Calvinism in One Point
The Often-Forgotten Story of TULIP
If the word Calvinism means anything to you, then the acronym TULIP likely has been planted in your theological vocabulary. You have become familiar with — perhaps even a champion of — total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.
Yet for many of us, the origin of this TULIP remains unknown. We may appreciate the flower like a tulip in a vase, knowing neither from where it came nor its position in the larger garden of Reformed theology. In fact, even calling the so-called five points of Calvinism “TULIP” displays a certain distance from their origin, given that the acronym appeared only a little over a century ago.
The truths contained in TULIP, though, date far older than a century. Those who first articulated them argued that they date as far back as eternity. But the points found their clearest doctrinal expression four hundred years ago, when representatives from across Europe met in a Dutch city called Dordrecht (or Dort). The story begins a few years earlier, however, with the rise of a man named Arminius.
When Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) began his ministry as a pastor in the Netherlands, small waves of controversy were already gathering near the shore of the Dutch church. A handful of men, both ministers and laymen, had begun to voice dissent over predestination, the doctrine that God chose whom he would save before the ages began.
At the time, Arminius embodied what many today would call Calvinism, having studied under Calvin’s successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza. Yet when Arminius was asked to uphold Beza’s doctrine of predestination over against the objections of one Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, the young Calvinist minister found, upon study and reflection, that he could not. Slowly, the pillar of predestination began to crumble beneath Arminius.
“Christ had particular sinners in mind as he hung upon the cross: his sheep, his friends, his church, his bride.”
Calvinists should beware at this point of painting Arminius with the darkest colors available. Louis Praamsma claims that he was “a faithful pastor, a man of rare scholarly abilities, a man of peace and sensitivity who against his will was always at war, a man eager to serve God” (Crisis in the Reformed Churches, 45). Arminius launched no theological crusade against the Dutch church; he raised no banner for the movement that would later be called by his name.
And yet, neither did he keep his doubts to himself. A series of sermons on Romans raised some Reformed eyebrows. Later, after he was appointed professor at the University of Leiden, his colleague Francis Gomarus found enough askew in Arminius’s theology to oppose it with vigor. The two professors sparred on and off for several years until, in 1609, Jacobus Arminius died.
His ideas, however, did not. Within a short time, the waves rising against the shore of the Dutch church began to crash.
‘Stop the Arminian Disturber!’
In 1610, the year after Arminius died, about forty pastors sympathetic to his theology drafted a document called the Remonstrance (a protest or statement of opposition). In it, the Remonstrants (as they came to be called) presented five points (Crisis, 243–45):
- God elects those who “by the grace of the Holy Spirit shall believe in this his Son Jesus Christ.” (They would later clarify that this election is based on foreseen faith.)
- “Jesus Christ the Savior of the world died for all men and for every man” — rather than only for the elect.
- “Man does not have saving faith of himself nor by the power of his own free will.” (This point sounds much like total depravity, but differences from the Reformed view would soon emerge.)
- The grace of God is a “prevenient or assisting, awakening, consequent and cooperating grace” — but it is not irresistible.
- Believers have “abundant strength” for persevering in faith, but “whether they can through negligence fall away” is unclear. (They would soon say believers can fall away.)
Debate soon began in earnest. From 1611 to 1618, the rift widened. Disagreements raged. Calls for peace went unheeded. Arminius slowly gave way to Arminianism, a movement that, according to Gerald Bray, “threatened to tear the fabric of the Dutch Republic apart” (God Has Spoken, 893).
Four hundred years later, we may struggle to grasp how a theological controversy could upend a nation. It may shock us to hear that Simon Episcopius, a leader of the Remonstrants, was once chased out of Amsterdam by a blacksmith wielding a hot iron and shouting, “Stop the Arminian disturber of the Church!” (Crisis, 61). Or that, in the heat of theological combat, the professor Gomarus could seriously propose a duel to settle an issue at hand (Grace Defined and Defended, 59).
“Dort was no gathering of overzealous Calvinists, ready to preach the doctrine of election to every passerby.”
A great gulf separates us from the Dutch Christians of the seventeenth century. This was a day when theological tempers ran high, when doctrine invaded daily life, when many normal people felt, down deep in their bones, that what we think about God changes everything. So, Peter De Jong writes, “They could not carry on in home and society and state . . . unless in their hearts these issues were resolved” (Crisis, 12). Finally, in 1618, the Dutch Reformed Church received permission from the government to convene an ecclesiastical assembly in order to settle the Arminian issue.
Flower Blooms in Holland
On November 13, 1618, over eighty delegates from throughout the Netherlands, as well as from Great Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, gathered in the city of Dort for a synod that would last until May 29, 1619. “It was undoubtedly an imposing assembly,” writes the historian Philip Schaff. “And, for learning and piety, as respectable as any ever held since the days of the Apostles.” In the judgment of one of the Swiss delegates, “If ever the Holy Spirit were present in a council, he was present at Dort” (Crisis, 36).
One month into the synod, the Remonstrants presented an updated and expanded version of their five points. Yet, as De Jong writes, “Already at the opening sessions it became clear that a frank and full declaration of their views would not be forthcoming” (36). Arminius and the Remonstrants were known for using vague, ambiguous language. They could talk of election, atonement, depravity, grace, and perseverance, but often seemed to use a different dictionary.
In the eyes of those gathered, the Remonstrants’ conduct amounted to a series of evasions. So in mid-January, the president of the synod, Johannes Bogerman, uttered a sharp dismissal:
You have been treated with all gentleness, friendliness, toleration, patience, and simplicity. Go as you came. You began with lies and you end with them. You are full of fraud and double-dealing. (59)
The synod then dealt with the Remonstrants simply from their own writings, ultimately concluding that their arguments could not be squared with Scripture. Over the next four months, the delegates responded to the Remonstrants’ five points with five points of their own called the Canons of Dort — or to some today, TULIP. In the spring of 1619, a flower bloomed in Holland.
Canons of Dort
As with so many other precious doctrinal statements, the Canons of Dort were forged in the furnace of controversy. But even if the Remonstrants’ five points provided the occasion for the Canons of Dort, the relevance of the canons extends far beyond refutation. Consider a portion of an oath the delegates took at the start of the synod:
During all these discussions, I will only aim at the glory of God, the peace of the Church, and especially the preservation of the purity of doctrine. So help me, my Savior, Jesus Christ! I beseech him to assist me by his Holy Spirit! (79)
Purity of doctrine, the peace of the church, and the glory of God: if refutation appeared in the delegates’ peripheral vision, these three priorities occupied the center.
Purity of Doctrine
Though the Remonstrants’ points were clothed in orthodox language, those at the synod saw something disturbing beneath. They feared Arminian doctrine would “summon back from hell the Pelagian error” — that fifth-century heresy that denied fallen humanity’s utter dependence on the grace of God (“Rejection of Errors,” II.3). In the face of that threat, Fred Klooster writes, “The Synod sought to maintain and defend the biblical doctrine of the free and sovereign grace of God in man’s salvation” (Crisis, 75). Arguing in the order of U-L-T-I-P rather than T-U-L-I-P, they clarified the biblical doctrines of election, atonement, depravity, grace (or calling), and perseverance.
“Left to ourselves, perseverance is impossible; left to God, it is unquestionable.”
They spoke, first, of election as unconditional. When God elected some sinners for salvation, he did so “not on the basis of foreseen faith, . . . as though it were based on a prerequisite cause or condition in the person to be chosen, but rather for the purpose of faith” (I.9). As J.I. Packer summarizes, “Where the Arminian says, ‘I owe my election to my faith,’ the Calvinist says, ‘I owe my faith to my election’” (A Quest for Godliness, 131; see also Acts 13:48).
Next, they spoke of atonement as particular or definite. Though “the death of God’s Son . . . is of infinite value and worth, more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world,” yet Christ had particular sinners in mind as he hung upon the cross: his sheep, his friends, his church, his bride (II.3, 9).
The synod treated the next two points together, speaking of depravity as total and of grace (or calling) as invincibly effectual. “Without the grace of the regenerating Holy Spirit,” they wrote, “[sinners] are neither willing nor able to return to God, to reform their distorted nature, or even to dispose themselves to such reform” (III/IV.3). When grace comes to us in Christ, however, “God infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant” (III/IV.11).
Finally, they spoke of perseverance as sure — not, of course, because the redeemed are so strong, but because of the hands that hold them. As the synod’s delegates considered whether God’s people could finally fall away from him, they wrote, “With respect to themselves this not only easily could happen but also undoubtedly would happen; but with respect to God it cannot possibly happen” (V.8). Left to ourselves, perseverance is impossible; left to God, it is unquestionable.
With these five points, the synod raised a garrison around “the purity of doctrine,” especially the doctrine of God’s free and sovereign grace in salvation.
Peace of the Church
Some two centuries after the Synod of Dort, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would describe Calvinism as a lamb in wolf’s skin: “cruel in the phrases,” but “full of consolation for the suffering individual” (Reformation Spirituality, 23). Perhaps we too heard cruelty in phrases like “unconditional election” and “total depravity” — until we lifted the skin off these phrases to find consolation as soft as wool. At every point, Dort labored to bring such consolation near.
Take as an example the synod’s teaching on election. Dort was no gathering of overzealous Calvinists, ready to preach the doctrine of election to every passerby. They write, “This teaching must be set forth with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place, without inquisitive searching into the ways of the Most High” (I.14). How many of us have taken precisely the opposite approach of the one outlined here?
The delegates at Dort handled the doctrine of election delicately, knowing how easily it could send the scrupulous into a maze of introspection. They even took the time to address those tender souls who are likely to “stand in fear” of this teaching, reminding them that “our merciful God has promised not to snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed [Isaiah 42:3]” (I.16).
With such dangers set aside, God’s people may find, to their astonished joy, that election “provides holy and godly souls with comfort beyond words” (I.6). Rightly applied, the Canons of Dort embolden anxious Christians to approach their Father’s throne, and from it to venture out into the world feeling loved, assured, and safe in his omnipotent grace.
Glory of God
Beyond the purity of doctrine and the peace of the church, those gathered at Dort believed that the glory of God was at stake in the Arminian controversy. They were convinced that one set of doctrines diminished the glory of God, while the other displayed it — that one set split salvation’s applause between God and men, while the other made God all in all.
How so? J.I. Packer traces the effects of the Arminians’ doctrines upon the Christian mind:
Our minds have been conditioned to think of the cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Savior who does less than save, and of God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose. (Quest for Godliness, 137)
“Rightly applied, the Canons of Dort embolden anxious Christians to approach their Father’s throne.”
The suggestion that we have the final, decisive say in salvation may offer some comfort; it may prevent the pride of man from that total collapse to which the Canons of Dort subject it. But in the end, “the good pleasure of God and the merits of Christ are robbed of their effectiveness” (“Rejection of Errors,” I.3). Or as Packer goes on to write, “The enthroned Lord is suddenly metamorphosed into a weak, futile figure tapping forlornly at the door of the human heart, which he is powerless to open” (143).
The Synod of Dort does not give us a God who merely invites, offers, knocks, and then waits for our response. It gives us the true God, who is better by far: one who demolishes strongholds, raises dead bones to life, speaks light into darkness, and so breaks open the closed door of our hearts that we cannot help running to him as our exceeding joy. As the apostle says, “To him be glory forever. Amen” (Romans 11:36).
When we follow TULIP back to its native soil, we get a better sense of its position within the garden of Reformed theology. We find, on the one hand, that the Canons of Dort are not a systematic summary of Calvinism; instead, they address a few key themes in the Bible’s doctrine of salvation, as fit the Dutch church’s purpose during a time of crisis. For a broader summary of Calvinism, we would need to consult documents such as the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. In that sense, as Robert Godfrey notes, “Calvinism has many more points than five.”
In another sense, however, we may appropriately say that the five points grow out of one central, unifying concern. As Packer writes, “Of Calvinism there is really only one point to be made in the field of soteriology: the point that God saves sinners” (Quest for Godliness, 130).
God saves sinners: he saves them in eternity past through unconditional election, he saves them at the cross through definite atonement, he saves each of them at a specific moment through effectual calling, and he will save them to the uttermost through grace-driven perseverance. Perhaps, then, we would do just as well to call ourselves one-point Calvinists, happy to declare with those at Dort that, from first to last, from eternity to eternity, salvation belongs to the Lord.