LETTERS TO A YOUNG CALVINIST – James K.A. Smith (2010)

Letters to a Young Calvinist by James K.A. Smith reminds me of the last time I went to see the San Francisco Giants play baseball.  I remember purchasing the tickets with my Dad, approaching the park, and watching the Giants play the Dodgers in what was then, Candlestick Park.  This is a great memory from my childhood because I got a chance to see some of the Dodger greats like Dusty Baker, Ron Cey, Steve Garvey, and Pedro Guerrero.  This is a day I’ll never forget.

Unfortunately, what I remember most about that day was the frigid cold weather that sent our family to the parking lot by the beginning of the seventh inning.  I never knew it could get so cold in the summer months — in California!

So how is James K.A. Smith’s book like that fateful day in San Francisco?  First, the positive.  Smith’s idea of writing short letters to a rookie Reformed theologian is brilliant.  He understands the pitfalls and vulnerabilities to newcomers to the Reformed faith.  He patiently admonishes his friend to avoid pride and challenges him to pursue a path of humility.

Smith’s overview of Reformed theology, while short, is done in a winsome and insightful way.  He also gives good historical background and laces his treatment with reading suggestions for his friend.

Smith’s summary of Kuyper’s brand of Calvinism is worth the price of the book.  He explores Kuyper’s explanation of Calvinism as a “life-system” or “worldview.”  The Dutch statesman is cited approvingly: “There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, ‘Mine!'”  Smith adds, “This is just another way of saying that Christ is not only Lord of our souls, but Lord of our bodies, Lord of our families, Lord of our commerce and recreation and education.  He is the Lord of science and art, dance and dipthongs, eating, and drinking.  There’s no corner of creation that is immune from his lordship, no ‘secular’ sphere of life that is neutral with respect to the Creator’s sovereignty.”

The author continues to affirm the goodness of God’s creation (a reality that is forgotten by many evangelicals): “Christ’s redemption is cosmic – it effects not only the redemption of our souls but the redemption of every aspect of this entire groaning creation.”

The author shatters the neo-gnostic view that some evangelicals hold:  “God is not only interested in soul-saving; God is interested in ‘nation-building,’ calling and re-creating a people, making a people out of individuals who were not otherwise a ‘people.'”

However, this work has some troubling themes that need to be explored; themes that remind me of the wind and rain in Candlestick Park. In a post-script, Smith makes reference to the egalitarian/complementarian controversy.  In a shocking statement, he argues that the “Reformed hermeneutic” led him to embrace egalitarianism.  The author is clearly out of step with a majority of Reformed theologians.  He undoubtedly understands this and makes the following appeal at the end of his letter: ” … I only hope you might appreciate how someone could take this position [egalitarianism], not as a “liberal” departure from the Reformed tradition, but actually as a concrete working-out of a Reformed understanding of Scripture.”

In another  post-script, the author surprisingly makes reference to the New Perspective on Paul controversy.  He remarks, “… For the record, it seems to me that Wright’s account of justification resonates with covenant theology.”  Again, such a remark is out of step with the general consensus among Reformed thinkers.  The author at this point seems like he has an axe to grind.  This “axe” does not fit into the overall scope of his otherwise excellent and creative book.  It has an awkward “edginess” that detracts from the main themes and purpose of the book.

The author continues to swing his “axe” in an unfair swipe against Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  He maintains that Southern has “absorbed Calvinism without it affecting the shape of their worship or polity.”  One wonders when this pettiness will stop!  Perhaps the author ought to take a few swings against false teachers instead of chopping his fellow Calvinists!

The promotion of egalitarianism and the New Perspective on Paul are deeply disturbing, not to mention the petty comments about Southern Seminary.  One wonders how such a creative book could turn into a mini-treatise that promotes a personal agenda and theological views which are outside the pale of Reformed theology.

I was originally excited to read this creative introduction to Reformed theology.  While making it to the end, I was tempted to leave at the bottom of the seventh inning.  At least I didn’t get wet!

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