James K. A. Smith (known by friends as “Jamie”) is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College. In his new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, he has given us a much-needed, easily read response to the rise of much neo-Calvinism in our time. I wish I had read something like this book when I was in my twenties. I think I would have been spared a number of mistakes if I had read it.

Letters I expect that many will read Letters to a Young Calvinist and conclude the same if they are in my generation and have followed the rise of the “young, restless, and Reformed” generation. Before reading Smith’s little book I imagined a book of my own (only in my mind for sure) that would be titled: Older, No Longer Restless and Still (Properly Understood) Reformed. (I do not, much like Smith, prefer the words “Calvinist/Calvinism” for identifying my biblical views of soteriology with a simple (quite simplistic) formula called TULIP. Calvin is my teacher here since “union with Christ” is the much bigger idea in his theology!) I don’t need to consider writing my book now that Jamie Smith has provided exactly what I envisioned and done it far better than I could ever have imagined.

First, if you know a young neo-Calvinist, or an older one who is teachable and willing to think, get this book to them as soon as possible. Smith articulates the pitfalls that Calvinists too easily fall into; e.g. fatalism, hyper-concern for doctrinal rigidity, a lack of winsomeness toward other Christians, pride in one’s systematic theological constructs which are very often not at the heart of mature Reformed theology, the failure to embrace “catholic” Christianity, etc.

Second, Smith writes from personal experience, an all too rare thing among many Calvinists who argue about objectivity so much. This little book is a kind of confession as well as a readable theological treatise on broadly understood, charitable and core Reformed faith. Smith served in an Assemblies of God ministry in California, where he witnessed a growing hunger for theological reflection (especially among young Latino believers). He came to Calvinism, like so many of us did, out of a different evangelical background. Immersed in the work of nineteenth century theologians like Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield and W. G. T. Shedd he became excited about his new discovery, writing, “I had finally discovered that I had a brain” (xi). He found contemporary writers like J. I.Packer, John Piper and Francis Schaeffer saying similar things to what he was reading in the older writers. From there he read Calvin, Augustine, Owen and Edwards. He adds, “In the Reformed tradition I found a home I’ve never left, even if I might now spend most of my time in other rooms of this sprawling estate that is ‘Calvinism’” (xi). I so identify with this journey. Many who once thought I was Reformed now question it but I am enjoying “this sprawling estate” in my older years like a great aged wine. It offers me direction and freedom. It provides a home but it has many unexplored rooms. It answers some questions but leads me to embrace the mystery of many others, including some offered by Reformed theology itself. Smith does a nice job underscoring these very points.

He writes of “looking back” at the “enthusiasm” of his younger Calvinism and now cringing at “the rough edges of my spiritual hubris” which is “an especially ugly vice” (xi). He admits that he was spending “an inordinate amount of time pointing out the error of their (Arminian) ways” (xi). How odd, he opines, that “the doctrines of grace” should prompt one to become haughty, self-confident and lacking in charity. If this strikes you as unfair, and you consider yourself a Calvinist, I suggest you take a hard look at your own life. Many of us have been where Smith has been and sadly have to admit it.

Third, this book is written as letters to “Jesse.” Jesse is a composite for friends of Smith’s when he was a younger man. But Jesse is also a “stand-in” for Smith’s younger self as well. Smith not only exposes the weaknesses of much that we call Calvinism but he is “eager to show a new visitor the riches of the mansion that might otherwise have remained hidden and unappreciated” (xiv). I have again experienced the same. So often I have people say to me something like this: “If I knew other Calvinists who believed as you do I think I would have more respect for the tradition.” This is no credit to me. It is simply what happens when you take the road Smith outlines so well.

Fourth, Smith’s interest is not simply theological information, though there is a good deal of that here in simple, clear and readable prose. His interest is in spiritual formation (xiv). Again, this is one of the more inviting parts of the Reformed tradition and one almost entirely lost among many neo-Calvinists.

Finally, Smith writes these letters as “an invitation to the Reformed tradition” seeing this tradition as a “way station of sorts” (xv). I love this approach. Reformed faith is centered in God himself as revealed in Jesus Christ and present with us in the Holy Spirit. (John Calvin, after all, has been called “the greatest theologian of the Holy Spirit” in church history). Thus Smith invites the reader into the Reformed tradition (keep the “way station” metaphor in mind here) as an invitation into the life of God.

Here, in sharp contrast to most neo-Reformed rhetorical theology, is the strength of Smith’s grasp of Reformed Christianity. It is a way, not a destination. “It is a means, not an end; it is a way onto the Way that is the road to and with Jesus” (xv). Reformed theology is not the only ship in God’s fleet but it is a very good one that helps propel you toward the shores of the kingdom of God. It leads you, when embraced with grace and true humility, to encounter the Word made flesh. Smith concludes: “These letters are just little brochures spreading the news about the journey” (xv). Yes, they are and they are very well written missives that can be easily read and digested.

Tomorrow: I will interact with several of Smith’s letters and ideas.

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  1. John Ross October 26, 2010 at 7:20 am

    John, this looks really good. When I read of ‘the “enthusiasm” of his younger Calvinism and [him] now cringing at “the rough edges of [his] spiritual hubris” which is “an especially ugly vice”’ my cheeks coloured up with embarrassment. I remember with shame having a confidence that was arrogance, a certainty that was presumption, and a contentiousness that was sheer partisan aggressiveness. I listened to sermons with a critical spirit that did me no good whatsoever and judged orthodoxy shallowly and unfairly by the Five Points. This travesty of Calvinism blighted my soul and stunted my spiritual life.
    My wife, on the other hand, nurtured in the Irish Presbyterian Church, was truly ‘Reformed’ and ‘Calvinistic’ without ever, consciously, having heard either term until she was in her late twenties. This was the consequence of having been brought up on sound preaching based on the theology of Westminster Confession of Faith, adhered to without any flag waving or stereotyping.

  2. Larry October 26, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    I’ve pastored the same church for 36 years and have finally realized I’ve been trying to circle the wagons around doctrine instead of Christ. JA’s book “Your Church Is Too Small” well sums up the direction I’m now headed. Thanks for this helpful review.

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