Ten Theological Books With Which to Begin

(Here are some thoughts from a talk I gave to the Catholic Teachers’ Guild of Toronto recently on suggestions for books to read in theology and philosophy. This is not so much a ‘top ten’ list – even if some of them would more necessary than others – but rather a primer to ponder, to get one started. Editor)


One could do far worse than begin with the dialogues of Plato. After all, Alfred North Whitehead described all subsequent philosophy is a footnote to the sage. Which dialogue? People say the Theatetus, or the Symposium, but any of the dialogues will do.

Aristotle, a disciple of Plato for twenty years, who went on to found his own school, the Lyceum, and his own mode of philosophy. His influence cannot be overestimated, called ‘the Philosopher’, and the ‘Master of Those who Know’. More difficult to read, and to many less pleasurable, to read than Plato (it seems that rather than dialogues, which seem to have been lost, all we have left of Aristotle are his lecture notes), he covers more ground, all that could be known at the time. Perhaps peruse the opening pages of his Physics and Metaphysics, which provide some of the principles that will guide all philosophy.

For a much simpler but excellent summary of their thought – of the ‘perennial philosophy’ – see the overview by Daniel J. Sullivan, in his aptly named “An Introduction to Philosophy”.

The Bible.

What can one say about the very Word of God? It is, as Thomas puts it, the very soul of theology.

For the Old, perhaps begin with the Psalms. A good way is to follow the lectionary or breviary, but try to read the whole psalm, and not just the excerpts.

The New? Saint John’s Gospel is an excellent place to see Christ in His own interior life,  the most ‘theological’ of the Gospels. The others – the Synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke – along with Saint Paul, make more sense after one has read the words of the ‘beloved’ disciple.

Apostolic Fathers

There is a whole array of them, witnessing to the life and teaching of the earliest, post-Gospel era of the Church. Perhaps try Saint Ignatius of Antioch, and his seven letters written on the way to his martyrdom, around 100 A.D. The essentials of what it means to be the ‘Catholic Church’ is found therein.

The Fathers

The Fathers are distinguished between those who came before the first ecumenical council, at Nicaea in 325, and those who came afterward – hence, pre- and post-Nicene. The council codified and solidified orthodoxy, especially about Christ and the Trinity. Those who were before often jostled around with a bit theologically, grasping their way towards the fullness of truth, as it was being sought and defined in our Tradition.

Any of Origen’s homilies (+253) – you may find them in the Office of Readings, or there are compilations on-line. Even his method of exegesis (even if he got some things wrong) provides the basis for future interpretation. Tertullian, even if he apparently ended up a heretic, gave us many of our theological terms, and his vivid writing style is always a delight.


Saint Augustine – Confessions. The first real autobiography, composed between 397 to 400, and the ‘interior’ path towards God. This was all implicit before, but the great theologian made it explicit forging the path for those ahead.

Saint Athanasius – The Life of Anthony.

What does one say of a saint’s life written by a near-contemporary saint. And not just a saint, but a Father and Doctor of the Church, describing one of the very founders of monasticism?

Scholastics – Saint Thomas’ Summa. Written – dictated! – over a number of years, from 1250 or so, to his death in 1273, when it was left unfinished. Nearly 3000 articles, with 611 questions, covering nearly all aspects of theology, and summarizing the Tradition, as espoused by the Church Fathers. The novelist Flannery O’Connor read one article each night before going to bed. That’s one way to get through the density of the Summa. But to dip one’s theological toes is always good.

Devotio Moderna – There are many spiritual books from the early modern era, the 1400’s and onward, when such writing flourished, and many masterpieces produces. The Imitation of Christ is the bestseller, and for the Counter Reformation – and Francis de Sales’ Introduction to the Devout Life, but, since my time at the Oratory, I have been partial to the Theatine Father Lorenzo Scupoli’s (1530 – 1610) Spiritual Combat, first published in the year of his death in 1610.

The Modern Era

Jacques Maritain’s The Three Reformers (1925) marvelously summarized the three figures who most shaped modern Man. Descartes, who laid the foundations of the doubting modern mind, steeped in the scientific – which is to say, the mathematical – method. Luther, who made faith a pure act of the will, and condemned reason to the dungeon. And Jean Jacques Rousseau, who exalted the unbridled passions, that ‘primitive man’ was most virtuous, and corrupted by any sort of society or stricture.

C.S. Lewis – The Abolition of Man, based on a series of three lectures given in February, 1943, and compiled into a book, on the need for natural law and objective truth in education. Its principles will be embodied in literary form in his Space Trilogy.

As an addendum, as mentioned, there is the Restitution of Man, by Michael D. Aeschilman (1983), which is a superlative reflection and commentary on Lewis’ thesis, subtitled ‘C.S. Lewis and the Case Against Scientism’.

And one other I will mention, which Father Joseph Kotersky, S.J. (requiescat in pace) said in a talk the most influential book he had ever read: The Mystery Hidden for Ages in God, (1995) by Father Paul Quay, S.J. whose own subtitle is the intriguing, ‘Why Aren’t Catholics Holier Than They Are’. A fascinating tour de force, through the history of theology. I gave a talk on it a few years ago, which I wrote up as an article, but this does scant justice to the book itself.

Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture is a must-read based on two essays he gave at the University of Bonn in 1947, in the wake of WW II. He proposes that life is not primarily about what is ‘practical’, efficient, the consumer mentality, filled with sound and fury. Rather, it is interior, and must follow a rhythm, with space – leisure – to contemplate, even live within, the eternal, with feasts, seasons, fasts, celebrations, beauty, liturgy, music, and most of all, prayer.

Josef Ratzinger’s The Spirit of the Liturgy (2000). Lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi. The principles of a liturgical life, which is the only life that makes us human, and can lead to eternal life.

As mentioned in question period, the reader could also peruse Ratzingers Introduction to Christianity, which was first published in 1968 in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962 – 65), to provide a modern, updated, but solidly orthodox, summary of our Faith.

For some thought from the Magisterium, one might begin with Leo XIII’s landmark social encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), laying out the principles that the rest of the Church’s social doctrine would follow.

Pope Saint John Paul II’s Salvifici Doloris (February 11, 1984) is a profound meditation on human suffering, and how this has been redeemed in the salvific suffering of Christ.

Any other of the great Pope’s encyclicals or works is very much worth reading, not least his Evangelium Vitae (1995) on the Gospel of Life, and Veritatis Splendor (1993) offers a masterful summary and exposition of the very foundations and principles of moral theology, which puts all our actions, and striving, into context.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992 and 1997, for the editio typica). This fulfils the following description, found in the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, promulgating the Catechism:

A catechism should faithfully and systematically present the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the living Tradition of the Church and the authentic Magisterium, as well as the spiritual heritage of the Fathers and the Church’s saints, to allow for a better knowledge of the Christian mystery and for enlivening the faith of the People of God. It should take into account the doctrinal statements which down the centuries the Holy Spirit has intimated to his Church. It should also help illumine with the light of faith the new situations and problems which had not yet emerged in the past.

The catechism will thus contain the new and the old (cf. Mt 13:52), because the faith is always the same yet the source of ever new light.

We will add that the older Roman Catechism from the Council of Trent is a good companion to the newer one.

What else? Too many to say, but, for now, I hope these few offer a window, and a path to begin.