Monday, June 23, 2008

The Vulgarity of the TULIP

Vulgar - Deficient in taste, delicacy, or refinement.

I have a sort of love/hate relationship with the acrostic that, for many, defines what has come to be known as "Calvinism." The old acrostic is the "TULIP", and the TULIP is supposed to represent the 5 points of Calvinism. Here is what the acrostic stands for:

T - Total Depravity
U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement
I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

If defined correctly, I whole-heartedly agree with each of the 5 points of Calvinism. However, in an effort to make simple the complex, I have found that the TULIP itself can cause more trouble than help. I am rather envious that Arminians do not have a similar acrostic to put their feet to the fire. It is, perhaps, one of the reasons that a mostly-Arminian can remain so easily uncommitted to a system of theology that they so readily embrace.

I believe that the TULIP is vulgar. Not in the sense that it is slanderous or profane, but in the sense that it is common and lacks refinement. If one uses the TULIP as a teaching tool, a great deal of time must be spent undoing the very images that the acrostic conjures. Namely, you have to explain what you mean by "Total Depravity." Limited Atonement and Irresistible Grace are also worded in an unhelpful way. Particular Redemption and effectual grace are far better, but I guess that TUPEP isn't as catchy as TULIP.

The real reason that I dread the acrostic is that people make the mistaken assumption that if you have memorized the TULIP then you know the sum total of Reformed theology. As if the mystery of salvation, and God's decrees, and the truth of predestination and election could be summed up neatly with an acrostic. I have a similar unpleasant reaction when people use the word "Calvinism" or even when I am labeled a "Calvinist." I love John Calvin. I have found him to be a profitable teacher even when I disagree with him. My book shelf is lined with Calvin's commentaries from Genesis to Jude, and I also have his Institutes. To think that such mammoth contributions to theology can be regulated to 5 points is, well, vulgar. Besides, Calvin would not have cared for my theology very much. He would have run me out of town for being one of those unstable "Anabaptists," so I doubt he would want me wearing his label. Indeed, he would probably be quite upset if he learned there were any "Calvinists" at all. His regard and affections were centered on the Lord Jesus Christ as revealed in God's Word, I believe he would have found the term Calvinist repulsive.

Alas, I am afraid that there is no remedy for the dilemma. The TULIP is as good a start as anyplace to begin a conversation about God's sovereignty in salvation and man's inability to save himself. I'd prefer we start in John 6 or Romans 9 or Ephesians 1-2, but we'll make do with what we have.


Russ Reaves said...


Anonymous said...

I would also change Total Depravity to Radical Corruption. Total Depravity could give the idea that we are as depraved as we can possibly be i.e. there absolutely nothing good in us--which is not altogether true as most any Bible-believing Christian would believe, all people are created in the image of God and capable of doing good in some sense. Radical Corruption is a little better because it communicates as the Romans 3 does, that there is nothing man can do that is not corrupted by sin. Sin touches every fabric of our being and corrupts it--both our sin and the sins of the world around us.

It is actually a praise to God's grace to all people that they aren't as depraved as they could be, it shows that God is being patient with man and has not given man completely over to what his sinful heart desires (i.e. more sin as Romans 1:18-32).

Anyway, good post.

Jim said...

Wow, I just wish more Calvinist's were as honest about their theological system.