Time to Cut the TULIP: Why the T.U.L.I.P. is a bad definition for Calvinist

What is a Calvinist? Most American Evangelicals will answer that it is anyone who affirms the T.U.L.I.P. The TULIP is an acrostic for Double Predestination that stands for Total Depravity, Irresistible Grace, Limited Atonement, Unconditional Election, and Perseverance of the Saints—and anyone who affirms all the petals of this TULIP is commonly known as a "5-point Calvinist". The TULIP maybe useful for evangelicals who wish to express their predilection for Double Predestination in embroidery, but it is a deficient term to describe the vast legacy of the Calvinist tradition throughout time and worldwide that is indebted to the genius of John Calvin. Double Predestination was significantly developed by John Calvin, but it is not Calvin's only or even central idea! Many Calvinists are indebted to Calvin's genius who do not affirm Double Predestination. In this post, I suggest that we cut the TULIP's and have a more expansive definition for Calvinist, that includes a much larger range of theologians, from Charles Hodge, to Karl Barth, to Friedrich Schleiermacher, and to anyone who confesses gratitude for the work of John Calvin. 

Problem 1: Double Predestination isn't John Calvin's central idea

The TULIP wrongly defines Calvinism by Double Predestination alone. John Calvin is famous for developing his doctrine of Double Predestination, but it is not the only or central theological concept in John Calvin's theology—it is only one stone in Calvin's monumental theological system. Many Calvin scholars say there is no single theological idea that is central or normative throughout his work—including Double Predestination! Calvin's definition for Double Predestination is obscurely buried near the end of book three of the Institutes after all. Although Calvin believed Double Predestination was true, he also said it was a dreadful and horrible decree. So if the hallmark of a Calvinist is adoration of Double Predestination, or making it center of one's theology, then not even John Calvin was a Calvinist!

John T. McNeill is a Calvin scholar, and the editor of the most famous edition of John Calvin's magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion; John T. McNeill elegantly explains that Double Predestination alone may not be used to define "Calvinism" and John Calvin may not be reduced to a parrot of Double Predestination, in the following quotation from his The History and Character of Calvinism:

The topics stressed in Calvin's teaching can be listed and described without difficulty. It is not so easy to say with confidence precisely where his thought has its center or what he would have us regard as its dominant theme. Is the sovereign majesty of God the conception about which his whole message revolves? Or does it center, as is often popularly assumed, in the doctrine of election? Or is he really indifferent to the priority of anyone major doctrine over another and primarily concerned to be an interpreter of the divine Book, the Word of God by which man obtains a knowledge of salvation? Not thinking that we should ask questions of sort, Calvin did not answer them. Animated discussion arises when scholars of our time present their answers, leaving an impression that Calvin's theology is not so simple and explicit as his followers have often represented it. [1]

So to define Calvinism exclusively by Double Predestination (e.g. via the TULIP) is a disservice to Calvin's genius and influence. Many theologians and churches may correctly be called Calvinist, for appreciating Calvin's ideas, even if Double Predestination isn't a primary or controlling doctrine, in the same way that it wasn't for John Calvin either.

Problem 2: Arminians are also Calvinists

5-point Calvinists refer to anyone who does not affirm the entire T.U.L.I.P as a "Arminians" but the irony is that the first Arminians were more Calvinist that 5-point Calvinists today! Because the 16th century Arminians, were a faction of Calvinists within the Dutch Reformed Church, that rejected aspects of Double Predestination. Overall, they adhere to for more of Calvin's ideas than Evangelicals who affirm the so-called TULIP today. 

In the 16th century, there was a dispute between factions within the Dutch Reformed Church; one party, known as the Remonstrants had published a protest known as the "Five Articles of the Remonstrants." According to the Church Historian Philip Schaff, this "controversy started with opposition to the doctrine of absolute decrees, and moved in the sphere of anthropology and soteriology" [2] but the specific five points finally stated "relate to predestination, the extent of the atonement, the nature of faith, the resistibility of grace, and the perseverance of saints." [3] Schaff summaries the five articles of the Remonstrants as Conditional Grace, Universal Atonement, Saving Faith, Resistible Grace, and the Uncertainty of Perseverance.[4] In response, the Dutch Reformed Church organized the Synod of Dort to address the Remonstrants, and decided decisively against the Remonstrants with five counter-articles known as the Canons of Dort. The Dutch Reformed Church added these Canons of Dort (1618-19) their other symbolic literature, namely the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Belgic Confession (1561). So the Canons of Dort were never a primary definition for Calvinist Churches, and only existed as one part of the Three Forms of Unity that was a late addition, added fifty years after the others.

Today, the Remonstrants are more commonly known as "Arminians" because the Remonstrants used ideas from Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), who was a pastor in the Dutch Reformed Church, even though Arminius had died a decade before the Synod of Dort. Theodore Beza, Calvin's beloved disciple and biographer, who was an arch-Calvinist who knew and adored John Calvin, knew Jacob Arminius while Arminius was in Calvin's Geneva, and had sent a letter of commendation for Arminius to the Dutch Reformed Church, where he was to become a pastor. So Arminus was a more faithful and dedicated Calvinist, than Evangelicals who affirm the TULIP today, because he served within the Dutch Reformed Church, and Evangelicals who only affirm the TULIP, disregard the the rest of the Reformed symbolic literature included in the Three Forms of Unity. 

For evidence that Arminius was more of a Calvinist, than Evangelical's that affirm the TULIP today, just read Theodore Beza's letter commending Arminius. Beza was Calvin's most faithful and trusted disciple, and heir to Calvin's church in Geneva:

Let it be known to you that from the time Arminius returned to us from Basel, his life and learning both have so approved themselves to us, that we hope the best of him in every respect, if he steadily persists in the same course, which, by the blessing of God, we doubt not he will. [4]  

Furthermore, John Calvin (1509--1564) also died before Arminius was born, and died over fifty years before the Synod of Dort. So we cannot say whether Calvin would have affirmed the TULIP or not either. So we'll never know if Calvin was a Calvinist, according to the TULIP.  

Problem 3. The TULIP describes a beer glass better than the Canons of Dort

A 'tulip' beer glass [5]

About 50 years ago, a clever english speaker devised the acrostic T.U.L.I.P to summarize the Canons of Dort in English vernacular. So the T.U.L.I.P. is a very very recently invented acrostic, that is used only exclusively by American Evangelicals in the last few decades! The word "tulip" is an English word, that was foreign to the Dutch and Latin speaking parties involved at the Synod of Dort. Calvin didn't speak English, and the Latin word for "tulip" is spelt "tulipa" and the Dutch spelling is "tulpe", and this demonstrates that the T.U.L.I.P. is a recent English invention. Using acronyms and acrostics is a common evangelical preaching tactic, not the historical pattern of exegesis that the Calvinist church tradition has historically followed. Finally, the popularity of the TULIP may be due to the Young Restless and Reformed (YRR), who are a recent group of (primarily baptist) evangelicals who appreciate Double Predestination and craft beer. So the ubiquity of the TULIP may be due to evangelicals, using so-called 'Christian Apologetics' arguing against "free will" at brew pubs while drinking a craft brew in a tulip beer glass. 

Problem 4: Friedrich Schleiermacher was also a Calvinist

In a nutshell, the TULIP is a deficient definition for Calvinst because it excludes so many churches and theologians that are grateful and have benefited from John Calvin's work. For instance, Friedrich Schleiermacher was one of the most influential Calvinists in the history of the Protestant Church, and builds his Christian Faith upon Calvin's Institutes, and engages with Calvin through its page, but he does not fit within the confines of the TULIP.  My concluding point is excellently expressed by Dr. Travis McMaken, when he recently said:

"It's not necessarily obvious that Calvin and Schleiermacher should go together, but in fact, Calvin highly influenced Schleiermacher. And so, if you read Calvin, in such a way, that you can account for Charles Hodge, but you cannot account for Schleiermacher, then you're doing something wrong." [8]

Charles Hodge was a Calvinist, and affirmed far more of Calvin's ideas than the TULIP's narrow definition of Double Predestination. If anyone is considered a strict Calvinist according to the TULIP's definition, it is Charles Hodge, and yet Hodge greatly appreciated Schleiermacher, and during his two year journey from America to Europe, he went out of his way to meet Schleiermacher, and visited Schleiermacher's church and his home. Hodge says this about Schleiermacher in a famous footnote in his Systematic Theology:

When in Berlin the writer often attended Schleiermacher’s church. The hymns to be sung were printed on slips of paper and distributed at the doors. They were always evangelical and spiritual in an eminent degree, filled with praise and gratitude to our Redeemer. Tholuck said that Schleiermacher, when sitting in the evening with his family, would often say, “Hush, children: let us sing a hymn of praise to Christ.” Can we doubt that he is singing those praises now? To whomsoever Christ is God, St. John assures us Christ is a Savior.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Vol. II. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1989. 440. Print.

The editors of Schleiermacher's Christian Faith expressed Schleiermacher's debt to Calvin twice, and these two editorial confessions also demonstrate that Schleiermacher was more of a Calvinist than 5-point Calvinists today.  

In the second foreword to Friedrich Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith:

The editors of this translation, first published in 1928, agreed with the opinion of those best qualified to judge that as a comprehensive exposition of Protestant theology Schleiermacher's Christian Faith was second only to Calvin's Institutes. They were right—unless perhaps we prefer to reverse the order of first and second place or, better, are content to set these two theological masterpieces side by side without presuming rank with them. We might even venture to say 'Christian' where they said 'Protestant'. [6]

And in the Editor's Preference to the first english edition:

In the opinion of competent thinkers the Christian Faith of Schleiermacher is, with the exception of Calvin's Institutes, the most important work covering the whole field of doctrine to which Protestant theology can point. To say this is not necessarily to adopt either his fundamental principles or the detailed conclusions to which these principles have guided him. On all such matters a nearly unbroken controversy has long prevailed. [7]


[^Header Image] https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/1/1b/Pink-Tulips-2009.jpg
[1]  McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism, Oxford University Press, 1977, p. 201.
[2] Schaeff, Philip. “Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes. Volume I. The History of Creeds.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, Creeds of the Christian Church Vol 1, <http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds1.ix.iii.v.html>
[3] Ibid. 
[4] Picirilli, Robert E. Grace, Faith, Free Will: Contrasting Views of Salvation: Calvinism and Arminianism, Randall House Publications, 2002, p. 5.
[5] By Jmcstrav at English Wikipedia, CC BY 3.0, Link
[6] Schleiermacher, Friedrich, and Paul T. Nimmo. The Christian Faith, Bloomsbury T & T Clark, 2016. [Foreword to the second english edition of the Christian Faith by Schleiermacher.]
[7] Ibid. [Editor's Preface to the first english edition of the Christian Faith by Schleiermacher.] 
[8] McMacken, W. T. “How I Read John Calvin, Pt 1 - Biography of a Calvin Reader.” YouTube, YouTube, 20 July 2017, <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4spTopNAC8#t=16m42s>.

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  1. I agree w/ the author’s overall point but he gives several bad/misleading arguments. On Problem 2: Beza commended Arminius before Arminius started his campaign against unconditional double predestination, so Beza’s letter doesn’t prove that Beza would’ve thought the later Arminius a good Calvinist. The fact that Calvin died before Dort also doesn’t prove that he wasn’t a “TULIP Calvinist”–if the doctrines later approved by Dort were taught by Calvin, then he was. In point of fact, Limited Atonement is the only part of TULIP that I’ve heard questioned as to whether Calvin taught it. On Problem 3: This is the equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ argument that the word “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible so the concept must not be. Anyone who holds to the canons of Dort is a “TULIP Calvinist” whether they use the recent English acrostic to express those canons or not. On Problem 4: The quote from Hodge only shows that he approved Schleiermacher’s piety & thought he was a true Christian in spite of Schleiermacher’s problematic formal Christology; it doesn’t prove that Hodge thought Schleiermacher was a proper Calvinist. Likewise, the quotes from the editors of The Christian Faith only compare it with Calvin’s Institutes as the two greatest works of Protestant dogmatics; they say nothing about any dependence of one theologian on the other. Correlation doesn’t prove causation. I’m afraid the Postbarthian’s post needs significant reworking in order to convince anyone other than the already-convinced. I hope that such reworking will happen, since–as I said before–I agree with the main point.

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