The Top Theology Books of 2021

The Best of Biblical Studies, Academic Theology, Pastoral Theology, and Everything In-Between.

Todd Brewer / 12.29.21

Karl Barth: A Life in Conflict, by Christiane Tietz

This biography has grabbed headlines because it recounts — in detail — Karl Barth’s marriage difficulties. But that’s not why my copy of this book is full of highlights, underlines, and dog-eared corners. Tietz successfully places Barth’s theological writings within key events of his life and the wider world, providing a broader context that illuminates his thought far more than the typical summaries. The portrait that emerges across the decades of Barth’s career is one of an irascible thinker who seems to enjoy having controversial opinions. What to know what Barth really thought of Billy Graham’s preaching? That’s on page 385.

You Are Not Your Own, by Alan Noble

Easily one of my favorite books this year. Noble identifies and picks apart the underlying assumptions of how we think about our identity. For Noble, identity is not one we can manufacture or achieve. There is no “true self” lurking beneath the surface that we must discover — or a self to which we must be true. We do not belong to ourselves, but to God. What makes this argument both compelling (and indispensable) are the innumerable forays Noble makes to modern society, acutely diagnosing the ultimately inhumane values around which we tend to order our lives. Self-belonging leads to burnout, anxiety, depression, and injustice. Belonging to God, a life contingent upon his grace, engenders freedom, hope, and love.

The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels, Second Edition, ed. by Stephen Barton and Todd Brewer

Your one-stop-shopping for the latest and greatest on gospels scholarship. This book builds upon the strengths of the classic first edition and dramatically expands its contents into new fields of research. The breadth of this book is breath-taking; its observations are as insightful as they are numerous. This is the rare book that serves well as an introduction to the field and a scholarly contribution in its own right. I (obviously) cannot recommend this book more highly.

Luther’s Outlaw God: Sacraments and God’s Attack on the Promise, by Stephen Paulson

This is the third and final volume of a series examining the theme of God’s hiddenness and revelation through the theology of Martin Luther. Paulson concludes his comprehensive treatise with an insightful and vivid account of the role of sacraments and preaching. The promise of absolution is given outside of the law, silencing its voice of accusation and overcoming our need for certainty. Absolution alone creates faith, outside of which there is only disillusionment. Paulson’s grasp of Luther is compelling and novel. He not only clarifies Luther’s concept of the hidden god (perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the reformer’s thought), but simultaneously shows its central importance. If you’ve been daunted by the cumulative length of the first two installments, the payoff in the finale does not disappoint.

Analytic Theology and the Academic Study of Religion, by William Wood

If you were to ask most traditional theologians about analytic theology, they’d probably respond with some variation of a caricature about pedantic definitions and incomprehensible proofs. Indeed, this was precisely the response of several friends when I told them I was reading this book. Such critiques fall flat, according to Wood, in part because analytic theology is merely a mode of doing theology that privileges rigorous inquiry. Analytic theology is not altogether different in kind from Thomas Aquinas or Justin Martyr’s uses of philosophy. More significantly, Wood views analytic theology as the theological approach best positioned for a secular university settings — and the secular world by extension. For that very reason, this book is of particular interest to me (and, I think, Mockingbird more broadly) because an analytic approach necessarily must demonstrate how a given doctrine is logically coherent for those not already sitting in the choir.

Church Conflicts: The Cross, Apocalyptic, and Political Resistance, by Ernst Käsemann

As with Karl Barth (see above) Ernst Käsemann’s career was likewise borne out of controversy. In this book of newly translated essays and sermons from the latter half of his life, the English-speaking world is introduced to Käsemann’s political-theological writings. If the world is genuinely ruled by the demonic, then one must discern these spirits of the age and resist the forces of evil and oppression — both in the world and in the church. To not simply confess the Lordship of Jesus, but to be moved by the gospel, living as a disciple of the crucified and following his way of liberation.

Where the Light Fell: A Memoir, by Philip Yancey

It turns out that Philip Yancey was something of an exvangelical before it was trendy (though it should be said that the fundamentalism of his youth makes modern evangelicalism look tame by comparison). Yancy’s mother held to Wesley’s doctrine of Christian perfection, which meant that she never apologized for anything. He was repeatedly taught white supremacy from the pulpit. Science was distrusted; politicians were feared; and every other church was too liberal. It’s no wonder it takes Yancey twenty chapters before he can write of his conversion experience. A heartbreaking story, this is a strange time capsule from the not-so-distance past.

Means of Grace: A Year of Weekly Devotions, by Fleming Rutledge, ed. by Laura Bardolph Hubers

This book takes all the winsomeness and profundity of Fleming Rutledge’s sermons and distills them into shorter, weekly devotions. Though I imagine you’ll race through this book in a few days. Rutledge shows how something as complex (and unfashionable) as apocalyptic theology readily addresses modern life. Though this world is ruled by the powers of evil, though our best of intentions are but filthy rags of unrighteousness, there is one life, death, and resurrection made all things irrevocably new.

Perspectives on Paul: Five Views, ed. by Scot McKnight and B.J. Oropeza

Five Pauline scholars walk into a debating chamber — a “traditional” protestant, a Catholic, a New Perspective scholar, a Paul within Judaism scholar, and John Barclay. This short volume provides a concise introduction to current issues in Pauline scholarship. Extended debates like this one are truly rare in scholarship and worth the price of the book. While some of the terrain covered here is fairly well worn, there are some notable surprises (such as the more recent “Paul within Judaism” approach and the “gift approach” taken by Barclay). And I have to say that it was fun reading Barclay dialogue with his fellow sparing partners and then take a brief victory lap at the end.

Do You Believe? 12 Historic Doctrines to Change Your Everyday Life, by Paul David Tripp

As the subtitle indicates, this book is subdivided divided into twelve discussions of different Christian doctrines. Each of these has two parts: one explaining the doctrine and then a follow up demonstrating its relevance for everyday life. It’s an excellent, Mbird-friendly, way to delve into Christian theology and Tripp helpfully builds a bridge between thought and practice in some ways I haven’t thought of before. My only quibble with the book is that it’s clearly pitched to people who are already Christians, making some of the otherwise excellent observations a little too inside-baseball to connect as well as they could have.

Paul on Humility, by Eve-Marie Becker

Don’t be deceived by the shortness of this book (~150 p.); it is a brilliant study. Becker examines ancient Christian and non-Christian usage of the Greek word for humility (tapeinophrosynē). The apostle Paul, in particular, develops the concept of humility into a predominate motif. In sharp contrast with the wider Greco-Roman world, Christianity seems to have uniquely elevated humility to a virtue. If today the idea or definition of humility is largely taken for granted, this study offers much needed clarity.

The Lord Is My Shepherd: Psalm 23 for the Life of the Church, by Richard Briggs

A masterful treatment of a beloved text — but more than that, Briggs exemplifies how to best interpret scripture theologically. He neither confines the psalm to its historical origins nor blesses the more fanciful, popular readings of the psalm. Instead, Briggs charts a course that holds together history, textual criticism, lexical study, and the text’s wider significances for theology and the Christian life.

The Christ Key, by Chad Bird

An easy to read study for a better understanding of how the Old and New Testaments might relate to one another. Ignoring the Old Testament is not only impossible, but dangerous. While our Bible might a book, it’s probably more accurate to say that it reads more like a scroll, with each successive text building upon what came before. While this slim book may not be comprehensive, Bird is an excellent guide that will help you well into the future.

Prayers in the Night, by Tish Harrison Warren

The personal stories Warren shares are arresting, but its broader reflections of faith, doubt, pain, and grief are what make this book so valuable. Which is probably another way of saying that Prayers in the Night is well-written and well-researched. For many, this was the book that helped sustain them through the bleakest of times during the pandemic.

Other Notable Books:

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