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Who Reads Must Choose: Developing a Personal Canon of Theologians

By Luke Stamps –


Harold Bloom once wrote about the Western literary canon,

“The Canon’s true question remains: What shall the individual who still desires to read attempt to read, this late in history? The Biblical three-score years and ten no longer suffice to read more than a selection of the great writers in what can be called the Western tradition, let alone in all the world’s traditions.  Who reads must choose, since there is literally not enough time to read everything, even if one does nothing but read” (The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, p. 15).

“Who reads must choose.”  Indeed.  And what is true for the Western Canon is equally true for the history of Christian writings, which, after all, overlaps the former significantly.  I don’t know about you, but I often feel like I am playing catch-up when it comes to reading the classics of Christian theology.  Even after years of seminary training, there still remains for me large tracts of unexplored lands in the Fathers, Augustine, Anselm, Thomas, Luther, Calvin, the Reformed Orthodox , the Puritans, the Princetonians, Barth and so forth. 

What shall we read as Christians?  Obviously, the Holy Scriptures should have pride of place in our personal reading ambitions.  No other book bears the marks of divine inspiration.  The Bible is qualitatively unique in its power to convict, convert, regenerate and renew.  But we all need teachers (Ephesians 4:11-12).  And part of our responsibility and privilege as 21st century Christians is to learn from the nearly 2000 years of church history that precedes and makes possible our own particular moment. 

But if we want to read the Christian classics, where do we begin?  Who makes the cut?  What authors? What books?  This is a huge question that one blog post cannot settle.  All I want to do here is to issue a challenge: the challenge to develop your own canon of Christian theologians.  Make a plan for reading the classics of Christian theology and see where it takes you in your Christian pilgrimage.

Some time ago, I found a monthly reading plan crafted by pastor and author, Mark Dever.  The plan focuses on a key figure (or two or several) in church history every month.  Here is Dever’s list.

January – Early church writings (1st-3rd centuries)

February – Augustine (354-430)

March – Martin Luther (1483-1546)

April – John Calvin (1509-1564)

May – Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)

June – John Owen (1616-1683) and John Bunyan (1628-1688)

July – Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758)

August – C.H. Spurgeon (1834-1892)

September – B.B. Warfield (1851-1921)

October – Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981)

November – C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and Carl F.H. Henry (1913-2003)

December – Contemporary authors like John Stott, J.I. Packer, Iain Murray, R.C. Sproul and John Piper

Dever’s list got me thinking about what my own list might look like.  So, here’s my tentative canon of theologians for the new year:

January – Early church writings (Tertullian, Irenaeus, etc.)

February – Augustine

March – Anselm & Aquinas

April – Luther

May – Calvin

June – Post-Reformation Period (Turretin, Owen, Arminius, etc.)

July – Edwards

August – Baptists (Keach, Spurgeon, Dagg, Boyce, etc.)

September – Liberalism (Schleiermacher, Ritschl, etc.)

October – Princetonians (Hodge, Warfield, etc.)

November – Bavinck

December – Barth

So what do you think?  Did I leave out anyone obvious?  What would your list look like?

 Luke Stamps is a Ph.D. candidate at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Luke is a weekly contributor to the Credo blog and also blogs at Before All Things. Luke is married to Josie, and they have three children, Jack, Claire, and Henry. Luke is a member of Clifton Baptist Church in Louisville, KY.

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