Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Richard A. Muller on John Calvin and TULIP

Yesterday, I had a conversation with friends on the relationship between Calvin and 'Calvinist'. That led me to read up Richard A. Muller's lecture given at Calvin College in 2009 that addressed this question.

It is very interesting to find out from Muller, who is noted for his 4-volumes of Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics (USA: Baker Academic) and his two books on John Calvin (The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition and After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition, both published by Oxford University Press), about the famous TULIP and how Calvin was not definite on "L", Limited Atonement (emphasis added): 

It is really quite odd and a-historical to associate a particular document written in the Netherlands in 1618-19 with the whole of Calvinism and then to reduce its meaning to TULIP. Many of you here know that the word is actually "tulp." "Tulip" isn't Dutch--sometimes I wonder whether Arminius was just trying to correct someone's spelling when he was accused of omitting that "i" for irresistable grace. More seriously, there is no historical association between the acrostic TULIP and the Canons of Dort. As far as we know, both the acrostic and the associated usage of "five points of Calvinism" are of Anglo-American origin and do not date back before the nineteenth century. It is remarkable how quickly bad ideas catch on. When, therefore, the question of Calvin's relationship to Calvinism is reduced to this popular floral meditation--did Calvin teach TULIP?--any answer will be grounded on a misrepresentation. Calvin himself, certainly never thought of this model, but neither did later so-called Calvinists. Or, to make the point in another way, Calvin and his fellow Reformers held to doctrines that stand in clear continuity with the Canons of Dort, but neither Calvin nor his fellow Reformers, nor the authors of the Canons, would have reduced their confessional position to TULIP.

In fact, it is quite evident in the cases of "T" and the "L." I don't think Calvin ever uttered a phrase that easily translates as "total depravity." He certainly never spoke of "limited atonement." Neither term appears in the Canons of Dort, nor is either one of these terms characteristic of the language of Reformed or Calvinistic orthodoxy in the seventeenth century. (p.8)

Simply stated, neither Calvin, nor Beza, nor the Canons of Dort, nor any of the orthodox Reformed thinker of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries mention limited atonement--and insofar as they did not mention it, they hardly could have taught the doctrine. [...] To make the point a bit less bluntly and with more attention to the historical materials, the question debated in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, concerned the meaning of those biblical passages in which Christ is said to have paid a ransom for all or God is said to will the salvation of all or of the whole world, given the large number of biblical passages that indicate a limitation of salvation to some, namely, to the elect or believers. This is an old question, belonging to the patristic and medieval church as well as to the early modern Reformed and, since the time of Peter Lombard, had been discussed in terms of the sufficiency and efficiency of Christ's satisfaction in relation to the universality of the preaching of redemption. (p.9)

Various of the later Reformed appealed to Calvin on both sides of the debate. [...] Later Reformed theology, then, is more specific on this particular point than Calvin had been--and arguably, his somewhat vague formulations point (or could be pointed) in several directions, as in fact can the formulae from the Synod of Dort. (p.10)

The whole lecture is made available by Calvin College here.

So what do you think about the relationship between John Calvin and TULIP? Should TULIP be the central identifier, the litmus test, for people to identify themselves as 'Calvinist'? Why, and why not?


Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

Interesting post. But I think it is ok lah. TULIP is just a memory aid which the Reformed is fortunate to have which others recognises as their distinctives. Of course it cannot capture everything but represent its core essences. The Lutheran was not so fortunate to have one. Whether it is used by early reformers like Calvin is a mute point. The term "trinity" was also never used by Christians of the 1st Century AD. Likewise the phrase "priesthood of all believers" was never used by Luther or Melanchthon but nowadays it is common parlance and everyone knew what it meant. "Total depravity" was never mentioned by Calvin does not mean he did not have that concept of it. Just that he spoke about it without using that phrase. Btw many books by recognised Reformed authors uses TULIP to outline and teach the doctrines in their books or lectures. Example I have a book on Reformed Theology by RC Sproul using TULIP to outline Reformed doctrine. I attended a course on Reformed Theology in SBC 2 years ago and the professor used TULIP to teach its theology. So it is okay I think.

Just a 2 cents worth.


hanguoxiong said...

Hi Sze Zeng and Martin,

Personally, I am both Reformed and Confessional. Just as it is outlined by Muller, we in the Reformed tradition do not believe that Calvinism (or Reformed theology) could be simply reduced to TULIP. Our Confessions (the Westminster Standards, though I have high regards for the Three Forms of Unity)covers more than just TULIP. TULIP is rightfully Calvinistic as it captures the essence of Reformed soteriology in a concise manner. But to explain Reformed theology more adequately, Reformed Covenantal theology that emphasises on God's redemptive plan through Jesus Christ His Son is the necessary overarching framework to further explore TULIP. In other words,in my opinion, TULIP should not be discussed in abstract apart from God's covenant with His elect and chosen people throughout redemptive history.

Hope my comments are helpful in a way.


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

You made an illustratious connection between "trinity" with earliest Christians and "TULIP" with earliest Calvinist. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

I too get the same impression that many books that introduce Reformed Theology with TULIP. Think this acrostic is stuck with Reformed circles whether we like it or not. :)

That said, I also wonder over two questions:

1) Should we see "Reformed" as "Calvinist"? (Some said that they are different. The former does not affirm TULIP, while the latter does--I have collegemate who said that I'm a "Reformed" but not a "Calvinist" because I don't affirm TULIP, an identity and issue that I'm not really sure is an accurate description of my belief.)

2) Given that TULIP cannot capture everything, does that by default mean that it represent "core essences" of the Reformed (Calvinist?) tradition?

Two questions that I have no answer to. Hence I'm interested to find out what's your take? :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi David,

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

So you equate "Calvism" to "Reformed Theology".

You agree with Martin that Reformed Theology cannot be reduced to TULIP. And you added that TULIP is really a Reformed Theology's understanding of salvation.

You suggested that Reformed Theology is best represented through Covenantal Theology (with TULIP as part of it).

Yes, this is helpful. :)

Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng & David,

"Reformed" is probably a generic word for many strands of theologies influenced by John Calvin, Beza and others. Anyway the word "Reformed" is a generic term. They may subscribe to all or just some of the five TULIP points. This is due to historic reasons. Calvinists refers to those Reformed who adhere closely to Calvin's theology. It is understandable as even siblings growing up in the same family and house may not share the same views.

According to what I learn about Reformed Theology from the professor at SBC who considers himself a strict Calvinist, the TULIP is important as each point is intrinsically linked to the others. If you remove one point, it affects the other, one is built on another. If you read RC Sproul's book, you will understand why. Of course, there are Reformed Christians who are just "Reformed" in name only. The Confessional Reformed call them "garden variety Reformed".


Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

Thank you for that. Hahahaha I think I just got myself a new label: "garden variety Reformed"!!

Yes, there is a strict logical sequence in TULIP. If we remove any one point, others are affected. :)

Martin Yee said...

Hi Sze Zeng,

You have a strong Reformed theological heritage you can tap on. It will help to inform your actions and philosophy of life in a significant way. Anyway philosophy, theology and politics is a very potent mix and may lead you to the "Cross" sooner than you expected. Your Reformed heritage may come in handy - the two kingdoms, natural law, reason, civil and social justice. Seriously, Hugh Williamson's new book "He has shown you what is good" will provide a good Biblical pesrpective to social justice. I love the lectures he delivered in TTC chapel last year. I attended almost everyday.

Our activism should be Biblically, philosophically and theologically informed. Michel Foucault's philosophy is also good food for taught. Cynthia is a Foucault expert, her blog is here

How do you find the book on Peter Forsyth's theodicy published by TTC? Is it worth buying to read. Thanks.

Sincere regards,

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Martin,

You are right that there is a strong Reformed heritage that I and anyone can tap on, and be informed of praxis.

I'm in absolute agreement that our praxis should be "trinitarian", biblically, theologically, and philosophically forged. ;)

The PT Forsyth book is written by Leow Theng Huat, a lecturer at TTC, but published by Wipf & Stock. I have not read it yet. Now, all the time I have is poured onto my final essay before graduation. Would love to dip into Theng Huat's book right after I done with my work. :)