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Book Reviews, Theology

Less Grumpy Calvinism: A Review of Letters to a Young Calvinist

Letters to a Young CalvinistI recently read one of my Christmas presents, James K.A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition and I greatly enjoyed it. Smith takes the role of a mentor corresponding by letter to a younger recent adherent to Calvinism making the book engaging and easy to read in its conversational manner.

Smith does a solid job of explaining how Reformed theology is much broader than TULIP. Those who call themselves “Reformed” are acutely aware of this fact and Smith does a great service by articulating how this is so.

His treatment of a Reformed view of creation is one of the highlights of the book. I especially appreciate this since broader subjects such as creation and vocation are often overshadowed by matters of soteriology in Reformed theology. “Enjoying God by Enjoying Creation” is a must-read chapter.

Another helpful aspect of the book is Smith’s comparison between the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Standards. Smith writes, “When I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert of Westminster’s cool scholasticism.” I agree! It’s good to see the Heidelberg Catechism beginning to receive greater attention within American evangelicalism (see Kevin DeYoung’s The Good News We Almost Forgot).

Along similar lines, Smith also points to differences between the Dutch stream of the Reformed tradition (past: Calvin, Kuyper, Bavinck, Berkhof / present: Mouw, Plantinga, Wolterstorff) and the Scottish stream (past: Knox, Owen, Baxter, Edwards, the Hodges / present: Westminster Seminary, Southern Baptist Seminary, the PCA). I find the Dutch stream to be rich and any work that lifts up this part of the tradition gets a big thumbs-up from me.

Smith also makes a point to emphasize the writings Augustine, calling him “The Patron Saint of the Reformers.” He recommends his protegé begin reading Augustine’s Teaching Christianity and Confessions. For good measure Smith notes that he prefers these works to Calvin’s Institutes. I’m not familiar with his Teaching Christianity so that has been added to my wish list (visit me on Library Thing, by the way).

In one interview Smith states, “My hope is that all sorts of people will find in the book a winsome, less grumpy articulation of Calvinism and Reformed theology. In other words, I hope it might undo some stereotypes about Calvinists. I also hope that it helps people to see that Calvinism is about more than a doctrine of election, that it’s a wide-angle vision for how we engage God’s world.” He has done a fine job in both regards. I highly recommend James K.A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist.

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