I love books. I love reading books and I love writing about books. The best book is an old book.
In God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis wrote, “If one must choose between reading the new books and reading the old, one must choose the old: not because they are necessarily better but because they contain precisely those truths of which our own age is neglectful.” Christians can benefit greatly from reading old books, especially spiritual classics.
What Is a Spiritual Classic?
Ten years ago I set a goal of spending some time every day in a spiritual classic (about fifteen minutes). I’ve kept that purpose most days. I’m not familiar with any precise definition of what counts as a spiritual classic; it’s more, “You know one when you read one.” If I were to surmise what the particular attributes would be, I would say (and so I am surmising):
- A spiritual classic has shaped the spiritual lives of thousands, if not millions, of people.
- A spiritual classic has proven to be spiritually enriching for decades or even centuries.
- A spiritual classic captures something of truth that transcends cultural barriers.
- A spiritual classic fosters a desire for deeper communion with God and renews a passion for God’s Word.
Perhaps there are other elements to consider, but I’m very comfortable suggesting that these are the sine qua nons of spiritual classics.
A spiritual classic fosters a desire for deeper communion with God and renews a passion for God’s Word.
“Old” does not mean classic. Most books have never been reprinted. Classic books are books that have aged well. Don’t mistake “classic” for easy reading. A book understood thoroughly the first time is not likely to be read a second. A classic has depths that are only normally ascertained after multiple readings, not unlike the Bible.
Spiritual Classics and Modern Devotionals
Most modern devotional books fail the criteria of classic spiritual literature. Nonetheless, many believers continue to consume one best-seller after another like children in a candy store. A child may feel good momentarily, but a study diet of candy won’t sustain physical health. I’m frequently asked what I think about this or that devotional book or for a recommendation. My first response, not to be curt, is, “Tell me about your daily Bible study method. If you’re not reading and studying your Bible daily, go do that for the next 30 days then come back and I’ll have a suggestion for you.”
Most modern devotional books fail the criteria of classic spiritual literature.
The books I recommend are not written by Daniel Henderson, Timothy Keller, and Francis Chan. These authors are not writing fluff, but they are basing their thoughts on literature accessible to the general public. I’ve read and learned from all three of them, but why should we limit ourselves to second- and third-hand material? They read the spiritual classics and their writings are shaped by the books you’ll find below. The time is ripe for a recovery of the spiritual classics that have inspired Christian faith for centuries.
Over the last two years I have composed a list of my favorite spiritual classics. Some are very readable and others are a bit esoteric. Nearly everything on this list is available digitally or in print but note that the titles of older works vary from edition to edition. Most of these works are not formatted as modern “devotionals” with a page or two for each day of the year. You just have to sort out what to read each day. Also, none of these books are younger than forty years and they cross the geographic and theological spectrum within Christian faith. Finally, the list I am sharing here is a selection from a growing list I have compiled over the past few years. I hope you will find them as rewarding as I have.
Recommended Spiritual Classics by the Century
- Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
- Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster
- The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
- The Way of the Heart, E. Stanley Jones
- My Utmost for His Highest, Oswald Chambers
- Evening and Morning, Charles Spurgeon
- Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard
- Longing for Heaven, Horatius Bonar
- A Devout and Holy Life, William Law
- A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, John Wesley
- Religious Affections, Jonathan Edwards
- A Guide to Prayer, Isaac Watts
- Communion with God, John Owen
- The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Henry Scougal
- Holy Living, Jeremy Taylor
- Meditations, Francois Fenelon
- The Art of Divine Contentment, Thomas Watson
- Private Prayers, Lancelot Andrewes
- Dark Night of the Soul, John of the Cross
- The Way of Perfection, Teresa of Avila
- Soliloquies, Teresa of Avila
- The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis
- Enfolded Love, Julian of Norwich
- The Cloud of Unknowing, Anonymous
- Prayer, Hugo de Balma
- Writings, Clare of Assisi
- The Life of St. Francis, Bonaventure
- On Loving God, Bernard of Clairvaux
- On the Trinity, Richard of St. Victor
- Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury
- On the Sacraments, Hugh of St. Victor
- Commentary on Morality, Odo of Cluny
- Occupatio, Odo of Cluny
- On the Body and Blood of Our Lord, Gerbert of Aurillac
- Orthodox Faith, John of Damascus
- Sentences, Isidore of Seville
- The Divine Names, Denis the Areopagite
- Conferences, John Cassian
- The Call of All Nations, Prosper of Aquitaine
- Becoming Temples of God, Cyril of Alexandria
- On the Unity of Christ, Cyril of Alexandria
- Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
- On the Incarnation, Athanasius
- The Lord’s Prayer, Gregory of Nyssa
- Against Heresies, Irenaeus of Lyons
- The Stromata, Clement of Alexandria
- Letters, Ignatius of Antioch