Best Books of 2021: Christian Books and Commentaries
Updated: Jan 5
It’s been quite a year for reading. Like 2020, there are times that 2021 has felt like a speedy 6 weeks and a lengthy 3 years. It’s my hunch - although I have no concrete evidence for this - that we reaped the fruit of the 2020 lockdowns in 2021 books. With book tours canceled, speaking trips postponed or moved to Zoom, and conferences tabled, many authors had new-found time to write and this year I think we’ve seen the fruit of their efforts in a raft of excellent books.
As these things often happen, in the year of the book boom, I gladly found myself with far less time to read than in years past. Though I fell woefully short on my Goodreads goal for the year, I’ll wouldn’t trade getting married, finishing my dissertation, and moving to Carlton Landing to pastor CLCC for anything. In each one of these transitions and contexts, reading has been a part of on-the-job training.
I say that to make two points: first, in 2021 I traded new books for reference books. Some of my best time this year was spent digging through commentaries, studying the original biblical texts, and preparing to preach every week. Some of my indispensable companions have been G. K. Beale’s Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, Richard Hays’ Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, N. T. Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God series, the Lexham Geographic Commentary set, and several excellent commentaries:
The Psalms as Christian Worship - Bruce Waltke
Psalms, Vol. 1-3 - James Montgomery Boice
The Gospel of Matthew - R. T. France
The Gospel of Luke - I. Howard Marshall
Luke - Fred Craddock
Colossians and Philemon - G. K. Beale
These are the books I’d recommend to anyone looking to dive into the text in the next year. Each one will serve for a generation. If you buy a paper copy, they’re worth passing on when you’re done or keeping handy when you’re studying to teach or preach. If you have the space and the interest, put them in your anti-library for when you need them.
Second, after moving to Carlton Landing as the Senior Pastor, I went back to some old standbys for my own growth, fortification, and encouragement. Reading is (or should always be) a function of your environment - where your passions are and where you’re growing. John Piper’s Expository Exultation got me back in the rhythm and mindset of weekly preaching. Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing and Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life stoked the fires in my heart for spiritual formation and revival. Laura and I really enjoyed adding the Book of Common Prayer daily readings to our quiet times sporadically throughout the year. Visiting these familiar friends has been a joy in 2021.
But onto the main attraction. Here are a few of the new and notable books from 2021:
Small Preaching by Jonathan Pennington. Lexham Press, 2021.
I’m always working to become a better preacher. Dr. Pennington, as I know him, is the consummate pastor-scholar, familiar in both the church and the academy - and he’s a great preacher. These short chapters range from how to prepare each week to how to handle criticism. I’m adding it to my list of recommended resources for preachers as the best quick read for preachers already preaching:
Saving Eutychus by Gary Millar and Phil Campbell - Best book for a beginning teacher or preacher.
A Manual for Preaching by Abraham Kuruvilla - Best technical book on the hermeneutics of preaching.
On Preaching by H.B. Charles - Best short book on prep and delivery.
Exodus Old and New by Michael Morales. IVP Academic, 2020.
The greatest need in the church today is biblical theology. Okay, that might be a slight exaggeration, but not by much. I’ve found that most Christians, especially those who are committed to reading their Bibles, need help piecing the whole Bible together. What does Abraham have to do with David? How do Psalms and the Gospels fit together? Should you read Song of Solomon to understand Revelation?
Biblical theology is the study of themes that run through Scripture. What starts as an acorn in Genesis grows into a knee-high shoot in the history books of Israel, and by the New Testament, it’s an oak tree. (This is Gerhardus Vos’s explanation of biblical theology).
To make things even better, Michael Morales’s biblical theology is particularly helpful because of the faithful and devotional sensitivity he combines with scholarly depth. You know it’s a good sign when you find yourself searching the references he mentions in your Bible, stopping to think about a new connection, or praying and thanking God for who he is and what he’s done for us as you read.
This is what you can expect from Morales. I first encountered his work through Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? It’s a biblical theology of God’s presence in the book of Leviticus, which I reviewed in April. This book is the second volume in a new series called Essential Studies in Biblical Theology, which is aimed at helping everyone understand the storyline of the Bible. This series will be one I read through and recommend to anyone seeking to go deeper in their study of the Word.
Survival and Resistance in the Pacific Northwest by Crawford Gribben. Oxford University Press, 2021.
Every now and then you stumble onto a book that you just can’t believe was written. I felt this way about Gribben’s book on evangelicals in the northwest. Do you mean to tell me a prolific scholar has written about Doug Wilson, reconstruction, and other evangelical resistance movements in the U.S. and he’s given it a fair shake? And it’s published by Oxford University Press? Ok, I’m interested.
This book does not disappoint. Gribben has taken a fair, critical, and insightful look at resistance movements in the U.S., focusing on John Wesley Rawles and Douglas Wilson. His approach to Moscow, ID was especially interesting. Wilson has pioneered an all-encompassing vision for Christian living in the chimney of Idaho. He’s not without his critics, but he’s been extremely successful in building platforms, institutions, and influence across the country. What will happen when more Christian communities follow this path? Should they? If Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option is the ideological framework for Christian resistance, this book is the sociological field study. Gribben chronicles the reconstructionist tradition, brambles, thorns, and all, in a way that should challenge all of us to think about the future of the church.
A Burning in My Bones: The Authorized Biography of Eugene Peterson by Winn Collier. WaterBrook, 2021.
Eugene Peterson has been one of my heroes in ministry since my dad assigned his book The Contemplative Pastor during my internship at Crossings Community Church, and he always will be. Working the Angles, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Run with the Horses, Eat This Book, and others have become some of my go-tos. Though Peterson is best known for The Message, an incredible achievement, I wish more people knew about his pastoral theology.
Even as he became world-famous, Peterson pastored a church that he intentionally kept small enough to ensure that he knew everyone’s names. He resisted the ever-present pressures of growing the church, catering to the people, and building a brand by praying, studying the Scriptures, and practicing the old pastoral art of spiritual direction. He believed the most important thing a pastor can do is teach his people to pray.
Collier set himself an audacious task: it’s nearly impossible to write a great biography of a great writer. Given that Peterson wrote his own fantastic memoir, The Pastor, the project is that much more prohibitive. Up against Peterson’s enthralling style, Collier risked looking like a Vegas Elvis. It’s a real testament to Winn Collier that he didn’t.
There are a few passages that feel constrictive, like Collier wants to tell a story and can’t quite get Eugene to fit. But that’s one of the beautiful things about Eugene Peterson; he doesn’t fit the mold. From his charismatic upbringing to his awkward and misleading final interview with Jonathan Merritt, simplistic categories always leave something out.
With that one critique, this is a great read. I couldn’t put it down. I’ve gone back and re-read passages from The Pastor in the weeks since I finished. I think that’s an insight into Eugene, and the way Collier captured him. It’s easy to see why he was such a great pastor: I never knew him, but this book really makes me miss him.
A Theology of Paul and His Letters by Douglas Moo. Zondervan, 2021.
When a scholar of Moo’s caliber comes out with a magnum opus, get it. I’ve been working through this volume slowly, reading the book overviews for letters I’m teaching through or a section of Pauline theology over a pertinent topic.
There are two unique aspects of this book that I’ve enjoyed. First, Moo is conversant with all of the literature. He’s written premier commentaries, an excellent New Testament introduction, and taught for over 20 years at Trinity before moving on to Wheaton. He’s seen it all. However you’re coming to Paul, Moo is familiar with your vantage point.
Second, Moo looks at Paul’s through the lens of the “gift of the new realm in Christ.” I came to the book sympathetic to this theme, and from what I’ve read so far, Moo makes a great case that this is a major unifying theme in Paul’s thought.
1-2 Timothy and Titus by Andreas Köstenberger. Lexham Press, 2021.
Several new commentary series have made a splash in the last 18 months, and this Evangelical Biblical Theology Commentary series by Lexham Press might be my favorite. The commentary material in this volume (and maybe some of the others) is a revision and accumulation of Köstenberger’s work in other places, but the new material - and the major value of the EBTC - is the nearly 200 pages of biblical theology in these three letters (see my previous comments about biblical theology).
I haven’t read any of Jim Hamilton’s 2 volume Psalms commentary in this series, but this section across the series will set these commentaries apart. Working out the overarching theology of these books and the way they fit with the rest of Scripture is often a neglected aspect of technical commentaries. This is the best of both worlds.
This year I’m breaking up my best books into categories. Check back this week for fiction, non-fiction, Churchill, and nerdy deep tracks!
Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.