Great Books of Christianity: Reformation and Enlightenment

In our third installment of the Great Books of Christianity, we explore the works hailing from one of the most tumultuous times in Christian history: the Reformation. As new forms of Christianity spread throughout the West, theologians on all sides sharpened their pens and duked it out on parchment. The theological battles that raged forever changed the way the West would worship. 

So let’s take a look at the most important Christian works of the Reformation and Enlightenment, covering the years 1500-1800. 

This article is Part 3 of a multi-part series on the Great Books of Christianity. If you missed Part 1 or Part 2 check them out here and here.

1. Ninety-five Theses (1517, Martin Luther)

Few documents have caused a multi-national uproar on the level of Luther’s 95 Theses. Though not technically a “book” in the strict sense, the once-Augustinian friar’s list of complaints against the Church hierarchy ruptured the world. The work is essentially a call to condemn the Catholic Church’s position on plenary indulgences – the practice of forgiving sin’s temporal consequences, often through monetary donation. The practice was widely abused by clergy during the time of Luther in the early 1500’s, providing dissatisfied Christians plenty of ammo to advance heterodox theological positions. Though Luther’s intent was not initially to break away from the Catholic Church, the Reformation took on a life of its own and his complaints were viewed as the initial spark. Few today argue that Luther’s complaints were completely unfounded, though there remains great debate between Protestants and Catholics over Luther’s and the reformationists’ self-prescribed remedy. Nonetheless, the work endures as one of the most influential documents to ever be published. There is a distinct line between the world before Luther’s Theses and the world after Luther’s Theses. 

“Christians are to be taught that he who sees a needy man and passes him by, yet gives his money for indulgences, does not buy papal indulgences but God’s wrath.”

Martin Luther, Ninety-five Theses

2. Spiritual Exercises (1524, Ignatius Loyola) 

The Spiritual Exercises are a collection of meditations and prayers written by Ignatius of Loyola, Spanish priest and founder of the Jesuit Order, in 1524. The meditations and prayers follow a schedule spread out over roughly a month, and are intended for spiritual retreats, aiming to guide one in discerning Christ’s plan for their lives. Ignatius focuses particularly on the motives, or “spirits,” that cause a person to take one action over another. The work helps one decide whether one’s actions are motivated by good spirits or evil spirits, and how one should discern between the two. Jesuits have led spiritual retreats using Spiritual Exercises since the 1500’s, though recently the work has seen a revival among Christians of all traditions affirming its longevity and broad appeal for those seeking to grow in their spiritual life. 

“For it is not knowing much, but realizing and relishing things interiorly, that contents and satisfies the soul.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises

3. The Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, John Calvin)

Published in Latin in 1536, John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion sums up Protestant doctrine and lays out the fundamentals of Reformed theology, or Calvinism. The work explores two basic topics: the creator (God) and his creatures (mankind). According to Calvin, the best way to arrive at knowledge of God is by first examining His creation. In its final edition, the book is broken up into four distinct sections: the first section discusses God’s role as creator and provider of the Universe, emphasizing His role as Father; the second section describes how only Christ the Son could reveal the true nature of the Father; the third section emphasizes the Holy Spirit’s role in raising Christ from the dead and unifying the Church; finally the last section deals with the practical aspects of living the faith, sacraments, and church structure. The Institutes has proved to be one of the most popular references for early Reformation theology and is still widely read today. 

“All future events being uncertain to us, seem in suspense as if ready to take either direction. Still, however, the impression remains seated in our hearts, that nothing will happen which the Lord has not provided.”

John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion

4. The Sinner’s Guide (1555, Louis of Granada)

Written by Dominican Friar Louis of Granada in 1555, The Sinner’s Guide is a spiritual classic. The eloquent work was hailed as a favorite by Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and Francis De Sales for good reason. It provides practical guidance on how to overcome sinful temptations like pride, envy, gluttony, and sloth while also providing a road map for developing virtues. Louis’s life reflected his holy teachings – his book made an immense amount of money during Louis’s lifetime, which was all generously donated to the poor and needy.

No, doubt not, but be assured that in addition to all this He will give you the necessary strength to overcome the passions which torment you.”

Louis of Granada, The Sinner’s Guide

5. Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul (1579, John of the Cross)

The Ascent of Mount Carmel and Dark Night of the Soul are unfinished commentaries on the poem Dark Night by St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite friar. The Ascent discusses how to spiritually purify the mind and body by untethering from worldly possessions and cares, while the Dark Night focuses on how one should weather the period of spiritual dryness, loneliness, and doubt that characterize the “dark night of the soul,” which is one of the final stages of purification. The works have been highly influential in mystic traditions in the centuries since its writing. 

“God leads into the dark night those whom He desires to purify from all these imperfections so that He may bring them farther onward.”

St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul

6. The Interior Castle (1588, Teresa of Avila)

Inspired by a mystical vision showing a castle of seven chambers representing the different stages of spiritual progression, St. Teresa of Avila wrote her work The Interior Castle in 1588. The work aims to help guide the reader through each progression in faith, finally culminating in perfect union with God. Teresa believed this incremental journey to be the ideal spiritual life. As one of the few female “Doctors of the Church,” Teresa of Avila has plenty of great spiritual advice to share, and this work is perhaps the best embodiment of her devotional life.   

“The devil frequently fills our thoughts with great schemes, so that instead of putting our hands to what work we can do to serve our Lord, we may rest satisfied with wishing to perform impossibilities.”

St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle

7. Spiritual Combat (1589, Lorenzo Scupoli)

Lorenzo Scupoli, a Theatine priest, wrote Spiritual Combat in 1589. The work became an instant hit and was published in numerous languages in the years following. Scupoli’s work gives practical tips on living a more spiritual life, mainly focusing on restraining one’s selfish desires and replacing these urges with good deeds like charity. Failure to do so results in Hell while the one who trusts in God completely will be able to accomplish the impossible through God’s power and will be in Heaven. The work deals with everyday situations where one is presented with the choices between Heaven and Hell. Thus, the battle between these two forces is the spiritual combat referenced in the title. The goal of Scupoli’s work is to help one maintain a virtuous mindset and a pure conscience in the face of the troubles that arise in a fallen world.  

“All earthly things, except those absolutely necessary, must die through our complete disregard for them, even though they are not wrong in themselves. We must control our minds and not permit them to wander aimlessly about. Our minds must become insensible to mundane projects, to gossip, to the feverish search for news.”

Lorenzo Scupoli, Spiritual Combat

8. Introduction to a Devout Life (1609, Francis De Sales)

Completed in 1609 by French Priest and Bishop of Geneva Francis de Sales, Introduction to a Devout Life was popular among both Protestant and Catholic audiences, a feat Francis would have been proud of considering his efforts to heal the wide religious divisions in his homeland in the wake of the Reformation. The work is a type of lectio divina, or “divine reading,” which is a monastic practice of scriptural reading consisting of four parts: reading, meditation, praying, and contemplation. The work itself is divided into five parts, each focusing on a separate stage of the Christian’s faith journey; they are: (I) Attaining a Firm Resolution to the Devout Life; (II) Prayer and the Sacraments; (III) The Practice of Virtue; (IV) Some Ordinary Temptations and how to overcome them; (V) Renewing and Confirming the Soul in Devotion. De Sales said of his motivations for writing the book: “My purpose is to instruct those who live in town, within families, or at court, and are obliged to live an ordinary life as to outward appearances…Wherever we may be, we can and should aspire to the perfect life.” 

“We all colour devotion according to our own likings and dispositions. One man sets great value on fasting, and believes himself to be leading a very devout life, so long as he fasts rigorously, although the while his heart is full of bitterness;–and while he will not moisten his lips with wine, perhaps not even with water, in his great abstinence, he does not scruple to steep them in his neighbour’s blood, through slander and detraction.”

St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life

9. Pensées, (1670, Blaise Pascal)

Pensées (“Thoughts”) is a fragmented defense of the Christian religion written by French Catholic Philosopher and notable mathematician Blaise Pascal. Though left unfinished, the work is a culmination of Pascal’s religious conversion to Christianity and the fruit of his subsequent ascetic lifestyle. The most notable portion of Pensées presents the philosopher’s famous apologetic argument for God’s existence known as “Pascal’s Wager.” The wager posits that a reasonable person should behave as if God existed and try their best to believe in God. If God does not exist, that person will have only temporary losses such as corporeal gratifications or wealth. If God does indeed exist, then they have eternal gains in Heaven. Contrarily, one who fails to believe in God gains only the temporary pleasures of this life if God does not exist, yet forfeits the eternal rewards of Heaven if God does exist and stands to endure eternal torment in Hell. Overall, the work is an important defense of Christian rationale, even being hailed by notable religious skeptic Will Durant as “the most eloquent book in French prose.” 

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal, Pensées

10. The Practice of the Presence of God (1692, Brother Lawrence)

The Practice of the Presence of God is a compilation of teachings ascribed to Brother Lawrence, a French Carmelite friar. The teachings were collected and published by Father Joseph de Beaufort in 1692 after brother Lawrence’s death. The work focuses on the friar’s attempt to develop awareness of God’s constant presence in his life, and his findings can be used to do the same in our lives. Lawrence implores his readers to understand that, no matter one’s station in life, all one’s activities can be important to God. One does not need to do great deeds to please God. Lawrence also emphasizes the importance of creating a habit of hearing God’s voice, writing, “…in order to form a habit of conversing with God continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty.”

“Do not be discouraged by the resistance you will encounter from your human nature; you must go against your human inclinations. Often, in the beginning, you will think that you are wasting time, but you must go on, be determined and persevere in it until death, despite all the difficulties.”

Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God

11. A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1729, William Law)

The Anglican priest William Law wrote A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life in 1729 to urge Christian’s to embrace lives that are worthy of God’s calling for them . Law posited that since God is the highest good, a believer’s life should be directed toward God in every activity. Law’s writing’s  were highly influential to post-reformation theology, and his works had an impact on other notable protestants like John and Charles Wesley. 

“As sure, therefore, as there is any wisdom in praying for the Spirit of God, so sure is it, that we are to make that Spirit the rule of all our actions;”

William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life

12. Lives of the Saints (1759, Father Alban Butler)

One of the most popular Christian works of all time, Lives of the Saints by Father Alban Butler is a collection of accounts of the lives of various saints of the Catholic Church. The work covers the entire span of church history, from the time of the apostles until present day (originally covering up until 1759 at the time of writing, however new editions have included more modern saints). Each day of the year is dedicated to a different saint, giving the reader daily inspiration from an exemplary Christian.

“…pride and vain-glory are the most dangerous of all vices, and that they are the most difficult to be discovered, and the last that are vanquished in the spiritual warfare; that humility is the very foundation of all true virtue, and our progress in it the measure of our advancement in Christian perfection.”

Fr. Alban Butler, Lives of the Saints

Final Thoughts

In the post-reformation landscape, the West began to be pulled in many directions, breaking from the relative continuity of the past millennium. Thus we begin to see a wider variety of Christian works, making the challenge of compiling a “best of” list even more difficult. We’ve surely missed some great books, so feel free to let us know your favorites. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: