Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Letters to a Young Calvinist

There has been a recent interest in Reformed theology in general and Calvinism in particular. Major media outlets have reported on how many young people are attracted to what has been called “New-Calvinism.” YouTube clips abound of young pastors decrying the doctrinal shallowness of the contemporary church while urging protestant, evangelical churches to return to their reformed heritage.

As with any movement, the renewed interest in Calvinism has had both positive and negative aspects. Positively, the “New-Calvinists” desire to think more deeply, biblically and theologically and stress the importance and necessity of the local church for nurturing a worshipping community. But there have been a few negative aspects as well. While the reformed tradition has prided itself as being Gospel and grace centered it has also, well, “prided” itself. For some, being “right” doctrinally and theologically becomes a source of pride and arrogance often leading to divisive attitudes. What’s more, some of the “New-Calvinists” reduce Calvinism to its doctrine of salvation, popularly known as TULIP, or the 5-points, and miss the broader, richer vision of John Calvin himself.

What is the bigger, theological vision missed by the New-Calvinists? That’s what James K.A. Smith spells out in his new book Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition (Brazos Press, 2010). Smith’s own Christian journey took him all over the theological map, from Pentecostalism to currently teaching philosophy at Calvin College. His own journey is what motivated him to write these letters to a young Christian. In fact, truth be told, Smith is basically writing letters to himself, retelling his own pilgrimage through his theological pride to becoming a humbler, gentler Calvinist.

The book is creative, engaging and stimulating. It serves as a helpful corrective to all of us who may run the risk of missing Jesus while constructing persuasive theological schemas. At times, I think Smith assumes too much from his (supposed) young readers, referring to people, places and historical events that most young people will be learning about for the first time in these pages. In that sense, I’m not sure it serves as the best “invitation to the Reformed tradition.” But like Paul’s epistles, these letters do a marvelous job of ensuring that Jesus and the Kingdom remain the focus of the Gospel. A book like this one needed to be written and Smith was just the person to do it. His love for Jesus, the Bible and the church are evident on each page.

--Derek Melleby

4 comments:

Byron K. Borger said...

Thanks for your great comments, Derek. I so appreciate this book. One thing you didn't explain much is the "something more" that Smith insists upon. That is, he thinks that the fixation with "predestination" and the sovereign grace of God in election (the stuff that the new young Calvinists are known for and the very thing that others find so disagreeable) should yield to a reminder of the sovereign grace of God in everything. The Lordship of Christ over all things, the the great hope of God's rescue plan for restoring "all things" (a la Colossians 1, say) has vast implications and Smith fears that this authentic "Reformed" vision isn't unpacked much by those who want to mostly argue about TULIP.

Anyway, your readers may know that your own work in thinking Christianly about the college transition and the purpose and point of higher education (not to mention the broader culturally savvy work of CPYU) is somewhat similiar to Smith's invitation to this Kingdom vision that glories in Christ not only as dying savior but Risen Lord, not only as the One who justifies, but the One who "makes all things new."

I'm so excited about this lovely little book, and think it makes perfect sense that you would celebrate it. And your right that Jamie hopes for a "humbler, gentler' Calvinism. But that isn't all: he wants to educate people about this wide-as-life worldviewish way of living into our whole life discipleship. Of course, two other young dudes wrote another, really, really great book about that. I don't know if Smith cites you, but he should have!

Thanks for all you do and the many rich resources you recommend to your gang.

Sam Van Eman said...

Thanks for the post, Derek. I'm curious about where NT Wright and the New Perspective fit in this resurgence of Calvinism. Probably too complex to answer here, but it's on my mind and I know you read a good bit about all of this.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks, Derek, for this good review. I think this book might be perfect for one of the college students I am currently discipling.

Sam,
The resurgence of Calvinism is spearheaded by John Piper, who young Calvinists see as their key leader. But Piper is very antagonistic toward NT Wright (see his book, The Future of Justification: A Response to N. T. Wright). I know several young ministers that are very suspicious of Wright because Piper has spoken out against him. Christianity Today did a nice job outlining a "primer" on Piper vs. Wright.

Sam Van Eman said...

Thanks, Bob. I'm somewhat aware of the two going back and forth, but not of all the details. I'll check out the link.