The Doctrines of Grace: Total Depravity: Did Calvin Pick TULIPS?

Ask someone if they know about Calvinism and most likely they’ll bring up TULIP

“If TULIP wasn’t original to Calvin, how did we get it?  What are traditionally known as the Five Points of Calvinism sprung from theologians who were actually opposed to Calvin’s teachings, specifically those on predestination.” 

 

Ask someone if they know about Calvinism and most likely they’ll bring up TULIP, a helpful acrostic that stands for the doctrines of Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.  However, some Christians chafe at the doctrines that are part of the Reformed tradition’s understanding of the whole counsel of God. Yet, there are two things even Christians who embrace the doctrines of grace should remember to better understand the theological system commonly referred to as Calvinism: TULIP was not a concept coined by Calvin, nor does it capture the essence and breadth of that theological system.

If TULIP wasn’t original to Calvin, how did we get it?  What are traditionally known as the Five Points of Calvinism sprung from theologians who were actually opposed to Calvin’s teachings, specifically those on predestination.  These theologians, known as Remonstrants (protestors), had followed Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609).  Arminius himself had taken exception to Calvin and his followers’ teachings on predestination.  Following Arminius’ death, his disciples sought to have the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism revised to reflect their views. To further their aims, they issued in 1610 the Remonstrance, in which they presented five articles of faith that corrected what they saw as problems in Calvin’s system.  These five Arminian articles included Conditional election (God chose those who on their own would believe), Unlimited atonement (Christ died for all), Resistible grace (the Holy Spirit can be resisted), and Non-perseverance (salvation can be lost).

It wasn’t until 1618 that the Synod of Dort was convened in the town of Dordrecht to debate their proposal.  This national ecclesiastical court ruled against all of the Arminian assertions, and in 1619 issued a detailed rebuttal entitled The Judgement of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands, which is known today as the Canons of Dort.  What the assembly propounded was the opposite of the Arminian articles, and thus these teachings have become what are popularly understood as the Five Points of Calvinism, which are represented in English by the terms in the acrostic (as originally presented in the Remonstrance, the order of the topics was UTLIP – a mnemonic device that is not too helpful!).

So rather than a positive theological statement by Calvin or Calvinists to explain their system, TULIP is really a polemical response to their antagonists’ objections.   That means the acrostic defines Calvinism more on its opponents’ terms than on its own.  And further, while it is a helpful polemical piece on specific theological topics, it omits the essence and comprehensiveness of the theological system of Calvinism.

Read More