Book Review: Letters to A Young Calvinist

Letters to a young Calvinist

I am reasonably young, and I am fairly sure I am a Calvinist. To my definition, this means I believe that God is very big, very good, and completely in control. In a more formal sense, it means I think that, broadly speaking, the articulation of Christian Doctrine and the teaching of the Bible as scribbled by thinkers like John Calvin, most accurately represents the Truth. It doesn’t mean I think that other Christians are heretics, because that would go beyond what any systematic presentation of biblical truth is for. But I think that the calvinist ‘label’ is a helpful one, and it anchors me into  a system of thought that runs through Church history and equips and resources me for personal discipleship and living mission for Jesus.

A lot of people disagree. Calvinism is often reduced, unfortunately, to merely ‘T.U.L.I.P’, the Doctrines of Grace. I would carefully affirm those five points, whilst at the same time rejecting the idea that they represent the totality of the Gospel, or biblical teaching, or even Calvin’s thought. Much ink and blood has been spilt in the course set by misunderstanding, and calvinism has had its fair share. Some – not many – go so far as to label calvinist thought a ‘Heresy’.

With these two brief paragraphs out of the way, then, I am very grateful for James K. A. Smith and his slim book ‘Letters to a Young Calvinist’, subtitled ‘An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition’. This is a small and readable book which I have taken to recommending to people who are discovering the Doctrines of Grace for themselves, and also a book that has been a real challenge and encouragement to me personally.

For those of you who don’t know, Smith is a professor of philosophy, and an author and academic. I have not reviewed any of his various books here, but hope to have a review of ‘Introducing Radical Orthodoxy’ up by the end of the summer. He works at Calvin college, and so is well placed both geographically and intellectually to speak into discussions on the Reformed Tradition.

This is an immensely helpful, practical, and readable book. Aimed at young thinkers enamoured with Reformed Theology, in it Smith seeks to bring correction and humility to bear on the terrible pressure of being ‘right’. The very personal nature of the epistolary format meant that on many occasions I had to turn the page over, for future reflection or recording the quote. This was one of those books where my folds probably doubled the width of the book!

Smith mixes the letters (23 in all) with several ‘Postcard from’ inserts, brief pictures and explanations of elements of the Reformed tradition. This is helpful in grounding the discussion in history, and also the difference between various parts of Reformed thought. For an outsider or critic of Calvinism, these postcards would offer some handy signposts to how the various users of the ‘calvinist’ label relate to each other!

Given that each letter/chapter engages with an important issue in Reformed Theology, or the way that theology is used and abused, there are a number of real gems. I will touch on only one here, though. i was immensely grateful for the 19th, “Wide-Angle Calvinism”. Much of what Smith wrote here resonated deeply with what I try to do on my blog, and in my general living out of my love of theology. I loved the observation that “the Reformed tradition was a comprehensive and complex renewal movement that had implications not only for the doctrine of salvation, but also for ecclesiology, for worship, for discipleship, even for cultural engagement in and for the world“. This is not just about salvation, or theology. The vision of John Calvin, the vision of those that lean on him, and ultimately the vision of what it is to be ‘reformed’, is far grander and greater than stereotypes and soundbites.

I am, as you may have noticed, a fan of this book. It serves as a helpful corrective to those of us with Calvinistic theology, and is also a helpful explanation of some of the trickier bits. I cannot recommend it highly enough. You can follow the author on Twitter here.


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