Spring Flowers or Weeds in Calvin’s Garden?


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John 10:7-30

On Easter evening it has been my practice for many years to offer the congregation something a bit different from the norm. Not simply the next installment in a series of sermons, but a change of pace. I once read a substantial portion of Stuart Jackman’s wonderful novella, The Davidson Affair. Another Easter I read the fascinating history of the ministry of Lutheran chaplain Henry Gerecke to the Protestant Nazi defendants at the War Crimes Tribunal in Nuremberg after the Second World War. I’ve reviewed with you the argument among Reformed evangelicals concerning apologetic method, the right way to make the case for our faith to unbelievers. I’ve summarized the argument of Richard Bauckham’s magnificent new study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, which argues that the claims of the gospel in apostolic Christianity rested very heavily on eyewitness testimony. And so on.

Tonight I thought you would be interested, as I was fascinated, by a new study recently published by Ken Stewart, once a member of the Presbytery of the Pacific Northwest and now for some years a professor in the Biblical Studies department at our Covenant College. The Book is entitled Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition. But it is not the entire study that interests me tonight so much as one chapter and an appendix to the book devoted to a very popular way among Calvinists, and for some time including myself, of teaching what are widely known as the five points of Calvinism, viz. the acrostic “TULIP.” TULIP, as you know, has a special legitimacy as an acronym for the five points Calvinism because those so-called five points originated in the declarations of the Synod of Dort – Dort being a town in Holland – in 1618-1619 and, of course, tulips are associated with Holland. Florence and I were in the Amsterdam airport a few weeks ago and tulips are everywhere, on mugs, in reproductions of paintings, and in little boxes to take home and plant in your own garden.

The five points of TULIP, as I’m sure most of you know, are:

  1. Total Depravity
  2. Unconditional Election
  3. Limited Atonement
  4. Irresistible Grace, and
  5. Perseverance of the Saints

 

I chose as my text a favorite Calvinist passage for its stress on God’s sovereign saving grace, and, in particular, the five points. Indeed, in the verses we have read, we can find all five of the five points, though one of them is present perhaps more by implication than by direct statement. Total Depravity is perhaps only suggested, but nevertheless pretty clearly suggested by Lord’s remark to the Jewish leadership: “You do not believe because you are not of my flock,” which is to say, apart from God’s electing grace no one will ever believe in Christ and be saved. The same remark highlights the fact of divine election, as does the Lord’s talking of “my sheep,” “of knowing his sheep” (“know” is often in the Bible a synonym for “choose” or “love” especially when used of God), of the Lord’s “having other sheep that are not of this fold” (meaning not Jews), and of the Father having given his sheep to him. Limited atonement is taught in the Lord’s remark “I lay down my life for my sheep,” all the more when shortly thereafter he turns to the Jewish leadership and says, “You are not part of my sheep.” Irresistible grace is highlighted in the earlier remark, “My sheep hear my voice … and they follow me” and, even more, in the earlier remark, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice.”  And perseverance of the saints is emphasized in the Lord’s remark, “I give them eternal life and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” The burden of all of these statements are, as you know, repeated in many forms throughout the Bible. Together they make up the Calvinistic doctrine of sovereign grace, or salvation by grace alone.

Now, to be sure, if someone invented TULIP as a way of speaking of the five points, no one, as it were, invented the “five points of Calvinism” themselves. They came into existence in this way. The Synod at Dort in 1617 was faced with the assignment of answering a protest, what was then called a remonstrance, from a group of disaffected Reformed ministers who had come to hold a form of theology that we would nowadays call Arminianism. Arminians are still called Remonstrants in Holland because of that long ago Remonstrance or protest they laid before the Synod of the Reformed church. Rather than Calvinism’s emphasis on salvation as entirely of grace and as the fruit of divine love combined with divine power – with its inevitable and admittedly difficult implication that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit never intended to save everyone – the Arminians held, as they hold today, that the issue of salvation lies ultimately not in God’s hands but in man’s. God through Jesus Christ made salvation a possibility for all; but it is the free decision of the human will that turns that possibility into an actuality. Or, as it has sometimes been crudely put by some representative Arminians: “God cast one vote for you, the Devil one vote against you, and it’s up to you to break the tie.” Or as I heard Billy Graham once say, “When a person has been presented with the gospel and the gospel has been explained to him, and when he is confronted with the choice of believing or not, even God cannot help him then.”

The Remonstrants, the protestors as I said, had filed a protest over the doctrine of salvation as it was then taught in the Dutch Reformed church. That protest made five specific assertions that, in the historical context, amounted to five specific complaints against the way salvation was taught in the Reformed church of their day. To be sure, these five articles were written in a form that sounds somewhat less like the developed Arminianism that we have come to know, but still they make very clear their doubts about the great Reformed system of soteriology, a salvation born in the heart of God, secured by the atonement of Christ, made the possession of the elect by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, which work is and must be continued until the believer’s death or the end of  the world. It was the 17th century, a time for celebrating the achievements and potential of mankind. It was the time the Dutch refer to as their “bloemtijd,” the highpoint of their civilization. A theology that represented man as helpless and utterly dependent upon the good pleasure of God did not fit with the times. It was a time, so it seemed, for celebrating man’s potential, not his helplessness. It was inevitable that Arminianism should flower in such soil. But, nevertheless, the Synod of Dort answered each of those complaints in the negative and the Synod’s five answers became, in the typical way people have of simplifying difficult matters, “the five points of Calvinism.” Long after people forgot that these were replies to the five Arminian objections, the five points have remained a classic way of defining Reformed soteriology, its doctrine of salvation. And TULIP became a very popular way of remembering and teaching the five points.

If you read the Canons, the authoritative deliverances of the Synod of Dort, it will take you a little work to find the five points. There are four articles, not five, as two issues are combined in one. The subjects as taken up by the Synod are in a different order from the order given in TULIP. The first concerns “divine predestination,” the second “the death of Christ and the redemption of men,” the third and fourth together summarize the “corruption of man and his conversion to God and the method of that conversion,” and the fifth, the “perseverance of the saints.” What is more, each article is a lengthy and wide-ranging account of the doctrine being confessed together with a rejection of errors associated with that doctrine. For example, in the first, concerning divine predestination, there are 18 numbered paragraphs in the positive exposition and 9 more in the section devoted to the rejection of errors. In the edition of the Canons you find in Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom the so-called five points run to 30 pages.  TULIP hardly does justice to these lengthy and complex theological statements about deep, complex, and always controversial biblical doctrines.

You are perhaps aware that, popular as TULIP has been as a handy device for teaching people the doctrines of grace, there have long been substantial criticisms of the acronym raised from within Reformed circles and open regret expressed that TULIP has become as popular a teaching device in Reformed circles as it has.

One criticism has been that it creates the false impression that Calvinism may be reduced to these five assertions or, even, that Calvinistic soteriology, its doctrine of salvation, can be reduced to these five simple phrases. Calvinist preachers have always been great pleaders with men, they have emphasized the absolute necessity of personal faith for justification and personal obedience for sanctification and perseverance, but this stress on human responsibility appears nowhere in the five points of TULIP. That has often given people the impression that Calvinists don’t believe that men are free and responsible and accountable for their salvation. Where is “work out your salvation in fear and trembling” in TULIP?

Or take the fact, often pointed out, that nowhere in TULIP is there any mention of God’s love! In Calvinism God’s personal and mighty love is the explanation of everything but it is invisible in this summary of Calvinism’s doctrine of salvation.

What is more, there is so much more to Calvinist theology as a theological and as a life system than this one dimension of its soteriology. What of its doctrine of creation, of God, of Christ, of the cross as penal substitutionary atonement; what of its unique emphasis on the unity of the Bible, on the divine promise concerning the salvation of our children and the practice of paedobaptism, its almost unique positive emphasis on the law of God as a rule of life, its ecclesiology, and so on. TULIP is a severe reduction of a spacious and complex theological system which seeks to report the teaching of the whole of Holy Scripture and connect one doctrine to another. This has been one criticism of TULIP, its common identification with Calvinism – intended or unintended – is highly reductionistic. If you ask many people today what Calvinism is, you will get TULIP in reply. Now to be fair, the defenders of TULIP might agree with such a criticism and admit that the acronym is merely shorthand for a much larger idea. But the fact is that caution and that qualification are often not added, not heard, or not understood.

Another complaint of the same type is that TULIP suggests that we believe in these five separate doctrines when, in fact, each of these five points is simply the same doctrine looked at from five different vantage points. The doctrine is that salvation is of the Lord, it is his gift, his achievement, his doing, both in Christ and in the human heart. From beginning to end and with respect to every link in the chain we are taught to give all glory to God because what do we have that we have not received. While overly simple in one way TULIP isn’t simple enough in another. Total depravity is simply sovereign grace viewed from the vantage point of man in sin; unconditional election is simply sovereign grace viewed from the vantage point of God’s eternal will; limited atonement is simply sovereign grace viewed from the vantage point of the cross, and so on. TULIP doesn’t make entirely clear that there is a single confession here: one great assertion that is being explained and defended in these different ways: salvation is of the Lord, salvation is sola gratia, by grace alone. The separation of this one great truth into these five distinct doctrines opened the door to what we now find quite commonly: people who say they are four point Calvinists or three point or three and a half, or even one point Calvinists. Such claims  utterly miss the point: the single assertion of Calvinism regarding the origin of our salvation is that salvation is of the Lord, it is the Lord’s doing, it is the Lord’s gift: one either believes and confesses that or he does not.

Another criticism of TULIP is one I first read in Dr. J.I. Packer’s wonderful little booklet, first published as an introduction to a republication of John Owen’s magisterial defense of limited or particular atonement, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. If you haven’t read that little booklet, you have a treat in store for you. It features all the wonderful characteristics of Packer’s work: the learning of a world class theologian, writing as clear as clear can be, and a wonderful practical interest that keeps the high register theological polemics firmly tied to the life of ordinary Christian people.

Dr. Packer points out that one of the great problems with TULIP, even as an account of just the one dimension of Reformed theology – that of God’s sovereignty in salvation – is that the phrases – total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, and so on – give the impression that the real issue is found in the adjectives, not the nouns. That is, the impression is given that we all agree about election, what we disagree about is whether it is conditional or unconditional; we all agree as to what Christ did on the cross, we agree as to what the atonement is, we just disagree about whether it was limited or not. In fact, Dr. Packer reminds us, the real debate is and has always been about the nouns. What is election? What is the atonement?  These are the real issues. The fact is Arminians and Calvinists do not agree about election, or the atonement, or the grace of God. The Arminian pew-sitter may well believe that on the cross Jesus Christ was bearing our punishment in our place, because that is what he sings in the church’s great hymns and what she thinks she reads in her Bible, but no Arminian theologian thinks that was what the Lord Christ was doing on the cross. We don’t agree about the atonement; we have, in fact, quite different views of how Jesus saved us from our sins.

And, as many have pointed out through the years, even the five specific terms of TULIP leave something to be desired. Take, for example, “total depravity.” We are confessing that man in sin is totally depraved. But that term suggests, does it not, that man is as bad as he can be – that is what depravity is, is it not, human badness? – but we don’t believe that. Nobody believes that. As often as a teacher introduces Total Depravity as the “T” in TULIP, he has to explain that the term doesn’t mean what almost anybody would think it means upon first hearing it, that a human being is as bad as he can possibly be. What it means is that a man is incapable of contributing to his own salvation. But “total depravity” doesn’t easily translate into “incapable of contributing anything to his salvation.”

Or, take another example. “Limited Atonement” is a term that just sounds bad. It sounds crabbed and ungenerous. We are taking something wonderful – Christ’s sacrifice on the cross – and making it smaller. Packer makes this point by saying that the five points as they are now known by the acrostic TULIP present Calvinism in a negative form. [Introductory Essay, 5] That’s certainly what every Arminian accuses us of doing – making God’s grace smaller – and “limited” encourages him to think that. But the fact is “limited” isn’t even an accurate description of the difference between Calvinistic and Arminian theologies of the atonement. Both are limited. Calvinism limits the extent of the atonement; Arminianism limits its power. Calvinists say that Christ so died as certainly to secure the salvation of his people. As the angel said to Joseph, “He shall save his people from their sins,” and as Jesus himself said, “The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep. I give them eternal life and they shall never perish.” Nowhere are we taught in the Bible that all that Jesus did was to make our salvation a possibility. No; he saved us! But, if so, then Christ must not have died with the intention of saving everyone for if he had everyone would have to be saved and the Scripture makes perfectly clear that everyone is not saved. The Calvinist, as you see, has an atonement of limited extent but unlimited power. But, more than that, Dort was careful to say that the death of the Lord Jesus on the cross “was abundantly sufficient to expiate all the sins of the whole world.” That is, the Lord Jesus wouldn’t have died a different death had he intended to save everyone. He wouldn’t have suffered more or longer. His atonement was sufficient for all even if not intended for all. There is largeness, breadth to Dort’s conception of the cross and its power that is unfortunately invisible in a term like “limited atonement.” [Stewart, 89]

The Arminian, on the contrary, holds that Christ died for everyone but in so dying actually secured the everlasting life of no one. The cross of Christ is part of salvation but it is not the whole of it. The Lord Jesus in dying for us made salvation a possibility; but it does not become an actuality until a man or woman out of the free and unfettered choice of his or her own will decides to receive Christ and trust in his saving work. When Christ has done all he will do for sinners, no one is yet redeemed, no one yet saved. So the Arminian has an atonement of unlimited extent but limited power. And that being so, the Arminian needs a different understanding of the atonement than penal substitution, than Christ bearing our punishment in our place. Do you see why? If Christ has paid the punishment for our sins then they have been punished and we cannot be punished again for them.  Christ didn’t die a theoretical death. He died a real death and if in dying he was bearing the punishment of everyone’s sins then no one has any sins left to answer for. Evangelical Arminian theologians – those who in loyalty to the Bible deny that everyone is saved – have always appreciated that logic and have, with the sole exception of the Wesleys themselves, John and Charles, always favored other theories of the atonement, other explanations of what Jesus Christ was doing when he died on the cross.

Limited Atonement is simply a poor choice of term. Definite atonement or particular redemption are somewhat better, but no term is without its problems and perhaps a sentence is always going to be better than a two-word phrase.

A similar complaint has been made about the phrase “Irresistible Grace.” The Remonstrants pointed out in their protest that the Scripture often shows men resisting the grace of God. In their protest, their remonstrance, they pointed to Acts 7:51 where we read: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit, as your fathers did, so do you.” Israel resisted the grace of God, Judas did, Paul warns the Corinthians “not to receive the grace of God in vain,” even Paul himself was at one time in the period before his conversion “kicking against the goads.” It is always a problem when a theological point is expressed in a way that seems to contradict the plain speaking of the Bible! Infallible grace may be a better term because it places the emphasis where it belongs: on the divine initiative and the sovereign power of divine grace. But it is ironic that the term “irresistible” originated in the Remonstrants’ caricature of Reformed doctrine. It was a term they used in criticism; it was not a term Dort used in defense of biblical doctrine. Oops! [Stewart, 91n]

So, it has long been thought by Reformed theologians and teachers that TULIP may cause as many problems as it solves and that there may be a better way of teaching our doctrine. Such criticisms of TULIP as I have mentioned and others as well have been offered by such Reformed notables as John R. DeWitt, R.C. Sproul, Roger Nicole, Jim Boice, and Covenant Theological Seminary professors Michael Williams and Robert Peterson. The Southern Baptist Calvinist, Timothy George, even replaced the acronym TULIP with one of his own, ROSES! [Stewart, 77n]

Still, Calvinist folks like us have an affection for TULIP because we learned our faith in that way and have so often taught it to others in the same way. But now comes Professor Stewart to teach those who think that TULIP is sacrosanct and must be both protected against criticism lest the doctrines it summarizes be endangered and who think, as I confess I thought, that TULIP owes its status in the Reformed thinking to the fact that it is a time-honored and venerable formula, having been handed down to us by our forefathers: it is not so. Professor Stewart now informs  those of us who use TULIP that we are working from the mistaken premise that TULIP itself is historic, that the five points thus summarized are a

“time-honored and authentic representation from the dim Calvinist past that gives us a proper distillation of what was achieved at Dordt in the face of the early Arminian challenge.” [77]

Stewart has done some real detective work and his results are fascinating. The book that cemented the use of TULIP as a summary of Calvinistic doctrine in the modern American Reformed world was the large booklet of David Steele and Curtis Thomas, The Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Defended, Documented published first in 1963. But of all the resources that Steele and Thomas employed only one referred to TULIP. That was Lorraine Boettner’s very fine The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination originally published in 1932.

The earliest use of the acronym so far to come to light is found in an article in The Outlook, a New York periodical, in the issue of June 21, 1913, an article that Prof. Stewart includes as an appendix in the book. In that article, the author, one William H. Vail, a Presbyterian pastor from Newark, New Jersey,

“both recalled details of hearing an address on the subject eight years earlier by a Dr. McAfee of Brooklyn and described his own current attempts to ascertain what some of his contemporary Presbyterian ministers held the points of Calvinism to be.” [79]

There was at that time, 1913 apparently, no typical way of speaking of the “points” still less of an undisputed consensus that there were five points of Calvinism. The phrase “the five points of Calvinism” can be found earlier, even much earlier to be sure, back into the 19th century and beyond. Robert Dabney, the Southern Presbyterian theologian, published in 1895 a little book entitled The Five Points of Calvinism but he said in his introduction:

“This title is of little accuracy or worth; I use it to denote certain points of doctrine, because custom has made it familiar.” [80]

He discussed total depravity but as a part of a larger discussion of original sin and the inability of the will, he spoke of particular redemption not limited atonement, and did not speak of irresistible grace but spoke instead of effectual calling and regeneration.

A Reformed Anglican vicar, William Parks published in 1856 a book entitled Sermons on the Five Points of Calvinism but they were not organized according to the acronym TULIP. He gave them the names: The Fall of Man, Election, Particular Redemption, Effectual Calling, and Final Perseverance.  In 1846 Horatius Bonar published a little book to summarize the doctrines emphasized at Dort but, again, did not use any of the now common names such as we find in TULIP. The same thing could be said of a few other 19th century works: the doctrines are not referred to under their TULIP names. [79-81] An 18th century booklet, The Scripture Doctrine of the Five Points, published in 1715 by John Edwards, an Anglican, whom Stewart describes as a kind J.I. Packer of his day, refers to the doctrines but not by their modern names. In other words, in all the earlier works that do refer to the doctrines of Dort, whether or not they are referred to as “the five points,” it is the substance of Dort’s deliverances not any particular formula, any specific way of referring to the doctrines, or any order of referring to them that is found in them.

In fact, no one has yet uncovered a use of the acronym TULIP in the 19th century. Most 19th and early 20th century works of theology do not summarize Reformed soteriology in five points and do not use the terms by which the five points are nowadays typically referred to. Charles Hodge didn’t, Benjamin Warfield didn’t. The earliest known reference to TULIP as a way of describing the five points of Calvinism is in that magazine article published in June 1913. I’ll bet you didn’t know or imagine that. I know I didn’t!

Professor Stewart goes on to argue that TULIP has become the battle cry of a ghetto in evangelical Christianity and in that it has departed from the historic spirit of Reformed theology. It is narrow when Dort was wide, it is negative when Dort was positive, it is polemical and argumentative when Dort was concerned to gather the entire church around the teaching of Holy Scripture.

I’ll let you ponder all of this. But I can’t help but think you may think differently about TULIP, as I do, simply from knowing that it apparently was in use no earlier than the early 20th century. I always thought it came from way back, indeed that it must have come from Holland centuries ago. It didn’t. If you wish to think more deeply about these things, read on the internet the canons of Dort themselves and see what you think.

We all agree, surely, and all the believing church ought gladly to confess that salvation is of the Lord. If it is not, there is no salvation. It was all done, the Bible says, when God decreed it before the world was made. It was all finished and made complete in the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior. And it was made certain once more in the work of the Holy Spirit in the souls of men and women whom he is calling to faith in the Lord Jesus. Let us be the ones who say that to the church and to the world, but let us be ones who say it in the most biblical way, the most generous and grateful and loving way, and in the way best suited to bring those with doubts along to these convictions that we love because we have found them to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.