A reference list of some things I’ve found helpful. I’ll be updating this page. And I am limiting this page to books I’ve actually read or am in the process of reading.
Summaries of the Faith
- St Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures. Good defense of Nicene orthodoxy without some of the specific terminology. Most famous are his Sacramental Lectures. Originally given to catachumens in the faith. I found his lecture on Eschatology (XV, I think) to be particularly helpful.
- St Gregory of Nyssa’s The Great Catechism. Actually kind of difficult to read. Interesting responses to Jewish polemics against Christianity. More philosophically inclined.
- St Augustine’s Enchiridion. Nice and succinct summary of Latin-leaning Christianity. Each section is quite short and to the point. Interesting arguments on evil as privation of good and the innateness of Truth. Will give pause to many readers. Affirms absolute predestination on one hand, yet believes that alms-giving on behalf of the dead helps their condition–doesn’t see the contradiction there. A hermeneutic of charity, thus, requires us to formulate a context in which these two propositions make sense. That’s for another day. Also, I’ve never been impressed or convinced with St Augustine’s reading of 1 Corinthians 7.
- St John of Damascus, The Orthodox Faith. Famous line on “heretics confuse nature and person.” Spent the past few months trying to figure out what that means.
Doctrine of God and Trinity
- St Basil, Works and Letters. His book on the Holy Spirit is a landmark. Defends the coeternity of the spirit and the monarchia of the Father. Also of extreme importance is Letter 234 outlining the essence/energies (he calls them “operations”) distinction. Paradigm-shifting in terms of theology.
- St Gregory Nazianzus’s Theological Orations. Excellent response to Eunomious.
- John Meyendorff, Saint Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality. Shows how utterly relevant monasticism is to society and the Church. Does a good job on contrasting Palamism and Barlaamism. Two different ways of looking at God.
- Hans urs von Balthasar, The Cosmic Liturgy: The Universe According to St Maximus the Confessor. Impressive synthesis of many strands of patrology. Remarkable discussions of nature and person. A few problems, though. HuvB has a myopic and almost irrational hatred of anything non-Roman Catholic. He goes out of his way to highlight Byzantine political flaws which are often irrelevant to the discussion. Tries to make the argument that Russian theological thought naturally leads to Soviet terror (I’m not kidding!). He reminds one of the drunk fan at the baseball game, always heckling the umpire. Still, an important read.
- Joseph Farrell, Free Choice in St Maximus the Confessor. Excellent discussion of the monothelite controversy. Great overview of Origen’s theology. The second half is a critical evaluation of Augustinianism.
- John McGuckin, St Cyril of Alexandria and the Christological Controversy. Very thorough (or too dense?) discussion of Nestorianism. Has a bunch of important texts by St Cyril.
- St Maximus the Confessor, The Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ. Superb. Above the ordinary line of thought. It’s one of those books that must be read at least twice. Very good introduction.
- Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies. The first three books are very difficult to read. Mainly refuting certain gnostic heresies. The latter half of the book highlights the importance of reading Scripture in light of the Church. Sets forth the “two-hands” view of God creating the world.
- Tertullian, Prescription Against Heretics. Same view on Scripture as above, yet more succinct and focused.
- St Vincent of Lerins. The Commonitory. Outlines that the faith is what has always been believed everywhere and by all (universality, antiquity).
- D. H. Williams, Scripture, Tradition, and Interpretation. Done by an evangelical, surprisingly. Fantastic overview (using primary sources) of how the church viewed Scripture and Tradition. Doesn’t shy away from hard realities, yet also doesn’t pursue some very obvious questions.
- Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. Awe-inspiring.
- St Augustine, City of God. Probably most important book written. Maybe. Deconstruction of Roman political narrative. Exposes the Empire’s mythos of salvation. A few howlers here and there, though. I have to reject his identification of God’s attributes with God’s essence.
- God, History, Dialectic: Theological Foundations of the Two Europes. Excellent discussion on pre-schism Europe. I’m still wondering how seriously to take this book, though.
- Fr Seraphim Rose, The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church. Sane and charitable evaluation of St Augustine. Avoids the typical “anti-anything Western mentality.” Beautifully written.
- David Bradshaw, Aristotle East and West. Very interesting and erudite discussion of Greek philosophical influence on both Eastern and Western Christendom. Shatters some convenient scholarly paradigms.
- Peter Kreeft, Summa of the Summa (yeah, you probably need to read the entire Summa Theol yourself, but this is more accessible). The pros of the book: Kreeft’s footnotes make for wonderful reading; lots of good Chesterton and Lewis. Cons of the book: Kreeft dodges all of the hard questions that Thomists and Eastern Orthodox have since raised. Not a word on the de Lubac controversy. Acknowledges Absolute Divine Simplicity but seems to ignore every challenge against it. Ignores the fact that Thomas believed in predestination. Still, I’ve enjoyed this book for several years.
While I’ve become more critical of Thomism, I still hold to a form of Thomistic ethics, especially social ethics. I wish more “Thomists” took Thomas seriously on economics and the “local” village.
- Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy. Landmark of early medieval philosophy. Everyone eventually read and interacted with this book. Lots of important issues raised.
- Venerable Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Excellent snapshot of early English Christianity.
- The Life of St Columba, read in conjunction with Bede it helps defuse the myth that St Patrick and the Irish Culdees were good ole’-fashioned Sudn’ baptists (a claim that is often made). While an argument could be made that the Culdees believed in immersion baptism, this proves nothing. They also believed in venerating relics, saints, angels, appearances of the divine light, miracles, apostolic succession, unity of the church, and the importance of the Calendar. Southern Baptists, on the other hand, do not. More importantly, though, it is a glimpse into pre-schism Western orthodoxy.
- Anselm of Canterbury, The Major Works. I’ve become more critical of Anselm over the years, but much of it is written in the spirit of St Augustine, and regardless he is one of the most important representatives of “scholasticism.”
- G. K. Chesterton, The Medieval Biographies. I know they aren’t “scholarly,” and that’s precisely why they are useful. I think these do a good job of “getting the feel” for how great saints once lived.
- John Meyendorff, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. Attempts to rebut the charge that Eastern Christianity is necessarily “caesaro-papist” while the Western Church (either Protestant or Catholic, depending on the apologist) necessarily breathes free air. A bit dry at times, and I think it could have been improved had he lengthened his timeline past Ivan the Terrible.
- Matthew Raphael Johnson, The Third Rome: Holy Russia, Tsarism, and Orthodoxy. Without a doubt the most influential historical work I’ve read in the past two years. His style is wonderfully entertaining (or cynically bitter–the line is often blurred). Strengthened what I believed about medievalism and monarchy, changed me from a free-market capitalist to something along the lines of distributivism. Got me to rethink basically every category. Utterly lays waste to American politics (yeah, the book is on medieval Russia). Shows how utterly saturated with Christianity medieval Russia was. Your average Cossack had the Psalter memorized in order to endure torture by Muslims.
Johnson advances the thesis that there are actually two Russias: Holy Russia and Petrine Russia. The Petrine revolution was in many ways more earth shattering than the Communists.
- Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium. Fine overview. Ironically, the section on the Greeks was weak. The section on Greeks under Islam was better (reminded one that the Muslims didn’t invent all those cool civilizational niceties, but rather stole them from Christians, Islam being parasitic and all). The section on the Slavs was masterful.
- Henri de Lubac, Medieval Exegesis. Reminds one to be humble in interpreting Scripture. We moderns (call yourselves conservative Christians, even) scorn those silly medievals for believing in allegory. Well, see for yourself. Anyway, what you call allegory isn’t. The medievals loved Scripture (most monks had the Bible memorized). In fact, for the medieval “theology” was nothing else than studying the Bible.
- Orthodox Church History. I’ve listened to few lectures as much as these. The lectures on individuals are of good quality. The ones on the councils suffer from a lot of background noise.
- Peter Kreeft. More on culture and popular philosophy and apologetics. Some are howlers. Has a bizarre view of ecumenicism: not simply Protestants and Catholics, but even Mormons and Muslims! Still, the stuff on Tolkien and CS Lewis are good, and Kreeft is a really good speaker.
- Relevance of the Church Fathers Today/Maximus and Modern Science, by Andrew Louth. Fine overview of St Maximus’s Christology. Sells the farm at the end, though, by capitulating to evolution. Why do so many Prelates, both Catholic and Orthodox, feel the need to throw a bone to unbelieving thought? Yes, St Maximus is directly relevant to modern science, but since scientific paradigms change with every generation, I would be more skeptical of jumping on the ship right when it is sinking.