Featured Reviews, VOLUME 3

Review: LETTERS TO A YOUNG CALVINIST – James K.A. Smith [Vol. 3, #41]

Review of

Letters to a Young Calvinist:
An Invitation to
the Reformed Tradition
James K. A. Smith.
Paperback: Brazos Press, 2010.
Buy now:  [ Amazon ]

Reviewed by Jasmine Wilson.

In the same year as publishing a book detailing the benefits of pentecostal theology (Thinking in Tongues, reviewed here), very few people could write a book introducing and praising the Reformed tradition, but James K.A. Smith has done just that.

Letters to a Young Calvinist is a brief primer introducing readers to the Reformed tradition, and extending an invitation to those who are already a bit familiar but perhaps still on the fence about it. It is written pastorally as a compilation of letters to a fictional young man representing those who are just becoming inculcated into the Reformed tradition.

In my Christian high school I was taught the theology of TULIP (Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints). When I decided to attend Calvin College, a college associated with the Christian Reformed Church (where Smith also happens to teach), I appreciated TULIP and felt I would be well-prepared for the type of conversations that would take place on campus.

Instead, TULIP was never even mentioned.  Phrases like, “practice Shalom,” “be agents of renewal,” “There is not a square inch of the world that God does not call mine!” etc. were the common language of the college culture.

If I had read James K.A. Smith’s book two years ago, I would have understood the difference. Smith’s book traces the history of the Reformed tradition and explains the differing strands that exist today, and while not directly disagreeing with TULIP, he argues that TULIP is a bit limiting and the Reformed tradition has so much more richness within it.

Ultimately, Smith writes with the purpose of gripping our hearts, souls and imagination so that we might see the truth of the Reformed tradition because we first come to love it. But of course, Smith also explains, we are not the ones to love these things first; in true, predestination-fashion, God reaches out to us first and catches hold of us so that we might respond to his truth.

Ultimately, this book is useful for all Christians who are ecumenically-minded, and especially for those Christians who consider themselves “new Calvinists,” encouraging them to dive deeper into the tradition than to be fixated on predestination and TULIP.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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