Letters to a Young Calvinist

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.

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