James K. A. Smith, Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition. Brazos Press, 2010. 134 pages. ISBN 978-1-58743-294-1
I will interact with both this book and a review I read online.
This is the second time I have read Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K. A. Smith. I enjoyed the first reading and I enjoyed the second reading. James K. A. Smith identifies himself as Reformed, Catholic, and Pentecostal. I like how he integrates these three different traditions of Christianity into his works. This book is in some sense autobiographical. Smith notes how he first was introduced to the Reformed faith when he was working in an Assemblies of God church in Los Angeles. He and his wife were directors of the college ministry at a local Assembly of God church. He describes how the reformed faith added depth to his Christian faith. He also exhibited some of the dangers of the Reformed faith. The primary one was religious pride. Smith desires to mentor young people who are interested are new to the Reformed faith through this little book.
Tim Challies makes some good points in his review of this book. First he shows how this book is written to "the new, young, restless, Reformed movement." Lots of people are concerned about this new movement. It has been prominent among Southern Baptists. Some of its key leaders are Albert Mohler, John Piper, and others. Challies says of Smith's book, "Written in the form of letters from a mentor to a young man who is investigating Reformed theology, the book offers a winsome 125-page introduction to the tradition and to the way it works out in real life." Smith comments on his book, "So these letters don't offer an apologetic defense of Calvinism, trying to defend it against all comers; rather, I envision the addresse of these letters as someone who has already become interested in this tradition and is looking for a guide into unfamiliar territory."
One of the things I think Smith is doing is to lead the reader beyond the five points of Calvinism to the larger Reformed faith. He does this by systematically showing him the different elements of the Reformed faith. First, he warns the reader of religious pride. One seems to see that these letters are written specifically to this group of young, restless, and reformed young people. Many of the things mentioned by Smith seems to be seeking to correct inadequacies of this movement. One problem is its complete focus on the five points of Calvinism. He shows how the Reformed faith is broader than these five points. He shows how it is a life and world view. He does this by pointing to the Reformed perspective of Creation, Fall, Redemption, Glorification world-view. God is not mainly interested in redeeming individual souls, but all creation.
Smith first begins by speaking on what unites him with his reader, and that is "the doctrines of Grace." I like the title of letter 4: "Grace all the way down." He states that "Reformed theology is all about grace." Salvation is completely and totally the work of God. One of St. Augustine's favorite verses is 1 Corinthians 4:7: "What do you have that you did not receive?" Smith states that the answer is nothing. Throughout this book Smith identifies himself with the thought of Saint Augustine. In another letter, he calls Augustine the "patron Saint of the Reformers." He makes some important points how the reformers saw themselves as Catholic: "This means that the Reformers did not simply see themselves as leaping back to the first century, or naively retrieving some sort of 'pure' biblical perspective in contrast to tradition. While, of course, they would emphasize sola Scriptura, that did not mean for them a rejection of 'tradition.'
In addition, Smith beliefs the Reformed faith is catholic because it is incarnational. They take seriously Jesus' words that He would lead His church into all truth. This is why the Reformed faith accepts tradition. They believe God has been working through the church since the first century. They also believe that the Church is Christ's body on earth. They also believe in the goodness of creation and the body.
The reformed faith is also confessional. It accepts both creeds and confessions. Creeds refers to early church documents like the Apostle's Creed. Confessions refers to documents of beliefs created during the reformation era. Some of the prominent ones are the Heidelberg Catechism, Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Belgic confession. Smith notes, "Now none of the traditions or denominations that describes themselves as 'confessional' would ever see the creeds or confessions as on par with Scripture, nor would they ever claim they are infallible." Instead, they "serve Scripture." "Confessional" church think of the creeds and confessions as "gifts" to the church.
In the last part of the book, Smith summarizes the Christian world view of the Reformed faith. I like the title of letter 20: "Far as the curse is found." This title implies that God plans to redeem all areas affected by the fall. He notes how Kupper is critical of Luther's starting point: "Luther's starting-point was the special soteriological principle of a justifying faith; while Calvin's [starting point], extending far wider, lay in the general cosmological principle of the sovereignty of God. The implication is that God is interested in more than just redeeming souls. He wants to redeem all creation. He thinks that in "redemption God reaffirms the goodness of creation." One can see if you start with redemption instead of creation, one can focus only on saving individual souls instead of the bigger picture. This bigger picture also provides a place for the development of Christian humanism.
Tim Challies in his review feels that in the larger dimensions of the reformed faith Smith will lose his readers. The young, restless, and reformed are with him on the five points of Calvinism, but not the broader emphasis of the Reformed faith. He states that "many who consider themselves Reformed today are explicitly non-confessional, meaning that they do not adhere to any of the catechisms or confessions that have been long been Reformed hallmarks." I must ask are they truly reformed if they do not accept the Reformed confessions. It might be better to say they are Calvinists. In addition, Challies thinks Smith support of an "egalitarian understanding of gender roles." Challies identifies himself with this group saying that he agrees with alot of what Smith says, I assume the doctrines of grace, but he also disagrees with a lot of what Smith says, I assume the broader emphasis of the reformed faith. He thinks that the best parts of the book are the earlier parts of the book. He feels it gets weaker as it goes along. This seems to be based on his own presuppositions which I think he shares with the "young, restless, and reformed" movement. He does say, that if you are "paedo-baptist, if you are confessional, if you are covental, and/or if you are egalitarian, you'll probably agree with more of it." I think Challies is correct on this matter. I identify with this latter group and think the emphasis on the broader aspects of the Reformed faith as the best part of the book.