If I had to plot out a short reading list with one book from each era, I might go in this order: The Pilgrim’s Progress, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, A Little Book on the Christian Life, Holiness, Knowing God, Confessions, the Religious Affections. Either way, I hope this article brings some clarity and motivates you to explore some of the true classics of the Christian faith.
A reader of this site recently got in touch to ask me for some book suggestions. She has been a believer for quite a long time and along the way has heard of the value of reading “Christian classics.” Yet she hasn’t been sure where to begin and asked for some guidance. I was glad to take on that challenge!
In this article I will offer some suggestions that cover various eras from the early church until the late twentieth century. I should note that these recommendations will tend more toward literature that is devotional than scholarly or purely theological. And I should note as well that there is not a person in the world who will agree with every book I’ve included and every book I’ve excluded—and that is just fine because there is always a degree of subjectivity to these things. And now, without further ado, here are some Christian classics to consider reading.
John Bunyan allegorical The Pilgrim’s Progress is one of the bestselling books in all of history and a great place to begin. It has never gone out of print and in one way or another has influenced every generation of Christians since it was first published in the late 1600s. For those reasons alone it is well worth a read. Though you can find modernizations that adapt the language either lightly or significantly, the original is still surprisingly accessible. There are also some lovely audio versions available. If you’d like to listen to it, I recommend the Nadia May recording. If you’d like to read a slight modernization, this one by Crossway is well done. Otherwise, perhaps try this edition. (Most editions contain part 1 and part 2—the journeys of Christian and Christiana. You can consider yourself to have read The Pilgrim’s Progress once you complete part 1 since that is the original work.)
We should go back in time a little to make sure we don’t neglect the earliest Christian classics, which include the most noteworthy work of Augustine: Confessions. It is available in a multitude of editions and translations.
I know little about the 1,000 years between Augustine and the Puritans so don’t have a lot to offer here beyond names like Dante and Thomas Aquinas. But as far as I can tell, this was not an era in which there were a lot of devotional works that have since been affirmed by Protestants. (Authors like Thomas à Kempis and Brother Lawrence are still read and treasured today, but typically not by Reformed Protestants.) Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life gets us into the Reformation era and is an excerpt of the most practical section of his Institutes.
You may have heard of the Puritans and been told you should try reading their books. When we talk about “Puritan books,” we are talking about thousands of titles written over more than a century, many of them incredibly voluminous, so there are more options than any one person could read in a lifetime (except maybe Joel Beeke).