Richard A. Muller on the problem of TULIP



“[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

Richard A. Muller: The issue was not over ‘atonement’, but over ‘satisfaction’


“There has been some scholarly disagreement on this issue–and sometimes a doctrinal wedge is driven between ‘Calvin’ and the ‘Calvinists,’ as if Calvin taught a ‘universal atonement’ and later Reformed writers taught a ‘limited atonement.’ Yet, when the terms and definitions are rightly sorted out, there is significant continuity in the Reformed tradition on this point.

The terms ‘universal’ and ‘limited atonement’ do not represent the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed view–or, for that matter, the view of its opponents. The issue was not over ‘atonement,’ broadly understood, but over ‘satisfaction’ made by Christ for sin- and the debate was never over whether or not Christ’s satisfaction was limited: all held it to be utterly sufficient to pay the price for all sin and all held it to be effective or efficient only for those who were saved. The question concerned the identity of those who were saved and, therefore, the ground of the limitation–God’s will or human choice. Thus, both Calvin and Bullinger taught that Christ’s work made full and perfect satisfaction for all, both commended the universal preaching of the Gospel, both taught the efficacy of Christ’s work for the faithful alone–and both taught that faith is the gift of God, made available to the elect only. In other words, the inference of a limitation of the efficacy of Christ’s satisfaction to the elect alone is found both in Bullinger and in Calvin, despite differences between their formulations of the doctrine of predestination. The Reformed orthodox did teach the doctrine more precisely. In response to Arminius, they brought the traditional formula of sufficiency for all sin and efficiency for the elect alone to the forefront of their definition, where Calvin and Bullinger hardly mention it at all. The orthodox also more clearly connected the doctrine of election to the language of the limitation of the efficacy of Christ’s death, arguing that the divine intention in decreeing the death of Christ was to save only the elect. This solution is presented in the Canons of Dort in concise formula.”

– Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, 14

Richard A. Muller on Early, High, and Late Orthodoxy in the Post-Reformation era


“The post-Reformation development can be divided, for the sake of convenience, into three periods: early, high, and late orthodoxy. Early orthodoxy, in two fairly distinct phases (ca. 1565-1618-1640) extends roughly from the time of the deaths of a large number of major second generation codifiers of the Reformation and the promulgation of the great national confessions of the Reformed churches (1559-1566) to a transition in generations and approach that occured followng the Synod of Dort and the outbreak of the Thirty Years War (1618-1619), to the closing phases of the war and the deaths of the major figures who formulated the confessional solutions of the beginning of the seventeenth century. It was the era of the confessional solidification of Protestantism. Specifically, as of 1565, many of the important second-generation codifiers of the Reformed faith (John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and Andreas Hyperius) has passed away–the single eminent exception of Heinrich Bullinger who lived until 1575. Reformed theology passed, in the first phase of early orthodoxy, into the hands of Zacharias Ursinus, Casper Olevianus, Jerome Zanchi, Lambert Daneau, Theodore Beza, Francis Junius, William Perkins, and Amandus Polanus. The theologians who sat at Dort and perpetuated its carefully outlined confessionalism in the early seventeenth century–among them, Antonius Walaeus, Johann Polyander, Sibrandus Lubbertus, Franciscus Gomarus, Johannes Maccovius, John Davenant–together with writers like William Ames and J.H. Alsted belong to the second phase of the early orthodox period. Here also are found the seeds of developments and debates that would occupy the thinkers of the high orthodox era: covenant theology begins to elaborate in the works of Cameron, Ball, and Cloppenburg; worries concerning the universal promise of the gospel not addressed to the satisfaction of all at Dort reached initial formulation in the writings of Davenant and Amyraut; and the first salvos of the debate over the origin of the vowel-points were heard in the writings of Buxtorf and Cappel.

High Orthodoxy (ca. 1640-1685-1725) spans the greater part of the seventeenth and the first quarter of the eighteenth century. Like early orthodox, it needs to be divided into two phases. It represents a still broader theological synthesis than early orthodoxy: it rests upon a confessional summation of faith, has a somewhat sharper and more codified polemic against its doctrinal adversaries, and possesses a broader and more explicit grasp of tradition, particularly of the contribution of the Middle Ages. Characteristic of the initial phase of this era are internal and intraconfessional controversies, such as the broader Amyraldian controversy and the debate over Cocceian federal theology as well as the vast expansion of debate with the Socinians over the doctrine of the Trinity. In this phase of the high orthodox period are found such authors as Johannes Cocceius, Samuel Maresius, Andreas Essenius, Gisbertus Voetius, Friedrich Spanheim the Elder, Marcus Friedrich Wendelin, Franz Burman, Francis Turretin, Edward Leigh, Matthew Poole, John Owen, and Stephen Charnock.

Following 1685, the tenor of the orthodoxy changed, although the confessional boundaries continued to remain relatively in place. Given the difficulty of periodization and the presence, in the late seventeenth century, of various forces and pressures that would bring on the Enlightenment, some writers have further divded the chronology of orthodoxy by identifying a ‘transitional phase’ and even a ‘transition theology’ from ca. 1685 to ca. 1725. Certainly, after 1685, the theology represented by the more traditional writers ceased to be as dominant an intellectual pattern in the church and in the theological faculties of the great Protestant universities as it had been in the mid-seventeenth century, although the theology and the ethos of orthodoxy was carried forward by a significant number of theologians. The changes that took place included an increased pressure on the precritical textual, exegetical, and hermeneutical model of orthodoxy, an alteration of the philosophical model used by theologians from the older Christian Aristotelian approach to either a variant of the newer rationalism or a virtually a-philosophical version of dogmatics. This is also the era of the beginning of internal divisions in the Reformed confessions over the issues raised by the piety of the Second Reformation or Nadere Reformatie and by the dispossesed status of Reformed Protestants in England and France. By 1725, a fairly uniform and unified confessional subscription had faded both in England and in Switzerland. In this latter transitional phase of high orthodoxy, reaching into the eighteenth century, the significant theologians included such writers as Benedict Picter, Wilhelmus a Brakel, Louis Tronchin, Leonhardus Rijssenius, Petrus van Mastricht, Herman Witsius, Solomon van Til, Johannes Markius, John Edwards, Thomas Ridgley, Thomas Boston, Campegius Vitringa, Johannes van der Kemp, and J.A. Turretin.

Theology after 1725, in what can be called ‘late orthodoxy,’ is less secure in its philosophical foundations, indeed, searching for different philosophical models, less certain of its grasp of the biblical standard, and often (though hardly always) less willing to draw out its polemic against other ‘orthodox’ forms of Christianity, less bound by the confessional norms of the Reformation, and given to internecine polemics. One can even speak here of a ‘deconfessionalism’ in the late orthodox era that reverses the process of ‘confessionalization’ that took place in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Nonetheless, even in this altered climate, a more or less traditional theology continued to be produced by such late orthodox writers as Daniel Wyttenbach, Johann Friedrich Stapfer, Herman Venema, John Gill, Alexander Comrie, John Brown of Haddington, and Bernhardus de Moor.”

– Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. I, p. 30-32

Richard A. Muller on archetypal and ectypal theology


As we approach theology, how do we explain and account for the vast and immeasurable distance between God and man? Can we know what God knows? Can we know anything at all? Is God too hidden to be known? Can we climb into God’s mind (so to speak) and see what’s going on? Here is where the differentiation between archetypal theology (the perfect knowledge God has of himself) and ectypal theology (the revealed but limited – though sufficient – knowledge we have of God) is important. Richard A. Muller, in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1, p. 229, explains:

“Beginning with Luther, the Reformation had a strong sense of the transcendence of God, indeed, the hiddenness of God in and behind his revelation. Drawing on this assumption, Calvin argued the accommodated nature of God’s revelation: God reveals himself not as he is in his infinite majesty but in a form accessible to human beings.”

“So too is a distinction made by Calvin and others between the eternal decree of God and its execution in time – accompanied by the proviso that human beings can never enter the ultimate mind and will of God to discern its contents but must trust in what has been revealed and must gain assurance from the revelation of Christ and from his work in the hearts and minds of God’s people.”

“Thus, the theology of the Reformation recognized not only that God is distinct from his revelation and that the one who reveals cannot be fully comprehended in the revelation, but also that the revelation, given in a finite and understandable form, must truly rest on the eternal truth of God: this is the fundamental message and intention of the distinction between archetypal and ectypal theology.”

Very important! We cannot climb into God’s “mind” to see what’s going on (Is. 55:8-9), but he has handed us “notes” and “outlines” that suffice in our knowledge of him and his will. These notes and outlines are sufficient and clear, authoritative and accommodated, but we don’t and never will have exhaustive access to the knowledge of God, only to that knowledge of God which He in his infinite wisdom has pleased to reveal to us. But we do have enough, however – all that we will ever need in life and death.

Richard A. Muller on Sola Scriptura and the usefulness of tradition among the Reformers


“[I]t ought to be noted that sola Scriptura was never meant as a denial of the usefulness of the Christian tradition as a subordinate norm in theology.  The views of the Reformers developed out of a debate in the late medieval theology over the relation of Scripture and tradition, one party viewing the two as coequal norms, the other party viewing Scripture as the absolute and therefore prior norm, but allowing tradition a derivative but important secondary role in doctrinal statement.  The Reformers and the Protestant orthodox held the latter view, on the assumption that tradition was a useful guide, that the trinitarian and christological statements of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon were expressions of biblical truth, and that the great teachers of the church provided valuable instruction in theology that always needed to be evaluated in the light of Scripture.  We encounter, particularly in the scholastic era of Protestantism, a profound interest in the patristic period and a critical, but often substantive, use of ideas and patterns enunciated by the medieval doctors.”

“[T]he debate was between two groups, both nurtured within the medieval church catholic, over the question of which group and, indeed, which view of the relationship of Scripture and tradition, represented the “ancient faith” and was, therefore, truly catholic.  As the Reformation passed over into the era of confessional orthodoxy, the positive reception of tradition by Protestants – noted by Congar in the case of Chemnitz, but easily documented from numerous other writers – became increasingly the trademark of a Protestant theology that claimed catholicity for itself.”

– Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, p. 346

Richard A. Muller on the necessity of Scripture


“Not only is it necessary that God reveal himself by means of Word, it is also necessary that the Word be written.  Thus, the Reformed, together with the Lutheran orthodox, affirm the ‘necessity of Scripture’ or of the ‘written Word’ (verbum scriptum) over against the contrary claims of Roman Catholic writers like Robert Bellarmine, who argue the usefulness of written Scriptures to the church but not their necessity and who assume that the church and its ‘unwritten traditions’ could stand in the absence of Scripture.”

“In a material sense, in terms of the doctrines contained in the text, Scripture is necessary unconditionally and absolutely (simpliciter et absolute) – so that without this doctrine, the church itself could not exist.  It is clear also that Scripture, considered formally as a written document, is not necessary with respect to God (respectu Dei).  God can and did communicate with his people in a living voice (viva voce) apart from a written word: such was the form of his revelation before Moses.”

“The point to be debated is the Protestant contention that the written Word is necessary ex hypothesi or as a consequence of the will of God.  Granting that this is the will of God, the written Word is necessary not merely to the well-being (esse) of the church, so that the church would cease to exist without it: ‘Thus God is in no way bound to Scripture (alligatus Scripturae), rather he binds us to Scripture (nos alligavit Scripturae).’ [Francis Turretin]”

– Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. II, p. 179