Voted the Best Christian Book of All Time

What is the best Christian book of all time? (Outside of the Bible, of course.) And how could something as grand as that claim ever be determined? Well, scholars are typically never afraid to take on big challenges.

Scholar Voting

In a bracket reminiscent of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament, several years ago members of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network picked 64 great books written by Christian authors in four categories: (1) Theology & Apologetics, (2) Christian Life & Discipleship, (3) Fiction & Poetry, and (4) Memoirs, Devotionals, & Spirituality. At the end of the voting, St. Augustine’s Confessions emerged as “The Best Christian Book of All Time.”

C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was runner-up, with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship rounding out the final four. The elite eight also included The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The City of God by Augustine, and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. So both Augustine and Lewis had two books in the final eight selections—an amazing accomplishment for two of Christendom’s finest thinkers and writers.

A Winner for All Times

Considered both a literary and a Christian devotional classic, Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favorite Christian books. I’ve read the book numerous times, yet, like all great books, it continues to challenge me intellectually, morally, and spiritually. The great educator Mortimer Adler defined a classic as a book that a reader can never exhaust. The Confessions is listed in all of the great books programs offered in various institutions in America.

Confessions, written about AD 397, gave birth to the autobiography, a new literary genre in Western culture. The work chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title “Confessions” can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his grateful confession of God’s greatness.

The content of Confessions may provide the most penetrating spiritual and psychological self-analysis of any work ever written. Suffusing his work with profound theological, philosophical, and apologetics insights, Augustine quoted from and expounded on the Scriptures throughout. He devoted the latter part of the book to an exegetical analysis of Genesis’s first chapters (the created world being the cosmic setting for the soul’s journey to God). Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the Psalms), the work also serves as thought-provoking devotional literature.

While Confessions records Augustine’s extraordinary life and spiritual pilgrimage, the book may really be about the human soul’s search for God. In reading it, people often feel they are reading about their own search for God. It’s no surprise to me that a group of scholars ranked Confessions as the best Christian book ever written. After reading it for yourself, you will likely agree.

Resources

Reflections—Your Turn

Have you read Augustine’s Confessions? If not, does its being voted the number one Christian book motivate you to pick it up?

Endnotes

  1. Micheal Hickerson, “The Best Christian Book of All Time: the Winner,” Emerging Scholars Blog (blog), April 5, 2013, https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2013/04/the-best-christian-book-of-all-time-the-winner/.

  One thought on “Voted the Best Christian Book of All Time

  1. August 20, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    Of the books mentioned, I’ve read all but The Imitation of Christ and The City of God. On my list! I only read Confessions a couple yrs ago, after being familiar with it for years. Parts deeply resonated with me. However, there were parts that were a bit too…philosophical…for me. Yet, it is worth reading again. There is a reason it is #1. I listened to a lecture series on Augustine that was really helpful. And I think re-reading Confessions since those lectures – I would understand certain parts of Confessions more fully.

    • August 20, 2019 at 4:19 pm

      Very good, Laura.

      Keep reading those great books.

      Best regards.

      -Ken Samples

  2. roger wilkinson
    August 27, 2019 at 12:15 am

    What a very, very strange list of books to regard as the best! As for Augustine, he was a man with a great experience of God, it would appear, but he was the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines, doctrines which had never appeared in church history previously and which have blighted the life of the church ever since. It is not on for me to evidence what I’m saying in a brief comment like this – I would simply recommend reading God’s Strategy in Human History by Roger Forster and Paul Marston, a book whose appendix in particular takes the Augustinian view apart. Forster is an important church leader/thinker in England, formerly a mathematician at Cambridge; Marston’s area is history and philosophy of science. Their other co-authored book is Reason and Faith, which is a particularly good fit with Reasons to Believe; indeed, as a long time follower of RTB, I think it’s a book you should recommend as an invaluable adjunct to all you do.

    • August 27, 2019 at 4:33 am

      Roger:

      Greetings in Christ’s name.

      With all due respect, I have to challenge some of your comments about St. Augustine and his theology. I think it is important for you to at least hear an alternative viewpoint.

      Here’s my brief response to a few of your comments:

      * “A very, very strange list of books to regard as the best!”

      All I can say is your sentiment and comments are at odds with not only InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholar’s Network but with the broad consensus of Western Christendom (both Catholic and Protestant) when it comes to classic books.

      Not only is Augustine’s book Confessions a Christian classic but it is also considered one of the great literary classics of Western civilization (see, for example, the Great Books of the Western World edited by Mortimer J. Adler). Confessions makes the list in all great books programs throughout the Western world both Christian and secular. Moreover, several of St. Augustine’s books are considered both Christian and literary classics: The City of God, On the Trinity, On Christian Doctrine.

      * “He [Augustine] was the author/inventor of the most misleading doctrines.”

      St. Augustine was the champion of such essential Christian doctrines as creation ex nihilo, original sin, salvation by grace, and the Trinity. These doctrines by and large reflect the consensus of Christian orthodoxy.

      Even Augustine’s somewhat controversial view of predestination is very similar to that of other great theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Calvin. Some within Christendom, though certainly not all, would even argue that Augustine is largely reflecting the views of the Apostle Paul as set forth in the Book of Romans (specifically chapters 8 and 9).

      While some criticize Augustine for his attachment to NeoPlatonism, I think that criticism is overstated. Augustine’s real authority is Scripture. For example, his corpus of writings which extends to five million words includes some 40,000 biblical references. By the way, he is the most prolific author of antiquity surpassing all other Latin and Greek writers.

      * “[Augustine’s] doctrines which had never appeared in church history previously and which have blighted the life of the church ever since.”

      St. Augustine is one of the great shapers of Christian orthodoxy with his theological influence touching the gamut of Christian theology: anthropology, hamartiology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.

      Among patristic scholars, Augustine is often spoken of as the greatest of the church fathers. Rather than being a “blight” on the church, his theological influence has shaped much of Catholic and Protestant thinking about the very nature of the church itself.

      I haven’t mentioned Augustine’s tremendous influence on other areas such as philosophy (faith seeking understanding), psychology (the examined self), and Christian apologetics (the problem of evil).

      I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that St. Augustine is arguably the most influential Christian thinker outside of the New Testament and one of orthodox theology’s deepest shapers and defenders. He has influenced Protestantism nearly as much as he has Catholicism.

      You recommended the book by Forster and Marston, let me recommend my book Classic Christian Thinkers which includes chapters on Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Pascal, and Lewis. See below.

      You are of course welcome to disagree with St. Augustine (many scholars including myself do on some of his particular views), but in some areas such as sin, grace, and the Triune nature of God he has without question shaped virtually all of Western Christendom.

      Respectfully yours,

      Kenneth Samples

  3. roger wilkinson
    August 27, 2019 at 1:06 am

    To follow up on my previous little comment, I have remembered that it is in fact easy to briefly state the nature of Augustine’s bad idea.

    In addressing issues of soteriology, salvation, a question arises as to why one person enters salvation, gets saved, while another doesn’t. How is this explained? The first centuries of church history pretty much followed Paul, but then came Augustine’s novelty. He said that faith is God’s irresistible gift – that God sovereignly chooses to give faith and hence salvation to one and not another; of course this implies that he could give faith/salvation to anyone but chooses in many cases not to. There are many logical consequences to this, not the least being that human will is unimportant – so much so that Augustine thought it permissible to coerce those he viewed as heretics (they didn’t belong to his group) into baptism according to the dictates of his church. Calvin adopted the same schema with similarly coercive results.

    The book I mentioned, God’s Strategy in Human History focuses on the central issue of human free will. In essence, the early church believed in free will; Augustine and later followers such as Calvin deny free will.

    In neither Augustine’s or Calvin’s case does their poor theology invalidate their personal experience. Unhappily, it does tend to invalidate the experience and theology of others! I have personally tried on 3 separate occasions to read the Confessions, but just can’t get past the first few pages.

    • August 27, 2019 at 5:19 am

      Roger:

      Again it is your prerogative to disagree with Augustine’s view of predestination (many people do), but it is important for you to present it accurately and to realize that many of Western Christendom’s best theologians by and large agreed with him (Aquinas, Luther, Cranmer, Calvin, to name a few). So what you call Augustine’s “bad idea” some theologians see its origins in Scripture (Rom. 8-9; Eph. 1; John 6).

      I also think by just talking about some of Augustine’s more controversial theological views you truncate his many doctrinal contributions to orthodox theology (salvation by grace, creation, the Trinity, etc.).

      You mentioned Augustine’s view of predestination and his reaction to schismatic groups of the time (i.e., Donatism), but with respect I don’t think you have fairly represented Augustine or at least taken into account his considered theological perspective.

      I can’t respond to these broad theological and historical issues in this venue but I do explain Augustine’s views in my published articles linked below.

      I invite you to read my chapter on Augustine in my book Classic Christian Thinkers (chapter 3) and review my two scholarly articles on him and his theology linked below.

      Even if you do disagree with some of Augustine’s views, I hope you’ll consider reading his writings and not merely what others say about him including myself. I hope you’ll reconsider and actually read the Confessions. You might discover why so many scholars, even some who disagree with some of Augustine’s views, voted Confessions the best Christian book of all time outside of Scripture.

      With my best regards in Christ.

      Kenneth Samples

      https://www.reasons.org/explore/publications/facts-for-faith/read/facts-for-faith/2001/01/01/augustine-of-hippo-(part-1-of-2)-from-pagan-to-cultist-to-skeptic-to-christian-sage

      https://www.reasons.org/explore/publications/facts-for-faith/read/facts-for-faith/2001/04/01/augustine-of-hippo-(part-2-of-2)-rightly-dividing-the-truth

      • roger wilkinson
        August 27, 2019 at 7:17 pm

        Dear Kenneth, Thanks for your reply – it’s good of you to take the time. I am a keen supporter of RBT in its endeavours in the faith/science discussion; some years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Hugh Ross, and found him to be an outstandingly gracious, godly person as well as fine writer etc…. After a little thought, I’ve decided to briefly take you up on one or two matters. I will return to my initial observation – that this was a strikingly strange list of best Christian works. Who were the ‘scholars’ who produced this list? The scope of their reading seems to be remarkably narrow, limited to the sort of books popular among late 20th early 21st century American evangelical pastors/teachers who don’t have much time to read! We can go through the books. I have them all on my shelves –  good books, but … the best? Mere Christianity is a very nice little book – very helpful to some people, for example Charles Colson as cited in his great testimony Born Again. Then the Narnia books – these are wonderful little books, beautifully written, nominally for children. But the best books in 2000 years? It’s a little hard to understand the fascination with Lewis – these were his best books; his other works are much less readable. I narrowly missed out on studying under him at Cambridge, though we did read his important Allegory of Love. It is a little hard to see how a minor 20th century author could have written two of the best books in 2000 years – currently popular, one could understand, but the best? Tolkein’s books are not explicitly Christian. The Lord of the Rings is imbued with a Biblical outlook, but there is nothing explicitly Christian and many readers would have no idea of its Christian nature. What a strange choice. If the ‘scholars’ wished to choose a novel, they could have picked Robinson Crusoe, which is explicitly Christian. If the idea is to choose something literary, they could have chosen George Herbert, as recommended by Spurgeon. (Robinson Crusoe is a work whose central psychological motif is Christian conversion.) The Celebration of Discipline was a very minor work, albeit a popular one. It’s hard to know how The Imitation of Christ could have been chosen over so many other works of the period. I can understand how the Bonhoeffer book got on the list – it’s felt to be a profound contribution to modern thought. But again, it’s hard to see how it stands out over a 2000 year period! The we turn to Augustine. I read parts of Civitatis Dei many years ago. I find it hard to believe that the same people who voted for the Narnia books managed to wade their way through Augustine’s dissection of pagan Rome. With the Confessions – as I mentioned, I have tried 3 times to get into it, but simply can’t – the manner of thought is something I couldn’t digest. (I was once told that Augustine on the Psalms was a work of tremendous devotional strength – so I tried it, and found myself thinking it inferior to similar works. I have tried reading Augustine!) My point is simply this – the list of books  given is far too limited in scope to be presented as useful. Where is Dante? Bunyan? Wesley? Finney? What of the Eastern Church? Surely we need to broaden our horizons a little! And lastly, if we are limited to the sort of books American ‘scholars’ are reading today – how can Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy  not be on the list? Anyway, thanks for writing back. Roger Wilkins

      • August 27, 2019 at 8:25 pm

        Roger:

        The list was compiled by the Emerging Scholars Network.

        You apparently didn’t read the list of books (linked to my article) before commenting because here’s just a dozen of the 64 books that you identified as “strange,” “limited,” and “narrow:”

        1. Dante, The Divine Comedy
        2. Bunyan, Pilgrims Progress
        3. Willard, The Divine Conspiracy
        4. Donne, Complete Poetry & Selected Prose
        5. Milton, Paradise Lost
        6. Anselm, Proslogion
        7. Pascal, Pensees
        8. Aquinas, Summa Theologica
        9. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion
        10. Dostoyevsky, Brothers Karamazon
        11. Edwards, Religious Affections
        12. Augustine, The City of God

        Seems like a pretty robust list to me. And the final two were Augustine’s Confessions and Lewis’s Mere Christianity. In fact, Augustine and Lewis both had two books in the final eight selection.

        I respectfully disagree with a few other of your comments above but I think we’ve reached a good stopping point.

        Best regards.

        Kenneth Samples

        Ps: Here’s the link again if you want to read the entire list of 64 books:

        Micheal Hickerson, “The Best Christian Book of All Time: the Winner,” Emerging Scholars Blog (blog), April 5, 2013, https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2013/04/the-best-christian-book-of-all-time-the-winner/.

      • roger wilkinson
        August 28, 2019 at 1:21 am

        Thank you!

      • August 28, 2019 at 7:35 am

        You’re welcome, Roger.

        Ken Samples

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