On My Shelf: Life and Books with Scott Swain

On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Scott Swain—president and professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and author of Trinity, Revelation, and Reading and The God of the Gospel—about what’s on his nightstand, his favorite fiction, books that have most influenced his thinking, and more.

What books are on your nightstand?

For the past year and a half or so, I’ve been on something of an Augustine kick. Of late, I’ve been reading three of the bishop of Hippo’s treatises on the nature of marriage, celibacy, and Christian sanctification: The Excellence of Marriage; Holy Virginity; and Continence (New City Press). Though not without his own idiosyncrasies and mistakes, Augustine has much to teach both conservatives and progressives on the nature of sex and sanctification.

Other theological books on my shelf include:

For work and pleasure respectively, I’ve also been reading Cal Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World and Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself.

What are your favorite fiction books?

I don’t read as much fiction as I’d like, but when I get the chance I enjoy authors such as John Updike and P. D. James. Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country was an early favorite that deeply affected me as a teenager. More recently, Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead probably sits at the top of my list of favorite fiction books.

What books have most influenced your thinking and how?

I read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion during my first Christmas break in seminary. Though I wasn’t raised in a Reformed context, Calvin’s Institutes offered me pastoral, exegetical, and theological mentoring from afar that defined my approach to the Bible, theology, and piety.

D. G. Hart’s Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America introduced me to the category of “confessional Protestantism,” not only shaping my self-understanding at an early stage of theological development, but also suggesting a model for the renewal of Protestantism through investment in the institutions of historic, confessional Christianity.

Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine influenced the way I think about the subject matter of the Bible and, consequently, about the nature of biblical interpretation. It was Augustine, not modern books on biblical interpretation, who taught me that the Bible is about the blessed Trinity, about the humility and glory of Jesus Christ, and about nurturing a community devoted to the love of God and neighbor.

Though not (yet) a book, John Webster’s unpublished Kantzer Lectures in Revealed Theology—the manuscript of which he kindly shared with me a number of years ago—crystalized my thinking on several theological issues and continues to inform my prayer, thinking, research, and teaching.

What three books on the doctrine of God have you found most helpful?

Three of the most helpful books for grasping the basic “grammar” of Christian teaching about God are:

The first is a series of sermons delivered around the time of the Council of Constantinople. The latter two are academic works, by no means easy reads, but sure to reward the patient and studious reader with deeper, more intelligent adoration of the God we worship.

What’s the last great book you read?

Paul J. Griffiths’s Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures is the most stimulating work in theology I have read in a while. Both formally and materially, this book is a model of excellence in the craft of theology, promoting insight in every paragraph—even when it provokes profound disagreement, as it does at several junctures in the argument.

What’s one book you wish every pastor read?

Like John the Baptist, pastors are “friends of the bridegroom” (John 3:29), charged with contemplating and commending the beauty of Jesus Christ to the church, which is his bride. John Owen’s The Person of Christ: Declaring a Glorious Mystery—God and Man will serve the pastor well in fulfilling this delightful duty. (Christian Focus has recently published an unabridged, reader friendly edition of this classic Christological text.)

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

I’m always learning and relearning one of the most basic lessons of the Bible: that “the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8) and that our lives, in their greatest extremities of joy and sorrow, as well as in their smallest details, are governed by the sovereign goodness of “the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (Jas. 1:17).

I’m also continuing to learn that there is great joy in self-forgetful service of God and neighbor, that denying ourselves, for Christ’s sake, is the path to finding ourselves (Matt. 16:25).

Finally, I’m learning the painful lesson that unlike houses, cars, coats, and ties, persons are irreplaceable. For this reason, their losses in this life are worthy of lament. For this reason also, our reunion with lost mentors, colleagues, friends, and loved ones in the next life will be essential to our eternal happiness in God.

Also in the On My Shelf series: Chad Bird • Sam Chan • Matthew Lee Anderson • Melissa Kruger • Isaac Adams • Denny Burk • Vermon Pierre • Jake Meador • Russ Ramsey • Jason Allen • Jason Cook • Mack Stiles • Michael Kruger • Robert Smith • Tony Merida • Andy Crouch • Walter Strickland • Hannah Anderson • S. D. Smith • Curtis Woods • Mindy Belz • Steve Timmis • David Mathis • Michael Lindsay • Nathan Finn • Jennifer Marshall • Todd Billings • Greg Thornbury • Greg Forster • Jen Pollock Michel • Sam Storms • Barton Swaim • John Stonestreet • George Marsden • Andrew Wilson • Sally Lloyd-Jones • Darryl Williamson • D. A. Horton • Carl Ellis • Owen Strachan • Thomas Kidd • David Murray • Jarvis Williams • Gracy Olmstead • Matthew Hall • Drew Dyck • Louis Markos • Ray Ortlund • Brett McCracken • Mez McConnell • Erik Raymond • Sandra McCracken • Tim Challies • Sammy Rhodes • Karen Ellis • Alastair Roberts • Scott Sauls • Karen Swallow Prior • Jackie Hill Perry • Bruce Ashford • Jonathan Leeman • Megan Hill • Marvin Olasky • David Wells • John Frame • Rod Dreher • James K. A. Smith • Randy Alcorn • Tom Schreiner • Trillia Newbell • Jen Wilkin • Joe Carter • Timothy George • Tim Keller • Bryan Chapell • Lauren Chandler • Mike Cosper • Russell Moore • Jared Wilson • Kathy Keller • J. D. Greear • Kevin DeYoung • Kathleen Nielson • Thabiti Anyabwile • Elyse Fitzpatrick • Collin Hansen • Fred Sanders • Rosaria Butterfield • Nancy Guthrie • Matt Chandler

Browse dozens of book recommendations from The Gospel Coalition’s leaders and sign up your church at Hubworthy.

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Sanctification as singlemindedness

Just ran across this from Calvin. By “integrity” he doesn’t mean what we usually do (ethical consistency) but “singlemindedness”, the opposite of “doublemindedness”.

Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at your own pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice.

But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord…

Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.6.5

Don’t critique Calvin before reading a bit of his writings! The reader can listen to the Institutes as audible files from librivox.org.

We might also add this from Wolfgang Schrage concerning how the wretched man of Romans 7 is a thing of the past for the Christian:

The human contradiction…the dichotomy and division within the self, is a thing of the past. The radical nature of this new being implies an undivided integrity of God’s claim upon us.

From The Ethics of the New Testament [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988], 187; see also my “Are you a wretched man or woman? Should you be?”

“Sanctification as singlemindedness,” by Gary S. Shogren, Professor at Seminario ESEPA, San José, Costa Rica


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