you to closely examine the details of the text in front of you. Less technical and more devotional than most books on this list, but still calls for rigorous study.
This is the first book on biblical interpretation that I read, and it is still good. This book takes the authority of Scripture very seriously. Most books on biblical interpretation are weak on questions of application. This book tries to remedy that by including a couple final chapters on the topic. These chapters are a very helpful starting point, but benefit from being compared with other authors, such as Osborne.
Covers a lot of important topics quickly. Generally very accessible, except for some final chapters on current interpretive trends. Points to lots of other good resources, including online resources. Borrows a lot from Stein’s book and lectures, since Stein was Plummer’s mentor. Somewhat less technical than Stein, but longer and covers more topics. Sometimes raises interpretive options without resolving them. Weak on determining Scripture’s implications for us today. A very good first book (or see Guthrie), but not a good only book.
Duvall, J. Scott, and J. Daniel Hays. Grasping God’s Word: A Hands-On Approach to Reading, Interpreting, and Applying the Bible, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2012). 512 pages.
I think this is my favorite on this list for the average student who has a high school or brief college education. If one expects to read only one book on the topic, this is one of the best. It’s a textbook, with helpful assignments for each chapter. Very readable and quite wide-ranging, borrowing from sources as diverse as Hendricks and Osborne.
Stein, Robert H. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011). 228 pages.
I’ve listened to lots of lectures by Stein and trust his generally sane judgment and clear communication. His work is used by other authors such as Fee/Stuart and Plummer. This book is narrower in focus than some others on this list, but addresses its chosen topics with greater depth. He’s especially strong on literary genres, as well as on developing a precise vocabulary about the tasks of biblical interpretation, helping you think clearly about such matters as inspiration, application, significance, meaning, etc.
This is a standard seminary text. I read this once and didn’t understand it all—especially the parts on Hebrew and Greek grammar and such. But it’s definitely worth the sweat it requires, helping you think through how to move from what the text meant in its original historical context to what it means today. He also includes some very dense appendices in defense of the belief that texts can actually meaningfully convey a message from author to reader—important stuff in our postmodern context.
Köstenberger, Andreas J., and Richard Duane Patterson. Invitation to Biblical Interpretation: Exploring the Hermeneutical Triad of History, Literature, and Theology, (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2011). 891 pages.
Similar to Osborne; likely to join his book as a standard text. Perhaps not quite as dense? Perhaps spending less time on the results of exegetical study—biblical, systematic, and homiletical theology? Focuses on history, literature (canon, genre, and language), and theology, with most space by far devoted to literature. Includes one chapter on application and a useful appendix called “Building a Biblical Studies Library.” I haven’t read this much yet, but it comes with some very high recommendations and looks hopeful. Köstenberger is an expert on the NT writings of John, and also has very helpful writings on marriage and family.
Books on special topics:
Beale, G.K. Handbook on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012). 173 pages.
Quite technical, but almost certainly the best introduction to this very important topic. This concisely summarizes much of the best that has been written on the topic in the past 100 years. See also my review.
Beale, G.K. and D.A. Carson, eds. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007). 1239 pages.
A massive and very useful volume. This is a collection of commentaries covering every book in the New Testament and focusing narrowly on the NT use of the OT. Thanks to the detailed Scripture index, I have also used this volume “in reverse”–starting with one OT text and seeing how it is used in the NT (although this is a bit tedious). Sure to be a standard on the topic for decades to come.
Learn Bible interpretation from the Master–Jesus! This is a technical book, but I really enjoyed reading it. France traces Jesus’ typological use of the OT (types of Jesus, the disciples, and Jewish unbelief and its punishment), his use of OT predictions (non-Messianic, possible Messianic, David’s Lord, from Zechariah 9-14, the Servant of the Lord, the Son of Man, etc.), and the originality and influence of Jesus’ use of the OT (comparing him with other ancient Jews and with the apostles). This study (originally a PhD thesis) helped prepare France to write two of the very best commentaries on the Gospels. (Also see my review of a book by C.H. Dodd that helped inspire this book by France.)
A reference work surveying the history of how the Bible has been interpreted. Provides brief bios of major interpreters and discusses major interpretive approaches, providing examples. Very interesting and helpful, although it includes no mention of Anabaptists, and only a brief dismissal of Arminian theology as being heretical!
Mounce, William D. Greek for the Rest of Us: The Essentials of Biblical Greek (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2003). 289 pages.
This is an introduction to the very basics of Greek, showing how a brief acquaintance with that language can improve Bible study skills. (Note that this book is not designed for students who plan to master Greek–hence the title, “for the rest of us.”) It includes some very accessible and sane chapters about the basics of interpretation and the use of translations and commentaries.
(Note: There are also helpful audio resources on biblical interpretation. At BiblicalTraining look for Robert Stein’s hermeneutics course (he has some thoughts about the role of the Holy Spirit that may sound new, but are worth weighing) as well as courses by Mark Strauss (less technical, not a great fan of “literal” translations) and George Guthrie (basic but solid). Bill Mounce is also good and always engaging. Also, the Gospel Coalition website has dozens of lectures by D. A. Carson, including excellent ones on biblical interpretation and preaching.)
♦ Longman, Tremper III. and Raymond B. Dillard. An Introduction to the Old Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006). 528 pages.
I read the first edition of this book straight through several years ago. I’m glad I did. A book like this not only helps you directly, opening your eyes to treasures in the Scriptures, but also prepares you for further study. It introduces you to many of the important ideas and terms that OT scholars use, thus preparing you to read other books such as OT commentaries more effectively. Moderately technical.
◊ Carson, D.A. and Douglas J. Moo. An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005). 784 pages.
I have only browsed in this book, but it looks just as useful as its OT counterpart (above). I’ve benefited greatly from other books and talks by Carson and Moo. A book like this summarizes the best of conservative evangelical scholarship on matters such as the historicity of the NT and the authorship of NT books.
◊ Blomberg, Craig L. Jesus and the Gospels: An Introduction and Survey, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H, 2009). 500.
An award-winning book by an expert on the Gospels. Very well written, with few wasted words and a life-time of insights. Covers historical backgrounds for studying the Gospels, critical methods, separate introductions to each Gospel, a survey of the life of Christ, and concluding chapters on the historical trustworthiness of the Gospels and the theology of Jesus. As with many of the books I’m listing here, this has excellent bibliographies of additional resources.
◊ Evans, John F. A Guide to Biblical Commentaries & Reference Works: For Students and Pastors, 9th ed. (Oakland, Tenn.: Doulos Resources, 2010). 377 pages.
This is the single best book I have found for discovering and weighing biblical commentaries. Evans is a conservative Reformed author, but he recommends books written by a wide range of authors, assessing each book on its own merits as a tool for understanding the Scriptures. For each book of the Bible he recommends about half a dozen of his favorite commentaries, providing a mixture of highly technical books, mid-level books, and books helpful for sermon applications. Each of these recommended volumes is given a paragraph-length description. In addition, he lists just about every other commentary you could want or find for each book, often with brief descriptions. Simply put, if you are in the market for commentaries, buy this book! You won’t regret it.
For more advice on commentaries, as well as more books and websites about commentaries, please see my lists of Recommended Commentaries.
◊ Waltke, Bruce. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2007). 1040 pages.
The culmination of a lifetime of study by one of the most highly-regarded Reformed OT scholars. A bit erratic in its coverage of the OT, and non-Reformed readers won’t agree at every point, but packed full of insights. (I was glad to see that his explanation of the OT land promises and their fulfillment in the NT age is included here.) I’ve opened this massive book periodically as a reference tool.
◊ Ladd, George Eldon. A Theology of the New Testament, Rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993). 764 pages.
A classic NT theology from the author who popularized the “already-not yet” understanding of the kingdom of God. Addresses NT theology by addressing the NT in separate parts: the Synoptic Gospels, John, Acts, Paul, Hebrews and the General Epistles, and Revelation. Useful chapter titles help you find information on topics such as “The Kingdom and the Church,” “The Son of Man,” “The Holy Spirit,” “The Pauline Psychology,” or “Eschatology.”
◊ Marshall, I. Howard. New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2004). 765 pages.
A recent NT theology from an author who has been called “the dean of evangelical New Testament scholars” (Douglas Moo). This volume takes a book-by-book and chronological approach to NT theology, with summary chapters inserted periodically. This structure has enabled me to usefully dip into a single chapter for a quick summary of key theological themes of an individual NT book. Includes some questionable assumptions about authorship of some NT books, but avoids radical critical ideas.
♦ Wright, Christopher J.H. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2006). 581 pages.
After reading this I wrote: “Perhaps the best big-picture book about the Bible I’ve ever read. And I think I agree with almost every sentence!” Since then I’ve heard some pretty strong criticism of this book from New Calvinist circles (such as this). My advice is to read both the book and the criticism. I still agree with most of Wright’s words, but the added words bring added insights. I can’t find the quote at the moment, but one thought from Wright that I like goes something like this: “It’s not so much that God has a mission for his Church in the world, as that God has a Church for his mission in the world.” And an exact quote: “The mission is God’s. The marvel is that God invites us to join in.”
◊ Alexander, T. Desmond, Brian S. Rosner, D.A. Carson, Graeme Goldsworthy. New Dictionary of Biblical Theology: Exploring the Unity and Diversity of Scripture (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2000). 866 pages.
Don’t think of a standard dictionary; rather, think of a collection of concise essays. Part One covers introductory topics like “history of biblical theology,” “the canon of Scripture,” “Scripture,” and “relationship of the Old Testament and New Testament.” Part Two includes essays on each portion of Scripture (such as “wisdom books”) and essays on individual Bible books. Part Three includes essays on a wide range of theological and biblical themes such as “church,” “idolatry” and “remnant.” The bibliographies after each essay increase its usefulness as a reference work.
♦ Lawrence, Michael. Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church: A Guide for Ministry (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2010). 233 pages.
This is the shortest book on this list, and the most immediately practical. Lawrence writes with pastors in mind. He addresses “the tools that are needed” (topics like exegetical tools, covenants, prophecy, systematic theology) and “the stories to be told” (creation, fall, love, sacrifice, promise). Then, “putting it together for the church,” he presents case studies on preaching and teaching and then more case studies on how biblical theology shapes our thinking about counseling, missions, caring for the poor, and church/state relations. You don’t have to agree with all his conclusions to be challenged to do a better job of thinking biblically yourself.
◊ Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2003). 648 pages.
A standard textbook on the topic of the world of the New Testament and the early church. I’ve used it to research, for example, the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Pharisees. Includes sections on political history, Greek and Roman society and culture (military, social classes, economics, family, entertainment, clubs, etc.), Greek and Roman religions and philosophies, Judaism (history, literature, parties and sects, beliefs and practices, organization and institutions), and Christianity in the ancient world. Very useful as a reference.
◊ deSilva, David A. Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2002). 428 pages.
The Apocrypha is the literature that is most similar in theological content and historical context to the literature within the Protestant biblical canon. No literature besides the Old Testament was more influential for the New Testament writers and the early church. Our Lord himself demonstrated his familiarity with some of the texts of the Apocrypha. Early Anabaptists considered it part of the canon of Scripture. Even if we disagree on that point, we should agree that familiarity with the Apocrypha can help us understand Scripture better. deSilva’s introduction is concise and balanced, useful for diligent beginners and highly respected by the best scholars. I’m on page 142 (as of Oct., 2014) and hoping to push through to the end!
◊ Kruger, Michael J. Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012). 362 pages.
This book addresses both the history and the theology of the development of the biblical canon. (“Biblical canon” refers to the collection of books that are recognized as bearing Scriptural authority.) I have found this book useful in uncovering evidence for the early development of the canon, including evidence that the NT writers themselves understood that they were writing no ordinary documents. (Kruger has written more on this topic since this book.)
◊ González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, Mass.: Prince Press, 1984/85). 429/414 pages.
I have read through the first half of this two-volumes-in-one book. González is readable and, to my ears, balanced in his historical perspectives. (He is from Cuba and was the youngest person to be awarded a Ph.D. in historical theology at Yale.) I like how he discusses not only the European stream of Christian history, but its many global variations. González has written elsewhere on the history of Christian thought, so he is concerned not only with names and dates, but also with ideas. Good for reading straight through, and organized and indexed for efficient research.
♦ Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language, 4th. ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2013). 543 pages.
If you’ve never read a book on church history, then this is a good place to start. Shelley draws theological and practical lessons from each period of history that he discusses, so you never have to ask “So what?” He is Baptist (I think), but he discusses other Christian traditions with graciousness. A chapter on the Radical Reformation (Anabaptists) is included. From the epilogue of the 2nd edition: “Today, after 2000 years, Christianity is the faith, at least nominally, of one-third of the earth’s population… Surely one of the more remarkable aspects of Christianity today is how few of these professed believers have ever seriously studied the history of their religion.” Indeed!
♦ Sweeney, Douglas A. The American Evangelical Story: A History of the Movement (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2005). 208 pages.
I wish I had time to read more books on the history of American evangelicals and their interaction with American culture (and with Anabaptism). But if you, like me, don’t always have time for many long books, then this is a superb primer on the topic. Seven chapters span evangelical history from the eighteenth-century revivals to the rise of fundamentalism and neoevangelicalism. Individual chapters are devoted to evangelical missions, black-white race relations, and the Holiness, Pentecostal, and charismatic movements. Short, but packed. Gracious, but clear-eyed.
◊ Beasley-Murray, G.R. Baptism in the New Testament (Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2006 [orig. pub. 1972]). 422 pages.
A technical book that I have only read in part. Widely regarded as one of the best on the topic. Discusses the antecedents of Christian baptism, baptism in the ministry of Jesus, baptism in Acts, baptism in the writings of the apostles, doctrinal themes connected to baptism, and the rise and significance of infant baptism. Speaking to fellow Baptists, he points to room for improvement in three areas: (1) “There ought to be a greater endeavour to make baptism integral to the Gospel“; (2) “…to make baptism integral to conversion“; and (3) “…to make baptism integral to Church membership.” I agree on all three points.
◊ Ferguson, Everett. Baptism in the Early Church: History, Theology and Liturgy in the First Five Centuries (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009). 953 pages.
I’ve read an even smaller percentage of this book, which is now the undisputed master work on its topic. (Ferguson also wrote the standard Backgrounds of Early Christianity; see above.) The first 200 pages overlap in subject matter with Beasley-Murray’s book. The rest covers historical developments in the East and West in the early church, including a discussion of archeological evidence from baptistries. Ferguson’s conclusions, massively supported, fit with some conservative Anabaptist practices and challenge others: “There is no firm evidence for infant baptism before the latter part of the second century,” but there is “overwhelming support for full immersion as the normal practice… Pouring or sprinkling.. were treated as exceptional, second choice, and undesirable alternatives.”
♦ Storms, Sam. Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Geanies house, Fearn, Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 2013). 589 pages.
A passionate and diligent discussion of a wide range of end-times topics and texts. Chapters include “The Seventy Weeks of Daniel 9 and the Old Testament Roots of Dispensationalism,” “Problems with Premillennialism,” “Who are the People of God? Israel, the Church, and ‘Replacement’ Theology,” and many more on the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24), Romans 11, the Kingdom of God, Revelation 20, and the Antichrist. I found that Storm tied together a lot of conclusions that I was reaching through other study. I also enjoyed how he combines careful exegesis with an overflowing love for Christ. Well worth reading no matter what your prior understandings!
♦ Wright, N.T. Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper Collins, 2008). 332 pages.
This book lived up to its title for me–it truly surprised me with hope! In fact, this book probably did more to shape my theological thinking than any other single book (besides the Bible) in the past five years. I think it’s about 2% clearly off base, 5% “hmm…” and 90% gold. (There’s a reason I’m not a math major.) The upside of reading this book is that you will loose all taste for Left Behind books or movies, as well as any exegesis that puts a permanent gulf between heaven and earth. The downside is that you might also feel a compulsion to edit more than a few hymns and gospel songs. If you’re not excited about “life after life after death” after reading this book, then your exciter needs fixing.
Dwight Gingrich is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.com.
- The keen (or casual) reader may notice that I have not listed any books by Anabaptist authors. Please be patient. There are a few I may yet post. However, it is a fact that there are few top-level biblical studies books being written by Anabaptists. True, many useful books have been written by Anabaptists, including some based on very good scholarship. But it is not often that Anabaptist books represent the best detailed scholarship on a given topic. So we borrow from our brothers and sisters in the larger Body of Christ, grateful for their diligent efforts. And we invite you to suggest books I’ve missed, including must-read biblical studies books written by Anabaptists. Finally, as always: Compare all with the Scriptures. ↩
- But still not as technical as you can get! ↩