Basic Readings in Theology: Suggestions for the Beginner

The following suggestions are provided for those who want to learn more about the Bible and more about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Most Christians learn what theology they know from the preaching and teaching of their pastors. For some churches in the Reformed tradition, this has been accomplished by expository preaching in the morning service and catechetical preaching in the evening service. Expository preaching moves through books of the Bible, explaining and applying the teaching of the biblical text. Catechetical preaching uses one of the Reformed confessions or catechisms as the basis for explaining the doctrines of the Scriptures in a systematic fashion. In our day, however, this dual approach is uncommon, and the biblical and theological knowledge of people in the pews is scattered and unsystematic. 

Though people may have some vague ideas of the general content of the Bible, and some similarly vague ideas of such basic Christian doctrines as the Trinity and the full humanity and full deity of Christ, their knowledge is weak. The following suggestions are provided for those who want to learn more about the Bible and more about the basic doctrines of the Christian faith.

Bible Content

I recommend Michael Williams’ little book How to Read the Bible Through the Jesus Lens. This book devotes about half a dozen pages to each book of the Bible. He gives a theme verse for each book, a summary of the content of the book, and a brief treatment of how that book points to Christ. It is very helpful to read the section, then read the book of the Bible that the chapter discusses. This works very well with a Bible reading program that goes through the Bible in a year. Another useful tool is the KJV Reformation Heritage Study Bible. This gives commentary on each chapter of the Bible designed to help the reader understand and apply the text. The Reformation Study Bible is also quite helpful, with detailed introductions to each book, as well as commentary throughout, and additional essays on key topics.

Theology

I recommend here Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine. This is an abbreviated version of his Systematic Theology, which in turn is something of a condensed presentation of Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics. It was done originally for high school and college students as a summary presentation of systematic theology. Another good resource is Basic Christian Doctrines, edited by Carl F. H. Henry. It is a collection of forty-three short essays by a variety of evangelical scholars. They were originally published in Christianity Today in the 1950s and were collected into one volume in 1962. It is available used at a very modest cost, and is also available in PDF form online.

Another useful book is Archibald Alexander’s A Brief Compendium of Bible Truth. Alexander was one of the first professors at Princeton Theological Seminary and, though written in the nineteenth century, his presentation is clear and accessible.

For those in Reformed churches, the classic confessions and catechisms also provide a solid foundation for the beginning reader. My recommendation would be to start with the Westminster Shorter Catechism which is available online in both its original form and in modern English. From there, the reader can move to the Heidelberg Catechism, the Westminster Confession and Larger Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Canons of Dort. Commentaries are available on all these documents. The Westminster documents were written in the middle of the seventeenth century to provide a standard for the Church of England, though the Church of England never adopted them. The Belgic Confession was written in the sixteenth century for the churches in the Netherlands. The Heidelberg Catechism was another sixteenth-century document from the German Reformed churches. The Canons of Dort came out of the disputes over the teachings of Jacob Arminius in the early seventeenth century. These resources are all available online.

The person who studies these is well-equipped to move on to more substantial reading regarding both the Bible and systematic theology.

Benjamin Shaw is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. This article was originally published at GPTS Rabbi and is used with permission.