James K.A. Smith forays into the now-popular epistolary genre with the compact and accessible Letters to a Young Calvinist. It is timely, as Smith notes in the introduction, since as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, a “new Calvinism” has gained popularity among evangelicals. Smith identifies in some ways with these new Calvinists and their zeal, but he also seeks to put this new movement in conversation with the larger Calvinist historical-theological framework and worldview. Letters to a Young Calvinist is a wonderful primer whether you are encountering Calvinism for the first time–as are many who are “young, restless, and Reformed”–or if you are a cradle Calvinist revisiting the contours of the tradition.
Smith frames each of his twenty-three letters within this 134-page work primarily through the lens of experience, deftly weaving each letter with historical context, Scriptural references, and doctrinal theology. Don’t skip the introduction, as it provides a wonderful framework for Smith’s approach. Smith recounts his own induction into Calvinist theology by way of discovering “Old Princeton” after being “converted and formed through an evangelical tradition marked by a strange kind of Biblicist yet antitheological atmosphere that engendered a generally anti-intellectual ethos while at Bible College” (x). He then goes on to recount how this initial exposure to Calvinism brought about a fascination with pieces of Calvinism, but not the entire worldview. In time, Smith says, “I was invited (well, pushed!) into other rooms where I began to appreciate the full richness not just of Calvinism but of the wider Reformed tradition” (xiii).
That appreciation is evident as Smith writes letters to “Jesse”–a composite of himself and students–who also encounters Calvinism from an Assemblies of God/evangelical context. Smith seeks to engage the Calvinist worldview not only through the lens of tradition and Scripture, but also through the lens of his personal experience. The letters begin with an invitation to explore Calvinism from a posture of humility rather than pride. From this posture of humility f lows a theological exposition of the doctrines of grace and justification.
After outlining the theological contours of Calvinism, Smith takes into account its historical development. He succinctly moves from Calvin’s Geneva to John Knox’s Scotland, tracing the distinctions between Dutch Calvinism and Old Princeton/Scottish Presbyterianism through historical connections that grew from common roots in Augustine. As one who has been educated by both Dutch Calvinists and Scottish Presbyterians, I found this particular letter to be very interesting. Indeed, Grand Rapids has much to do with Philadelphia in the Reformed world, just as Jerusalem had much to do with both Athens and Rome.
Perhaps at the heart of the book is an emphasis on Reformed confessional identity, which is the heart of Calvinism. Smith connects confessional faith to that of a particular Calvinist piety in his letter titled “Beyond Westminster,” remarking, “Calvinism isn’t worth a thing–it will be merely a clanging cymbal–if it doesn’t engender a way of life that exhibits the gracious compassion of God lived out in a people who are a foretaste of his coming kingdom” (59). The concluding letters expand upon this confessional piety, putting the reader into conversation with Abraham Kuyper and sphere sovereignty, revisiting covenant theology, and emphasizing the importance of dialogical worship. While coming from the kind of fundamentalist background that many new Calvinists spring from, Smith gently critiques their myopic understandings of Calvinism, and advocates for a wide angle view of Calvinism that includes gender equality, justice, and an emphasis on care for creation–all stemming from the foundation of covenant theology.
Missing from Letters to a Young Calvinist is an explicit attempt to put Calvinism in dialogue with a pluralistic, post-Christendom world. A reader can still find a way there by following the Kuyperian threads set forth in the “Wide Angle Calvinism” letter. However, for readers like Jesse, who live and move in a non-Calvinist context, the larger question of how a Calvinist might engage in ecumenical or even interfaith dialogue remains largely unanswered.
This shortcoming does not limit how well Smith engages contemporary and historic sources. Like other books in the epistolary genre, it is not meant to be exhaustive, but accessible and introductory. Smith, as always, writes with a clear depth of knowledge of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition as well as an appealing accessibility. Letters to a Young Calvinist will certainly pique readers’ further interest, sending them to the proper primary sources helpfully listed in the bibliography. This small book is a gem and a wonderful addition to anyone’s library, especially a confirmand or individual who is engaging the contours of their faith anew.