Someone recently asked me, “What do you think are the top classic Christian books?” That’s a fun question for a bibliophile.
First, a definition. What is a classic? I’m going to define it as having broad readership (not just for academics), broad influence, and the highest of quality.
Here are my top 10 Christian classics, in order of when they were written:
1. On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius
“When I first opened De Incarnatione,” C. S. Lewis writes, “I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece, for only a mastermind could have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity.”
This book was written in the 4th century and is a great synthesis of Christian thought up to that point. Don’t be intimidated by it! The whole work is only about 75 pages. But read slowly.
2. The Confessions by St. Augustine
This book has been categorized as autobiography, devotional work, philosophy, and classic literature. The whole writing is directed to God, not to the reader, so I’ve heard it appropriately called “doxological” work. It contains brilliant insights into sin, human nature, and the work of God.
Augustine’s theology is unmatched for its influence of Western Christianity. It will be difficult to find a list of Christian classics that doesn’t include The Confessions. Make sure to get the brilliant New City Press translation (the one linked above).
3. The City of God by St. Augustine
Augustine is the only one with the distinction of getting two works on the top 10. He’s worthy. Thomas Merton called this “the autobiography of the Church written by the most Catholic of her great saints.” The book presents human history as a conflict between the City of God and the City of Man. A great, influential work of Christian philosophy.
Be warned: this one is long. Almost 800 pages. But worth it.
Some have called Benedict the father of Western monasticism. For 15 centuries, Benedictine monks have been following this rule as a way of cultivating Christian community. Though it is written with a monastery in mind, Christians in various situations throughout the ages have found great advice here for growth in God’s love and in community. Less than 100 pages. You should find some time to read through this one.
5. The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
I’m going to include a piece of fiction here. Brothers Karamazov just missed making the cut, too. In this epic poem, Dante depicted medieval theology and world-view in allegorical form. This isn’t just classic Christian lit, but is considered one of the greatest works of world literature.
The Ciardi translation (linked above) is highly recommended.
You might also like my book recommendations in A Crash Course in Theology.
6. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis
The Catholic Encyclopedia says, “With the exception of the Bible, it is perhaps the most widely read spiritual book in the world.” John Wesley recommended that all Methodist societies have three books on hand. This was one of them (and the only one not authored by Wesley). The book is relatively short (~200 pages) and an easy read, but you’ll want to read slowly.
I highly recommend the translation by Ronald Knox, linked above.
7. Pensées by Blaise Pascal
Pascal was a 17th century mathematician and philosopher. So if the pre-modern sensibilities of some of the previous authors are difficult for you, you may find a friend in Pascal. This is an impassioned defense of the Christian faith using reason. Note that it’s actually a compilation of fragments written by Pascal, only organized after his death.
8. The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
The secret to living in the kingdom of God here on earth according to Brother Lawrence: “practicing the presence of God in one single act that does not end.” He will encourage you to make every activity a practice of the presence of God. A revered devotional classic since its introduction in the 17th century.
9. The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I’m going to include two works from the 20th century. They were ranked #2 and #1, respectively, in Christianity Today’s Top 100 Books of the 20th Century. These haven’t had to stand as much of the test of time. I wonder if they will still make lists like this in another few hundred years. But for now, I think they belong…
If you have heard the phrase “cheap grace,” it originates in this work. If you haven’t heard the phrase, you’ll have much to gain from reading even the first few chapters. Bonhoeffer uses the Sermon on the Mount to call Christians to a life of sacrificial devotion to God, in which we recover our true humanity. “A devastating critique of comfortable Christianity,” says Christianity Today.
10. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
Lewis may have been the most influential popular-level theologian in the past 100 years. And this is his magnum opus. Many people have called this an apologetic for belief in God, but it goes well beyond that.
You’ll find the arguments for God’s existence that have been most common in recent Evangelical Christianity, but you’ll also find a profound articulation of basic Christian beliefs in clear and accessible language. You’ll also find a call to a particular way of behaving as Christians. The work is a great blend of theology, philosophy and ethics from a great thinker and communicator.
Another must-read, short book, and the brilliance of Augustine’s theology HERE.
Those are my top 10. What do you think? Any of these that you would leave out? Other essential works that you think should have made the list? Which of these have been most important for you?
Disclosure of Material Connection: All links to Amazon here are affiliate links. Feel free to buy elsewhere. Take note of the translations I’ve linked here, though. I think they’re the best.
13 thoughts on “Top 10 Christian Classics”
Great list, I’m a big CS Lewis and Thomas a Kempis fan and have heard great things about Bonhoeffer. If I were to add some, they are more current. I know that may not qualify as “classic” but I think they may be one day. I would add Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, because it’s such a simple, yet powerful message. One that every Christian could apply to their lives. Although cheesy, I would also add Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. The impact that it has had on a lot of people is amazing. I just read that it was the most frequent response in a survey of ministers and pastors in 2005 as the book with the most influential on their lives and ministries. It has also sold over 30 million copies, which to me, means it has had some influence in people’s lives.
Thanks for that feedback, Kaleb.
If the list were just for the past century, Foster’s book would definitely make the cut. It really is a modern classic.
For me, Purpose-Driven Life fails the “highest of quality” test. I tried reading through it a few years ago and couldn’t believe how shallow it was. But you’re right — it has sold more copies than anything other than the Bible. Now you have me even more distressed to hear that this is the biggest influence on American pastors. I hope those pastors will pick up something with a little more substance. Or maybe it’s just me…
I agree with you completely about Purpose Driven life. It’s shallowness is very evident and American pastors should have a little more depth to them. I almost feel like PDL is a book you would give a non believer to help them understand more. Maybe that’s why it has so much influence.
Maybe you’re right about PDL’s influence for people just asking questions about Christianity, Kaleb. Good point. If so, I hope they find some deeper waters soon!
Just saw this post following another link … I suppose I’m late to the conversation, but I would add Dallas Willard’s “Divine Conspiracy” – granting that it’s relativelyreent publication casts it into Foster’s class of modern classic, but I believe it’s impact and appreciation will only grow with time. Love the list,, though … have you, by chance, seen or read Renovare’s book The 25 Books Every Christian Should Rea? As best my memory serves, all 10 of yours made that cut … not sure about Dante…. no matter, I enjoyed your thoughts immensely.
Thanks for your kind words, Harry. I agree that “Divine Conspiracy” is a modern classic. It will be interesting (although I suppose we won’t be around for it) to see how it stands the test of time.
I haven’t read Renovare’s book on 25 Books, but I’ve seen the list. It’s quite a good one!
Andrew Murray’s Humility and John Stott’s The Cross of Christ
AAAAMEN! To those two additions (Murray/Stott). Otherwise great list and commentary. Bless you Teddy!
No commentaries? The good ones (i.e.: the Yale Anchor series) will tell more about the scriptures than most Christians know exist. And Raymond Brown is slow reading for me, because it’s hard to get through a page without being sent off on some new train of reflective or exploratory thought.