TULIP: The Five Points of Reformed Theology

TULIP DiagramEarlier today I came across a great podcast.  As regular readers know, I follow the teachings of The Meeting House with different sites here in Ontario.  Right now they’re in a very interesting series called One Church, where they are talking with other denominations (they are Brethren in Christ, which is essentially Mennonite with dashes of Wesleyan and Pietist thrown in) honestly naming their differences but still ultimately seeing each other as brothers and sisters in the same one church.  If you’re interested in more, visit The Meeting House Teaching page and it’s under 2011 – currently at the top but that’ll change as the next series comes out.  Earlier today I listened to one of the podcasts not actually directly from the Sunday morning teachings but instead from their leadership community podcast called The Meeting House Roundtable.  If you’re interested, you can visit the RSS feed link or I think it is available in iTunes.  Anyway, this podcast featured a discussion with a Reformed pastor, writer, and blogger named Tim Challies about Reformed theology.  Having recently had a discussion of TULIP with a couple of friends in my small group, I thought this would be a good podcast to point toward.  I also summarize TULIP and some of the other things discussed after the break.

Very central to Reformed theology is the idea of God’s sovereignty.  God is in control, and most Christians aside from maybe some process theologians would agree with that.  The Reformed Church means it in a more specific way, though, that nothing happens that is not the will of God.  This informs the “five points” of Reformed theology:

T – Total Depravity

Most Christians would agree that sin is a central part of who we are as humans, and is in some way infiltrated into every part of our life.  However, many would argue that we are still capable of some good and still have some responsibility in our own salvation.  Reformed theology believes that we are totally or radically depraved, unable to do anything to help ourselves, anything to please God, on our own.  We are dead, and just like physical death, there is nothing that we can do to bring ourselves back to life – it can only happen with some infusion of life from somebody else: God.

U – Unconditional Election

Some people are chosen by God to be saved, while others are not.  There is no condition to this choosing, no way of earning it.  An interesting phrase used in this podcast was to say that only those who are chosen are the children of God, which is something I’d say everybody is but that’s my Wesleyan/Arminian position.  You are either chosen or you are not, and it has nothing to do with your own thoughts or actions.

L – Limited Atonement

Based on the podcast, this is the one that draws the most debate in the Reformed Church today.  Jesus did not die on the cross to atone for all – he died to atone for the chosen.  Otherwise it wouldn’t make sense that the unchosen aren’t saved.  They would say that Jesus’ die was sufficient for the death of all (it could have saved everybody) but it wasn’t efficient for the death of all (it didn’t because not all were chosen).

I – Irresistible Grace

If somebody brings you back to life from the dead, you’re alive.  You can’t stubbornly say that no, you’re really dead.  Similarly, if you’ve been chosen, there’s nothing you can do about it.  You cannot resist God’s grace.

P – Perseverance (or Preservation) of the Saints

If you are chosen, you stay chosen.  You can’t “backslide” out of it.  You can’t choose after a few years that you don’t want to be chosen.  So if somebody who did appear to be chosen now appears not to be, there are two answers.  Either they really weren’t chosen in the first place and were just faking it, or they still are chosen even if they don’t act like it anymore. —– So those five points really are what distinguish a Reformed theologian, and Tim on the podcast said that generally if you accept at least four of the five then you are Reformed.  Which makes sense, since they’re all related and it would be hard to reject four of them but accept one for example.  Some other interesting discussions that came out of the podcast:

  • Semantics: many Reformed prefer to be called Reformed instead of Calvinist due to discomfort at being named after a person other than Jesus.  However in common speech they are used interchangeably.  Regardless I have tried to stick to Reformed here.
  • Double predestination: all Reformed accept that God chooses who goes to Heaven, but does God also choose who goes to Hell?  Some say no, like Augustine did where we choose Hell by default as the only thing we’re able to choose, and God chooses to rescue some from that.  Others say that God not choosing to rescue others is the same thing as God just choosing Hell for them.
  • The order of salvation: while Wesleyans/Arminians and most other Christian groups have a salvation order of us receiving grace, choosing faith, and thus being saved, Reformed has an order of God giving us faith, us experiencing grace because of that, and then being saved by that grace.  In many ways it is a nitpicky detail but central due to the fact that we can’t choose any part of the process of salvation.
  • The importance of doctrine: many other denominations shrug off the centrality of a systematic theology, but Reformed maintains a very strict set of rationally-coherent doctrines as being central to the idea of faith.  Some are more central than others, and Tim explained three levels.  The first is things that don’t really make a difference, and he used pre-millenial vs post-millenial as examples.  You can still be a part even of the same congregation and those don’t matter.  The second is practical differences that force a separation but that are still accepted as Christianity, such as infant vs believer’s baptism – both can be theological justifiable but they are mutually exclusive in the life of a congregation.  The third is things that are outside of orthodox Christianity such as that Jesus is not God, and those should be viewed as heretical.
  • The importance of the systematic process: not only is the doctrine important, but so is the process of systematics, which is why you’ll find far more Reformed Systematic Theology texts than you will any other category of Christian.  Faith is a relatively intellectual concept (although still relational) so this wrestling with having a rational system is very important.  And the one thing that I do really praise the Reformed Church for, and John Calvin’s work in particular, is its internal rationality.  Very very well-thought out and logical things.

I don’t agree with most of this, but nonetheless it is a valuable discussion to have especially as you hear some very influential Reformed teachers today such as Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Rick Warren.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.