Indulge me in a bit of personal background.
During my ministry with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) at Stanford, I became convinced of what is commonly called election. It was not reading books (that came later) which convinced me. Rather, it was evangelism. For example, there were times where a non-Christian said I showed them how inconsistent their beliefs were and yet they were unwilling to embrace Christ. There were other times where I felt I did a poor job of communicating the gospel, yet the person wanted to trust Christ. What was going on? If it was not my eloquence or lack thereof which was ultimately determinative, I concluded salvation must be entirely God’s doing. Yes, God wanted to use me as his mouthpiece, but the change of heart was His doing alone.
During those years at Stanford I read the first half of Calvin’s Institutes. A few years later, my wife and I did a reading tutorial on the second part of the Institutes with Bruce Ware as one of our classes at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. As the old jibe goes, I started wondering how much of a Calvinist Calvin was. Are the five points of Calvinism (encapsulated in the famous TULIP), which were formulated at the Synod of Dort over fifty years after the death of Calvin, the indispensable element of being a Calvinist? My hunch, though I would not have done a good job defending it at the time, was that Reformed theology, like most big movements, was more multifaceted than some seemed to suggest.
Two recent books, Letters to a Young Calvinist: an Invitation to the Reformed Tradition by James K.A. Smith, and Ravished by Beauty: the Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality, by Belden Lane present a broader and more layered understanding of the Reformed tradition. In other words, to define the Reformed tradition based mainly (or solely) about whether one thinks God does the choosing in salvation is to misunderstand and therefore truncate the tradition.
Smith’s book is short, but packed with insight and employs an attractive writing style. Like Lane, Smith sees the Reformed tradition being about much more than one’s view of election. The Reformed tradition embodies a theology of worship, deep reflection on so-called political matters, certain aesthetic sensibilities, a particular legacy of spirituality, an intentional catholicity, confessionalism, and much more. Smith calls Calvinism a “sprawling estate.” There are many rooms. To expand Smith’s metaphor we could add that there are secret rooms which should not be so secret, but remain secret due to a misunderstanding of what it means to align fully with the “Reformed” understanding of the Christian faith.
In other words, saying one is Reformed when one simply holds to election, or perhaps because one likes to quote Spurgeon, raises important questions whether this is the irreducible minimum.
Ravished by Beauty is one of the most spiritually satisfying books I have read in a long time. Some may find Lane too soft on certain doctrines, especially those revolving around the judgment of God and the effects of the Fall. The real strengths of Lane’s book lie elsewhere. Similarly, some will disagree with Smith’s take on the role of women or his appreciation for the “New Perspective” of Paul. Notwithstanding these potential concerns, there are many wise, winsome, and even witty insights in Letters to a Young Calvinist and Ravished by Beauty.Some who focus on certain doctrines for determining the legitimacy of the “truly Reformed” can also be guilty of an arrogance which ironically the Reformed tradition has good safeguards against. As Smith says, “It seems to me very un-Reformed to prop up Reformed theology as a timeless ideal, a consummated achievement, when one of the Reformers’ mantras was semper reformanda—always reforming. You shouldn’t expect a lifetime of pursuing the truth to result in constant entrenchment into what you thought when you were twenty.”
A penchant for argumentation almost seems encoded in the Reformed tradition. This, of course, can be an admirable quality as there are plenty of heretics and schismatics wandering about. However, it is this very thing which causes Belden Lane to voice his dislike of certain doctrinal commitments of John Calvin. Yet, Calvin also draws Lane in: “What warms me most to the Genevan Reformer, however, allowing me to forgive him so many other sins, is his delight in the natural world, his uninhibited celebration of creation. Calvin was smitten by God’s beauty as he was overwhelmed by God’s power. His writings abound with creative images and metaphors.”
Lest you are tempted to think Lane is a crypto-Pantheist, he simply wants to showcase how the Reformed heritage contains an ardent love for the created order. Perhaps he overdoes it at times, but then again those who believe TULIP contains what is central to Reformed Christianity need to widen their lens a bit. As Lane presents so well, the Puritans, Calvin, and Edwards all spent much time reflecting on the beauty of what God created. Lane continues by underscoring how nature’s beauty served for Calvin and Edwards as a “training ground for desiring God.”
Smith mentions the glad embrace of Calvinism at places like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He finds it rather odd that Baptists so quickly proclaim their allegiance to Calvinism when there are only a few doctrines which they have in common with Calvin. Since Baptists like Spurgeon and Piper may be the gateway to a Reformed understanding of salvation for many, it makes sense that issues like Covenant theology, infant baptism, certain ecclesial convictions, etc. would recede in importance or not even be part of the conversation.
Many of us (yours truly included) tend to think of the Reformed tradition as containing a considerable amount of intellectual heft which it clearly does. Smith and Lane teach us that the Reformed tradition embodies much more than that. It truly is a “sprawling estate.”
I should add for integrity sake that these books convinced me that it is problematic to say I even lean towards Reformed theology or am a Calvinist when the main thing which has organized that for me is a certain view of God’s work of salvation. No wonder I have always felt more comfortable calling myself a Christian!