Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition

by James K. A. Smith, Calvin philosophy professor

by James K.A. Smith
Spring 2011

An interview with author James K.A. Smith:

Calvinism, as you say in the intro to the book, seems to be hip again. Time Magazine recently named Calvinism as one of “10 ideas changing the world right now.” Why do you think this is?

The journalist Collin Hansen chronicled this development as the “young, restless and Reformed” movement: a notable trend of younger evangelicals who found Calvinism to be a breath of fresh intellectual air. I also think a lot of evangelicals who discover Reformed theology appreciate the way it emphasizes history. By constantly looking back to figures like Jonathan Edwards or John Calvin, Reformed theology counters the chronological snobbery of our culture which assumes that new is always better.

What motivated you to write Letters to a Young Calvinist?

There were a couple of factors. On the one hand, Letters to a Young Calvinist really began from letters I started writing to some old friends of ours in Los Angeles. There my wife and I had directed a college and career group and saw a number of young Pentecostals become very interested in Calvinism and Reformed theology. 

But I also wanted to address the “new Calvinism,” which is one particular brand of the Reformed tradition, which I think is a bit narrow. It tends to focus on issues of election and predestination and doesn’t appreciate some of the wider aspects of Reformed theology and what Abraham Kuyper meant by “Calvinism.” But because the new Calvinism has been so influential, when a lot of people hear about a school being “Reformed,” they identify it with that particular (narrow) brand. So I wrote Letters to help others understand, for example, that when we at Calvin College describe ourselves as “Reformed,” we mean a lot more than a particular understanding of election and predestination. I’m trying to invite non-Calvinists to see that being “Reformed” is bigger and more generous than they might have thought.

What do you think are the strengths of Calvinism and the Reformed tradition? What about the weaknesses?

Well, I think one of the weaknesses is the tendency toward religious pride. This was my own vice when I was first absorbing the Reformed tradition: Calvinism sort of offers a system that seems to make sense of everything, and then it becomes easy to sort of think I have everything figured out and then begin to look down upon those who disagree with me. 

But I think the Reformed tradition has a lot of strengths, including a rich intellectual tradition that values the life of the mind and a distinct affirmation of cultural life that is unique within North American evangelicalism. But there are other, lesser known, themes which are also important. For example, I think the Reformed notion of “covenant” provides a unique lens for reading the Bible as one unfolding narrative, which helps to revalue the Old Testament for the church. And I also think the Reformed tradition has a unique understanding of the church and worship that really has something to contribute to contemporary discussions. This is exactly what motivates some of the work in the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.

At one point in the book you write of the Reformed enterprise that you were ready to chuck the whole thing. Why?

There are aspects of Calvinism that are, to be honest, scandalous to our contemporary sensibilities. They really offend our penchant to consider ourselves free and self-sufficient, and they run counter to many of our inclinations to think of God as just “polite.” I don’t want to deny that there are some hard aspects of the Reformed tradition (the understanding of election is an obvious case in point). So I can remember a time where that was almost too much for me to accept; indeed, there are still days when I find it difficult to understand! But having worked through these issues, I’ve also found the alternatives are even less satisfying: they tend to reduce God to something I can accept, which sounds like a recipe for idolatry.

What would your hope be for the book?

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. In that sense, I’m trying to reclaim the term to mean something more like what Abraham Kuyper meant in his Stone Lectures at Princeton in 1898, when he described “Calvinism” as a “world- and life-view.” Finally, I hope the book might press some new Calvinists to consider important issues about worship and the nature of the church. That’s a lot to hope for from such a little book, but it’s really offered as a conversation starter. So I’m hoping to overhear lots of good conversations.