Letters to a Young Calvinist
by James K.A. Smith
Brazos, 160 pages, $14.99
Inspired by two very different predecessors—Christopher Hitchens, who produced Letters to a Young Contrarian, and George Weigel, author of Letters to a Young Catholic—Calvin College philosophy professor James K.A. Smith has penned a very readable and theologically attractive set of letters to an imaginary young Calvinist. Addressed to a composite of his ardent younger self and teenage evangelicals whom he has taught, the letters take up the problems Smith sees among conservative young Protestants whose minds are energized as they discover the rigors of Reformed theology. Seeing how a newly born intellectual interest in theology can become bewitched by the clarity of doctrine, Smith warns (as does Calvin) against fixating on the mysteries of divine election and predestination. He provides clear, forceful, and important explanation for why creeds and confessions—so central for Reformed theology—should be affirmed as reliable guides toward a deeper reading of Scripture, which brings us more deeply into the truth of Christ, and not as ends in themselves.
Against an exclusive emphasis on individual salvation, Smith points out that Calvin emphasizes the Church. God makes a covenant with the people of God, not with this or that person, thus making Calvinism part of small “c” catholicism, which implies an obligation for all Christians to seek fellowship in worship. Smith also identifies a temptation that often afflicts those who carefully monitor preaching according to checklists of orthodoxy: the temptation to begin to think that no church is good enough for someone concerned about true doctrine. It’s an attitude entirely at odds with Calvin’s emphasis on corporate worship.
Letters to a Young Calvinist ends with a bit too much optimism about the ways in which faith frees us to enjoy creation, but the larger theme Smith wishes to emphasize is spot on. We’re not just saved, Smith reminds his young reader. We’re saved so that we can participate in God’s love, which transforms human life from stem to stern. It’s an Augustinian theme that all Christians, not just young Calvinists, need to remember.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor at First Things.