| |

Snip the TULIP

Our beloved acronym distorts the teaching of the Canons of Dort.

Rather than “Tiptoeing through the TULIP(s),” I prefer to snip the TULIP. The acronym TULIP is an oversimplification and distortion of the nuanced teaching of the Canons of Dort.

Despite the impression of a venerable Dutch heritage, the acronym TULIP makes no sense in the Dutch language, which spells the famous flower as tulp. TULIP is actually of recent origin, dating from the first years of the twentieth century in America, in a Presbyterian rather than Dutch Reformed context. TULIP was first used in 1905 by Presbyterian minister Dr. Cleland Boyd McAfee in a speech in New Jersey.

TULIP alters the proper order of the five points that are found in the Canons. If listed in proper order, the result would be ULTIP. Moreover, each of the five concepts that make up TULIP also distort the five points of the Canons, which are simply the Synod of Dort’s response to the Five Articles of the Arminians.

TULIP, as seen in the Canons 

Total Depravity is easily misunderstood as absolute depravity, the notion that humans are utterly wicked all the time and can do no good whatsoever. Besides, Total Depravity is often misinterpreted as referring both to unbelievers and to believers after their conversion. Such depravity in fact refers only to the fallen state of humans, not to the regenerated state of believers. The Canons affirm that unbelievers are unfit for any saving good, dead in sin, and unable to save themselves. Yet, they retain some notions of God, of natural things, and of differences between moral and immoral. They have a certain eagerness for virtue, and for good outward behavior.

Unconditional Election is taught by the Canons, but this concept fails to express the whole emphasis of Chapter One of the Canons. The Canons begin, not with God’s electing decree in eternity, but rather within the historical horizon. The concept of Unconditional Election is introduced by the universal sinfulness of humanity and the gospel message (John 3:16) as the remedy. Likewise, it fails to mention the Canons’ pastoral emphasis on assurance of election.

Limited Atonement fails to express the double emphasis of Chapter Two of the Canons — both the sufficiency as well as the efficacy of Christ’s death on the cross: that Christ’s death is sufficient to save all people, and that his death is efficacious only for the elect. The notion Limited Atonement neglects all the universal emphases in Chapter Two: that Christ’s death has infinite value, in fact, it is more than sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world; that the promise of the gospel should be universally proclaimed to all people; and that Christ’s death is effective for people from every nation, tribe and language. Besides, Limited Atonement implies that Christ’s redemptive work on the cross has limitations or deficiencies, or that there are limits to God’s mercy; whereas the Canons emphasize Christ’s work has infinite value and worth and is more than sufficient to redeem all.

Irresistible Grace is not even taught in Chapter Three/Four of the Canons. Rather, it teaches that divine grace is efficacious in bringing about salvation. The concept Irresistible Grace suggests grace is some sort of overwhelming, irresistible force that compels persons to act against their will. In reality, grace can be resisted, a fact that is explicitly mentioned in the Canons (III/IV.16). Though grace can be resisted, God’s grace is more powerful than human resistance. The emphasis is that God’s grace overcomes human resistance. Grace does not work coercively or as an irresistible force against a person’s will, but it makes a person willing to be converted.

Perseverance of the Saints is only part of the focus of Chapter Five of the Canons. The emphasis of this chapter is more on God’s preservation of believers than on their own perseverance. A focus on just perseverance would suggest that it is just a matter of human effort. Rather, believers can persevere, not by their own strength, but because God preserves them to the end.

The limitations and potential of TULIP 

It is misleading to call the five concepts of TULIP the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Calvinism actually has many more than five points, and it is historically misleading to designate the Five Points as “Calvinism” in the sense that they all stem directly from Calvin himself. Other Reformed theologians contributed influences on aspects of the Canons that are more significant. Though Calvin was a possible or probable influence on some elements of the five points, he was an unlikely influence on others.

Although it is a memorable tool, TULIP should not be used as a summary of the Canons, or even worse, as an interpretive tool for understanding the Canons. Rather than reducing the Canons of Dort to five simplistic concepts which give a misleading impression of its nuanced teaching, the better course is to read the Canons themselves in context to grasp their full meaning. The articles of the Canons are concise and very carefully formulated. They are one of the best statements that address the perennial question of the relationship between God’s sovereign action in our salvation and our human responsibility to respond to God’s gracious initiative.


  • Donald Sinnema

    Donald Sinnema is professor of theology emeritus at Trinity Christian College.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *