Letters to a Young Calvinist

by James K. A. Smith

November 8, 2010

James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Brazos, 2010), 160 pages.

James K. A. Smith, professor of philosophy at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, followed a path similar to the one traveled by many young evangelicals I profiled in Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. He remembers the effect of reading John Piper’s Desiring God when in college. He learned from Piper and J. I. Packer about Jonathan Edwards. He devoured works by Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and W. G. T. Shedd. He mentored students hungry for biblical theology while directing a college ministry at an Assemblies of God church in Los Angeles. In short, he knows that which he alternately approves and reproves in Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition.

Smith, an accomplished scholar of subjects such as postmodernism, writes in this popular book with a friendly, pastoral tone. He guides young Calvinists on a tour of the Reformed mansion. His target readers have only just entered the foyer and begun to marvel at what they see. They haven’t yet observed the other rooms in the palatial estate known as the Reformed tradition. Smith, a vivid and expansive writer, employs the epistolary format to flourish in his role as tour guide.

Smith emphasizes that Reformed theology comes from Scripture. It is no human invention, no mere abstraction of ideas that appeal to overly rational Christians. The strong words he delivers for Arminians surprised me. “Contemporary evangelicalism, dominated by a kind of Arminian consensus, has become so thoroughly anthropocentric that it ends up making God into a servant responsible for taking care of our wants and needs,” Smith writes. Elsewhere he chides Arminians for regarding God as if he were sitting alone hoping we’ll ask him to prom.

Nevertheless, religious pride is one of Smith’s chief concerns about Calvinists. In fact, he immediately addresses this topic after welcoming the young Calvinist to the Reformed tradition. He decries enthusiastic new Calvinists who display their arrogance as if they are Gnostics, discovering a secret knowledge that makes them superior to other Christians. Calvinism, Smith says, “can be deadly: a kind of theological West Nile virus.” He discourages Calvinists from making a high priority of warring with fellow believers. According to Smith, “Reformed theology is fundamentally about grace.” So the least Calvinists can do is show some grace toward others. After all, what do we have that we did not receive from God? (1 Cor. 4:7)

Smith does much of his best work when he tells the history of Reformed theology and defends its creeds and confessions as “the Spirit-led wisdom of teachers across the ages of the church.” Yet he regards the Westminster Confession of Faith as an “arid dessert” compared to the Heidelberg Catechism, a “nourishing oasis.” This distinction follows his evident preference for the Dutch Reformed tradition of Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, and Louis Berkhof to the Anglo-Scottish version that produced John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jonathan Edwards.

Here the book takes a turn that will make many of Smith’s target readers uncomfortable. In selling the broader Reformed tradition to readers, he takes dead aim at Baptists and others who would claim the Calvinist moniker without adopting the confessions and creeds wholesale. Smith singles out The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, indebted since its founding in 1859 to Anglo-Scottish Calvinism, as seen in the Abstract of Principles. Southern exemplifies the problem Smith wants to address with this book.

“[T]his Westminster stream diminishes the catholicity of the Reformed tradition,” Smith writes, “so the ‘Calvinism’ that it articulates is just the sort of slimmed-down, extracted soteriology that can be basically detached and inserted across an array of denominations (and ‘non-denominations’).”

Bolstering his argument that Calvinism is more than a doctrine of salvation boiled down to TULIP, Smith appeals to the example of John Calvin, who reformed church worship for the sake of discipleship. To be sure, Calvin harbored little tolerance for the baptists of his day with their local church governance. Smith understands that the Reformed tradition has a distinct ecclesiology. Reject this doctrine and structure of the church, and you do not belong to the Reformed tradition. Smith is far from the only church leader delivering this ultimatum today. These critics may not succeed in reclaiming the word Reformed for their exclusive use, but I can sympathize with their concern for preserving the term’s historical integrity.

I wonder, though, if Smith has proved too much with this point. He argues that the Reformed tradition is catholic, incorporating other grace-oriented theologians, such as Martin Luther and Augustine of Hippo. But neither of these men held the same ecclesiology as Calvin. Soteriology unites them; so does a strong conviction that infants should be baptized. So is baptism the chief dividing line between Reformed and non-Reformed? What about concern for God-honoring worship and gospel-based discipleship? If it’s church reform for the glory of God that distinguishes the Reformed tradition, and not just baptism or Presbyterian ecclesiology, then Baptists pursuing such aims in their local churches and conventions can rightfully trace their heritage back to the Reformers.

Other parts of the book will likewise provoke many readers. He chides some Reformed theologians for believing more like Lutherans than Calvinists on the doctrine of justification by faith alone. But in commending N. T. Wright, Smith could have helpfully interacted with the Presbyterian Church in America’s writing on the New Perspective in the context of the Westminster Confession. Smith also inserts a brief plug for egalitarianism. Smith appeals to the Reformed tradition to argue against the “subjection of women,” by which he means complementarianism. Redemption rolls back the curse of the fall, and he observes Jesus and Paul doing this work by empowering women. Indeed, we give thanks for Mary, Martha, and many other faithful disciples of Jesus, and for Priscilla, Phoebe, and others who served with Paul. Still, this same Paul would write, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). But Smith doesn’t mention that verse. Nor does he mention that here he departs from the historic Reformed position, excepting recent decades.

Most concerning, though, is what Smith argues about individual salvation. He makes a moving, compelling case for community by appealing to the Trinity, among other doctrines. He writes that God “doesn’t create the world in order to produce a collection of solitary individuals or social ‘atoms’ that are self-enclosed, utterly distinct, and thus ‘privately’ related to God in vertical silos.” But who actually believes this caricature? Certainly many outside Smith’s Reformed tradition would agree with him. Anabaptists such as Stanley Hauerwas, United Methodists like Will Willimon, and even a Southern Baptist such as Albert Mohler would reject such grotesque individualism by appealing to the confessing, visible, local church.

But Smith seems to go farther. He writes, “The ‘unit’ of God’s dealing, I’m suggesting, is always a community, a people.” Sure, we Westerners need to be chided for our hyper-individualism. But can this absolutist position be defended from Scripture? Would others in the Reformed tradition say the same? Smith is right to point out that the “you’s” of Scripture are frequently plural. We would expect nothing else, since many of Paul’s letters are addressed to churches. The Pastoral Epistles, though, read differently as Paul counsels Timothy and Titus. And shouldn’t the example of Paul’s conversion make us wary of saying God always and only deals with us as a community?

Smith writes much that a corrupted American church needs to hear. Even I, a TULIP-affirming Baptist, heartily agree: “the ‘genius’ of Calvinism cannot be reduced to a doctrine about the salvation of elect souls.” His conclusion on enjoying creation moved me to praise God for his mighty works and pray that Jesus would come quickly to make all things new. But if defenders of the Reformed tradition need to set Baptists straight, I can imagine better ways to do so.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition. He is the co-author of 'A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir'.
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  1. I don’t share Professor Smith’s egalitarian convictions, but I think he’s right to point out that it’s a bit odd that many of the “new Calvinists” make complementarianism a litmus test issue while being very latitudinarian on ecclesiology. What’s less Reformed? A church with female elders? Or a church that refuses to baptize infants of believing parents into the visible community of faith? Blessings! I enjoy your work here at TGC.

  2. [...] those thinking about reading James K. A. Smith’s new book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, Collin Hansen’s review 0f it is a must read before you [...]

  3. Good review. Virtually all the protestants were calvinists during the time of Luther, Zwingle, Calvin, and even the earliest baptists. This arguments about who’s reformed and who isn’t seem to actually be about diversity within protestantism more than anything.

    Yes, reformed is bigger than TULIP historically, but it seems like everybody in each type of “Reformed” camp wants to claim the one “truly reformed” group. It’s like a silly unending russian doll thing: open one and you’ll find another idea that’s “truly reformed”, and another, and another, until the only reformed person is Calvin himself. Luther and Augustine: different ecclesiology. Everybody and the Baptists: different ecclesiology etc. etc. There are differences. I’m less and less certain about the helpfulness of the term “reformed”, especially when you can be reformed and confessional i.e. Westminster Confession and 1689 Baptist Confession and have zero statements about the Great Commission/Mission of the Church. Who cares if you are reformed, but you’re not missional.

    And there are more differences now than ever. However, if Reformed means “semper reformanda” (always reforming) than Baptists and Presbyterians can both be in the “Reformed Stream”. Reformation is marked by change and repentance. It’s not so fixed, which is why James K. A. Smith as much as he’d like to nail down “Reformed” finds himself outside the historically reformed camp when it comes to gender issues. Whether I agree or not with him, my response is not going to be: “You’re not reformed anymore!” I would say he still is, but this just goes to show that the more we try to narrow the definition, we’ll actually squeeze ourselves out. Even Luther would find himself on the outside when it comes to music. So frustrating. Seems like if Luther, Zwingle, and Calvin were here, they’d would be discussing “What’s biblical?” not “What’s reformed?” Besides, the second part is really not even consistent with the movements motto. Maybe the questions really is, “What’s reformING.”

  4. I wonder what the point is of stirring up divisions and factions in the church? I could understand if the point was an essential one, such as the divinity of Christ, virgin birth, or bodily resurrection. But an esoteric subject like predestination? Does the unity of the body mean nothing to guys like Smith. Seems to me that he is guilty of causing faction like those Paul fought against in the Corinthian church and those which Jesus warned against in the parable of the tares. Strange how little interest there is today in maintaining unity on essentials but allowing diversity on other points. What does Smith hope to accomplish, other than stirring up more fighting? Is it totally impossible for those caught up in TULIP-mania to control their tongues?

  5. Roger,

    On the contrary, Smith’s sensibilities go in the opposite direction. One of his chief concerns is to remind Protestants (and we Reformed folks) that they are “catholic” (little “c”) — that is, “universal.”

    As I understand it, he’s simply inviting people to explore the depths of the Reformed tradition past the basic TULIP and one-liners from Spurgeon.

  6. Aaron, you may be right. I haven’t read the book. I based my comments on the review which seems to agree with my comment.

  7. Hansen’s “concern” about Smith on individual salvation does not mention these clear words on p.65: “No, I’m not saying that God isn’t concerned about individuals, or that the Reformed tradition discounts ‘personal salvation.’ Not at all. To say that God is concerned with more than the salvation of individual souls is not to say that he’s interested in less than the salvation of individuals.”

    In addition, Hansen’s suggestion that a simple quoting of 1 Tim 2:12 should settle the egalitarian/complementarian debate fails to really grapple with the issue (just as a simple citation of 1 Tim 2:15 would not settle our soteriology, or 1 Peter 2:18 our view of slavery). The real issue here seems to be that Smith represents an evangelical Reformed thinker who also has egalitarian convictions – is it possible? Apparently so.

  8. I heard about the book a while back, but the review definitely surprised me! I’m interested to see where the Dutch Reformed/Calvin College emphasis goes in the next decade or so… I think this is the best of the Reformed tradition, and I hope that it begins to balance out some of the negative tendencies of the Baptist New Calvinism.

    This, however, is troubling: “Smith emphasizes that Reformed theology comes from Scripture. It is no human invention, no mere abstraction of ideas that appeal to overly rational Christians.” This is theological arrogance, as the Reformed system is a secondary system and not the raw material of the biblical narrative itself.

    Stoked on his commendation of NT Wright and emphasis on the saved community and even egalitarianism.

    Good review!

  9. Zach,

    you think Calvin College is the best example of the Reformed tradition? Oh how I hope not! As a like long Grand Rapidian I would say that there are a lot of ways in which it is not even representative of a Christian tradition.


    • My specific knowledge of Calvin (the school) is probably lacking, but I guess I’m commenting more on the Kuyperian emphasis in Reformed thought, which I find to be its strongest and most compelling emphasis.

    • Not even representative of Christian tradition? Like representative of secular tradition? That seems an overstatement. Care to clarify?

      • Alex: in the sense that it represents a denominational heritage it is Christian, in the sense that it reflects what regenerated people should look like…not so much. They seem much more interested in preserving the former and very little in advancing the latter.

  10. There is nothing wrong with writing about secondary issues as long as you don’t promote them to primary issues and divide the church. Even if convinced 100% that you have perfect truth on the secondary issue, writers should show love and kindness to those who disagree and treat their disagreements honestly. And insist that these are secondary issues not meant to divide the church. I would hate to stand before Christ and have him say to me “You divided my body over that doctrine?”

  11. While there are many individuals and churches that maintain aspects of the reformed faith, for the record originally the reformed churches were those that seceded on the basis of Scripture from the deformed Roman church. As such they were reformed not only in doctrine, but also worship and government. It was and is a package deal. A threefold cord is not easily broken. One without the other two cannot long stand and even then human nature is what it is; liable to deprave even the good and true if given half a chance.
    Again, not only was soteriology reformed – justification by faith alone – but theology was reformed- sola scriptura. Likewise worship was reformed according to Regulative Principle or the good and necessary consequences of the Second Commandment. (For starters, only the sacraments commanded by Christ were allowed.)
    So too church govt. Not roman hierarchy or prelacy, but not anabaptist independency either. The jus divinum or divine rule consisted of the middle way of presbyterianism, rule by a group of elders and minister in local congregations answerable to the larger group of congregations in ascending or broader courts, assemblies and synod.

  12. Zach,

    It might be good to differentiate between Calvin college and seminary. I’d say at the seminary level the gospel is central with its emphasis on Kuyperian reformed thought. On the college level, it seems as if it attempts to implement Kuyperian reformed thought with the gospel as an afterthought. This is probably too much of a generalization, but as an urban ministry practitioner for the last 20 or so years in Grand Rapids, I’ve come across too many Calvin grad social workers, educators, and community development workers that had somehow adopted a Kuyperian-influenced worldview without the gospel.

  13. Good to know, thanks Joel.

  14. Hope you guys will read Smith’s response on his blog.

  15. “But Smith doesn’t mention that verse. Nor does he mention that here he departs from the historic Reformed position, excepting recent decades.”

    The historic reformed position on women’s roles is one that would exclude women from full participation in leadership in wider society to a greater or lesser extent not only the church. This is indeed consistent with a hierarchical interpretation of Timothy. However I presume the so called “complementarian” position would only seek to restrict women’s participation in a a church context.

    The proof text offered is indeed a proof text failing to give any recognition to the problems for all of us in interpreting these verses. Maybe for others reading this post I.Howard Marshall offeres I think a more consistent biblical reading than the one offered by the hierarchicalists.

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