The “New Calvinism” is vying for the hearts and minds of young evangelicals -- many of whom grew up within my own (once decidedly non-Calvinist) denomination. The Baptist soil in which my faith took root emphasized foreign missions, personal evangelism, and individual salvation. Our churches engaged in one campaign after another to reach the lost for Christ. We Baptists are a people of action who sometimes go off looking for the next program to launch or person to convert without ever stopping to tend the harvest theologically. The only Calvin we’d ever heard of was the little boy in the comic strip who had a pet tiger.
The new Calvinism claims to offer a cure for our reticence about doctrine. Too often, however, it does so by replacing the four spiritual laws with five dangerously sharp points. At its core, the new Calvinism still reduces the gospel to individual faith. This is James K. A. Smith’s argument in his important new book, “Letters to a Young Calvinist.”
Smith shows the riches of a Reformed tradition that goes far beyond T-U-L-I-P. He shows how the tradition is as much Abraham Kuyper as it is John Piper. Smith writes that the Reformed tradition is like a large house, but many of the new Calvinists have never left the room just inside the front door. The threshold to the Calvinist house is not total depravity. It is God’s grace. Reformed theology is rooted in the awe of a good gift -- and it’s hard to fit this gift inside a box.
To be genuinely Reformed is to be genuinely catholic. It is to embrace the works of Augustine and the ancient creeds of the Church. Many in the new Calvinist movement (especially among my Baptist kin) are decidedly non-creedal and haven’t yet given much priority to church history and tradition. Why they would then choose to call themselves Reformed is puzzling.
Smith argues that the Reformed vision is a way forward for those not satisfied with an individualistic faith. Individualistic faith too often focuses on human wants and needs (and sins) over against God’s sovereignty over all things. But as we reflect upon the God who became voluntarily subservient to the Virgin’s womb, we must always balance a belief in sovereignty with the awe of God’s intimacy. The covenant is not a cold legal document between God and Israel. It is a deeply personal story. Abraham and the prophets apparently had no problem engaging in a sort of divine-human debate. At times, I fear that Reformed theology leaves too little room for this rough and tumble aspect of God with us.
Smith’s invitation to the Reformed tradition is an immensely helpful primer for Christian leaders curious about the recent uptick in enthusiasm over Calvinist dogma. Such increased interest in theology holds potential for further renewal and reformation, but Smith is right to emphasize that theology is more than a series of propositions to memorize. It is a dynamic world in which to live. And it can be lived into even in relationship with non-Calvinists.
If they take Smith’s advice and explore their own estate, the new Calvinists are good news for the Church. But once they explore their own house, they would do good to consider making peace with their brother Arminius in the house next door.