Biographies are a great way to learn church history because biographies help us identify with real individual people. They show us that church history is not merely a list of names and dates. Good biographies immerse us in the history of a particular time and place. I have read a number of great biographies over the years. The following are five of my favorite.
Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, New Edition (University of California Press, 2000).
Peter Brown’s biography of Augustine remains the single best biography I have ever read. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Brown knows the history of the era as well as anyone, so he is able to do a masterful job of placing Augustine within his historical and cultural context. It does not hurt that Brown writes prose like a poet.
Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (Yale University Press, 1990).
The life of Martin Luther is the very definition of dramatic. In other words, one would have to try very hard to write a boring biography of Luther and succeed. Oberman’s biography of the Reformer is far from boring. In 2017, at least three new Luther biographies were added to the already long list of greats (e.g. Bainton, Brecht, etc.). I have yet to read the new ones by Scott Hendrix, Lyndal Roper, and Heinz Schilling, so it is possible that one of those will eventually replace Oberman as my favorite Luther biography. For now, I’m happy to recommend Oberman.
Bruce Gordon, Calvin (Yale University Press, 2009).
There are a number of good biographies of the Genevan Reformer including those by Bernard Cotret, Alister McGrath, Willem van ’t Spijker, Robert Godfrey, T.H.L. Parker, and Herman Selderhuis. My favorite, and the one I would recommend as the place to start, is Bruce Gordon’s 2009 biography. He does an outstanding job of helping the reader understand Calvin’s context.
Martin Greschat, Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times (Westminster John Knox, 2004).
If I were asked to name my favorite biography of any sixteenth-century Reformer, it would be Martin Greschat’s biography of Martin Bucer. Bucer’s life story itself doesn’t have the drama we find in Luther’s life. The biography is my favorite simply because it is so thoroughly researched and so well-written. The reader feels like he has visited sixteenth-century Stassbourg upon finishing this book.
Paul Gutjahr, Charles Hodge: Guardian of American Orthodoxy (Oxford University Press, 2011).
Paul Gutjahr’s biography of Charles Hodge is my favorite biography of any relatively recent theologian. In this case, by relatively recent, I mean Charles Hodge who lived from 1797 to 1878 and became one of the most influential Reformed theologians of the nineteenth century. Gutjahr is a great narrator. He is not a great theologian and misinterprets Hodge at points, but this is still the best starting point for an understanding of Hodge’s life.
Dr. Keith Mathison is professor of Systematic Theology at Reformation Bible College.