My Top 10 Books of 2020
I read a lot every year, but this year has been a bit different. Last year, I put together a list of great literary works and began working through it. In preparation for a course of the world of Tolkien, I also read a number of books by and about him that I had never read before. In addition, there were also a good number of great theological works that made it to the top of my stack this year. The following is a list of the ten works I most enjoyed reading this last year. They are not listed in any particular order, and they are not necessarily works published in 2020. They are simply works I completed in 2020.
Mastricht, Petrus van, Theoretical-Practical Theology, Vol. 2: Faith in the Triune God.
The work that Reformation Heritage Books is doing in translating and publishing classic works of Reformed theology is invaluable, and if you can help them continue to do so with your support, please do. We need these books back in print, and until we all learn Latin again, we need them translated. Why? For almost 200 years, throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Reformed scholastic theologians produced numerous works of deep and rich theology - works like Mastricht's Theoretical-Practical Theology. We lost that for a number of reasons (one of which was exchanging a view of being and knowledge that was consistent with Scripture and creation for various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment views that aren't even consistent with themselves). I now have my systematic theology students read Van Mastricht to give them a taste of how Reformed theology used to be written and could be written again. It also helps them recognize the caricatures of scholastic theology that are so common today.
J.R.R. Tolkien, The History of Middle-earth.
I have read a lot of books by and about J.R.R. Tolkien, but until last Summer, I had never read the twelve volumes edited by his son Christopher and published under the title The History of Middle-earth. The twelve volumes have recently been re-published in a three-volume hardback (pictured below). This set is not for the casual Tolkien fan, but for those who are fascinated by the amount of work that Tolkien put into creating Middle-earth, it is worth the effort. The title can be misleading to some. These volumes are not a history of the events of Middle-earth, per se. They are a history of the creation of Middle-earthy by Tolkien. In the first volumes, for example, are found the earliest versions of the legends written during and just after World War One. Four volumes in the middle of the series trace the development of The Lord of the Rings as it was being written. Later volumes trace Tolkien's revisions to the legends. These volumes abound with hidden gems such as the original epilogue to Lord of the Rings, a few pages of a planned sequel to the same, Tolkien's aborted time-travel story, an appendix to the Silmarillion that should have been published but wasn't, and much, much more.
Craig Williamson, The Complete Old English Poems.
Last November, I decided to put together a list of the great works of western literature and begin working through them. I discovered this new book by Craig Williamson because of that reading project. From the editor's introductory comments: "This book contains modern alliterative, strong-stress poetic translations of all of the Old English (OE) poems in the six volumes of The Anglo-Saxon Poetic Records (ASPR), edited by George Philip Krapp and Elliott Van Kirk Dobbie (1931-1953), plus additional OE poems identified or discovered after the publication of ASPR." It is a fantastic book. Bonus for Tolkien fans: the Introduction is written by Tom Shippey, one of the foremost Tolkien scholars in the world today.
This is another book I read for the first time as a result of putting together that great works of literature list. I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed this one because I haven't enjoyed all of the ancient classics and medieval works I've read over the last year. Some, yes, but not all. The Poem of the Cid is one I will read again, Lord willing.
Carl Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
I recently posted an announcement regarding the publication of this book. I said in that post: "It may be one of the most important Christian books to have been published in the last ten years. If you want to understand how our culture reached the point it is at today, take up and read. This book should be required reading for anybody in any kind of Christian leadership position." This book is not light reading, but it is important. If you do not do anything else, at least buy a copy for your pastor and encourage him to read it.
Joseph Pearce, Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.
I have been fascinated by the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn since I first discovered his three-volume Gulag Archipelago as a freshman in college. Since that time, I have read a number of other works by Solzhenitsyn, but this is the first full biography I have read. Pearce wrote the first edition of this biography a decade before Solzhenitsyn's death. This second edition brings the story of his life up to date. For those who do not know, Solzhenitsyn was born and raised in the Soviet Union and suffered greatly under that totalitarian regime. His literary works played a part, however small, in the eventual downfall of the Soviet Empire. I believe his works are must-reading for Christians today. This biography would be a great place to start. It puts his work in context, and Pearce is a great writer. This is a fascinating story of Solzhenitsyn's incredible life.
Michael Morales, Exodus Old and New: A Biblical Theology of Redemption.
My friend Michael Morales would turn three shades of red and protest if he heard me say this because he is a genuinely humble and godly man, but I am going to say it anyway. He is our generation's Geerhardus Vos. His work in biblical theology is at the highest level of scholarship and is saturated in biblical wisdom, insight, and warmth. I've had to stop highlighting his books because there's really no point when you end up highlighting every sentence. Those who have already read his book Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (one of my Top 10 of the past twenty years) know what I am talking about. Now we have another gem in this book on the exodus theme in Scripture. I wrote an entire post about this book earlier this year. I said there: "Reading one of Morales's books on Scripture is like going on a walk with a friend down a forest path that you've travelled many times and having that friend more than once point to something and say, "Did you ever notice this?" You look and realize that although you may have seen it out of the corner of your eye as you walked by it dozens of times in the past, you never really stopped and looked at it. Having a friend with that special gift of observation is a treat on a walk through a forest. It is an invaluable blessing when reading Scripture."
Scott Swain, The Trinity.
When I was in seminary over 25 years ago, I thought that the doctrine of God was something that was agreed upon among Reformed Christians and that I should perhaps focus my time wrestling with issues that remained controversial in the Reformed world (e.g. eschatology). I was very naive. Not only has the doctrine of God been at the center of controversy throughout all of history, it is now a source of controversy even among conservative, confessional Reformed theologians. Too many teachers and preachers today who subscribe to the Westminster Confession have no qualms about rejecting and contradicting that confession's doctrine of God. It's almost as if we're having to go back to square one and re-explain the most basic building blocks of the doctrine of God because of the damage that has been done by false doctrine at every level from the pulpit to the seminary lectern. Scott Swain has provided the church with an important and outstanding tool to combat such false doctrine in this introduction to some of the fundamental elements of the classical biblical doctrine of the Trinity. My hope is that he will follow this excellent introductory level work with a more comprehensive volume examining all of these issues in more detail.
Michael J. Dodds, The One Creator God.
As I mentioned in my comments about Scott Swain's book, it often seems as if we are having to go back to square one and explain the very basics of the doctrine of God today. For those seeking to better understand the classical biblical doctrine of God, the doctrine outlined in the ancient creeds, explained more fully by early and medieval theologians like Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, and carried on by the early Reformed theologians and confessions, this book by Michael Dodds will prove to be very useful. One of the most helpful things he accomplishes in this book is the clearing away of common misconceptions about classical theism that are rooted in a lack of understanding of older theological terminology (the basic building blocks). The failure to read the older works in their own context and the reading of modern connotations back into the terminology found in older works has led to all manner of equivocation, confusion, slander, and heresy.
I have been waiting for years for the final volume of this classic work of Reformed theology to be published. Finally, this last Summer, volume 3 was released. At the time, I posted some comments about the significance of this work. As I said at that time, this work "is a master class in classical scholastic Reformed theology." Unfortunately, the three volumes are each quite expensive, but if you are interested in one of the greatest works of classic Reformed theology, find a way.
The Lord of the Rings book pictured at the top of this page is the work of an Italian book binder who on request hand binds books in leather using the methods that predated machine binding. The photo is not a photo of my book. The photo is from his website. I thought some of the readers of this blog might be interested in what he does. The site is BottegaObscura.