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The Problem with TULIP, or More than TULIPs in this Field

By March 1, 2011 No Comments

Apparently, “Calvinism” is on the rise among American evangelicals. Whether it’s the “new Calvinism” described in 2009 by Time as one of the “ten ideas changing the world right now,” the recent flurry of books for and against Calvinism, or debates in the Southern Baptist Convention, discussion of “Calvinism” or “Reformed theology” seems to be in vogue.

Yet as a professor of “Reformed theology,” I’ve been disappointed to find many of these portrayals of “Calvinism” quite misleading on the whole. Most of these discussions describe Reformed theology in terms of the TULIP acronym. Indeed, not just the “new Calvinist,” but many a member of the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America identify “Reformed Theology” with TULIP:

T for Total Depravity

U for Unconditional Election

L for Limited Atonement

I for Irresistible Grace

P for Perseverance of the Saints

Amid all of these debates, most Reformed and non-Reformed interlocutors seem to agree upon one thing: TULIP defines what is distinctive about being Reformed or Calvinist. For Reformed apologists, TULIP provides an easy way to set out what they see as the heart of Reformed theology. For the non-Reformed, it provides a wonderfully convenient self-made box into which opponents can squeeze the Reformed tradition. In fact, in Why I Am Not a Calvinist, Jerry Walls and Joseph Dongell suggest that Reformed Christians are altering their own tradition if they decide to use language like “particular atonement” instead of “limited atonement.” Moreover, even when the TULIP acronym is not explicitly evoked, traces of the TULIP definition can be seen in accounts that identify the Reformed tradition simply by its views on predestination or God’s sovereignty.

But what if it is both false and misleading to define Reformed theology in terms of TULIP? If so, then both sides of the debate need to rethink their assumptions about Reformed identity. Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed gives an intriguing account of the resurgence of Reformed theology in the “new Calvinism”–but the question is, which Reformed theology? To the extent that the contemporary debate defines itself by TULIP, it presents a narrow, modern version of Reformed theology, torn from its historical context, and deprived of the theological breadth of Reformed theology in centuries past.


In spite of its frequent use by critics and advocates of “Calvinism” alike, TULIP does not provide an adequate or accurate distillation of Reformed theology.

First, TULIP is a relatively recent acronym used to summarize a much older theological document–a document that did not itself provide a summary of Reformed theology. Specifically, TULIP was developed in the twentieth century English-speaking world to describe the “five points” made in the Canons of Dort in 1618-1619. The Canons are not even an attempt to give a broad statement of Reformed belief in its five points. Instead, the document is organized into five points to respond to the five points presented in an Arminian document called the Remonstrance, which speaks to a cluster of issues related to predestination, the Spirit, and the assurance of salvation. The Dutch Reformed Church had no need for a general statement of Reformed doctrine; it already possessed one in the Belgic Confession. This confession gave a wide-ranging exposition of Reformed teaching, including the sacraments, the Trinity, the nature of the church and state, the person and work of Christ, and so on.

Because of this, Dort did not seek to rewrite the Belgic Confession, but to supplement it, addressing a particular controversy with Arminians about predestination, assurance, and related issues. In this way, Dort functions like an extended footnote to the main Reformed confession. Thus, Dort does not seek to present a complete doctrine of humanity or the cross of Christ but to focus on a specific aspect of these doctrines as they relate to the controversy with the Arminians.

In addition, although Dort took place in the Dutch context, the Reformed tradition in Scottish (Presbyterian) and other Reformed contexts is similar: predestination, and issues related to it, constitute a small portion of overall Reformed teaching.

Second, TULIP does not provide accurate summary of Dort itself. While acronyms work well as memory aids, they are rarely adequate for a technical theological document. For example, “total depravity,” a term not found in the canons, sounds like a misanthropic view of humanity–as if all people are as wicked as they could possibly be. That is not the case for Dort. Dort’s claim is that fallen humanity cannot enter back into communion with God apart from the effectual work of the Spirit. Underlying this is a vision that humans are created as “spiritual” beings in communion with God–a communion restored in redemption. Dort’s teaching on human sin is not misanthropic, but an attempt to name the Spirit’s work to “revive and heal” human beings, graciously overcoming human rebellion in a way “at once pleasing and powerful.” A similar analysis could be given of the accuracy on the other points of the acronym. The TULIP acronym does a poor job of summarizing the thought of Dort itself.

So why does TULIP–a relatively recent creation that was never intended as a summary of Reformed doctrine–get so much press? A number of sociological reasons could explain this, but a central one is that Reformed and non-Reformed alike frequently share a basic misunderstanding about the Reformed tradition itself: that predestination is the “center” of Reformed theology, from which all else flows. Although scholars of the Reformation have repudiated this account of early Reformed theology for years, it is still a common perception. Predestination is indeed important in the Reformed tradition, because the Bible–given by God for our edification–speaks about predestination. Pastorally, Reformed teaching seeks to use this doctrine to encourage humility and gratitude to God for salvation.But predestination is not the theological center of the Reformed confessions, from which all other doctrines are deduced. It is one among many teachings that rises and falls on scriptural exegesis. While Reformed positions on predestination and related issues will have ripple effects for other Christian teachings, they do not form “the center” of the Reformed tradition which could be summarized by TULIP.


What are some key features of Reformed identity that are lost when Reformed teaching is summarized by TULIP? While the following answer is not exhaustive, here are a few that may be of particular interest to those who have begun to taste the Reformed tradition through the TULIP.


In many ways, the Reformed tradition is a particular attempt to be “catholic,” part of the “one, holy, catholic [universal] and apostolic church.” Unlike some Protestants, the Reformed tradition avoids acting as if the Spirit abandoned the church between the first or second century and the twentieth century. We believe that the Spirit has been active in the church throughout its history. For the first two centuries of the Reformed tradition in particular, its theologians read extensively from the church fathers and medieval theologians, seeking to discern the Spirit’s work in the past. Major portions of the Reformed confessions draw upon the substance of patristic and medieval Christian teaching on the attributes of God, Christology, and the Trinity. On topics like these, the Reformed tradition is catholic.

For the Reformed, appropriating the Spirit’s work in the past is not just a task for academic theologians. John Calvin sought to bring the sermons of John Chrysostom to the level of the people by seeking to have them translated into the vernacular French. In the nineteenth century, the first major project for translating the church fathers into English (in 38 volumes) was edited by a Reformed scholar, Philip Schaff. Like the Ancient-Future movement and parts of the Emergent church, the Reformed tradition is profoundly interested in recovering the wisdom of ancient teachings and practices for today’s community of faith.

Yet, contemporary Ancient-Future and Emergent Christians sometimes fail to recognize that there is no “generic” way of appropriating the church’s ancient past. The Reformed tradition addresses a key question of discernment as it looks to history: amidst the great variety of theology and practice in the church’s past, how are we to distinguish the Spirit’s work from error? On issues like this, the Reformed tradition retains clarity about the type of catholic vision it seeks: a biblical one. Theological traditions do not constitute the final authority, but provide a means of moving deeper into a biblical reality. For the Reformed, God’s Word in scripture is living and active and stands as the final authority for faith and practice.


Many evangelicals have sought to move beyond an understanding of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as rituals that only point to the believer’s own faith commitment. Some Emergent Christians in particular have developed an openness to the mystery that God acts in these physical signs. Yet, a nagging point of discomfort still haunts many: if God acts through baptism and the Lord’s Supper to unite us to Christ and cleanse us from sins, doesn’t that make our own faith commitments superfluous?

The Reformed tradition presents a middle way on these issues, valuing God’s use of physical means to hold forth his promise of salvation, yet unequivocally affirming that faith is the mode for receiving God’s gifts. It seeks to retrieve key New Testament and ancient church themes about Christ being given in baptism and the Lord’s Supper; yet, it retains Reformational clarity about justification by faith alone. Our sacramental acts do not force God’s hand, but they are a way that God holds forth Jesus Christ to us. As Leonard Vander Zee’s book Christ, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper shows, the Reformed tradition has special promise for helping evangelicals rediscover the way in which the sacraments nurture believers in their faith.


When it comes to seeing the ways in which God is active in the world, the Reformed tradition says, “Think big.” A Reformed view of the church avoids seeing it as a colony separated from society, or as the particular part of society that relates to “being religious.” The church is the community shaped by God through Word and sacrament to bear witness to Jesus Christ, by the power of the Spirit.

This community exists in the world, and has eyes for God’s Kingdom as it shows up in hospitals, homes, schools, and nature preserves. Some call this the “cultural mandate” in the Reformed tradition–not a mandate to “take back” American culture by the formation of a Christian subculture but to send a people formed by Word and sacrament to be salt and light in government, the arts, education, and all areas of society. The Reformed tradition provides an alternative to the cultural accommodation of Protestant liberalism, the cultural triumphalism of championing a particular socio-cultural movement (like the religious right or left), or cultural disengagement. Instead, as sinners living ever deeper into our God-given identity in Christ, we act as agents of cultural transformation without collapsing our calling into our advocacy of any particular cultural cause.

The three features of Reformed identity described above are only part of what is lost when TULIP defines Reformed theology. Speaking of the “five points of Calvinism” is a misnomer, for as Edwin Palmer points out “Calvinism is not restricted to five points: it has thousands of points.” The five points of Dort were not intended as a distillation of the “thousands of points” of Reformed theology–and we should not treat them as such. Not only does that constrict Reformed theology to a narrow set of teachings, it misconstrues the teachings themselves, tearing them apart from the rich context of a catholic, biblical, sacramental, and Kingdom-oriented Reformed theological vision.


When first introduced to the TULIP acronym as a young Baptist, I was sternly warned about “those Calvinists”: watch out for those grumpy “Calvinists” who define themselves in such negative ways–“limited…” “irresistible…” “total depravity.” I remember wondering how someone could possibly believe such things.

But I became puzzled as I continued to encounter the Reformed tradition in person and in print. I noticed that many of the most prominent evangelical intellectuals were Reformed. Many who cared about the arts, social justice, and the transformation of culture were Reformed. And even though they practiced infant baptism and believed in the true presence of Christ through the Spirit at the Lord’s Supper, the Reformed kept a crucial place for faith in salvation and the Christian life. How was I to fit all of these observations together? How did all of these aspects of Reformed identity relate to TULIP?

As I eventually discovered, much of this had very little to do with TULIP, and TULIP itself turned out to be a dubiously formulated summary of the Canons of Dort–which itself was never intended to summarize Reformed theology. Eventually I became Reformed myself and saw these things from the inside. Regardless of whether you consider the Reformed tradition to be your own, don’t be afraid to pick flowers from the Reformed field. Because even if you’re avoiding tulips, there is much in this spacious field that has grown from the seed of God’s word.

J. Todd Billings is associate professor of reformed theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.
Copyright © 2009 by the Christian Century. “Calvin’s Comeback?” by J. Todd Billings is reprinted with permission in a modified version from the December 1, 2009, issue of the Christian Century.
J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings

J. Todd Billings teaches theology at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America and author of six books, most recently, The End of the Christian Life: How Embracing Our Mortality Frees Us to Truly Live (Brazos, 2020).