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, 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.

      So for a fuller understanding of exactly what constitutes Calvinism, we must look for the core of Calvin’s theology.  Even a cursory reading of Calvin’s Commentaries and his Institutes gives a clear impression that Calvin held certain biblical truths that undergirded his theology.  Perhaps Calvin himself gives us his own understanding of the essence of his theology when, in his vindication of the Reformers in light of Cardinal Sadolet’s charges, Calvin responded, “But in rendering an account of my doctrine [O Lord]…assuredly, the thing at which I chiefly aimed, and for which I most diligently labored, was, that the glory of Thy goodness and justice…might shine forth conspicuous, that the virtue and blessings of Thy Christ…might be fully displayed.”  From Calvin’s own pen, we see that his theology sought the glory and supremacy of God in Christ, not just in salvation, but in all things.

      B. B. Warfield's understanding of Calvinism reflects more of Calvin than Dordt when he says that the term can also designate “the entire body of conceptions, theological, ethical, philosophical, social, political, which, under the influence of the master mind of John Calvin, raised itself to dominance in the Protestant lands of the post-Reformation age, and has left a permanent mark not only upon the thought of mankind, but upon the life-history of men, the social order of civilized peoples, and even the political organization of states.”

      So if TULIP wasn’t invented by Calvin, should we abandon it?  The obvious answer is “No!”  It’s certainly a helpful device, worthy of keeping and using.  One of the benefits is that it conveys important points about Reformed theology’s soteriology (the doctrine of salvation), especially on predestination, and this makes it a very valuable tool for understanding who does what and when in redemption.  So, we can use it with confidence, but we should always realize its limitations and seek to represent Calvinism in all its fullness.

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

James Rich