I recently read through James K.A. Smith’s Letters to a Young Calvinist. Having also just read his work Desiring the Kingdom I thought I’d pick this up. There were a number of things I liked; others I didn’t. Overall helpful but not sure that it’s what I’d give to a young Calvinist. Maybe. Pretty decisive, eh?
So for the good. His warnings against spiritual pride are very apropos. I remember years ago reading a great edition of Credenda/Agenda entitled, “Tender Mercies: How to Avoid Sinning Like a Calvinist.” That was a great collection of articles – very helpful as a young Calvinist. In fact, it’s probably what I would recommend handing out rather than this book. The magazine hit this issue of pride repeatedly and well – as does Smith. I did feel, however, that in his slightly condescending tone toward Calvinistic Baptists that he was being a tad inconsistent. I have my share of criticisms for Calvinistic Baptists as well – but the tone struck me as wrong at points.
Second, his insistence that the center of Calvinism is an insistence on grace was delightful. Loved it. Grace all the way down – everything is a gift. So what should our fundamental attitude be toward the world and one another? Well what do we do when others give us a gift? We say thanks! Overflowing with thankfulness!
Third, I loved his analogy comparing the creeds to grammar lessons. Very helpful! He says:
Or, finally, you might think of the creeds and confessions as articulating the grammar of the language of faith. They’re not meant to be a substitute for speaking the language! Rather, they provide a way for one to learn a ‘second’ language. If I’m studying Greek grammar, it’s not so that I can know Greek grammar; it’s so that I can read Greek, and perhaps the Greek New Testament in particular. So also, I learn the ‘grammar’ of faith articulated in the creeds and confessions, not as ends in themselves, but as an invitation to read Scripture well, and as guides to faithful practice.
Fourth, his historical consciousness and respect for the corporate nature of the church, the voice of the church over time was very helpful.
Fifth, his criticism of the incipient Gnosticism in much of Calvinistic Baptist and even Reformed writings is helpful. The earth is the Lord’s and all it contains – so let us receive it and give thanks. I’ll never think of Shedd in the same way again.
The bad? First, his definition of semper reformanda as a means of abandoning teachings of the NT was troubling – in particular his egalitarian tendencies in his approach to the relationship between men and women, especially the role of women in ministry. His grammatical ambivalence for using the traditional English “he” and “him” for a generic person reveal his staunchly egalitarian stance. All this while professing reverence for the text. No wonder the CRC is heading the wrong direction.
Second, the centrality of the psalms for corporate worship is not given the attention which I think it deserves. I know that Smith considers the psalms important for worship. His Desiring the Kingdom gives a tangible taste of liturgical worship incorporating the psalms. But I fear it is “psalms-lite” and what we need is to be psalm saturated. This is important for many of our younger Calvinists because they’re embracing a form of worship that, in principle, undermines many of the doctrinal convictions of Calvinism. And the truth is lex orandi, lex credenda – the law of prayer is the law of faith. We become what we worship and if the God we worship is not approached with reverence and awe, as a consuming fire, then our theology is going to begin heading down the wrong trajectory. The psalms are the key – as they have been historically in the Reformed churches.
Overall a helpful, easy to read book. Reviewing it helps me see there was more I appreciated than not. It was a useful complement to his book Desiring the Kingdom which I also recommend.