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Theology that Excites Me

April 2, 2012

“For my own part I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.” C.S. Lewis in the introduction to Athanasius’  On the Incarnation.


I have been working through some books lately that have been bringing theological and formational clarity to a strong dissonance that existed within me. I have long had a strong and affectionate relationship with the mystics of the Christian faith, but have also been immensely enriched by dense theology. These twin brothers of the faith have had an uneasy relationship with each other in my mind, and because of my evangelical tradition have looked upon each other with suspicion. This is why I am happy to recommend a list of books in which these twins are reconciled to each other and a rich theology is put in service of formation and piety.

1. The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin. I read today that perhaps a better translation of Calvin’s magisterial work would be “Training in Christian Piety” or “Formation in Christian Piety” given the original context of Calvin’s usage of the terms “institutes” and “religion.” All that to say that Calvin’s work has often been treated or viewed at a distance by many (myself included) as a heady dose of abstract/intellectualized theology. In fact, Calvin’s work is a formational piece through and through, written as instruction in Christian formation and as a guide/framework in how to read the Scriptures.

2. Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension by Julie Canlis. This is on my top 5 all time books, it is profound, gentle, and moving. This book was a gift, bringing harmony to an otherwise scattered theological and formational framework in which I was operating. It revolves around two figures, Calvin and Irenaeus and their theology of “participation in God.” It lays the groundwork of how mystical theology developed in the church (in large part due to the influence of neo-platonism) and how Calvin grounded mystical theology in the Scripture rather than a pagan philosophical rubric. Simply put – we participate in Jesus’ loving relationship with His Father through faith. Read it.

3. A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New by G.K. Beale. Massive, thorough, and simply compelling, this magnum opus of Beale’s is helping me ground our relationship with God more biblically, as I see the grand storyline of Scripture unfold (as Beale traces it).

4. God is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology by Gerald Bray. I am thoroughly enjoying Bray’s approach to theology as viewing it through the lens of “God is love.” Uniting the various biblical and systematic concepts through the unifying theme of God is love in addition to Bray’s straightforward language make this book incredibly accessible and at the same time very thorough.

5. Life in God: John Calvin, Practical Formation, and the Future of Protestant Theology by Matthew Myer Boulton. Boulton makes the argument that Calvin wasn’t as much anti-monastic as he was spiritually democratic. In other words Calvin viewed the “rule of life” that governed monastic life through regular prayer, scripture reading, accountability of life, and regular participation in the Eucharist as the inheritance of all Christians not just the clergy. Calvin’s reform efforts were an attempt to wrest these disciplines from a privileged religious class and dispense them to common folk who could practice them, with some modification, in the home and workplace.

6. Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers by Donald Fairbairn. This work is similar in approach to Calvin’s Ladder except viewing our “participation in the Trinity” through the lens of the Church Fathers. Suffice it to say that evangelicals have been at the same time far too modest and at the same time far to arrogant in our understanding of what it means to have a “personal relationship” with God.

7. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer in classic style is “blasting all my gourds.” This work is simple, and ridiculously challenging, forcing me to enter into the disillusionment with Christians and with the Church so that I can come to truly enjoy what it means to have “life together.”

8. Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ by Eugene Peterson. The thing about Peterson is he is relentlessly personal in his approach to theology, not permitting the reader to escape into impersonal abstractions or flights of fancy. This work is Peterson’s culmination to his spiritual theology series that began with Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, and is a fitting conclusion to what has been an incredibly enriching series on lived or practiced theology.

Lastly I have joined the band of bloggers at, you should check it out if you get a chance (I will be maintaining this blog as well, though writing more regularly at metamorpha)!

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