letters to a young calvinist

'An emphasis in the teacher easily becomes an extreme in the student.'

This dictum comes to mind with the Reformed movement. While it is enjoying a global resurgence, there are a lot of 'students' running around out there, narrowing it all down to election and predestination with their 'full of truth, empty of grace' attitude. They are poor ambassadors for what they believe. The movement needs wise 'teachers' to demonstrate a wider vision and a more gracious tone.

In Jamie Smith's Letters to a Young Calvinist (Brazos, 2010) we find 'an invitation to the Reformed tradition' which accomplishes this very task. It is a small and short book, comprising 23 chatty letters to a young person drawn into some of these 'extremes' (a bit of an alias for the author's younger self, nurtured as it was in a Pentecostal church).

This genre in the hands of a witty writer makes it such fun to read. Keep reading until you reach the letter about his wife, in the late evening hour early in their marriage, 'draping' herself in all 3 volumes of WGT Shedd's Dogmatic Theology in order to secure the attention of her husband. He writes, 'I've never looked at those books the same way since'...

I am fully aware that the people who should read this book probably will not do so, but I write in the hope that there might be an exception or two...

Because I don't want to lose them myself, how about ten of the wise and/or witty comments which I've appreciated most?

1. On the the pride that often afflicts the younger Calvinist?
The reality is that 'battling other Christians should not be a very high priority ... polemical religious pride (is a) genetic defect in the Reformed tradition' (8).  While 'pride can swell in isolation' (12), good friends are like 'sacraments - means of grace given to us as indices of God's presence and conduits for our salvation' (13).
If Calvinism is just a system that gives us pride in denouncing the supposed simplicity and ignorance of our sisters and brothers in Christ, then you can keep it. I have no interest in flying under a banner that is just a cover for haughty theological speculation at the expense of charity (92).
2. On the Reformed tradition in a nutshell?
'Everything depends on God ... grace goes all the way down' (14-15). This grace commences with his initiative to create, at the very beginning - not just later on, in his response to the Fall. 'God didn't have to do it. It is a gift. God owes us nothing' (17).

3. On a reason why I keep being drawn back to the Reformed perspective?
'Contemporary evangelicalism, dominated by a kind of Arminian consensus, has become so thoroughly anthropocentric that it ends up making God into a servant responsible for taking care of our wants and needs' (24). This is so true! 'But Calvinism offers a radically different worldview and requires a paradigm shift in our thinking, from our wants and needs to a focus on God's glory' (24).

4. On one of the great enduring misconceptions?
'"Reformed theology" was not invented in the sixteenth century. It was a recovery and rearticulation of a basically Augustinian worldview, which was itself first and foremost an unpacking of Paul's vision of what it meant that Christ is risen' (39).

5. On the way Pentecostal, Baptist and Brethren traditions are given to 'leapfrogging'?
'... leaping over the gifts of teachers like Augustine and Ambrose, as if we are somehow better equipped to read the Scriptures on our own' (47). It is another variant on the CS Lewis 'chronological snobbery' theme and a contributor to the way these traditions, sadly, tend to be anti-creedal and anti-confessional.
I have to confess that when I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism, it was like discovering a nourishing oasis compared to the arid desert (of the Westminster Catechism) ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism is not just Sovereign Lord of the Universe, not merely the impartial Judge ... the God of the Heidelberg Catechism keeps showing up as Father. For example, when expounding the first article of the Apostles' Creed ("I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth"), the Heidelberg Catechism discusses all the ways that God upholds the universe by his hand, but also affirms that this sovereign Creator attends to me, a speck in that universe. And it concludes the answer to question 26 by summarizing: "He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father". (55, emphasis mine)
6. On the implications of the 'you' in Scripture being so often plural?
'God - who, as Trinity of Father, Son and Spirit, is already a kind of community of love - doesn't create the world in order to produce a collection of solitary individuals that are self-enclosed, utterly distinct, and thus 'privately' related to God in vertical silos. Right from creation, God creates a people ... I think there is an entire theology packed into the the pronouns of Scripture ... It is not me, but we. So it's not primarily that I am a chosen individual. Instead the gospel announces that we are a chosen people ... the merciful grace of God condescends to save a people, and thus God binds himself to an "us"' (66, 68, 72). This where the Reformed focus on covenants originates.

7. On 'wide-angle Calvinism'?
This is the bit I really, really like. 'It's less a foundational doctrine and more a comprehensive vision ... a "world- and life- view"' (97). He mentions the classic quote of Abraham Kuyper: 'There is not a single square inch of creation concerning which Christ does not say, 'Mine!'' (quoted on p99).
This is just another way of saying that Christ is not only Lord of our souls, but Lord of bodies, Lord of our families, Lord of our commerce and recreation and education. He is the Lord of science and art, dance and dipthongs, eating and drinking. There's no corner of creation that is immune from his lordship, no 'secular' sphere of life that is neutral with respect to the Creator's sovereignty (99).
If you find yourself saying 'Amen' to this, you owe more to the Reformed tradition than you might realise.

8. On the 'rampant gnosticism' in the church today, elevating soul over body, eternal above temporal?
'The scope of God's redemptive work is bigger and wider than the rescue of individual souls. Christ's redemption is cosmic ... God's salvation is as big as his creation ... (quoting Kuyper) 'cosmic life has regained its worth not at the expense of things eternal, but by virtue of its capacity as God's handiwork and as a revelation of God's attributes' ... In my own pilgrimage, this has been the signal prophetic contribution of the Reformed tradition in the contemporary American church: to remind us that God himself announced that creation is "very good"' (emphasis mine, 102, 103).

9. On the purpose of our salvation?
'God places us in creation ... as his co-labourers, entrusting to us the task of unfolding all the potential that is packed into creation ... (and that) is going to take work - and that work is the labour of "culture", of cultivation, of unpacking ... So when God creates the world, he doesn't imagine its end to be a people just devoted to singing praise songs eternally. God's glory is most multiplied and expanded when all of the rich potential of his creation is unfolded and unpacked into the life-giving institutions that contribute to its flourishing. In a way, you could say that God has commissioned us to be his image bearers in order to help him show off his glory in what he has made. The creational work of culture - unpacking the stores of potential latent in creation 'to the praise of his glory' - is what we're made for. And since redemption is precisely the renewal and restoration of creation, then good culture-making is also what we're saved for' (108-109).

10. On 'we are what we love' (the title of his latest book, by the way)?
'For Augustine, we are what we love. In fact, we can't stop loving: even fallen, sinful humanity is still propelled to love; but as sinners, we love the wrong things in the wrong way. We end up, in the words of a great old Waylon Jennings song, "lookin' for love in all the wrong places." (In fact, if you look at the lyrics of that song, it almost reads like an Augustinian praise chorus). We can't stop looking for love (U2's entire discography is a meditation on this Augustinian point). But only by God's grace can that impulsion to love be rightly ordered, rightly directed to God himself. By the grace of God, our love can find the end point it was created for: God himself' (122).
And for Augustine, what I love and what I "enjoy" are synonymous. In fact, if I want to know what you ultimately love, I just have to look at what you ultimately enjoy - and makes you happy (122).
'Take up and read' (Augustine).

nice chatting



Andrew Lim said…
Thanks Paul for another thoughtful write-up.

I especially appreciate points 7 and 8 and I see the relation between the two.

I have had a personal disquiet with the young Calvinists regarding their apparent neglect of the arts. Unless I have looking in all the wrong places, there seems to have been a dirge of reflections on the arts as it pertains to the gospel among the young Calvinists.

Your point on “wide-angle Calvinism” is well-taken and Kuyper’s classic quote about there being not a single square inch of creation of which Christ does not declare to be His has rightly been high-lighted.

But there seems to have been a “rampant Gnosticism” in our day. It would seem that we have indeed elevated “soul over body, eternal above temporal”.

Where is the emphasis on the arts and the encouragement for our involvement in it among the Calvinists of our day?

Where are the Gaebeleins, the Lockerbies and the Wolterstorffs of our time? As you would know well, Paul, Wolterstorff explored art in action, Gaebelein struggled and succeeded in presenting a coherent relationship between truth and art. Ryken sought to place culture in Christian perspectives.

But there is an absence of such a discussion in our time. Just how is the Christian to confront the arts? Do we have a theology of beauty? Do we have a philosophy of Christian aesthetics that transcends the purely secular take on the arts?

I don’t think it is a luxurious indulgence to seek to provide creative and artistic Christians a way for them to see that they are humble creators in the service of the Supreme Creator.

OK that’s my rant and I’ve got it out of my chest!

By the way, I love the clever mix of the metaphor “dance and dipthongs”. Smacks of something Thomas Howard (Elizabeth Elliot’s brother) would put together. Clever! And now to read the book. Many thanks.

Paul Windsor said…
I hear your pain, Andrew - and your 'rant'.

There are people progressing things in these areas (Regent College as just one example) but, like you say, maybe the Reformed movement is no longer leading the way, as it once did. That is sad.

best wishes

Rhett said…
Enjoyed this book when I read it a few years ago. Isn't James KA Smith a great example of that which he speaks... that the Reformed tradition has a lot more to offer than TULIP?!

There is so much to resonate with and enjoy from the wider Reformed stream, even if some of it's more narrow-minded proponents make you want to bang your head against the nearest wall.

Popular Posts