I know I recommend a lot of books, and I get asked by people for book references regularly for their research/studies/reading. A common question I get asked is about getting an overview. I must admit that as I finish my doctorate, I have gotten so focused on the details of my research that I feel like a diver who needs to come up and get air, and take an overview myself.
Here are some of my favorite books, that offer an overview of christian thinking, theology and thought, that I plan to re-read over the next year, to get the bigger picture, and have some pegs to hang my thinking and interactions on.
History and Development of Christian Thought
The Lion Concise Book of Christian Thought, by Tony Lane, is very short, easy to read, cheap, and the best book I have come across for getting a quick overview of christian thought, chronologically. Start here!
Overview of Theology
So many books on systematic theology and so little time! The three volume series Systematic Theology: Ethics (1), Doctrine (2), Witness (3), by the late James William McClendon, Jr. is outstanding. There are many books that set out an overview of theology, but this is my favorite by far. Recommended to me by Brian McLaren, and more recently in conversation with students supervised by McClendon, I am realizing that I need to re-read these three volumes slowly and thoughtfully, to get an overview of the nature, and areas of theology and how it connects to everything else. If you want an overview of the nature, and purpose of theology I couldn't recommend these more highly.
Detailed Overview of the development of Christian Thought
If you want something more expansive than Tony Lane's book, then the next step is Alistair McGrath's superb Christian Theology: An Introduction. This book is best read with the accompanying book The Christian Theology Reader. The 'Introduction' book takes you on a detailed tour of christian thinking through history, and the 'Theology Reader' allows you to read extracts from primary sources, so instead of just reading about 'Calvin' you can turn to extracts from Calvin. These two books are superb, and a must have for anyone wanting a detailed overview of christian thought and theology.
Detailed Overview of Recent Thought/Theology
Then to take the dive into the big movers and shakers in the the theological world since the enlightenment, these two books will serve you well. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought (ed Alistair McGrath), and The Modern Theologians: Introduction to Christian Theology in the Twentieth Century (The Great Theologians S.) edited by David Ford.
Read all these and you will have an appreciation for the history, nature, content of christian thinking, and the nature and purpose of theology, and some of the recent key developments that are affecting us today.
Now time to tell me your favorites, and books I might have missed that have helped you with your overviews.