The Semantics of the Tulip

I have debated whether or not to write on this topic, or whether or not it was appropriate for this blog, especially as this blog has migrated more towards begin a reflection of my reading through Matthew.  Nonetheless as trivial as this deviation from Matthew may seem to some, it does seem rather important to me.  So being as this is my little public venue I suppose there is no better place to put this then here.

In recent months I have found myself aligning more and more with a Reformed understanding of the Christian faith, and have come to believe that for the most part the ‘Reformed’ position seems to be the biblical position.  I know this is a bit of an over simplification as there are many breeds of ‘reformed’ Christians, and that to simply say ‘Reformed theology is biblical’ is really not saying anything at all unless you define that theology.  Now please understand I write this in humility knowing that I am no scholar.  I will address the 5 points of Calvinism known by the acronym tulip.  Personally I do not know the entire history of these points, except that they were a rebuttal to the theology of Amininus.  Specifically the five points of contention that the Arminians had with Calvin which they presented at the Remonstrance of 1610.  Again, I am open to correction on any of this.  So in preparing this post I looked into the Canon’s of Dort and realized that there is no express ‘tulip’ anywhere in it... TULIP seems to be the summary of what the Synod of Dort came up with in rebuttal to the Remonstrance of 1610.  ANYWAY... most of us who have never done the major research on this simply know Calvinism as the acronym of TULIP and we accept it or reject it based on an oversimplified summary of the Cannons of Dort.  (Again if I am saying anything wrong, please, please, please... correct me, I really do not feel like looking like an imbecile on the web.)

So, in light of the fact that the majority of Christians (Calvinist or non-Calvinist) understanding of Calvinism is reduced to the simplified TULIP acronym I plan to share how I initially accepted Calvinism, then rejected it altogether, and have returned to accept it.  Moreover I propose to explain why semantics of the TULIP drove myself and others away.  Also, I do not propose to change these points, and fully recognize that many scholars have labored over these points many years even lifetimes and I am not a man who has earned any standing by which to say this system is all wrong.

Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Attonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints
Beginning with TOTAL DEPRAVITY, I would say this is the one point of the five that I personally have never taken issue with.  Even in the Articles of Faith of the Methodist Church penned by Wesley (an inconsistent Arminian) asserts the total depravity of man in a way that even the most reformed of theologians would gladly accept.  While I have never looked at the Remonstrance of 1610, I am curious as to how they differed on this.  It is however popular today for people to ‘try to find the good in others’ and if indeed the person is unregenerate that good will never be found, and if they are regenerate the only good that will be found is the Christ Himself who dwells within them.  I like the term Entirely Fallen even though I think total depravity is an adequate expression of the same thing.  Entirely Fallen makes the logical connection to the fall and how it has completely effected us in our entirety.

UNCONDITIONAL ELECTION.  This is the second place where I began to struggle against Calvinism.  In the scriptures we find conditions upon salvation... mainly repentance and faith without which no one will be saved.  The word unconditional taken at face value seems unbiblical and provides the non-Calvinist, or even the weak Calvinist a reason to reject this point.  It would be better if ‘unconditional’ were left off of this point, or replaced with the word Sovereign.  Sovereign Election communicates the simple fact that it is entirely the working and will of God which elects a soul, but does not raise the question about conditions.  Again, there are conditions to election, conditions which the Sovereign God has determined to fulfill in us and through us, entirely of His working an power.  I know this sounds nitpicky or whatever, but when I hear unconditional my gut response is that ‘unconditional election’ negates any requirement for repentance and faith which indeed would go against scripture.  (Just a reminder that this is me explaining the difficulties I have had with Calvinism because of semantics, not because of the actual doctrines meanings.)

LIMITED ATTONEMENT.  This is the doctrine that most non-Calvinists and some 4-point Calvinists take the most exception to.  I also for a long time rejected this doctrine based on the words ‘Limited Atonement’ however today the my understanding of limited atonement brings me tremendous comfort and peace with God.  The difficulty for me was with the term ‘limited’.  How can anything having to do with Christ the infinite God be limited?  Even the atonement itself has resulted in benefit to all people regardless of whether their sins have been atoned for or not.  It is because of the atonement that the benevolence of Christians has benefitted and salted the entire earth.  In that sense there is no limits to Christ’s atonement.  I prefer the term Specific Atonement to that of limited atonement.  When I realize that God with all of time laid out before Him, and all the actions and sin that man would ever commit before His face knowing full well who His children were... that He would then look at all the sins of His children (elect) and pour His wrath out specifically for those sins on His Son... well I find great comfort knowing that my sins have specifically been atoned for... every single one.  Specific atonement in my limited opinion is a far better way of communication what the 3rd point of Calvinism is attempting to communicate.  There is a lot peace and gratitude for Christ that comes when you consider a Specific atonement... however when you consider ‘limited’ atonement it seems that you consider a ‘limited’ Christ.  Again, it is semantics, but semantics do matter as they have caused my doctrines to move all over the place over the last 8 years.

IRRESISTIBLE GRACE.  If there were any point that has made me question Calvinism it would be the point of irresistible grace.  The simple praxis of life and the evidence of every believer and non-believer alike seems to scream of resistance against grace.  The term irresistible grace seems to be a contradiction to total depravity.  Again, when you reduce the five points down to a simple acronym this type of confusion is bound to arise.  Grace is resistible in the sense that fallen man, and even the redeemed man have a propensity towards resisting grace.  The point is not that one cannot resist grace, the point is that resistance is futile.  Again, this is semantics, but I cannot be the only person who has struggled much with these things because of semantics.  In the Specific Atonement Christ indeed died for the sins of the ‘Elect’ all of the sins, so for a man who has been ‘Elect’ to die unregenerate is indeed an impossibility.  The conditions of salvation will be met by all who are elect and specifically atoned for... the conditions of faith and repentance.  Resistance of Grace must be futile, and the power of Grace must be supreme because it is only by that Grace that the specifically atoned for are saved.  I guess my proposed rewording would be Omnipotent Grace.  Again, the reason being that grace can be resisted, but grace cannot be overpowered, resistance to grace though possible and even probable is still none the less futile.

PERSERVERANCE OF THE SAINTS.  There are definitely some difficult passages that at face value speak against the perseverance of the saints, the classic passages being in Hebrews 6:4-6 and Hebrews 10:26.  At the same time we find other passages that seem to speak to the fact that those given to Christ will never fall away, or will indeed be preserved.  The difference is in practice and reality.  Those who have made a strong profession of faith, who seemed to follow hard after Jesus, but never truly believed will be case hardened against the Gospel after they formally reject the Gospel they merely thought they believed.  Those who have come to true repentance and faith will indeed persevere.  Of the 5 points I think this is the one that I would not think to suggest a different name for.  It seems to communicate it just fine.  However, because I renamed the others I will do so here for the sake of consistency and say the Continuance of Salvation.  This communicates that a believer will not only be preserved but the fruit of salvation will also continue because of their regenerated nature.  It changes from Once Saved Always Saved, to Once Saved Continually Saved.

So Jay’s points of Calvinism (which I think say the same thing as the actual cannons that the TULIP is a simplification of) would be ESSOC, well that isn’t too memorable.
Entirely Fallen
Sovereign Election
Specific Atonement
Omnipotent Grace
Continuance of Salvation


Shawn said...

You need to get your hands on the unabridged version Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 1 & 2.


As you probably know, Calvin himself had no hand in the development of TULIP and you'll find some things in his Institutes that kind of agree with the things you find lacking in TULIP. It's been awhile since I read the Institutes but I'll look through my notes and try to find some of that stuff.

Jay Miklovic said...

Everyone keeps telling me I need to read the institutes... one of these days I will give in and actually do it. Aren't they public domain? Can they be obtained freely?

Steve Altman said...

Jay, I am teaching a men's study on the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month at our church. We just started and are at an introductory stage, so it would not be too late to start! Let me know if you are interested.

Steve Altman said...

I'm sorry, I forgot to point out the study was the Battles edition of Calvin's Institutes1

epideacon said...

I think you have the cart before the horse. Calvin lived well before Arminius.

Jay Miklovic said...

I am aware of that and was aware of that when I wrote the post and I thought that was fairly clear.
The Canon's of Dort were are response to the Remonstrance of 1610 in which the 'disciples' of Arminius laid out 5 points of contention with Calvin's theology... not directly with Calvin as he was no longer present.
The point is that most people associate Calvinism with the 5 points laid out in Dort which have been reduced to TULIP, even though Calvin was not present, or alive for that matter.

Thanks for commenting, I suppose my verbiage was confusing, but I am aware of the chronological order of how the 5points came down.

epideacon said...

Thanks for the quick response. I enjoyed browsing your blog last night. I too started out as an youth organizer in an UMC many years ago in a conference far far away and now defunct. Tough life, I hope you get decent support. I have a priest friend who stated Calvin's writing in the Institutes are a far cry from what Calvin's successors turned into TULIP and the variations from it. He wrote his doctoral papers on it while he was still RC. I spent a few minutes doing a little web research and found this link to T. Beza's works very informative. I recommend the bottom of the page because it appears to be in opposition to "unconditional election".


In my understanding of these types of theology Calvinism is a subset to a much larger "reformed" theological tent. Ergo "reformed" baptists? This party of baptists claim a type of tulip soteriology while steadfastly insisting on total immersion as an "ordinance" of the true faith. In my view Calvin had a keen historically consistent theology of sacrament in the direct line of Augustine and the early fathers of our faith. So like Jesus, Paul, and Augustine (and many others) formed the line of decent in the church's being Calvin and Luther had their successors who take the reigns and turn (develop) their denominations theological flavor.


Jay Miklovic said...

First, thanks for the link. I agree with your comments regarding Calvin, and his link to the early church fathers, I would probably be completely in line with you with regard to sacrament.
One thing I find interesting is that when I teach youth, or adults my teaching is what most would consider 'reformed' (certainly from a UMC perspective) and it resonates very well as though the teaching confirms what they already know from the Spirit within them.

I will say that I have great support from our congregation. It is interesting you mention yourself as a former youth organizer. When I was an engineer and knew the Lord was calling me away from the engineering vocation and into vocational ministry I affirmed that I would not do 'youth ministry'. I affirmed that I would not do ministry in my home town, and I certainly would not do ministry in the UMC. Here I am the full time youth pastor at the UMC church which I grew up in.

Thanks for the dialog. Stop by the blog now and then.

epideacon said...

We recently lost our diocesan youth coordinator after a six year stint to warmer pastures in mission field. His tenure was said to be a record of stamina and resourcefulness.
Everyone probably says "I don't want to do YM". The burn out rate is high and lets face it as we age we become more distant from youth culture. I saw a statistic somewhere some time ago that stated average time for youth work is 6 months. You are certainly blessed b/c most people (I would be willing to bet) don't have the opportunity to serve in their own hometown congregation. On the other hand I notice many people start paths to ordination from working in YM. I began helping out chaperoning HS youth on Wednesday church sponsored pizza lunches and that led to helping out with VBS for a few years and that led to that first paying position thirteen years ago. But my story like so many stories is one of fits and starts. I am married to a methodist, but we decided years ago the discipline and itinerancy was unacceptable to our setting roots. We found an unexpected home in TEC where I found an order of deacons that came packaged with a praxis of service to the least and allows security for me to work with willing laity to form ministries over a long period of time from a parish base. Of course support is crucial and I am blessed to have that support from our hierarchy and laity across the region.

I can see points of Calvinism that are open for interpretation as accepting people from all walks of life as redeemable. We don't save ourselves. Unfortunately people can become too doctrinaire and loose sight of basic faith. Maybe that is ultimately where "systematic theology" leads.
For the big picture, I think our time is witnessing a milieu of thinking that is actually steering our denominations toward a clearer understanding of the reformation and the unity of community found in word and sacrament of baptism and communion meal. As to where this is leading only God knows (and we or our descendants will find out) and that in a nutshell is what faith is all about.


Jay Miklovic said...

You are losing me a little bit here, at least in the last paragraph. I do love your 'packaged with a praxis of service' reference to the deacons.
Currently we are making very significant changes to our praxis of youth ministry to assure that our ministries pulse with service to the least. The danger however is to move to a place where the ministry exists primarily as a service to the least, and becomes a service club.
We just launched a number of new project check www.6xii.com and follow the usurv link to see some of what is going on.
I would say that everyone I have met in paid YM wanted to be there. I guess my situation was not as unique as I thought?