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My Favorite Christian Biographies

August 9, 2007

Because of several reasons, Church History and Christian biographies have been growing in popularity in the past several years. Some reasons that have attributed to this growth is a strengthening of seminary departments in Historical Theology and Church History (which certainly was not the case 50 years back), J. I. Packer carrying the torch of Puritanism through several lectures and books (my favorite is A Quest for Godliness), and the largely popular Biographical Messages by John Piper every year at his pastor’s conference. It was actually an old tape of Piper’s 1988 biography of Jonathan Edwards that got me interested in the lives of godly men of history. I try to read about 3-4 biographies a year. So here is a list of some of my favorite biographies I have read. Note: Biographies, especially new ones, tend to be fairly expensive, so if a biography is out of my price range I look to any major public library. Public libraries are usually good about carrying anything historical, Christian or secular (or at least that is my experience).

Augustine

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, Revised Edition with a New Epilogue by Peter Brown. I am actually in the middle of this one right now. Nevertheless, I am having a difficult time putting it down. So I expect this one will be one of my favorites on Augustine. This is a complex and a very comprehensive biography of Augustine. Brown follows his life chronologically, by his progression of thought, by the contours of the life in a small African, Roman colony, and also follows the rise and fall of Rome during the life of Augustine. I do believe this is probably one of the best biographies on the life of Augustine. Brown certainly takes the humble approach in describing the value of other biographies that have gone before his. The is a daunting read at times (at least for me), but a good one and doesn’t tend to focus on psychological issues between Augustine and his crooked father that so many biographies do contemporary to Brown. Thank goodness.

Confessions by St. Augustine. This is Augustine’s own autobiography of his life until the age of 33. This is a very devotional read for any one at any level. I do think Oxford World Classics is the best translation and gives a good introduction to the subject.

Augustine’s account of his life displays the power of sin (even in the power of jealousy of infants). He portrays his journey through astrology, the Manichees, Neo-Platonism, to Christianity – much to the faithful prayers of Monica – his mother. Augustine’s love and honor for his faithful mother is beautifully accounted for throughout his Confessions.

Luther

Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton. Here I Stand is one of my favorite biographies of any personality in history. I have read through this book twice. This book has been the standard and shadow all biographies of Luther have had to go through since. Luther quickly became one of my heroes after reading of his courage and brilliance. Bainton portrayed the Reformation outbreak with brilliant story-telling. If you have seen the contemporary movie Luther, you will be able to tell that Bainton’s biography was the movie’s main source.

John Calvin

John Calvin: A Biogrpahy by T.H.L.Parker. Like Bainton with Luther, Parker is an excellent story teller. Not only that, he is a top scholar on Calvin – writing (I think) 4 total books on the man. Parker shows Calvin’s brilliance, his high view of the glory of God, his high view of Scripture, and as a greater preacher, teacher, and pastor. Parker’s account of the trial of Servetus is very clear and gives an honest and fair account of Calvin’s dealing with a very unfortunate situation. He does not clear him of any blame, but puts the trial and in a context that helps the reader understand the conflict. His two appendixes on dating and Calvin’s conversion are helpful.

John Calvin as Pastor, Teacher, Theologian by Randall Zachman. This is not a true biography in form, but it does gives many details of Calvin’s education and the deep intimate friendship with Philip Melanchthon that many biographies move through quickly. I have mentioned this book in a post some weeks back that explains the book more clearly. However, this book displays Calvin as a brilliant biblical exegete, theologian, teacher, and pastor. It explores, deeply, the mind of the great Reformer. I deeply enjoyed this book and I don’t think it is as widely read as it should be.

John Owen

Note: If I am honest, I would have to say that there are not many good biographies on John Owen. Of the few books on his life and though, I have enjoyed very little of them. This grieves me since he is, by far, my favorite theologian to read. Nevertheless, here are a few that give good sparks of interest into his life and thought.

God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen by Peter Toon. Toon’s biography is not widely read, but offers some good information on his times in which he lived. He spends a little too much time defending Oliver Cromwell, however.

John Owen on the Christian Life by Sinclair Ferguson. Ferguson has been the leading Owen theologian for quite a while does a good job discussing Owen’s theology. It is not the easiest read, but it is a good introduction to his thought and really shows Owen’s pastoral heart despite his deep and difficult writings. My one problem is that Ferguson spends a good bit of time defending Owen’s paedobaptist view, which I don’t think was necessary. I do think it is a knee-jerk reaction to Owen’s tendency to be sympathetic to believer’s baptism (and in my opinion: a quite a conversion). All in all, Ferguson does a good job and I have gladly suggested it to others.

Jonathan Edwards

Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography by Iain Murray. I have read three major biographies of Jonathan Edwards and this one is by far the greatest for many reasons. Other biographies have praised Edwards philosophical thought, but have been largely critical of his theological work and his piety. Murray celebrates the brilliance of Edwards in both his philosophical thought, theological works, and his extraordinary spirituality. Murray is a brilliant historian, who has the ability to interpret history like no other Edwards or Puritan historian I have read. From his young school days at Yale (the Collegiate School of Connecticut at that time), his conversion, his relationship to Sarah, his outrageous study habits, his family life, to his dismissal Murray tells a great story. Throughout the book, Murray explores the thought of Edwards and develops for his readers Edwards great love and affection for his Savior, often times be very devotional.

I hope these are helpful. God has graced us with wonderful men to read and learn from. I hope these books are as beneficial to you as they have been for me.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 9, 2007 10:42 pm

    Augustines Confessions is great!

    As far as biographies go, I also like …

    * The Road to Assisi by Paul Sabatier (St. Francis of Assisi)
    * Let the Trumpet Sound by Stephen Oates (Martin Luther King Jr.)
    * Surprised by Joy by CS Lewis (CS Lewis)
    * Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey (Contains brief bios of 13 Christians)

  2. JAMES L permalink
    August 10, 2007 1:49 pm

    Don’t forget Arnold Dallimore’s biography of George Whitefield! Absolutely the best, humbling convicting and inspiring.

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