Reading For All It’s Worth: Letters To A Young Calvinist, by James K. A. Smith

This is the first of a long term blog series called “Reading For All It’s Worth”, in which I detail the lessons learnt from various books I have read. These are not intended to be reviews, but rather the summarisation of what I am learning in my reading experience. I write these to solidify and systemise my reading experience in order to make it more effective, and to let people know of good books to read and draw lessons from that they may know Jesus and his Word better, as well as live on mission in all our various contexts better to the praise of his glorious grace.

Letters To A Young Calvinist is a great little book from which I learnt a lot. I wish I and my other Calvinist friends had read it when we were first introduced to the doctrines of grace and the Reformed tradition, and I would certainly make sure it gets into the hands of all such “New Calvinists”.

James K. A. Smith writes a collection of hypothetical letters between himself and a young man named Jesse, caught in the resurgence of the New Calvinism. His purpose is to guide the often misguided trajectories of young Calvinists to a fuller and right understanding and appreciation of the full scope of the Reformed tradition. He notes various issues and problems with their thinking which are detrimental to the cause of Christ, and seeks to correct them through the medium of personal letters.

Having been caught up in the New Calvinist movement myself, Smith has been a good teacher of the scope of the Reformed tradition as well as a herald of the dangers and pitfalls that he has seen people fall into.

A big emphasis of Smith’s throughout the book is that the Reformed tradition is not just about TULIP; it is more than an understanding of salvation, but not less than that. That’s a very relevant warning. When I was first introduced to the five points of Calvinism, that’s all I thought the Reformed tradition was about. He talks about the mansion of biblical Reformed theology, and Calvinism (read: Reformed understanding of salvation) being only one room in the mansion, a beautiful, magnificent room, but still only one room in the glorious mansion of biblical Reformed theology. A view of Reformed theology limited on Calvinism severely hinders one’s appreciation of the fullness of the beauty of the God of the Bible and his plan for redemption. It’s more than an understanding of salvation, but not less than that.

Another of the big issues addressed is probably one of the biggest of the giants in Reformed Land:

“Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride (one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”

Smith is very right. Pride is, particularly for those New Calvinists brought up in radically different traditions, a major stumbling block. It’s very true for me. I was brought up in the Pentecostal church, and not the biblically robust kind. When the Lord showed me Reformed theology and the doctrines of grace, I was awestruck and captivated by the biblical faithfulness, the strength, and the radical nature of those teachings. I had never seen God in the beauty that the Reformed tradition’s reading of the Bible painted him. It was, and still is, great! But when I looked around at the teaching of my church, it’s emphasises and its culture, I became quite prideful in my new found knowledge. Not to excuse their sin, not to say it shouldn’t be addressed, but what was more sinful was the horrible pride that I exuded in addressing that. I was more concerned with being right than being loving; it was a defence of my honour and my pride, not so much of the gospel. And how funny that is, that the biblical way of thinking that should cultivate the most humility in us, the doctrines of grace and Reformed theology, is the one whose adherents are most stereotyped as prideful. What horrible sin that is, to claim such “grace” and then act as though it was of our own!

The sad fact is that this pride has become infamous as a characteristic of those in the Reformed tradition, bemoaned and warned against so well by Rachel Evans her blog on this book. And that is not good at all. Wouldn’t it be great if the Reformed people of today heeded this warning against pride and actually acted as though the doctrines of grace were really that: grace! Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the Reformed tradition became known for radical humility instead of obnoxious pride?

Oh there were so many great lessons to learn from this book! Smith also elaborates on the importance and the treasure of the creeds and confessions as the passing down of biblical, orthodox (read: historical), catholic (read: universal) tradition. The creeds, confessions, and catechisms are certainly wonderful gifts from the historic church, well worthy of reading and study. Smith highlights as among the best the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Please take the time to read them and think on them.

Notably, in a postcard to Jesse from Geneva, Smith says that

“Calvin’s ‘Calvinism’ wasn’t just a doctrine of salvation. It was a vision for all of life suffused and nourished by God’s grace. When you’re here, you have an appreciation that Calvin saw the Redeemer at work beyond individual souls – that redemption was as big as creation itself. Kind of makes you ask: How big is your Calvinism?

I think that is, in the end, the drive of the book. Smith invites us to see Calvinism as, rather than just a strict dogmatic assertion of sovereign grace, an all encompassing worldview. Speaking of Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism:

“Throughout these lectures Kuyper articulates Calvinism as, variously, a ‘complex,’ a ‘life-system,’ a general tendency,’ a ‘general system of life,’ and, finally, a ‘world- and life-view.’ As such he doesn’t think Calvinism’s competitor is something like Arminianism, but radically different, comprehensive life-systems like Islam, Buddhism, and modernism.”

What a great call this is, to radical, all encompassing Calvinism, life nourished by the grace of God and his sovereign hand. Calvinism is a worldview, “before the face of God’, Coram Deo. Calvinism is the idol crushing, creation stewarding, Creator exalting-by-enjoying worldview which should be lived in all of life. It is bigger, fuller, more beautiful, more glorious, and ascribes glory to the Creator more than any other pair of worldview glasses one can wear.

So, How big is your Calvinism?

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