TULIP is an acronym used by many as a guideline to explain their theology, while others have found it greatly troubling. Greg Forster calls both Calvinists and those who have been burned by them to consider the semantics of TULIP a bit more carefully before assuming that it’s an accurate representation of Calvinism. Below he examines 5 myths that many may find thought-provoking:
1. Calvinism Does Not Deny That We Have Free Will
Today, the phrase “free will” refers to moral responsibility. When we say people have free will, we mean that they are not just puppets of exterior natural forces such as their heredity and environment; they are in control of their own choices and are morally responsible for them. “Free will” today has a radically different meaning from the one it took on in the context of the sixteenth-century Reformation debate. In the sixteenth century, nobody was questioning that the will is “free” in the sense of self-controlled and morally responsible. Everyone agreed that people have “free will” in this sense, but people didn’t call it “free will” because that phrase had a different meaning for them. Calvin even called the slavery of the will to Satan “voluntary slavery.” Read more.
2. Calvinism Does Not Say We Are Saved Against Our Will
It’s true that, in the Calvinistic view, the Holy Spirit does not ask our permission before working change in our hearts. But the change that he works makes us more free, not less. Here is another parallel to the work of creation—we all agree that even though God didn’t ask our permission before he created our wills, he nonetheless created our wills free. If he can create a free will without its permission, he can also make it even freer without its permission. The important point is that freer is what he makes it. Read more.
3. Calvinism Does Not Say That We Are Totally Depraved
When people hear the assertion that apart from the regeneration of the Holy Spirit we are “totally depraved,” they naturally take that to mean there is nothing in us that is good in any respect. Besides being false to all experience, such a view is easy to disprove from Scripture. The Bible frequently notes the presence of qualities in unbelievers that are good in some way. Moreover, if there were really nothing good in us, then we couldn’t know right from wrong—since knowledge of righteousness would be something good. If that were the case, we wouldn’t be culpable for sinning; it couldn’t be our fault that we sin if we didn’t know right from wrong. This seems to be exactly Paul’s point in Romans 2, where after observing that the Gentiles “by nature do what the law requires,” he goes on to comment that “they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness” (Rom. 2:15). Read more.
4. Calvinism Does Not Deny That God Loves the Lost
In each of the three cases above, people believe Calvinism says x when in fact Calvinism strenuously denies x. The question of whether God loves the lost, however, is different. Calvinism, in itself, implies no position one way or the other on this issue. Calvin himself didn’t address it because the question hadn’t been raised yet during his life. It was later generations of Calvinists, contemplating the Calvinistic doctrine, who started asking whether God loves those whom he has not chosen to save. Read more.
5. Calvinism is Not Primarily Concerned with the Sovereignty of God or Predestination
There is no absolute, unanswerable proof for what is or is not the “primary concern” of a theological tradition. It’s a matter of judgment. Yet I think this issue is pretty clear cut if you make a serious study of Calvinism, so it’s worth mentioning here. And the widely held idea that Calvinism is all about sovereignty and predestination is one of the most subtly destructive misperceptions of them all. To be sure, Calvinism strongly affirms a “high” view of the sovereignty of God and predestination. But that view was not the unique and distinguishing theological contribution of Calvinism; nor was it the issue that Calvin or his followers thought was most important. Calvinism insists upon this particular view of sovereignty and predestination only as a necessary precaution against errors that would undermine other doctrines, and those other doctrines are Calvinism’s real primary focus. Read more.
Adapted from The Joy of Calvinism: Knowing God’s Personal, Unconditional, Irresistible, Unbreakable Love by Greg Forster. Read this full sample chapter from The Joy of Calvinism.