Book Reviews -- By: Anonymous
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James K. A. Smith. Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition. Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2010. ix-xv + 134 pp. Paperback. ISBN 978–1-58743–294–1. $14.99. Paperback.
The Reformed tradition is a wild and wooly region with grand vistas and deep valleys. Dark and mysterious woodland dots the landscape as well, where the timid or naïve wanderer can easily get lost. This is why James K. A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist is a welcome delight as an introduction to the world of all things Reformed – from its history, to major figures, to theological doctrines, and to even its cardinal virtues. As the title implies, the angle of “Reformed” here is Calvinistic rather than Lutheran. The register for Smith’s volume is aimed the average reader, though both clergy and scholars will find insight and help here.
The volume is comprised of a series of fictitious letters in the fashion of C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters or more precisely, in the fashion of Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian and George Weigel’s Letters to a Young Catholic. From these latter two authors, Smith discovered a format to introduce Reformed Calvinism to a broad readership. So Smith writes letters to “Jesse” to unpack the tradition and guide him through its prospects and pitfalls.
An impetus for the book came in part as a response to the upsurge in interest in Calvinism proper in a variety of rather unlikely places: amongst non-denominational churches in inner-city and the rural countryside, Anabaptist traditions, as well as institutions like the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As Smith rightly notes, the kind of adoption of Reformed tradition in these places tends to move in the direction of Scottish Calvinism and maintains an emphasis upon soteriology (TULIP). The Continental Dutch Reformed stream of Calvinism is less dominant. So major influencers become the Old Princeton School (Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and W. G.T. Shedd) as well as luminaries like John Owen and Jonathan Edwards rather than Abraham Kuyper, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Herman Bavinck.
Smith sees this general rise in interest as both a kind of blessing and a curse. He notes that the Scottish vein of Calvinism was a source both rich and deep
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for his own theological pilgrimage (pp. xi, 12) but he grew to embrace the Dutch Reformed stream for its comprehensive scope and linking back to the grand narrative of the Bible, from creation to new creation (pp. 97–111; 117–24). And yet he also recognizes a danger inherent in this newfound knowledge: theological pride (p. xi). The second letter “On Religious ...
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