Reflections on the Top 25 Christian Classics

from Dec 11, 2015 Category: Articles

Christian History magazine asked a number of their past contributors to help identify the most influential works in Christian history (aside from the Bible). The results are now in, and they have recently posted a Top 25 List.

Here are the Top 25 writings as selected by Christian History:

  1. Augustine, Confessions (c. 398)
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1265–1274)
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)
  4. Augustine, City of God (413–426)
  5. Martin Luther, 95 Theses (1517)
  6. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  7. The Nicene Creed (325, revised 381)
  8. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952)
  9. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (c. 319)
  10. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418–1427)
  11. Benedict, Rule (c. 540s)
  12. The Book of Common Prayer (1549)
  13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
  14. Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520)
  15. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (1932–1967)
  16. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–1320)
  17. Anselm, Why God Became Man (c. 1095–1098)
  18. Augustine, On Christian Teaching (397–426
  19. Augustine, On the Trinity (c. 400–428)
  20. Westminster Confession (1646)
  21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 175–185)
  22. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777)
  23. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (1746)
  24. Pope Gregory I, Pastoral Rule (c. 591)
  25. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (c. 1515–1516)

I suspect that many of the titles on this list were included in the individual lists of every contributor who responded. When asked about the most influential writings in Christian history, anyone who is familiar with church history will include certain writings by Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. Other names and titles will engender more or less debate.

I agree with the inclusion of Augustine’s Confessions (1), City of God (4), and De Trinitate (19). Augustine was the single most influential theologian of the first millennium, and these works have had a profound influence on Christian thinking since their publication. I’m not as certain about including his On Christian Doctrine (18) in the Top 25. The Top 50 perhaps, but not the Top 25. I believe a stronger argument could be made for including his anti-Pelagian works in the Top 25.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (2), John Calvin’s Institutes (3), and Martin Luther’s 95 Theses (5) are also rightly included. I’m less certain about where to put Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (6). It is one of the best-selling Christian books of all times, but it is somewhat difficult to nail down exactly what the nature of its influence has been. The Nicene Creed (7) should clearly be on any list of the most influential Christian writings, but if it is included, why we would not also include the Definition of Chalcedon, as well as the misattributed Apostles’ Creed?

Of the remaining titles, I agree with the inclusion of Athanasius’s On the Incarnation (9), Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ (10), Benedict’s Rule (11), Martin Luther’s Freedom of a Christian (14), Dante’s The Divine Comedy (16), Anselm’s Why God Became Man (17), and The Westminster Confession of Faith (20). The remaining titles are all debatable. They should all be somewhere in the Top 100, but for various reasons I would replace at least some of those in the Top 25 with other works. Lewis’s Mere Christianity (8), for example, is too recent to determine its long-term influence. Will it stand the test of time? Will people still be reading and discussing it 500 years from now? I don’t know. I believe it is too soon to tell.

There are several titles that I would add to the Top 25 list. My inclusion of these is based on the meaning of the word “influential.” These are all works that, in one way or another, profoundly influenced the thinking of subsequent generations of Christians. I should also note that influence can be either good or bad, so my inclusion of the following titles does not necessarily mean that I endorse the theology. Aside from the Apostles’ Creed, these titles are listed in roughly chronological order.

The Apostles’ Creed—I believe the inclusion of the Apostles’ Creed in the Top 25 should be a no-brainer. It is a succinct statement of faith in the basic articles of the Christian faith. It is incorporated into the confessions and catechisms of a wide variety of churches (Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed, etc.) and has been recited liturgically for 1500 years.

Athanasius, Letters to Serapion—Athanasius is well-known for the role he played in the Arian controversy, and it is certainly arguable that his works against the Arians should also make the Top 25, but his writings on the Holy Spirit should not be forgotten. His letters to Serapion are, along with Didymus the Blind’s On the Holy Spirit, the first lengthy writings devoted exclusively to a defense of the personhood and deity of the Holy Spirit. Their significance for the development of the doctrine of the Trinity should not be overlooked.

Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations—Delivered sometime around the year 380 in Constantinople, these sermons on the Doctrine of the Trinity, by perhaps the greatest theological mind among the Cappadocian Fathers, have had a long-lasting influence. Their influence can be seen in the creed that came out of the Council of Constantinople in 381 and in subsequent writings on the Trinity by theologians in the East and West.

Augustine, Anti-Pelagian Writings—Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings fill four volumes in the new English translation of his works produced by New City Press. I would suggest that Augustine’s contribution to this debate was one of the turning points of the first millennium of church history. Not only should these works be in the Top 25, they should probably be in the Top 5.

Cyril of Alexandria’s Second and Third Letters to Nestorius and Letter to John of Antioch—Cyril of Alexandria is probably the most important church father about whom most Christians have heard nothing. His Christology, however, profoundly shaped the thinking of the Church. His doctrine of Christ is the doctrine upheld as biblical at three of the ecumenical councils (Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II). His second and third letters to Nestorius and his letter to John of Antioch are mentioned in the Definition of Chalcedon, along with the Tome of Leo, as the place to go in order to get a fuller explanation of the Christological teaching of the council. Having his specific Christological doctrine endorsed by three separate ecumenical councils places Cyril alongside Athanasius and Augustine in terms of profound doctrinal influence.

Tome of Leo—See above.

Definition of Chalcedon—If the Nicene Creed is to be included in the Top 25, the Definition of the Council of Chalcedon must also be included. It sets forth the parameters of Christological orthodoxy.

Peter Lombard, SentencesThe Four Books of Sentences written by Peter Lombard in the twelfth century surely deserves a place in the Top 25. His work was arguably the first “systematic theology” written in the West. Every important scholastic theologian in the following centuries wrote commentaries on the Sentences. This work shaped the way Western theology was done for centuries.

Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent—I believe the Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent have to be included in the Top 25 most influential writings in the history of the church for obvious reasons. These decrees were the Roman Church’s official dogmatic response to the Protestant Reformation. Rome was at a crossroads in the sixteenth century, and at the Council of Trent one path was chosen over another. The impact of this Council on the history of the Western Church for the last 500 years is immeasurable.

Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated—Descartes was a Roman Catholic. One of his stated aims in his philosophical works was to defend the Christian faith. Instead, he gave birth to modern philosophy.

The notes of the Scofield Reference Bible—I debated whether to include this title, but in the end, I believe it should be in the Top 25, perhaps at number 25. The notes in the Scofield Reference Bible, published in 1909, did more to spread the theology of dispensationalism around the world than their author could have imagined. These notes, arguably, did more to shape the thinking of millions of Christians in the twentieth century, than the works of all the academic theologians of the twentieth century combined.

Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.