10 Must-Read Pre-Reformation Works
If there is one area in which young Reformed men preparing for seminary have generally failed to give adequate attention it is to the writings of the period from the Apostles to the Reformation. There are obvious reasons for this. For one, we live on this side of the Reformation where so much theological refinement has occurred. Many newer converts who have just begun to drink deeply of the pure exposition of Scripture in the writings of the Reformers–and in the writings of those who stand on the shoulders of the Reformers–do not have the patience, desire or knowledge base to sift through less than consistent theological expositions in the writings of those leading up to the Reformers. Another reason might be that there is little guidance as to what works are beneficial to read, as well as how to read them with a critical eye. It was for this latter reason that the French Reformed theologian of the 17th Century, John Daille, wrote his Treatise Concerning the Right Use of the Fathers. Daille goes to great length to explain the benefits, challenges and errors in the writings of our early church theologians.
It is important for us to understand that the Reformation did not take place in a vacuum. It was B.B. Warfield who explained that “Augustine…gave us the Reformation” and that “the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church.” Several years ago we had Michael Haykin on Christ the Center to speak about the benefits of studying “The Church Fathers.” In light of all this, below is a list of 10 Pre-Reformation works that I would recommend to every young seminarian and pastor. While many, many others could be recommended, the following works from the Pre-Reformation era have been significant aids to my own Christian life, as well as to my preaching and teaching:
1. Irenaeus Proof of the Apostolic Preaching – Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp who was himself a disciple of the Apostle John. There are many helpful observations about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments in this work. Ligon Duncan notes that this is, in a very real sense, the first treatment of Covenant Theology post the apostolic writings.
2. Irenaeus Against Heresies – The greatest single diatribe against Gnosticism–an early heresy in the Church. The Apostle John is believed to have been writing against this error in 1, 2 and 3 John. The strength of this work is the way in which Irenaeus gives us a more detailed explanation of the teaching of the Gnostics, as well as a robust rejection of it based on the truth of Scripture. While Gnostic heresies often sound more like sci-fi than a codified religious system they posed a serious threat to Christianity in the first two Centuries.
3. Justin Martyr The Apologies – While not of the caliber or theological acumen of Origen or Augustine, Justin’s work is important both for the historical setting and for the apologetical argumentation. These works are a defense of Christianity against the attacks of pagan philosophy. The early church historian Eusebius described Justin in the following manner: “Justin was the most noted of those that flourished in those times, who, in the guise of a philosopher, preached the truth of God, and contended for the faith also in his writings.”
4. Augustine City of God – The historical setting alone makes this one of the most important books in all of church history. Augustine wrote this just after Rome fell to the Visgoths in 410; and, he did so, in part, to defend Christianity against attacks that suggested that the fall of Rome is due to the presence of Christians. Additionally, he is defending Christianity against competing religions. In this work, Augustine sets out (in somewhat laboriously comprehensive fashion!) the nature, conflict and discord between the earthly and heavenly cities.
5. Augustine Confessions – One barely needs to emphasize how important this autobiographical work about one of the church’s greatest minds is for the training of men preparing for ministry. The beauty of Confessions is the way in which Augustine weaves together his own testimony in language of theological and devotional prayer to God.
6. Anselm Proslogium – The Proslogium is one of the most masterful apologetical texts in all of church history. In short, it is an explanation of what has been commonly called the Ontological argument for the existence of God.
7. Anselm Cur Deus Homo – One of the most significant work on substitutionary atonement in all of church history. This strength of this work is the ease with which it may be read as well as the potency of the arguments about the necessity of the death of the God-Man. It is a must read for every seminarian and pastor.
8. Athanasius On the Incarnation – One of the most significant works on the two natures of Jesus in all of church history. As was said above about the strength of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo so too with this work.
9. Chrysostom Homilies on Hebrews – The man whose name means “golden-mouthed” is remembered for his great preaching gifts. Thankfully, we have numerous expository sermon series in print from which to glean expositional insight and homiletical clues. His sermons on Hebrews are among the most well-loved.
10. Bernard of Clairvaux Commentary on the Song of Songs – With the exception of his references to the writings of Augustine, John Calvin cited no one as much as Bernard. The majority of Calvin’s references to Bernard’s writing come from Barnard’s commentary on the Song. It is clear that the Genevan Reformer was well versed in it. Bernard’s commentary on the Song is really a compilation of his expositional sermons on this sweet book of Scripture. It is a seminal work on the Christology reading of the Song in church history. Many of the Puritans appeal to it in their own expositions of the Song.
Missing: Augustine’s Anti-Pelagian Writings (and expositions of Psalms and John and On Christian Doctrine), The Apostolic Fathers, Thomas Aquinas (Summa, other works), Eusebius’ Church History, Basil’s on the Holy Spirit and the other Cappadocians.
But good list nonetheless 😉 (you need a top 30 list, so many Reformed guys don’t realize the Early Church has much to offer! Great job on introducing it to many!)
Great list, Nick. I have some reading to do!
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