Understanding TULIP from Outside

I have a friend with an interesting relationship with blogging at the moment. Most relevant to this post, you can read him at his once and possibly future blog, "The Evangelical Calvinist." Bobby's also got a book on the same theme that I can link to, edited together with the prolific and capable Myk Habets, and authored together with a cast of other quite intelligent folk. Now, while I know and like a goodly number of Reformed folk (one of the "hazards" of studying Barth), I'm not part of the tradition. Which makes me a bit oblivious to certain distinctions in the field, coming at them from outside. And so this post is meant to cover one set of those distinctions in particular, from where I sit. Hopefully my gloss will be helpful to others who, like me, find themselves on the sidelines of Reformed games.

Historic Identities

Now, the reason I mention Bobby is because he is one of the reasons I find regular occasion to deal with today's issue: the (inordinately popular) five points of the acronym "TULIP," based on the anti-Arminian confession issued by the Synod of Dort in 1619. Bobby's Evangelical Calvinism, more solidly influenced by the Scots than the Dutch and the English Puritans, comes out most clearly in his regular resistance to this five-point "TULIP" Calvinism, and the ways the tradition after it has become, quite simply, "Calvinism."

Put very simply, this is to say that Bobby is one of a number of people I know who are Calvinists because of the tradition of Calvin through Knox, more than the tradition through Dort and Westminster. However, the latter line of thought has generally eclipsed the former in the United States for historical and political reasons—the colonial flight of religious extremists avoiding compromise, not to put too fine a point on it. Hard-liners are always unhappy folks. Those extremists among the Calvinists, just like our own among the Lutherans, carried their own particular take on their own preferred confessionalism away to a place by themselves where they could exercise it freely. Shake to combine, add a few centuries, and you get where we are today.

Now, one can be Calvinist without the later confessions, or indeed any one specific confession, because Reformed confessions are local; the stress placed on Dort and Westminster is an instance of Reformed confessional dogmatism remarkably similar to Lutheran assertion of the Augustana. But there is (and basically always has been) a wider range of views among the Reformed than among the Lutherans for this reason: the ability of communities to choose among confessions.

This explains a bit of why, while "TULIP" originates in the Canons of Dort and their limited refutation of the 1610 Articles of Remonstrance produced by the followers of Jacobus Arminius, it has taken hold as a description of Calvinism in a general sense—and why one can still reject it and be Calvinist. It is simply a historical reality that most American Calvinism is beholden to Dort (largely in combination with Westminster) far more than it is to earlier formulations of Calvinist Reformation thought (like the prior and posterior Helvetics, the Heidelberg Catechism, etc.). Hence the profound influence of "TULIP" as a gloss for "Calvinism."

Expanding "TULIP"

"TULIP" is an acronym. It stands for:
1: the Total depravity of humanity before God (meaning that there is no remnant of original capability after the Fall);

2: the Unconditional election of humanity by God (meaning that there is no human merit possible or considered in the matter of divine election);

3: the Limited atonement effected by Christ on the cross (meaning that Christ's death is only effective for the sins of the elect, not the reprobate);

4: the Irresistible grace of God (by which it is God's choice alone that matters for salvation); and

5: the Perseverance of the saints in the election of God (meaning that the elect cannot lose by personal actions what they could not gain by them in the first place)
Now, this isn't all there is to what Bobby and company call "Federal Calvinism." It is an old line in its own right, and among other things, we would at least need coverage of the difference between single- and double-covenant Calvinisms. Quickly: Federal Calvinism, building on Romans 5:12-21 as a window on the Fall, posits a covenant of works in Adam, and names all covenants from Noah forward as precursors and participants under the regime of the covenant of grace that is fulfilled in Christ. (Get used to me talking about the Fall and the Christ-and-Adam typology now; there's a lot of it coming.)

However, as far as "TULIP" goes, you can get pretty far with what we have here by grasping the basic double-predestinarian viewpoint. It is God who elects. And it is God who does every other relevant action involved in salvation, redemption, reconciliation, atonement, justification, etc. It is therefore God's choice, and God's alone, that dictates who is an object of these actions, and who is not. Who is elect, meaning nothing more than I just said ... and who is reprobate, meaning a good deal more.

Underlying Common Issues

The basic problem is that we can't be universalists if we accept that scripture speaks of damnation in relevant ways as an eternal act of God. (I won't argue against that here, because it's the basic question at issue under the double-predestinarian systems.) If it is the case, then it isn't enough for us to speak of the positive actions of God for the elect. Positive actions for part of the whole imply negative actions for the remainder. For that matter, as we see in some of the prophets, negative actions for part of the whole imply positive regard for the remainder—the whole "I have loved Jacob and hated Esau" bit does not appear in the story of the brothers, but in the political conflict in which God demonstrates Israel's good by contrast to the harm inflicted upon Edom. Damnation is a basic aetiological tool that scripture resorts to in order to explain why the world is the way it is: crappy, but better for us than for them. Except when it's bad for us, at which point we must be standing under condemnation.

And damnation inevitably has a cause for which we are responsible. The reason for the frequent recourse to damnation as an explanation in scripture is because it lets us name a human cause and attempt to address it. If we're responsible for sin, then we are justly condemned for our responsibility for sin. This is the basis for atonement. But that is also the reason why reprobation becomes reasonable in double-predestinarian systems. The reprobation of the entire human creation is not objectionable, once we combine it with human responsibility for original sin. And if, after Augustine, our responsibility for sin is not merely forensic, but genetic, and if therefore our participation in sin is a necessary and inescapable reality of our birth, then it is very hard to argue with the Reformed worldview here. Because at that point, speaking historically and not in terms of eternity, reprobation is more basic than election. Reprobation is simply the environment in which grace appears. We fail the covenant of works before we are ever potential subjects of the covenant of grace. What's up for debate is therefore not reprobation, but the conditions of election.

I'll touch that again when I cover the Arminian position, but let's hit the implications involved in the claims of the Canons of Dort. The first point you have to grasp here is that it is only God's active will that matters, period. All of Calvinist ethics lives after the fact of God's action. And it does so because of moral failure in Adam, the first man, who could choose not to sin. The relevant fact of God's action is therefore Jesus Christ, the last man, who did in fact choose not to sin, and is the incarnation of God's reality for us.

Remember that Christ is the solution to the Fall. (This is another thing that I won't argue against here, though I have elsewhere, because we can't understand what's going on without it.) Because of the Fall, all of creation stands under the sentence of eternal condemnation for sin, prior to the atoning act of Christ. Adam is the root of damnation, just as Christ is the root of salvation. But because we have the ongoing idea, in parts of the New Testament, that not everyone shall be saved, we still have to deal with damnation even after salvation. So Dort gives us limited atonement for sin, which is the necessary complement of limited election. If there remains damnation after Christ, God must not elect everyone. Only the elect have their eternal death sentences commuted in Christ. The rest remain eternally subject to the consequences of their sins. And for the Calvinist position, this is simply the way it is, subject to no consideration of the relative worth of particular creatures. Dort insists that the entire matter is utterly arbitrary.

Now, as any good Augustinian must, the Arminian position basically agrees with the total depravity point. None of us can choose not to sin. Only Adam could have, and only Christ did. But the Arminians solve the damnation problem differently. On this side of the fence, damnation is the same, but the atonement in Christ is universal, and so the election in Christ becomes the conditional piece. And the Arminian position is that election is conditional on faith. In other words, as I talked about with Divine Command theories, it looks like the decision isn't utterly arbitrary; God has taste. Here we have the basic problem that Dort responds to in the Articles of Remonstrance. There is a conflict to be resolved if we accept that scripture speaks relevantly of the universal scope of God's act, especially in Paul, and still speaks relevantly of damnation coexisting with the salvation in Christ. The Arminians address this conflict by remembering that scripture also speaks of faith as the sine qua non of salvation.

However, it is then God's grace that enables faith, and the Spirit that sustains faith, which becomes the sine qua non of election. So the Arminians stress the absolute necessity of faith for participation in God's action after Christ, and the Calvinists respond by declaring that the entire matter is predetermined in divine eternity and denying that any contingent human act, even trust in God, makes a difference to God's eternal purpose. The problem Dort aims to eliminate is any suggestion that we have anything to do with God's positive action for us, and the Canons do so by leaving everything in God's hands. But the Arminians have still attempted to leave everything in God's hands, albeit indirectly, by stressing God's responsibility for faith itself.

(And I'll tell you that I think one of the roots of the problem here is the classically Protestant Orthodox decision that pistis is belief, and that believing is a voluntary cognitive action distinct from being-in-relationship. But again, we can't fight that here, and still understand what's going on.)

The Origin of the Reaction

Of course, I could have started with the Arminian position, since it obviously predates the Calvinist response at Dort. But the only reason I have to bring it up is the fact that "TULIP," owing to its better press, has self-grandfathered its way into a sort of independent theological existence. And so it's very important to know exactly why Dort is the way it is. The five Articles of Remonstrance are their own study in a theological opinion, and it's easier not to handle them as though they corresponded to the order of the "TULIP" response. "TULIP" makes its own logical sense in sequence, but so do the articles of the Remonstrants in their sequence, which I will summarize in my own way here:
1: The criterion of faith: Faith, including the obedience of faith and perseverance in faith, is the basis upon which God has determined to save human beings in Christ. This is a grace given only to some; the rest, who are not given the grace of faith, or not the obedience of faith, or are not given to persevere in faith and its obedience, remain subject to the verdict on the Fall and God's righteous wrath against sin.

2: Universal atonement, with selective uptake: The death of Christ on the cross has secured redemption and forgiveness of sins for each and every human person—which only actually obtains to those who receive the grace of saving faith.

3: Regeneration by the Spirit: The condition of sin after the Fall militates against the grace of saving faith, because it results in the incapacity of human will with respect to the good. This grace is only available to those who have been reborn and regenerated by the action of the Spirit into new moral capability.

4: Non-cooperation in grace: All moral good in the regenerate is entirely the product of this God-given grace, brought about by the Spirit, and is not at all a product of human will. But if there is no cooperation in this grace, but all is the act of God, yet there may be human resistance to this grace, even in the regenerate.

5: The criterion of perseverance: In the battle against Satan, this grace of God may therefore assist the regenerate. Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit offer ther gracious assistance, and as long as the regenerate actively desire that help and are ready for the conflict, Satan will have no luck with them. But it's not impossible that human resistance to the grace of God can amount to a regression back into the state of reprobation.
You can see that, unlike the response given at Dort, these articles are two-edged. They give with one hand and restrict with the other. The God-given grace of faith is only properly called "saving faith" if it is the real deal: trust in God married to obedience of God in such a way that it cannot be shaken. From the Arminian perspective, there are responses to grace short of this that might still be called "faith," but will not ultimately guarantee salvation. Consider the parable of the sower here: there are those who receive the seed but do not produce, or who produce, but do not survive, and only those who both produce and survive will reach the harvest. And so the core Arminian idea is not about human works, but about receptivity. The root principle here is that all success is owed to God, and all failure is owed to us.

And this is a kind of an Augustinian solution to the problem, in the same way that Augustine acquits God of responsibility for sin by making very clear that this is a two-agent system in which the creature is independent, though unequal. And Augustine is where we get the ground that very clearly underlies both systems—that wrath against sin is already in play, and is in fact the default situation for all human creatures after the Fall. In both systems, there is essentially nothing saving between Adam and Christ. But the Arminian solution upholds the ongoing possibility of Adamic failure in ways Augustine does not. While the last article shies away from confessing this notion, there remains a basic assertion of Adamic capability toward sin, even though there is a denial of Adamic capability toward the good. We are, each and all of us, potentially capable of recapitulating the fall from grace at any time.

What's Really at Stake?

In this debate, if we back out far enough, the Articles of Remonstrance and the Canons of Dort show two parties moving in the same direction, even if they seem to be opposed to one another. Dort simply shoves the pendulum that way hard enough to bury it in the ceiling. The problem with the Remonstrants, then, is that they aren't sufficiently opposed to synergism. They have the standard line on disavowing human capacity toward the good, but they haven't gone so far as to disavow human relevance in the matter. For Calvinists after Dort, human agency may have been relevant prior to the covenant of grace (again, historically speaking), and it may become relevant toward the good again after the covenant of grace has been executed in Christ. However, the operation and exercise of that covenant are atomic with respect to human agency. Grace is a divine action in which we cannot possibly interfere. Dort's insistence on the absolute divine arbitrariness of salvation is at the same time an insistence on the absolute irrelevance of human agency to the divine act of grace. Synergism, whether as cooperation or antagonism, is simply ruled out.

Here is something that I, as a Lutheran, can affirm. We have our own opposition to synergism, in quite different terms. And, indeed, this is one of the key reasons that I find Barth so sympathetic, in that he manages to strengthen this aspect while refusing to treat double-predestination as an equal necessity.


  1. A Lutheran friend of mine (well, he's now an ACNA Anglican) tells me that Barth's doctrine of election is plain old fashioned Lutheranism. I'm sure that is an overstatement, but every time I wax glowingly about Barth, he retorts, "Well, that sounds like a Lutheran."

    This would make Barth the great "Protestant" doctor of the church, not just "Reformed."

    1. I prefer to think of him as a great catholic doctor of the church, as well as Reformed. :) But as to his doctrine of election, it's very much justification looked at sideways. Once you get past the double-predestinarian implications that come with "election" language, you strike Luther pretty quick.

  2. Thank you, Matt, ya Lutheran ;-); I really liked and appreciated this post, and the time you put into it. Augustine is the ultimate lurker in American theology (at least!).

    1. Augustine's inescapable presence in US theology (however poorly followed) is one of the many reasons I find Barth so necessary. And not just for predestination! If we learn how to read theologians from Barth, how to refuse their authority as something beyond fellow-witnesses and fellow-workers, we will learn so much more from them about how to do theology for our times.

    2. And, thanks. :) This post has been brewing for a few weeks now, before I got the keys to make it work.

  3. Serving in a Lutheran (ELCA)/Reformed (UCC) federated congregation for a dozen years, I have enjoyed studying and trying to come to grips with how the two or more traditions can or cannot come together in ministry and preaching. Thanks for this very clear exposition of the issues.
    Have recently been reading Roger Olson's blog - a self-described Arminian very opposed to Calvinism and yet very clearly emphasizing "prevenient grace" so as to avoid becoming too much of a semi-Pelagian, which seems to be the accusation made against Arminians by TULIP Calvinists.

    1. Has it been that long? Wow.

      Heck, growing up in a historically Lutheran-Reformed congregation, even though it was blended and made officially Lutheran long before we got there, has had its effects on me. Besides, of course, having a father who was never as cradle-Lutheran as he might have seemed. :) The option was always there for me to choose to understand the other, and also to choose my own tradition. You did good.

      Speaking of Roger Olson, his post today is actually quite good for defending the legitimate Augustinian point under the Arminian position. He walks one of the better Arminian positions I've seen. I don't agree with him on many details, naturally, much as I also disagree with many good Calvinists. But I've come to see that it's better to understand the function of a doctrine in its system than to write it off as though its disagreement with my system were the problem. This post is a result of that approach, too, and I'm glad if it helps you.

    2. Also, what ought to go without saying but doesn't (any more than Lutheran anti-Catholic sentiment really acknowledges developments after Trent) is that the Arminian positions available today have learned from this 17th-century dispute just as the Calvinist ones have. I do try to avoid saying, in the post, that the Arminians today think what the Remonstrants did in the Articles. The basic idea remains, but tempered in its weaknesses by centuries of further thought and argument with other positions.


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