(Aside from the Bible, of course!)
After I commented on another man’s list of the same title, a reader asked, “So where’s your list Joel?” Fair enough.
But first, let’s talk a little bit about books and influence.
First, let me say that the answer to such a question as “most influence” must inevitably be highly nuanced. After all, how do you define “influence”? Books can influence us profoundly in different ways, at different times in our lives, and for different reasons along the way.
For example, one of the books that had the deepest impact on me spiritually was C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. But it was only one chapter in that book that moved me so much, and it was only at an early point in my spiritual life that I needed that particular message badly. It was profound influence, very deep, but only a tiny portion of that book did so (much of the rest I found quite uneventful).
The same could be said for Lewis’ The Weight of Glory, and much else that he wrote.
So should I include such a book? Eh. Maybe at a different time in my life. Maybe in a different list for a different purpose. Yet to leave it out here is to exclude a book that God used to transform my life, again, profoundly. Nevertheless, I will leave it out here.
Along with this idea, we should acknowledge that sometimes just an article can be more influential than a book. (Heck, a proverb can be more influential than that even.) For example, Murray Rothbard’s essay “The Anatomy of the State” has been more influential to my understanding of statism than most other works on civil government, like, say, Willson’s The Establishment and Limits of Civil Government, or Gary DeMar’s God and Government, although I would side with Willson and DeMar on some points over against Rothbard. The influence of the former, however, is greater to the point of being worth mentioning. But it’s not a “book.”
This aspect of deep but narrow influence continues in concern to particular issues. For example, Joel Miller’s book Bad Trip: How the War Against Drugs is Destroying America greatly impacted how I view the drug war issue and related topics. I would not be the same mind I am today without that book. But do I include it in my list? Sorry, it won’t make this particular cut. But every Christian needs to read it.
Further, there are writers who helped me greatly to understand something important—say, the five points of Calvinism—but whom I would later abandon as poor examples. Yes, it’s true: some can teach limited concepts wonderfully, but then lead you into all kinds of nonsense, like radical two kingdoms doctrine, some of which abandons the very principles they have in other places taught so well. For that reason, they’ll get no mention here.
Other theologians have influenced me greatly in basic things, but then just stop. Instead of running into nonsense like those just mentioned, they just go no further. In this category, I would have to mention J. I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. This book helped me greatly, but it won’t make this cut, because it deals only with basic questions in a narrow topic. Like Lewis’s books mentioned earlier, this one impacted me in a narrow area, and only at a key (early) point in my life. Most of R. C. Sproul’s books would fall in this category as well. I cut my reformed teeth on them, but others who I think have elucidated the fullness of Reformed theology have influenced me more greatly since then.
Other examples of narrow but deep influence could be Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. But this only influenced me in my writing style (that is, when I am conscious to follow it—usually I am much more ponderous). The same is true of Will Durant and Bertrand Russell. Their writing styles for historical prose and for the history of philosophy are awesome, virtually unbeatable in my opinion. When I make a focused effort to write well (instead of dashing off daily posts), I am greatly influenced by them. These men’s books have influenced me greatly, but only in a technical aspect of my job, not in regards to worldview or spirituality or doctrine. (The best way to learn to write well is to read good writers, even if you disagree with them.)
Sticking with the technical theme, I can say I have come across certain writings here and there that are very obscure, but have confirmed suspicions I’ve had, or have enlightened me in a profoundly helpful way. For example, Wayne Parsons’ Keynes and the Quest for a Moral Science: A Study of Economics and Alchemy influenced a side-study I’ve been working on for some time, and on which may write a substantial work in the future. Parsons’ book forced me to expand my study of the influence of esoteric traditions (which is far greater than most people know) into the work of John Maynard Keynes—and this in turn affects nearly all of modern economics and finance. Worldview connections open up everywhere.
But can I list this book as “most influential”? Maybe someday, but it doesn’t fit right now. But then, if that vein materializes like I think it will, I will also have to mention in some capacity Billington’s Fire in the Minds of Men, Glenn Alexander Magee’s Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition, and even David Aikman’s unpublished doctoral dissertation, The Role of Atheism in the Marxist Tradition. These are all things hard to find and of which most people have little knowledge—but have influenced me.
On a related note, there are obscure works that have been influential in the sense that they clenched a vital thesis for me, yet had hardly any personal impact upon my development. For example, reading Jacob Strauss’ 51 theses Against Unchristian Usury was a eureka and a great boost to my spirits. It was a lynchpin in my doctoral thesis. It secured my thesis and allowed me to overturn the claims of two giants of the scholarly world—Ford Lewis Battles and G. H. Williams—regarding influences on Calvin’s views of mosaic law. It also has opened up a vast new study for me in regard to understanding the impetus and nature of the Reformation. (Hint: the story is much greater and much more worldly than you’ve ever been told. And I plan to tell it in 2017.)
But, Strauss’s tract is only a few pages (hardly a “book”), and exists only in 16th Century German. With the exception of a few places in technical monographs, it has never even been translated into modern German, let alone English. I am the only person I know of who has ever done any of it in English. Most people will never ever get to read it.
So, does this count? I think it should, but it would be utterly pointless to tell you about it, because most people could never even find a copy, let alone read it. (But you can read parts of it my thesis.)
Then there is the issue of negative influence. This is being profoundly influenced by something that you would not touch with a ten-foot pole, but against which you react so strongly you must count it, technically, as a powerful influence. Famously, it was the writings of David Hume that shocked Immanuel Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.” Kant then began to write his most well-known philosophy in order to refute Hume (for which philosophy students have been profoundly burdened now for centuries). This is profound influence, but not in a formative, nurturing way. The same could be said, I suppose, for the writings of certain dispensationalists in regard to how they influenced men like Gary DeMar and Kenneth Gentry. Neither of these men would count dispensationalists among their greatest influences, but negatively they are. And this happens all over the world of scholarship.
All of us have the negative influence issue in our lives, yet few realize it and even fewer acknowledge it. Personally, for example, I could point to writings of atheists, Satanists (Anton LaVey), theosophists, cults leaders (Garner Ted Armstrong, for example), and dozens of philosophers and theologians who have provided for me the type of negative influence of which I am speaking. Personally, I think Friedrich Nietzsche and the Marquis de Sade are required reading for understanding the logical consequences of unbelieving thought—and thus also for Christian apologetics. But be careful where you tread. As Nietzsche himself said: be careful when you fight a monster that you don’t become one yourself in the process.
I regard almost the entire industry of modern Bible commentaries as a reaction to 19th Century higher criticism. Some are influenced as clones of that tradition, the more conservative writers are influenced negatively in reaction to it. Either way, it is profound influence.
Historically, heresy has been one of the most profound influences upon the formation of orthodoxy: heresy appears first, and thus forces the faithful community to answer important questions that had theretofore been not only unanswered but not even asked. I believe full preterism should be this type of negative influence for the church today. It is heresy, but it is just the type of annoying heresy that demands answers to many uncomfortable but unasked questions.
There are also little nit-picky distinctions to be made. What if a “book” appears in more than one volume? What of a church history set or the Battles edition of Calvin’s Institutes? I don’t mind listing a set as a “book” for the purposes of determining “book”-level influence. Just know that not all of the set is equally important.
Finally, there are authors whose entire corpus has profoundly influenced me, though some of it more than other parts. Indeed, in some of these great corpuses, there may even be certain ideas or books I would qualify or even reject. For example, there is hardly anything by R. J. Rushdoony I would not consider “most influential” upon me, but first, he wrote about sixty books. In a top ten, he and Gary North would monopolize the list. Yet I cannot give blanket endorsement, because I disagree with Rushdoony on ecclesiology, dietary laws, and the Constitution. So, how do I sort out all of this in such a list? You can’t. Read Rushdoony. Period.
So with all of this said, you can see that any such “most influential books” list is going to be helpful and meaningful only in a very limited sense. It would be better to have a series of reading lists tailored to the stages of development of the reader, and topics of specialization once they’ve reached a certain advanced level of groundwork, ability, and interest. Perhaps I will provide some of these in the future. (I have done at least one already.)
For now, here are the top ten books that have been most influential in making me me, as I am, today:
(Note: these are not in order, except I would put Van Til as seminal, to be followed closely by Rushdoony and North as the necessary and logical outworkings of what Van Til taught.)
1. Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith.
2. R. J. Rushdoony, The Messianic Character of American Education.
3. R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law.
4. Gary North, Political Polytheism: The Myth of Pluralism.
5. Gary North, Tools of Dominion: The Case Laws of Exodus (this book is now volumes 3 and 4 in North’s six-volume commentary on Exodus, linked here with the rest of his economic commentary on the Bible, all of which is important and “most influential” to me).
6. Gary North, Millennialism and Social Theory.
7. Gary North, Dominion and Common Grace.
8. Ray Sutton, That You May Prosper. (Absolutely indispensable.)
9. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Personally, I prefer the more literal rawness of Beveridge’s translation in many places, but Battles’ is more modern, easier to read, and in a much more helpful critical edition, with great indexes.) (Don’t neglect, also, to read the 1536 edition (much shorter, also translated by Battles) separately from the standard, two-volume 1559 final edition.)
10. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (3 Vols.)
Now, a few more words about these influences. First, it’s hard to squeeze in anyone but Rushdoony and North. In reality, I could have stuck with North the whole way. The sole exception to this difficulty is Calvin. His Institutes profoundly molded me, and continues to do so, even though I disagree with him in a few places.
Nevertheless, my theonomic readers will ask, How in the world does Schaff get in and Bahnsen does not? Simple. Schaff profoundly influenced my understanding of church history. No other secondary source has come close to that. It was North who convinced me of theonomy. Bahnsen was secondary and only supportive and confirmatory after that. I still recommend people read everything Bahnsen wrote, but his direct influence on me was secondary (to North on theonomy, and to Van Til in apologetics) and largely unneeded by the point I read him. Schaff’s influence was not.
The same is true for David Chilton, Kenneth Gentry, James B. Jordan, and a host of other theonomic and Christian Reconstructionist writers. I recommend you read everything from all of them, but none have been as influential as these on my work. Since time is limited, as for priorities, I would recommend reading what I have listed first, then following the important books listed in their footnotes where interested, then going to the other writers.
Then there is the issue of numbers of influence. Is it safe to have as your primary influences only a handful of men? Perhaps I can address this more in depth later, but keep in mind that such a list as this can be deceptive because it deals with only greatest influences. I hasten to say that dozens of historical writers have influenced me greatly and yet not made the cut. The same is true for writers in all disciplines and genres. I will not take the time to mention them all. Many have provided great influences, and it is tempting to list this work and that here and there, but it would be unconscionable for me here not to relate those that have truly had the most profound impact. I believe this list is indicative enough of that.
Further, please note that much of my intellectual progress now occurs through the reading of countless non-“book” original sources. Like those mentioned earlier in regard to Jacob Strauss, for anyone interested in worldview, and particularly intellectual history, the reading of original sources is indispensable. My book Restoring America would have been impossible without access to Storing’s 7-volume edition of the Anti-Federalist papers. Those writers confirmed forever, and greatly advanced, for me the view of American history I first got in North’s Political Polytheism. The same has been true the more I read in the letters of the constitutional framers—and this is reading that could and does consume the lifetimes of many people. It is thousands of letters, tens of thousands of pages. You could enter a study here and read nothing else in your life.
My study of the early history of Georgia was of very much the same nature. But neither it nor my Restoring America studies would have been possible without reading dozens of academic journal articles—many of which are tangential and boring, but some of which pointed me in the direction of crucial original sources that indeed do have profound impact.
Further, you may shriek in horror at the thought that reading certain anarchistic writers has influenced me in different ways in regard to the correct interpretation of faithfulness to Old Testament law. I am sure that’s too much for some people to accept; others will delight; for others this will be confirmation that Joel McDurmon is indeed of the devil. Sorry. None of these overreactions will be acceptable. It’s almost purely heuristic.
In the end, my point is that we should be careful as to how we attribute influence, for it is a very slippery category. My most profound influences—again, besides the Bible itself—are listed here. You should follow them, too. Others could be added, and I hope to expand on the ones I have listed in such a way as to add to someone else’s list in the future. But we should be careful and honest when taking stock of who and what has influenced us, how exactly they have done so, and how we lead others to be influenced, or not, by them as well.