Book Review: Letters to a Young Calvinist

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition, James K. A. Smith, Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.  Paperback, 134 pages, $16.99.

I went through it and so have many others.  Discovering the Reformed faith can make young people (especially young men) obnoxious.  They call it the “cage phase.”  You get pumped about everything Reformed and can’t understand why no one else is excited about what you see.  You get frustrated and even perhaps angry and the people around you, rather than getting drawn to the Reformed faith, are turned off.  Letters to a Young Calvinist is addressing those in the “cage phase.”  It’s an attempt to give some winsome counsel to those just discovering Reformed theology.

The author is a professor of philosophy at Calvin College.  He’s written several books, including a volume that I recently reviewed, Desiring the Kingdom.  Smith was not born and raised Reformed, so he speaks from personal experience.

The book is structured around 23 letters addressed to a fictional “young Calvinist.”  The addressee is a composite of various individuals that Smith has encountered.  Interspersed are also four “postcards” from Geneva, Princeton, Amsterdam, and Seoul.  Through these letters and postcards, Smith wants to orient “Jesse” to the depth of “the Reformed tradition,” especially getting him to see that it stretches far beyond five points relating to God’s sovereignty in our salvation.

I appreciated the two letters about pride.  Given the doctrines of grace, it is an odd thing for Reformed people to be proud, and yet this is one of our most besetting sins.  Smith encourages “Jesse” to read the Confessions, beginning with the Belgic Confession.  He emphasizes the connections between the early church and “the Reformed tradition.”  He points out that Calvinism affirms the essential goodness of creation.  Only the good Creator can create, but “the devil can’t create a thing.  He can only corrupt and corrode” (119).  Moreover, Smith writes accessible and enjoyable prose – this is not difficult reading.

Unfortunately, there are problems in this little volume.  There are problems of facts.  So, for instance, on page 19, Smith asserts that the doctrine of total depravity comes first in the Canons of Dort.  Actually, it does not get unfolded until chapter 3/4.  He speaks of the United Reformed Church in the singular, whereas it should be plural, “Churches” (35).  In his postcard from Amsterdam, he goes to the Free University established by Abraham Kuyper and wonders, “…what sort of Calvinism makes one found not a seminary, but a university?”  Of course, there already was a seminary in Kampen, and besides, the Free University included seminary training, making this an odd question.

But those problems could be overlooked.  Others cannot.  On pages 104, he states that N. T. “Wright’s account of justification deeply resonates with covenant theology.”  He then provides a lengthy quote from Wright.  This is troubling since Wright denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness in our justification and thereby gets the gospel wrong.  What is Reformed about this account of justification when it contradicts article 22 of the Belgic Confession?  For more on why Wright is so wrong, I would highly recommend the first four chapters of By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Imputation, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters.

Related to that, Smith follows Kuyper in saying that the Lutherans make justification central (“the dominating principle”), while Calvinists make God’s sovereignty central.  The consequence is that Smith marginalizes justification.  More recent scholarship has uncovered the fallacy of the “central dogma theory.”  Both Luther and Calvin were convinced of the importance of justification by faith alone through Christ alone.  Moreover, it was a Reformed theologian (J. H. Alsted) who first directly said that justification is “the article by which the church stands or falls.”  Luther and his followers had expressed similar thoughts, but Alsted is where the words originate.  And Alsted was simply echoing the Reformed consensus.

One of the oddest things in the book is the discussion of the “Young, Restless and Reformed” movement in Letter 12.  Smith finds it strange that five point Calvinism would be so widely embraced in Baptist seminaries and churches (and other non-Reformed churches), while the rest of the Reformed faith is ignored.  He lays the blame for this at the feet of the Westminster Standards because they do not adequately emphasize the church.  Now it is true that the Westminster catechisms are short on the church, but the Confession has a full chapter dedicated to it.  Moreover, there are a good many confessional Presbyterians who argue forcefully for a robust ecclesiology and a church-centered, means of grace approach to spirituality and ministry.  I don’t see how Smith’s conclusion follows from his premises here.  I sense that Wright’s New Perspective insistence that the gospel is more about the doctrine of the church (ecclesiology) than about salvation (soteriology) may be playing a background role here.

That leads us to another issue where there is some irony.  When discussing church membership with “Jesse,” Smith neglects to mention the ecclesiology found in article 29 of the Belgic Confession.  There are true and false churches.  True churches can be determined with the marks outlined there:  pure preaching, pure administration of the sacraments, faithful use of discipline.  Why not counsel “Jesse” to apply these marks and find a true church?

I’ve got other beefs with this book, but let me finish with this one.  On pages 94-95, Smith discusses the issue of women in office.  He states that a Reformed hermeneutic of “creation-fall-redemption” is what led him to this position.  He argues that the subjection of women is bound up with the fall, not with creation.  I don’t find this argumentation persuasive.  When Paul asserts that women should not authority in the church in 1 Timothy 2:12, he gives two reasons:  “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.  And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.”  Creation is part of this and it comes first.  And when he compares the issue with slavery he clouds matters, because slavery in the New Testament was much different than slavery in modern times.

The subtitle says, “An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition.”  I’d like to suggest a revision:  “An Invitation to a Reformed Tradition” or perhaps better: “An Invitation to the Christian Reformed Tradition.”  This volume doesn’t present a monolithic “Reformed Tradition” consensus, but an idiosyncratic version.  Sadly, for the few good things in this book there are also some serious problems, problems which reflect the state of the Christian Reformed Church.  Yet we do need a book like this for the young Calvinists – Welcome to a Reformed Church by Daniel Hyde would be a better choice.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

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