When I first started studying older literature, I became frustrated that it was not easier to begin to read these works independently. I was intimidated by the many editions and guides out there! Are you interested in tackling literature and theology but don’t know where to begin? I’ve compiled a list of authors, editions, and resources for your perusal!
I’m a beginner who would like to read foundational, early works of Christian theology…
Early Christian Writings, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Introduction and notes by Andrew Louth, Penguin Classics. A good, beginner collection of writings from the first few generations of the church.
Saint Athanasius, On the Incarnation, translated by John Behr, Popular Patristics Series. Important early understanding about Jesus as God and Man (and a bonus, brilliant introductory essay from C.S. Lewis)
Augustine, The Confessions, translated by Maria Boulding, OSB. Augustine is perhaps the single most important theologian in the Western Church. Confessions is his most accessible work, and Boulding’s translation is beautiful! Plus, it often reads like a novel. If you want some decently accessible writing on Augustine, try James Wetzel, Augustine: A Guide for the Perplexed (2010). Rowan Williams, On Augustine (2016). James K.A. Smith, On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts (2019) is less academic and an interesting, approachable book about his theology.
I’m interested in late medieval theology (1100-1500)…
A lot of medieval theology belongs to the scholastic tradition, which can be a little tricky to read. A less complex though still challenging way of beginning to learn medieval theology is reading sermons. I’ve enjoyed the editions of Bernard of Clairvaux’s seasonal sermons. I especially like Bernard of Clairvaux: Sermons for Advent and the Christmas Season translated by Irene Edmonds, Wendy Mary Beckett, and Conrad Greenia OCSO, in the Cistercian Fathers Series. Read it during Advent and Christmas. You’ll get a taste of medieval concerns and theology while avoiding the intense scholastic terminology of high theological writing!
Thomas Aquinas is fantastic, but I wouldn’t recommend tackling him right away on your own. His Summa Theologiae is his most important work. The Prayer Book of Thomas Aquinas is a great introduction to reading him without wading through the scholasticism. If you want to learn more about him, try Denys Turner, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (2013), a good introduction to him and his thought. Mark D. Jordan, Teaching Bodies: Moral Formation in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas (2017), is a lovely book on the Summa and Thomas as a teacher. If you would like the flavor of Thomas without reading Thomas, try the great 1950s Thomist theologian and philosopher, Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues OR Faith, Hope, Love.
If you’re deadset on trying full-on scholasticism, and/or would like a very impressive-looking Aquinas to sit prominently on your bookshelf, my favorite edition of Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae is the one published by the Aquinas Institute for Sacred Doctrine, translated by Fr. Laurence Shapcote, O.P. I have never felt so important in coffee shops as when I’ve carried a volume of this around. To aid you in your scholastic journey: Bernard Wuellner, S.J., Dictionary of Scholastic Philosophy (1956, 2012); Edward Feser, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide (2009).
I’m interested in contemplative/mystical writers!
In my biased opinion, the most accessible and most beautiful medieval contemplative writer is Julian of Norwich. For a translation, try Julian of Norwich, Showings, translated by Edmund Colledge, O.S.A., and James Walsh, S.J. For the Middle English, try Denise Baker’s edition for Norton (Denise was on my committee in graduate school and is also a lovely person!).
Catherine of Siena was an important doctor of the church who influenced popes and European politics while writing beautifully about the love of God: Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue, translated by Suzanne Noffke, O.P.
The Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Clifton Wolters for Penguin Books. This short book is a stunning little treatise on the unknowability of God and the uniting of the soul to Him.
Want to dip your toes in a collection of contemplative writers? Here’s one edited by the premier scholar of mysticism to get you going from early Christianity to the 20th century: The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism, edited by Bernard McGinn.
In development! 🙂