In the early 1900’s, Harvard University President Charles W. Elliot made an offhand comment that a 3-foot bookshelf would be all that was needed for a motivated person to give themselves a fulfilling education.
Afterwards he was inundated with requests for an exact list of books that would go on this shelf. After more careful consideration, he found it necessary to expand his shelf to 5 feet to accommodate his recommendations.
Starting in 1909, his recommended books were published as a 50-volume set now known as the Harvard Classics.
In marketing materials for the set, Elliot wrote:
My aim was not to select the best fifty, or best hundred, books in the world, but to give, in twenty-three thousand pages or thereabouts, a picture of the progress of the human race within historical times, so far as that progress can be depicted in books … my task was to provide the means of obtaining such knowledge of ancient and modern literature as seemed essential to the twentieth-century idea of a cultivated man. The best acquisition of a cultivated man is a liberal frame of mind or way of thinking; but there must be added to that possession acquaintance with the prodigious store of recorded discoveries, experiences, and reflections which humanity in its intermittent and irregular progress from barbarism to civilization has acquired and laid up.
As a book lover myself, I have always been interested in the idea of assembling a set of books that would give a Christian with limited shelf space and a limited budget a solid library from which they could deepen their knowledge of Scripture and theology.
This is my attempt to provide such a list.
Limiting myself to the same constraint of 5 feet of shelf space, I have curated books in the areas of Biblical studies, theology, apologetics, church history, Christian living, personal devotion, and Christian literature.
The goal is that this shelf would contain sufficient resources to study Scripture in-depth, be guided in developing sound theological foundations, and increase your faith. I have also chosen books that you could return to again and again and still benefit from.
As with Elliot’s list, I do not claim that these are the only books you should own or read in each of these categories. Rather, these selections will provide the reader with a depth and breadth of knowledge within a limited amount of space and, as a result, can be obtained with a limited budget.
As was the case with the original selection of the Harvard Classics, the contributions of living authors have been limited in favor of books about which the “verdict of the educated world” is more final.
In any given category there is going to be a great book that was left out in favor of another. You may prefer one author above another. There will be, in all likelihood, gaps in these recommendations that can be remedied by later revisions.
Even so, what appears below is my attempt to provide an adequate book list that will supply the reader with trusted works to guide them in their spiritual development.
As we go through the list, I will keep a running tally of the space required for each book, and we will limit the entire list to five feet (60 inches) of books in total.
Links to purchase the books on Amazon can be found all in one place right here, or you can click the individual book titles below.
Note: The links below are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking the link I will receive a small percentage of the sale at no additional cost to you. A number of the older selections are freely available online.
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BIBLE STUDY RESOURCES
All of our theological studies must begin with and be checked against the Word of God. These resources will help you dig deeper into Scripture.
A Study Bible (2.5 inches)There are many great study Bibles available (see some recommendations here). By compiling explanatory notes, maps, articles, and other resources alongside the Biblical text, you can enrich your study of Scripture without having to consult multiple other books. Some study Bibles to consider are:
A Bible concordance is a comprehensive reference tool that lists words used in the Bible and their corresponding passages. For example, if you recall that there is a passage about us being more valuable to God than many sparrows but did not recall the verse, you could look up ‘sparrow’ and find it quickly. There are many different concordances available. It may be best to choose one that is in the same translation that you use most often for Bible study.
This Bible commentary provides insightful, thoughtful, and practical explanations that apply to everyday life, while remaining grounded in sound theology. Henry’s work is renowned for its warmth and devotion, making it an essential resource for both scholars and laypersons seeking to deepen their understanding of Scripture.
This in-depth and comprehensive overview of the Old Testament examines the historical context, structure, and themes of each book, making it an excellent help for those studying or teaching the Old Testament.
Carson and Moo provide a thorough overview of the New Testament, from its historical context to literary style and theological themes. This book is recommended for anyone seeking a better understanding of the New Testament, whether a student of theology, a pastor, or a layperson.
This is a clear and straightforward guide to understanding the New Testament. It examines the background context and the specific books like the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s letters. This book simplifies the message of the New Testament for both beginners and experienced scholars.
In this concise guide, New Testament scholar G.K. Beale provides valuable insights into interpreting the Old Testament references in the New Testament. The book equips students and pastors with practical tools to better understand and appreciate the New Testament’s use of the Old Testament.
BB Warfield, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, presents a rigorous argument for the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible. His work is highly recommended for those interested in exploring or defending the authority of Scripture.
This Bible dictionary allows all students of Scripture to better understand the original Greek and Hebrew of the Biblical text. Bible translator and scholar Dr. Bill Mounce has put together a fairly exhaustive resource that will enable you to look up particular words and see the full range of meaning in the original languages, even without a working knowledge of Greek or Hebrew.
Total Shelf Space for Theology Books: 14 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 46 inches
As RC Sproul has said, “The issue for Christians is not whether we are going to be theologians but whether we are going to be good theologians or bad ones.” These books are trustworthy resources to help you become a better theologian.
Systematic Theology (2.4 inches)
There are many great systematic theologies available, and as you would expect the author’s theological viewpoint impacts the text in many areas. For the most part, the common systematic theology books take up about the same amount of shelf space. Options worth considering are:
- Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, MacArthur (2.3)
- Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief, John Frame (2.4)
- Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof (2.3)
- Systematic Theology, Second Edition: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine – Wayne Grudem (2.4)
“Creeds, Confessions, and Catechisms” is a beautifully presented collection of 13 essential documents of the Christian faith: The Apostles’ Creed, The Nicene Creed, The Athanasian Creed, The Chalcedonian Definition, The Augsburg Confession, The Belgic Confession, The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, The Canons of Dort, The Westminster Confession of Faith, The London Baptist Confession, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Larger Catechism, and The Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Theological Dictionary – Greg R Allison (.64)
This book offers concise definitions of six hundred of the most significant words at the heart of the Christian faith. Students of the Bible, college and seminary students, and anyone who desires to deepen their understanding of the Christian faith will find this to be a helpful resource.
Calvin’s Institutes is one of the most influential works in Western theology, outlining the principles of Protestant faith in great depth. Calvin’s clear and engaging writing style is accessible even to those who are new to theological studies. This work is a must-read for anyone seeking a comprehensive understanding of Reformed theology.
R.C. Sproul provides a clear and easy-to-understand introduction to the principles of Reformed Theology. Sproul’s thoughtful and accessible writing makes complex theological concepts approachable. This book is highly recommended for anyone seeking a solid foundation in the Doctrines of Grace, whether you’re a newcomer to these teachings or looking to deepen your understanding.
Tozer explores the character and attributes of God, challenging readers to truly grasp the depth of God’s holiness. His classic work is a profound and humbling study, recommended to those seeking a deeper understanding and awe of the nature of God.
Sproul presents a detailed and insightful examination of the nature of God’s holiness. This book is recommended for anyone seeking to explore the theological depths of God’s righteousness, a central truth we must not overlook.
Murray offers a meticulous exploration of the doctrines of redemption and atonement in this work. His theological insights are deep, making this book a valuable read for those seeking a greater understanding of these foundational Christian beliefs.
With over twenty contributors, this book brings to light the timeless truths of the 1689 London Baptist Confession. This work can serve as a guide to better understanding the doctrinal truths articulated in this sound confession of faith and give you a greater grasp of the truths of Scripture.
A catechism is a means teaching sound doctrine through the use of questions and answers. Although designed for training up children, a catechism is a valuable resource for all believers. While I recommend Keach’s catechism, the Westminster shorter and longer catechisms are also recommended (my views on baptism aside).
Thomas Watson’s ‘A Body of Divinity’ delves deep into the core principles of the Christian faith using the Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism, a masterful collection of the faith’s tenets in a question-and-answer format. Watson’s unique, rich, and engaging writing style makes him one of the most accessible Puritan authors, ensuring that readers gain both knowledge and inspiration from his insights.
Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (.86) This dictionary offers definitions for almost 7,000 theological concepts, covering areas from biblical studies and church history to contemporary theological movements. Enhanced with cross-references, scholarly abbreviations, an annotated bibliography, and a categorically grouped introductory section, this is a valuable resource for quick and comprehensive theological insights.
Total Shelf Space for Theology Books: 11.4 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 34.6 inches
We are called by Scripture to be prepared to give a defense for the hope that is within us. These apologetics resources will equip you with not only the information but also the mindset needed to articulate the truth claims of Christianity to others.
McDowell’s comprehensive book offers well-researched arguments defending the truth claims of Christianity. This updated edition includes more evidence and responses to recent critiques, making it a valuable resource for Christians seeking to strengthen their faith and their apologetic approach. See my full review.
This book examines and refutes skeptical criticism about the reliability of the Gospels. Blomberg gives readers reasons why we can trust these accounts about Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. His work on defending the reality of the resurrection is especially helpful.
Tactics – Greg Koukl (.65)
In Tactics, Koukl provides practical strategies for defending the Christian faith in everyday conversations. This book is recommended for anyone looking for accessible and effective ways to discuss their faith with others. This is my most-recommended apologetics book.
Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis (.65)
In Mere Christianity, Lewis presents a series of arguments for the existence and nature of God, as well as the fundamental principles of the Christian faith. This is a classic and is commonly considered a must read for every believer.
This is a comprehensive reference book that critically examines a broad range of modern religious movements and cults. It scrutinizes their beliefs, practices, and influences, providing readers with an understanding of these groups within a Christian theological context.
This book covers key terms, concepts, and people in the field of Christian apologetics. Geisler’s scholarly yet accessible writing explains challenging theological, philosophical, and historical issues, making it an excellent tool for both beginners and experts in Christian apologetics.
Total Shelf Space for Apologetics Books: 8.02 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 26.58 inches
CHRISTIAN LIVING BOOKS
These books aim at helping you become a more faithful and fruitful follower of Jesus.
Spiritual Disciplines – Don Whitney (0.9 inches)
Whitney’s work on the spiritual disciplines is a helpful guide for Christians seeking personal growth and deeper intimacy with God. It provides practical advice on prayer, meditation, fasting, and other spiritual practices, making it a useful tool for both personal and group studies.
Puritan Thomas Brooks addresses the various tactics and strategies used by Satan to lead people astray and offers advice on how to resist and overcome these temptations. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices is a practical and informative guide for Christians seeking to overcome the temptations of the devil.
This book by 17th-century Scottish theologian Henry Scougal explores the nature of the human soul and the ways in which it can be transformed by the presence of God. George Whitefield said that he never understood true religion until he read this book.
The Imitation of Christ is a timeless Christian devotional that emphasizes humility, obedience, and self-denial, guiding readers to live like Christ. Its profound reflections and practical spiritual exercises have inspired Christians for centuries.
The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment addresses the importance of contentment in the Christian life and offers practical advice on how to cultivate a peaceful and satisfied spirit. Burroughs draws on his own experiences and the teachings of the Bible to offer guidance on how to overcome the various obstacles that can prevent us from experiencing true contentment.
Packer masterfully addresses the seemingly paradoxical relationship between human responsibility in evangelism and God’s sovereignty in salvation. The book is recommended for those grappling with election and seeking to understand the divine and human roles in the process of salvation.
Stott’s book provides a clear and succinct presentation of the central beliefs of the Christian faith. It’s an excellent resource for new believers and those interested in better articulating the core tenets of Christianity.
An evocative exploration of the relationship between a Christian believer and Jesus Christ, Spurgeon highlights the grace and mercy of Christ as a savior and the profound transformation within a believer. This classic work is highly recommended for anyone seeking to understand the depth of the Christian faith and the redemptive power of Christ.
Sande offers biblical and practical advice on resolving conflicts in a peaceful and godly manner. This book is an invaluable tool for anyone seeking to handle disagreements and disputes in a way that promotes peace and unity.
This book is a timeless guide on spiritual leadership, providing sound biblical principles for leadership within the church and other organizations. It’s recommended for anyone in a leadership role or aspiring to lead.
Holiness – JC Ryle (0.82)
Ryle’s book remains a classic work on the subject of Christian sanctification. It provides a profound exploration of personal holiness, challenging readers to pursue a life of devotion and moral purity. It’s highly recommended for anyone seeking to grow in their Christian walk.
Total Shelf Space for Christian Living Books: 6.45 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 20.13 inches
CHURCH HISTORY BOOKS
We cannot benefit from the wisdom and example of the past (or avoid repeating the same mistakes) if we are ignorant about church history. These books will give you a comprehensive overview of our heritage as believers.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (1.09 inches)One of the only books that John Bunyan had with him during his time in Bedford prison, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs details accounts of early Christians who were martyred for their faith, providing both challenge and encouragement for the reader.
The ‘Apostolic Fathers’ refers to a group of early Christian leaders who lived and wrote in the first and second centuries. There is a reason that I make this recommendation in the category of church history rather than theology. Though I cannot commend all of the doctrine in these writings, they are nevertheless valuable as early Christian works. This edition includes the letters of Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp as well as the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and other early writings.
Shelley’s work is a comprehensive and accessible guide to two millennia of Christian history. Engagingly written, it’s an excellent introduction for anyone seeking to understand the major events, figures, and ideas that have shaped Christianity.
Bruce provides a scholarly yet readable exploration of the historical context of the New Testament. The book offers valuable insights into the world of Jesus and the early church, making it a recommended read for anyone interested in the New Testament era.
Allison provides an organized and comprehensive overview of the development of Christian doctrine throughout history. This book is highly recommended for theology students and anyone interested in understanding how Christian beliefs have evolved over time.
This book provides concise and insightful biographies of 50 significant figures in Christian history. It is a valuable resource for Christians interested in learning from the lives and legacies of faithful believers who have gone before us.
Berkhof offers a detailed examination of how Christian doctrine has developed throughout history. This book is an important read for those interested in historical theology and the evolution of Christian thought.
An influential early Christian text that addresses Christ’s divinity and humanity and the reason God the Son took on flesh. Athanasius’ theological insights offer a profound look at the purpose of the Incarnation. (Be sure to get one that has CS Lewis’ introduction).
Total Shelf Space for Church History Books: 8.17 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 11.96 inches
PERSONAL DEVOTION BOOKS
Resources to aid you in your spiritual development and deepen your relationship with the Lord. Of course, many of the other books on this list can aid your personal devotion. These recommendations just round out your resources in this area.
Hymns of Grace (1.5 inches)
Every Christian home should be equipped with at least one good hymnal. While there are many available, all should take up about the same amount of shelf space. The key is to find one with a good selection of songs. This hymnal contains over 350 hymns, including both time-tested classics and newer songs that are rich in style and theology.
Valley of Vision (0.6)
Valley of Vision is a collection of beautiful Puritan prayers. Here you will become acquainted to their devotion to God and personal piety, and you will be struck by how much these lines will seem as though they speak directly to your own personal experience. This is a helpful aid for your prayer life.
As the title suggests, this daily devotional offers comforting and inspiring thoughts for each morning and night. Spurgeon’s words encourage readers to start and end their day with God.
In this short work, Luther provides a helpful guide that teaches readers an easy method for prayer. It encourages open, heartfelt conversations with God. This book is a great choice for anyone who wants to improve their prayer life, especially those new to prayer or looking for a more meaningful way to connect with their faith.
Knowing God – JI Packer (0.9)
Packer’s exploration of the nature and character of God is a classic of Christian literature. This book is a must-read for anyone seeking to deepen their relationship with God and understand Him in a more profound way.
Total Shelf Space for Personal Devotion Books: 5.1 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 6.86 inches
While the majority of this bookshelf consists of theological, devotional, and Bible study resources, there is much to be gained from works of fiction and classic literature.
Pilgrim’s Progress – John Bunyan (.45 inches)
Bunyan’s allegorical novel is a timeless tale of a man’s journey to the Celestial City. Its insights into the Christian life and struggles of faith are as relevant today as they were when it was first published. This is a must-read for every believer. Learn more here.
Lewis’ beloved series of fantasy novels combines imaginative storytelling with profound Christian themes. They are not only a joy to read, but also provide valuable spiritual insights, making them a treasure for both young readers and adults. This edition contains all 7 books in the series, unabridged in one volume.
‘The Screwtape Letters’ is a collection of fictional letters written by a senior demon, Screwtape, to his novice nephew, Wormwood. The letters offer advice on how to effectively tempt a human, referred to as “the Patient,” away from God and towards sin. Through this satirical lens, Lewis explores Christian theology and human nature, shedding light on the spiritual struggles individuals face and the tactics of temptation employed by the forces of evil.
This historical novel is set in ancient Rome and Jerusalem. It follows the life of Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish prince falsely accused of treason. As he seeks revenge against his betrayers, especially the Roman friend who betrayed him, Judah’s journey intertwines with the life and teachings of Jesus Christ. The novel delves into themes of redemption, vengeance, and the transformative power of Christ’s love, culminating in an iconic chariot race and the crucifixion of Jesus.
While not an explicitly Christian book, this epic tale set against the backdrop of post-revolutionary France contains keen insight into the human soul, grappling with themes of grace, forgiveness, redemption, and sacrificial love. This timeless masterpiece is a must-read, not only for its compelling narrative and complex characters but also for its profound exploration of the human condition and the transformative power of love and mercy.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1.13) Also not an explicitly Christian work, “Crime and Punishment” offers a profound exploration of themes such as redemption, sacrifice, and resurrection, providing a compelling narrative that mirrors the journey from sin to salvation. The characters navigate through moral decay, self-sacrifice, and spiritual rebirth, embodying the Christian virtues and struggles in a way that resonates with Scripture’s teachings on repentance and grace.
Total Shelf Space for Christian Literature: 6.86 inches
Total Shelf Space Remaining: 0 inches
There you have it, my attempt at providing a sufficient amount of material to allow for a deep study of Scripture and doctrine as well as devotion and spiritual development that can fit on a five-foot shelf.
Again, you can see all of these books in one place on this Amazon list:
It is likely (if not certain) that I have made selections that you disagree with or that there are other books that you would recommend adding to the list.
I want to hear your suggestions! But here is the rule:
You cannot go over the 5-foot restriction. If you recommend a book to add you must also suggest which book of similar width that you would leave off the shelf.
Leave your recommendations for what you would add and what you would remove to make room in the comments below!