Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What's wrong with the TULIP?

In honour of my latest addition to my blog list I have decided to post on TULIP, the acronym most often associated with Calvinism. I came across this blog after discussing with my teacher, colleague, and friend Dr. Myk Habets about a book project he is working on, on the subject of defining an "Evangelical Calvinism." This is in opposition to "Federal Calvinism" which they see as a legitimate extension of Calvinism, but not the only legitimate one, and not necessarily the best. I was raised an Arminian, which people often forget is a type of Calvinism, but it was the branch of the family that TULIP was designed to refute (a century after Calvin). I no longer call myself by any label, other than the hopelessly vague "Evangelical." Part of what the nascent "Evangelical Calvinist" movement is trying to do is to reframe the tenets of "Federal Calvinism" away from the un-Calvin obsession with covenant and towards a more Calvinesque obsession with Christ. An initial attempt to reframe the TULIP is made here.

What is the TULIP?
  • Total Depravity (of fallen humanity)
  • Unconditional Election (of God's people)
  • Limited Atonement (for humanity by Christ)
  • Irresistible Grace (of God)
  • Perseverance (of God's people, i.e. they cannot lose their salvation)
What is wrong with TULIP?

Total depravity can either be taken to mean that humanity is totally depraved or that every part of humanity is touched by sin. A biblical view of humanity, IMHO, should never forget that humanity was first made in the image of God (Imago Dei) and that the fall never took that away. Just as every area of human life is touched by sin and has potential for evil, every area has an equal (or greater) potential for good. So while total depravity in a limited sense is possible good doctrine, it certainly should not be the first point you make about either humanity (anthropology) or God's salvation (soteriology).

That the God of the Bible is an electing God, who chooses people according to his own often secret agenda is proven by innumerable proof-texts and the overall narrative of scripture. But it needs to be said that this same scriptural narrative often portrays even the people whom God has chosen falling out of God's favour. Unconditional Election merely affrims that God's electional is not based on any criteria that a human has any hope of fulfilling by choice, God's choice therefore doesn't come with strings attached!

IMHO, Limited Atonement is the most hateful of doctrines in the TULIP sequence. This is the idea that Christ did not die for everyone but only those that would be saved, it argues that there are rafts of humanity out there who simply cannot be saved because Christ's atonement does not cover them. The motive behind this doctrine is to avoid suggesting that God could be thwarted in his desire to save. If God wants to save everyone but can only save some, that would suggest God is weak or incompetent. Thus Limited Atonement suggests that God must only have intended to save some. However, to my mind this doctrine does far more harm by limiting the availability of God's grace and love, and is not the solution to the problem of those who do not respond to the Gospel.

The Irresistible Grace of God is a doctrine that argues that if God desire to save someone they cannot get out of that salvation. In one sense I have no problem with this as it is manifestly true. On the other hand I do not think this necessarily means therefore that God simply hasn't willed to save those who are not saved. I think we need to affirm that God's grace can be and often is resisted, but that the human capacity to resist that grace is in fact evidence of that grace. God's gift of autonomy and free volition to humanity.

The Perseverance of the saints, God's elect people, is an interesting one. People obviously do fall away from time to time, is it "once saved, always saved" or simply that those who fall away show they were never saved in the first place? Personally I feel the NT emphasis on perseverance as something to be done rather than something to be assumed speaks against this. Likewise the OT emphasis on Covenant Nomism.

Now that was a big post and I am aware with some more time I should probably give you some Bible verses and stuff, but hopefully you can see what I am getting at and where I am getting it from? In case you are still wondering where I stand, I do like Calvin, from what little I have read, but I don't like TULIP, as far as I understand it correctly. Let me know what you think :-)

P.S See also this post on Myths and Urban Legends about Calvin and for a more polemical piece Evangelical Calvinism is an Oxymoron


  1. Jon,
    Have you read the Canons of the Synod of Dort where these five points were discussed and agreed upon by an ecumenical, international group?

    They interact with Arminius' followers' concerns with these 5 areas and rebut and prove the five points.

    Having said that, you must always remember that the five points aren't the be-all and end-all of "Calvinist" theology. You can't understand the Synod's work without also reading the Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism and other Reformed confessions that preceded the Synod.

    All of which is to say, you've just come into the middle of a discussion that's been going on for years and there's been a lot of trees felled in the process.

    Time to be a Berean and get stuck into the Scriptures and test these confessions! God bless you.

  2. Hi Phil, no I haven't! I am absolutely aware, and thought i made it clear, that the TULIP is not "Calvinism" but a branch of it. I was just giving my tuppence on why I have never found the TULIP very compelling. On the other hand I don't particularly feel it is my lifework to disprove it either. I'll worry about Calvin once I have Paul sorted! (Should take only about 300 years or so) Kia ora!

  3. I never realised that there was an acronym for this branch of Calvinism. Interesting.

    Best of all was the confirmation that this five-step dogma is not actually true Calvinism - though I'm not sure that I'll be throwing myself into the Belgic confession or Heidelberg Catechism any time soon.