The 2021 Theologian’s Christmas Guide: Twelve Books every Theologian should Own

Reading Time: 6 minutes

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

Happy Advent, everyone! Every year, Clarifying Catholicism puts together a recommended reading list for theologians who might be searching for some good books for their Christmas lists. This year, we have divided our list into twelve categories, from Christology to Systematic Theology. Each entry in this guide includes the book’s recommended audience, difficulty level (beginner, intermediate, and advanced), price, description, and link to purchase it. For reference, here is last year’s list.

Christology: The College Student’s Introduction to Christology

Author: William Loewe
You should read this if… you are interested in how historical Jesus studies interact with Christology
Difficulty: Intermediate
Prerequisites: A willingness to learn historical-critical methods is required; a basic familiarity with the early ecumenical councils can supplement this book
Price: $25

William Loewe uniquely combines Christology with historical Jesus studies to construct what he calls an “ascending Christology” that takes no assumption about Christ’s nature for granted. Loewe acknowledges that, for millennia, basic Christological facts, such as Jesus’s existence and divinity, were assumed rather than argued for. He meticulously analyzes data from early Christianity to paint a robust picture of who Jesus really was and why the earliest Church councils were so concerned with defending certain characteristics of His. Loewe relies on close readings of primary sources, integrating historical-critical methods to aid in building his ascending Christology.


Ecclesiology: The Papal Primacy: From its Origins to the Present

Featured in 2020’s Christmas list!
: Klaus Schatz, SJ
You should read this if… you want a detailed yet concise history of papal authority
Difficulty: Beginner
Prerequisites: A basic familiarity with Church history can supplement this book
Price: $22

Arguing for the legitimacy of papal primacy, Klaus Schatz impressively condenses thousands of years of ecclesiology into just a couple hundred pages. While packed with information, this work is kept coherent and historically interesting by Schatz’s thesis that the papal primacy arose from the struggle between political and theological authorities, which culminated in the First Vatican Council’s decree on papal infallibility. Those want to defend the papacy, as well as those who are interested in the Church’s political drama throughout history, will enjoy this book.


Hermeneutics: Models of Revelation

Author: Avery Dulles, SJ
You should read this if… you want to better understand how Christians interpret scripture and doctrine
Difficulty: Intermediate
Prerequisites: A basic familiarity of Christian history can supplement this book; some knowledge of other Christian denominations is presupposed
Price: $26

There are many different ways to interpret the role revelation plays in Christianity; Avery Dulles investigates five of these: revelation as the basis for doctrine, revelation as God’s historical unfolding, revelation as inner experience of God, revelation as dialectical encounter with scripture, and revelation as a new awareness of our spiritual consciousness. He thoroughly examines each model, noting their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their prominence in various Christian denominations. Before reading any theological text, it is important to have a basic working definition of revelation, which makes Dulles’s exploration of the topic so invaluable to theology.


Historical Theology: The Ecumenical Councils of the Catholic Church: A History

Featured in 2020’s Christmas list!
: Joseph Kelly
You should read this if… you are interested in an honest, non-biased perspective of the ecumenical councils
Difficulty: Beginner
Prerequisites: A familiarity with Western history can supplement reading this book
Price: $20

This concise history of the ecumenical councils is an excellent complementary text to the aforementioned Papal Primacy by Klaus Schatz. While he acknowledges the validity of the councils and their doctrines, Kelly is refreshingly honest about their complexities and controversies, portraying the Church as theologically sound yet institutionally flawed. This book is accessible enough for beginners to read, yet it is historically packed enough for seasoned theologians to learn something new.


Interreligious Dialogue: Catholic Engagement with World Religions

Editors: Karl Becker and Ilaria Morali
You should read this if… you are looking for an in-depth history of other religions
Difficulty: Advanced
Prerequisites: An advanced knowledge of philosophy is required; an advanced vocabulary is required
Price: $41

This compendium of commentaries on the Church’s theology of other religions not only provides an excellent history of the Church’s doctrinal pronouncements on non-Christians, but it offers insightful analyses about the doctrines themselves. The topic of “no salvation outside the Church” is particularly relevant to this work. Several of the authors featured in this collection are well-versed in philosophy, from Aristotle to Heidegger, so while it may not be for the metaphysically faint of heart, it offers an excellent challenge to young theologians who are looking to take the next step into the theology of other religions.


Interdisciplinary: The Soul’s Upward Yearning: Clues to our Transcendent Nature

Featured in 2020’s Christmas list!
Author: Robert Spitzer, SJ
You should read this if… you are interested in evidence for the existence of God from the natural sciences
Difficulty: Advanced
Prerequisites: A willingness to learn diverse disciplines (from psychology to quantum physics) is required; a basic knowledge of the natural sciences is presupposed; an advanced vocabulary is required
Price: $20

Robert Spitzer is perhaps one of the brightest Catholic academics of our time. His work combines psychology, sociology, astronomy, metaphysics, quantum physics, and several more topics to argue that the secular sciences point to a dimension beyond the material world. This book requires a commitment to learning terminology from diverse scientific disciplines, though even mastering one chapter is worth the purchase of this book.


Liturgical Theology: Sacrament of Salvation

Author: Paul McPartlan
You should read this if… you are interested in integrating the Eucharist into broader theology, especially ecumenicism
Difficulty: Intermediate
Prerequisites: A basic knowledge of classical languages (Greek/Latin) can supplement this book; a basic knowledge of sacramental theology can supplement this book
Price: $47

The Second Vatican Council sparked a renewed interest in building a Eucharist-centered Church. Throughout the high middle ages, the Church had arguably shifted its focus from defining itself through the Eucharist to defining the Eucharist through its speculative theology. Paul McPartlan explores the implications of Vatican II’s Eucharistic quest by analyzing the role the Eucharist has played in Christian life throughout history. He also argues that the Eucharist is the key to Christian unity, making this text particularly relevant to ecumenical studies.


Moral Theology: Sources of Christian Ethics

Author: Servais Pinckaers, OP
You should read this if… you are interested in the history of moral theology
Difficulty: Beginner
Prerequisites: A familiarity with Western history can greatly supplement this work; a willingness to learn moral theology is required; a basic knowledge of ethics can supplement this work
Price: $30

To understand Western ethics, it is crucial to study the history of how our culture adopted its current convictions. Servais Pinckaers credits the downfall of medieval virtue ethics and subsequent rise of utilitarianism and relativism to a fundamental misunderstanding of happiness, freedom, and Thomas Aquinas. Though he is an advocate for a return to Thomistic virtue ethics, Pinckaers criticizes modern Jesuits and Dominicans for morphing Aquinas’s morality of beatitude to a morality of obligation. This history of Thomism’s surprisingly complex affair with virtue ethics is invaluable to those who want to truly understand Aquinas’s moral theology.


New Testament Theology: New Testament Theology: Exploring Diversity and Unity

Author: Frank Matera
You should read this if… you want to compare different themes from the New Testament
Difficulty: Beginner
Prerequisites: A willingness to learn historical-critical methods
Price: $36

The New Testament can be difficult to analyze without a thorough understanding of its composition and context, which is why Frank Matera’s breakdown is so useful for scriptural studies. Matera structures his analyses based on authorship and themes. He uses consistent criteria to evaluate each section of the New Testament, which enables him to easily compare and contrast their Christologies before settling on a definitive list of themes that characterize the New Testament’s broader purpose and message.


Old Testament Theology: Reading the Old Testament

Author: Lawrence Boadt
You should read this if… you are interested in the historical context of the Old Testament
Difficulty: Advanced
Prerequisites: advanced knowledge of historical-critical methods is required, familiarity with ancient languages can supplement this book
Price: $13

Lawrence Boadt is a master of the Old Testament’s historical context. He spends pages exploring the religions and cultures of Ancient Israel’s neighbors, including a brief yet detailed summary of the major Egyptian dynasties, for the sake of illustrating the profoundness of the Old Testament’s theology. His commentaries on each book of the Old Testament are detailed, and they flow into each other quite well. This book is chocked full of charts, diagrams, and maps that integrate modern archaeology and textual criticism with the Old Testament, making this a Swiss-army knife of scriptural studies.


Scriptural Studies: The Paulist Biblical Commentary

Featured in 2020’s Christmas list!
Author: Various
You should read this if… you want a comprehensive set of Catholic academic biblical commentaries
Difficulty: Intermediate
Prerequisites: Familiarity with historical-critical methods supplements this book
Price: $115

What happens when you ask dozens of the Catholic Church’s leading Biblical scholars to submit a single chapter on their area of expertise? A massive compendium of remarkably detailed Biblical commentaries that touch on scriptural authorship, historical context, and verse-by-verse analyses is produced. Make no mistake; this book is massive, yet it is impressive that these scholars could condense topics they have written books on into single chapters. When I was making this list, I knew I had to create a separate category just for this book. It is truly remarkable!


Systematic Theology: Magisterium: Teaching Authority in the Catholic Church

Featured in 2020’s Christmas list!
Author: Francis Sullivan, SJ
You should read this if… you are interested in different levels of Church doctrine
Difficulty: Intermediate
Prerequisites: A willingness to learn dogmatic classifications is required, a familiarity with Latin can greatly supplement this book
Price: $27

If I was a theology professor, I would make this book required for all of my students. A nuanced understanding the Church’s teaching authority, as well as authentic interpretation of the Church’s magisterial statements, is crucial in our politically polarized culture in which Catholics attempt to weaponize doctrinal statements against each other. Francis Sullivan is, in my opinion, the most underappreciated theologian of modernity because he condenses such a critical and complex issue to such a brief and accessible. I not only recommend this book to theologians who are interested in the weight of doctrinal pronouncements, but I wholeheartedly believe that anyone who wants to become a theologian must read this book.


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