Article by Dr. Michael Horton (original source here)
Countdown to Reformation Day: Getting Past the TULIP
Just as Luther’s followers preferred to be called “evangelicals” but were labeled “Lutherans” by Rome, around 1558 Lutherans coined the term “Calvinist” for those who held Calvin’s view of the Supper over against both Zwingli and Luther. Despite self-chosen labels such as “evangelical” and “Reformed” (preferred because the aim was always to reform the catholic church rather than start a new one), “Calvinism” unfortunately stuck as a popular nickname.
No Central Dogma
Contrary to popular misconception, Calvin did not in fact differ from the average Augustinian theologian, either in the substance or the importance of his doctrine of predestination. As for the content of the teaching, Calvin’s view of predestination was the traditional Augustinian view, affirmed even by Thomas Aquinas. Luther’s mentor, Johann von Staupitz, wrote a treatise (On Eternal Predestination) defending all of the doctrines known later as the “five points.” As for centrality in Calvin’s preaching, one looks in vain for predestination in his Geneva Catechism. Just as Luther’s strong defense of predestination in The Bondage of the Will was provoked by Erasmus’s Freedom of the Will, Calvin’s lengthy discussions of the subject were responses to critics. As important as predestination was in the thinking of the Reformers, it was not a central dogma from which all other doctrines were developed. In fact, the Belgic Confession devotes one long sentence (in English translation at least) to election, while its only mention in the Heidelberg Catechism is under “the holy catholic church” as “a community chosen for eternal life and united in true faith.”
As we have seen in this issue, even what we know as the “five points of Calvinism” emerged as a response to internal challenges. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) and his followers mounted a campaign against the Reformed consensus. The Arminian Articles of Remonstrance affirmed total depravity, but rejected unconditional election and particular redemption. The articles also made regeneration dependent on human decision and affirmed the possibility of losing salvation.
In response, the Reformed Church called the Synod of Dort (1618-19). Not only a national synod, it included representatives from the Church of England, the Church of Scotland, and other Reformed bodies in Hungary, Poland, Switzerland, and elsewhere. (Even the Patriarch of Constantinople, Cyril Lucaris, made the Canons of Dort part of the Orthodox Church’s confession, although he was assassinated and Orthodoxy subsequently condemned Calvinism.)
The result was a clear statement of Reformed unity on the doctrines of sin and grace, known as the Canons of the Synod of Dort—or the Five Articles against the Remonstrants. Each canon states the Reformed view positively and then repudiates the corresponding Arminian error. The Canons of Dort are part of the Reformed confession, and its substance was incorporated into the Westminster Confession and Catechisms in the mid-seventeenth century.
The clever “TULIP” acronym (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints) seems to have first appeared early in the twentieth century in the United States, and its aptness can be challenged. Since the Reformed view teaches that Christ actually saved all for whom he died (rather than merely making salvation possible), “limited atonement” is not the best term. Furthermore, the Canons of Dort labor the point that our will is not coerced or forced, so “irresistible grace” is not as good as the traditional terms such as “effectual calling” and “regeneration.” But it’s hard to find a good flower for a more accurate acronym.
It’s always better to read a confession than to reduce it to a clever device. One finds in the Canons of Dort an abundant appeal to specific scriptural passages—not merely proof-texting, but demonstrating how dependent the argument itself is upon the passages selected. These five points do not summarize the whole teaching of Reformed theology, but they certainly are essential to its faith and practice.
First Head of Doctrine: Divine Election and Reprobation
All share in Adam’s guilt and corruption, and God would be just to leave all to perish in their sins. Nevertheless, God sent his Son to save all who believe and sends messengers with his gospel. That many do believe is credited solely to God’s grace in Christ and by his Spirit, through the gospel, in granting faith. Unbelievers have only themselves to blame. God decreed to grant faith from all eternity and in time actively softens the hearts of his elect and inclines them to trust in Christ, “while He leaves the non-elect in His just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy.” Continue reading