Richard A. Muller on the problem of TULIP

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“[TULIP is] an acrostic that has caused much trouble for the Reformed tradition and has contributed greatly to the confusion about Calvin and Calvinism. It is really quite odd and ahistorical to associate a particular document written in the Netherlands in 1618-19 with the whole of Calvinism and then to reduce its meaning to TULIP. The Canons of Dort, after all, were never intended as a summary statement of Reformed theology, nor were they understood as a new confession for the Reformed churches. Rather, they stood as an interpretive codicil to the primary confessional documents of the Dutch Reformed churches, namely, the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, refuting the five articles of the Remonstrants.

It is perhaps worth noting that the Dutch word is not “tulip” but “tulp.” “Tulip” isn’t Dutch — sometimes I wonder whether Arminius was just trying to correct someone’s spelling when he was accused of omitting that “i” for irresistible grace. More seriously, there is no historical association between the acrostic TULIP and the Canons of Dort. As far as we know, both the acrostic and the associated usage of “five points of Calvinism” are of Anglo-American origin and do not date back before the nineteenth century. It is remarkable how quickly bad ideas catch on. When, therefore, the question of Calvin’s relationship to Calvinism is reduced to this popular floral meditation — did Calvin teach TULIP? — any answer will be grounded on a misrepresentation. Calvin himself certainly never thought of this model, but neither did later so-called Calvinists. Or, to make the point in another way, Calvin and his fellow Reformers held to doctrines that stand in clear continuity with the Canons of Dort, but neither Calvin nor his fellow Reformers, nor the authors of the canons, would have reduced their confessional position to TULIP.

In fact, it is quite remarkable how little the acrostic has to do with Calvin or Calvinism, as is most evident in the cases of the “T” and the “L.” Calvin’s references to the utter deformity and depravity of the human will and human abilities were directed against forms of synergism and Semi-Pelagianism and refer to the pervasiveness of sin – reducing this language to the slogan “total depravity” endangers the argument. Calvin certainly never spoke of “limited atonement.” Neither of these terms appear in the Canons of Dort, nor is either one of these terms characteristic of the language of Reformed or Calvinistic orthodoxy in the seventeenth century. Like TULIP itself, the terms are Anglo-American creations of fairly recent vintage.

Whereas Calvin himself used phrases like “totally depraved” or “utterly perverse,” such terminology does not appear in the Canons of Dort, which declare briefly that “all have sinned in Adam” and are therefore under the curse and destined for eternal death. In other words, on the issue of the “T” in TULIP, the language of the Canons of Dort is more measured than that of Calvin. “Total depravity,” at least as understood in colloquial English, is so utterly grizzly a concept as to apply only to the theology of the Lutheran, Matthias Flacius Illyricus, who had an almost dualistic understanding of human nature before and after the fall, arguing the utter replacement of the imago Dei with the imago Satanae and indicating that the very substance of fallen humanity was sin. Neither Calvin not later Reformed thinkers went in this direction and, to the credit of the Lutherans, they repudiated this kind of language in the Formula of Concord. What is actually at issue, obscured by the imposition of the term “total depravity” on the early modern sources, is not the utter absence of any sort of goodness but the inability to save one’s self from sin. Calvin’s usage of pravitas and like terms, indicating perversity, viciousness, crookedness, or depravity of character was, thus, not intended to deny human ability outwardly to obey the law, but rather to indicate a pervasive inward distortion of character tainting all human acts and rendering the person utterly unworthy before God. On this basic theological point there is, moreover, clear continuity between Calvin’s theology and later Reformed thought. Arguably, the Canons of Dort and the Reformed Orthodox theologians who followed and supported its formulae, offer a clearer, more nuanced and, indeed, more moderate understanding of fallen human nature than what can be found in Calvin’s writings.

The question of the “L” in TULIP, of “limited” versus “universal atonement,” also looms large in the debate over whether or not Calvin was a Calvinist. This question, too, arises out of a series of modern confusions, rooted, it seems to me, in the application of a highly vague and anachronistic language to a sixteenth- and seventeenth-century issue. Simply stated, neither Calvin, nor Beza, nor the Canons of Dort, nor any of the orthodox Reformed thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mention limited atonement — and insofar as they did not mention it, they hardly could have taught the doctrine. (Atonement, after all, is an English term, and nearly all of this older theology was written in Latin.) To make the point a bit less bluntly and with more attention to the historical materials, the question debated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concerned the meaning of those biblical passages in which Christ is said to have paid a ransom for all or God is said to will the salvation of all or of the whole world, given the large number of biblical passages that indicate a limitation of salvation to some, namely, to the elect or believers. This is an old question, belonging to the patristic and medieval church as well as to the early modern Reformed and, since the time of Peter Lombard, had been discussed in terms of the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ’s satisfaction in relation to the universality of the preaching of redemption.

The question at issue between Calvin and the later Reformed does not entail any debate over the value or merit of Christ’s death: virtually all were agreed that it was sufficient to pay the price for the sins of the whole world. Neither was the question at issue whether all human beings would actually be saved: all (including Arminius) agreed that this was not to be the case. To make the point another way, if “atonement” is taken to mean the value or sufficiency of Christ’s death, only a very few theologians involved in the early modern debates taught limited atonement — and if atonement is taken to mean the actual salvation accomplished in particular persons, then no one involved in those debates taught unlimited atonement (except perhaps the much-reviled Samuel Huber).

Historically, framed in language understandable in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there were two questions to be answered. First, the question posed by Arminius and answered at Dort: given the sufficiency of Christ’s death to pay the price for all sin, how ought one to understand the limitation of its efficacy to some? In Arminius’ view, the efficacy was limited by the choice of some persons to believe, others not to believe, and predestination was grounded in a divine foreknowledge of the choice. In the view of the Synod of Dort, the efficacy was limited according to the assumption of salvation by grace alone, to God’s elect. Calvin was quite clear on the point: the application or efficacy of Christ’s death was limited to the elect. And in this conclusion there was also accord among the later Reformed theologians.

Second, there was the question implied in variations of formulation among sixteenth-century Reformed writers and explicitly argued in a series of seventeenth century debates following the Synod of Dort, namely, whether the value of Christ’s death was hypothetically universal given the infinite value or sufficiency of Christ’s satisfaction. More simply put, was the value of Christ’s death such that it would be sufficient for all sin if God had so intended — or was the value of Christ’s death such that if all would believe all would be saved? On this very specific question Calvin is, arguably, silent. He did not often mention the traditional sufficiency-efficiency formula, and he did not address the issue, posed by Amyraut, of a hypothetical or conditional decree of salvation for all who would believe, prior to the absolute decree to save the elect. He did frequently state, without further modification, that Christ expiated the sins of the world and that this “favor” is extended “indiscriminately to the whole human race,” just as he also assumed, as the Canons of Dort would later declare, that God had the specific intention of saving some particular persons. Various of the later Reformed appealed to Calvin on both sides of the debate over hypothetical universalism. (Only a very few writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century argued that Christ’s death was sufficient payment only for the sins of the elect – and their views are not evident in the Reformed confessions either of the Reformation or of the era of orthodoxy.) Later Reformed theology, then, is more specific on this particular point than Calvin had been — and arguably, his somewhat vague formulations point (or could be pointed) in several directions, as in fact can the formulae from the Synod of Dort.”

– Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition , Chapter 2

One thought on “Richard A. Muller on the problem of TULIP

  1. I love the precision of Muller’s writing, which reflects the depth and breadth of his knowledge on all subjects Reformed. Every time Richard Muller publishes a book, buy it!

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