Chances are, if you’ve ever heard of the “five points of Calvinism,” you heard them first in the form of a flower—a tulip, to be exact. If your earliest awareness of these points was anything like mine, it began with the fallenness of humanity and ended with the security of the believer, with the most difficult doctrine planted stubbornly in the center, like this:
- Total depravity
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
In some ways, picking a tulip to summarize the decisions at Dort makes perfect sense. In the decades leading up to this gathering of pastors in Holland, the regions around Dort were known for these flowers (as well as for windmills, wooden shoes, and water canals—all of which would have made even worse acrostics than TULIP). And yet, despite popular assumptions to the contrary, neither John Calvin nor the seventeenth-century synod of Dort developed any mnemonic device to summarize a Reformed perspective on God’s grace. Even if they had developed some sort of acronym, the delegates at Dort most likely wouldn’t have used the English word “tulip.” The Dutch word for the bulbous flower in question is, after all, tulp not “tulip”!
The difficulties with this floral device, however, run far beyond dubious historical origins and botanical etymologies. A wide range of Reformed theologians over the past few decades have recognized that some terminologies behind the TULIP could create more confusion than clarity when it comes to understanding God’s singlehanded work in salvation.
* Total depravity, for example, sounds more like a cable-television series that Christian ought to avoid than a biblical description of human nature. What’s worse, it almost gives the impression that people are as evil as they can be, which no Reformed theologian has ever claimed.
* Although an accurate description of the result of God’s inward call, “irresistible grace” could imply that God’s grace can never be withstood, which isn’t true at all (see, for example, Acts 7:51).
* And what about the worst offender among the five petals of the TULIP, “limited atonement”? There’s not a single mention of such a phrase anywhere in any decision from Dort! What the pastors at Dort declared was that the death of Jesus was “more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world” and that this sacrifice was effective in the lives of those whom God chose to save.
I’m far from the first person to point out these troubles with the TULIP. Timothy George switches flowers completely and replaces TULIP with ROSES in his book Amazing Grace. In Chosen By God, R.C. Sproul begins with TULIP but ends up with RUDEP. One Reformed political philosopher has jestingly suggested the alternative acrostic “WUPSI”: (1) wholly defiled, (2) unconditional choice, (3) personal salvation, (4) supernatural transformation, and (5) in faith persevering. This mnemonic device could be, Greg Forster proposes, “pronounced ‘whoopsie’—as in, ‘Whoopsie, we just realized that TULIP is giving everyone heinously false ideas of what Calvinism is all about.’ Perhaps it’s not as memorable as TULIP, but it has other virtues to make up for that.”
Still, before plucking the TULIP and pitching it in the theological yard-waste bin, it might be wise to consider when and how the TULIP was planted in the first place. Young proponents of Reformed theology sometimes seem to think that the TULIP emerged fully formed sometime in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. At the very least, they assume the TULIP takes up the same terminologies as the synod of Dort—but neither of these assumptions is correct. In fact, as far as I can tell, the earliest reference to the TULIP appeared nearly three centuries after the synod of Dort! The TULIP was published first in a Presbyterian newspaper, printed a few months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand triggered the war to end all wars.