Most Influential Writings from Christian History

Greg Strand – December 28, 2015 4 Comments

Now is the time of year we read of various kinds of lists. Often they consist of the “best of” the past year.

Christian History Institute compiled another list. They “asked over 70 past CH [Christian History] authors to help identify the most influential writings from Christian history, after the Bible.” They asked each of these contributors to list five of their personal favorites, from which they, then, compiled the list of 25.

This is added to a few other lists they have compiled in the past: 100 Most Important Events in Church History (Issue 28), Ten Most Influential Christians of the 20th Century (issue 65), and their latest list as part of their most recent issue on influential writings, 2000 Years, 25 Hymns (Issue 116).

Such a list requires a significant amount of nuance and a number of caveats. For example, how does one discern and determine which is the most influential? There are many writings that have done so in many different ways in a number of different areas and disciplines, both great and small. So it is difficult to state which writings are the most influential.

Furthermore, what does mean that these writings are the most influential? Many writings have had a great influence on Christianity and the Christian church. Not all of it has been good, but it has been influential. This means one also needs to discern if we are considering those writings that influenced in a positive, constructive and good way, or that influenced in a negative, destructive and bad way. Would that mean two different lists, or since the question is about the most influential without stating constructive or destructive, should the one list contain both?

Additionally, there is a certain subjectivity to the list since the lists will differ based on individual persons responding. What one may consider to be a most influential writing may not be for someone else.

This does not make such a list of “most influential writings” useless. To the contrary, such a list is helpful and insightful, in spite of some of the caveats and concessions and whether or not one agrees with the list, the order of the list or what is not in the list. It does generate a useful thought-process and discussion. And to be sure, it is quite likely that a few if not many of these works were on most if not all of the 70 respondents.

Finally, I appreciate that these influential writings take their place after the Bible, acknowledging the primary and most influential writing is the Bible. As Evangelicals, there is unanimous and universal agreement on that. In fact, that is one of the marks of an Evangelical.

Here, now, is the list of the 25 most influential writings from Christian history as compiled by the Christian History Institute. (They are listed with no further explanation of the work or why they are considered to be the most influential.)

25 Classic Works

  1. Augustine, Confessions (c. 398)
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (1265–1274)
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)
  4. Augustine, City of God (413–426)
  5. Martin Luther, 95 Theses (1517)
  6. John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  7. The Nicene Creed (325, revised 381)
  8. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952)
  9. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (c. 319)
  10. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418–1427)
  11. Benedict, Rule (c. 540s)
  12. The Book of Common Prayer (1549)
  13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
  14. Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520)
  15. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (1932–1967)
  16. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (c. 1308–1320)
  17. Anselm, Why God Became Man (c. 1095–1098)
  18. Augustine, On Christian Teaching (397–426)
  19. Augustine, On the Trinity (c. 400–428)
  20. Westminster Confession (1646)
  21. Irenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 175–185)
  22. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777)
  23. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (1746)
  24. Pope Gregory I, Pastoral Rule (c. 591)
  25. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (c. 1515–1516)

Although the list above has no further explanation, it is part of the larger focus of the most recent issue of Christian History which addresses the theme “25 Writings that Changed the Church and the World” (Issue 116), where many of these writings are addressed in more detail. The issue is described in this way:

While we don’t have space to include all the rich content of the top 25, we hope to give you an idea of the stories behind them. How did they develop the tradition of orthodox faith? How did they affect later Christians who have found them sources of hope, comfort, challenge, and thought-provoking questions? And, last but not least, how are they still relevant today? Our brothers and sisters in Christ have much to teach us about welcoming both trials and joys, speaking to our world in transforming ways, and seeking refuge in Christ.

For one of the responses to this list, with a few works added, both for their importance and influence, see Keith Mathison. He adds these to the list because they “profoundly influenced the thinking of subsequent generations of Christians.” As a further explanation, he notes that influence can be either good or bad, or both good and bad, so his inclusion does not necessarily mean he affirms the theology of all the works listed. Mathison includes a brief explanation of why he believes each of these additional works should have been added to the list of most influential writings from Christian history. The list generally follows a chronological order.

  1. The Apostles’ Creed
  2. Athanasius, Letters to Serapion
  3. Gregory of Nazianzus, Theological Orations
  4. Augustine, Anti-Pelagian Writings
  5. Cyril of Alexandria’s Second and Third Letters to Nestorius and Letter to John of Antioch
  6. Tome of Leo
  7. Definition of Chalcedon
  8. Peter Lombard, Sentences
  9. Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent
  10. Rene Descartes, Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy: In which the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are demonstrated
  11. The notes of the Scofield Reference Bible

A few thoughts for you regarding this list of the most influential writings from Christian history:

  • What do you find helpful in such a list?
  • How would you categorize the list, theologically, geographically, historically, etc.?
  • How many of these writings have you read?
  • Why do you believe they have been included in this list, i.e. what is the reason they are considered to be influential?
  • What would you rearrange in this list, delete from the list, or add to the list, and why?

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

4 responses to Most Influential Writings from Christian History

  1. Origen absent from both lists – yet he set the pattern for Bible commentaries for centuries and created the first textual critical edition of the Bible. So I propose two of his works:

    Origen of Alexandria, Commentary on Romans. I chose his on Romans simply because more of it has survived than any of his other commentaries.

    Origen of Alexandria, Hexapla. This work is the foundation for all biblical textual criticism.

    • Thank you for the important additions, Ernie.

      One of the challenges when compiling such a list is the necessity of being selective. Inevitably someone important is excluded. That is why asking the question of others and why they ought to be included is a helpful exercise.

      Since there is only one perfect God-man, the perfect “exegesis” of God who “has made him known” (“ἐκεῖνος ἐξηγήσατο,” Jn. 1:18), and all others are fallible exegetes, it is also an important exercise to know the weaknesses and foibles of those key/critical people who have influenced Christianity. Even the best of those theologians had flaws. Origen, for all his strengths and his importance in the history of Christian thought, had his flaws.

      Thank you, again, Ernie, for your input.

      • Greg, Yes indeed Origen has faults in his theology and exegesis. However, I venture to say he is often accused of teaching things he never said. The comment that even demons will be restored (On First Principles 2.10.3) was added centuries later to the text by Justinian who was a bitter opponent of Origen. See the note in Butterworth’s edition, p. 146.

      • Historical revisionism at its best . . . or worst!

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