Thursday, February 10, 2011

A wrap-up of Letters to a Young Calvinist

As promised, some final words on this engaging book from Calvin College professor James K.A. Smith. Previous posts here, here and here.

Smith got the idea to write the book while reading Letters to a Young Contrarian (Christopher Hitchens) and Letters to a Young Catholic (George Weigel), and it's this epistolary form that gives the book it's sparkle. Sprinkled throughout these letters to "Jesse" (a composite of several young adults that Smith taught at an Assemblies of God congregation in Southern California) are personal references and anecdotes. Also enjoyable are Smith's many recommendations of books to read, and Letters features a superb bibliography. I tagged several books for future reference.

Perhaps my favorite chapter/letter is one called "To Be Reformed Is to Be Catholic". What, you say? Wasn't the whole point of the Reformation to oppose the Catholic Church? Well, not exactly. The original Reformers didn't set out to start a new branch of the Christian church. Smith suggests that we think of the Reformation as originally conceived as an Augustinian renewal movement within the Church. It's significant that Luther was an Augustinian monk, and Calvin considered Augustine his mentor -- he cites him more often than any other church father. Smith writes:

My point here is that the Reformers were not revolutionaries; that is, they were not out to raze the church to the ground, get back to some "pure" set of New Testament church principles, and start from scratch. In short, they didn't see themselves as leapfrogging over the centuries of post-apostolic tradition. They were re-forming the church. And in that respect, they saw themselves as heirs and debtors to the tradition that came before them. Indeed, they understood the Spirit as unfolding the wisdom of the Word over the centuries in the voices of Augustine and Gregory the Great, in Chrysostom and Anselm. To say the Reformed tradition is "catholic" is just to say that it affirms this operation of the Spirit in history, and thus receives the gifts of tradition as gifts of the Spirit, subject to the Word. (p. 46)

Of course history moved in a different direction, Rome dug in her heels at Trent, and Calvin ended his life lamenting the failure to achieve a Protestant consensus. That being said Reformed Christianity still calls us to see ourselves as part of a Spirit-guided, centuries-old movement of God working through a catholic "universal" church, imperfect as it has been and will be. It also reminds us that the visible unity of the church is something to earnestly desire and work for.

It's easy to see how this approach is attractive to folks who've grown up in traditions that have a negative view of history, and pooh-pooh the need for dusty old creeds and books written by long-dead church figures. As Smith points out, this is actually a form of "chronological snobbery." I believe along with him that the historical-rootedness and intellectual rigor of Calvinism explains in part the growth of the "young, restless, Reformed" phenomenon that's gotten so much ink, but if we're not careful those same characteristics can lead to pride -- which is why this may be the most important statement in the book.

The Reformed tradition isn't an intellectual framework to make us "smart" Christians (enabling us to then look down on other "dumb" Christians). It isn't a theological complex to be admired for its coherence and theoretical beauty. It is first and foremost an articulation of Jesus's call to discipleship. Calvinism isn't worth a thing—it will be merely a clanging cymbal—if it doesn't engender a way of life that exhibits the gracious compassion of God lived out in a people who are a foretaste of his coming kingdom. (pp. 58-9)

Amen to that!

There were one or two things in LTAYC I could quibble with. For one thing I didn't find his advocacy of an all-encompassing Kuyperian "wide-angle Calvinism" totally convincing, (I have problems with the strict two kingdom's folks too!) Nevertheless, the author will be happy to know he convinced me that I need to read Abraham Kuyper for myself. Minor reservations aside, I loved this book!

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