Calvin professor of philosophy and Worship Institute research fellow James K.A. Smith has written a new book called Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition. At just 160 pages, with no footnotes, the paperback from Brazos Press is intended to be accessible for a wide audience.
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.
Please describe your spiritual journey from non-Christian to Pentecostal to Calvinist/Reformed?
It's a long, checkered past! I wasn't raised in the church and came to Christ through the influence of my then-girlfriend (now wife) who was doing a little "missionary dating," as we like to say. Through her family, I was sort of loved into the kingdom when I was 18. I went to a Bible college to prepare for pastoral ministry, but there I discovered Reformed theology, which got me thinking that perhaps I was called to a more academic form of "ministry." Studying in Toronto at the Institute for Christian Studies, a graduate school in the Dutch stream of the Reformed tradition, was where my intellectual framework as a Christian philosopher was really established, and it's why I'm teaching at Calvin College today.
But at the same time, our family was making a pilgrimage through the Pentecostal tradition. While a lot of people might see those as quite diametrically opposed, I kept seeing points of contact and connection. So I've always thought of myself as a Reformed charismatic. I try to work this out a bit in my other new book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy.
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.
At another point in the book you send a postcard from Korea. What does the future of Calvinism and the Reformed faith look like outside of North America? What about on this continent?
Yeah, I try to send some signals in the book to help remind us that Calvinism is a lot bigger than Grand Rapids, Michigan! Indeed, last summer's formation of the World Communion of Reformed Churches was a reminder that the Reformed tradition is flourishing all around the world. Korea is one of the epicenters of Reformed theology today. And I have Facebook friends in Brazil who are part of an institute devoted to Reformed thought and culture there. One finds Reformed voices in Nigeria and Ghana and many other places in Africa. In sum, I'm just trying to signal that the Reformed tradition is no longer just a European tradition. And we in North America have a lot to learn from our global sisters and brothers.
In North America, I think we should perhaps distinguish between the future of Calvinism and the future of the Reformed tradition. One of the things I'm trying to counter is a narrow understanding of "Calvinism" that just reduces it down to a doctrine of election, salvation, etc. Because when you do that, then you can describe yourself, say, as a Calvinist who is a Baptist. Indeed, I think most of the new Calvinists are Baptists. But I argue that Calvinism is about more than that: it's also about a particular doctrine of the church and worship, which is why it's really only "at home" in Reformed and Presbyterian churches. But sadly, it seems that a lot of Reformed and Presbyterian churches don't appreciate this and are trying to just become sort of "generically" evangelical. I think the future of the Reformed tradition hinges on whether Reformed churches will really appreciate the treasures of their heritage.
Finally, 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.