Tip Toe through the TULIP


I jokingly call myself a “Recovering Lutheran.” I grew up in the Lutheran church, and I still hold their traditions and teachings in very high regard. Luther was easy to like. After all, he drank a lot of beer and sang bar songs. He was a married monk.  When I went to Seminary I was exposed to some different theology and some different theologians. I remember learning about Calvin’s views, and the TULIP mnemonic and thinking “Yeah, not a big fan of that Calvin dude. I’ll just call myself a 4-point Calvinist. Or maybe just 3.”

And then I joined the Reformed Church in America (RCA). Something like 399% of Reformed churches and theologians consider themselves to be 5-point Calvinists. So you see my problem. God has a funny sense of humor.

For those not fully baptized (ha! get it?) in the Reformed tradition, TULIP stands for the 5 major points of John Calvin’s theology. Calvin was a religious reformer in the 1500’s, and he wrote extensively on theology. (And I do mean extensively – his Institutes of Christian Religion has 80 chapters!) Someone thought it would be easier to remember what Calvin taught if it was in some sort of handy mnemonic device that was easily remembered – a nursery rhyme, perhaps. The little sing-song-ditty didn’t catch on, mainly because it’s very difficult to rhyme words like Depravity and Atonement. So they came up with “TULIP” instead. It stands for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Cute, huh?

So, let’s take a look at Total Depravity. Basically this means that because of our fall into sin, human beings are horrible, nasty, depraved, disgusting, perverted, hopeless creatures that can barely pull themselves out of their own muck and mire – but only to throw rocks at other people. Calvin was known to have used phrases like “totally depraved” and “utterly perverse.” In other words, people suck.

 I had a problem with this concept. I mean, are all people totally depraved? I thought that was a bit of a stretch.

 “Sure, some people are depraved,” I said to my Seminary professor, “I mean, Caligula and Hitler – I think we can agree they were totally depraved. Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, sure. But Everyone? Totally? Come on! I know some really nice people!”

My professor said, “Nice doesn’t get you into heaven. Watch the news; then we’ll talk.”

Well, OK then. I watched the news. I also watched the History channel and TMZ so I could get the full picture. TMZ makes some pretty good arguments for Total Depravity.

 But I dug even deeper. I read the newspaper. I spoke with people. I prayed.  I was forced to come to grips with humanity’s sad history of torturing, raping, and pillaging one another. Much of the “history” isn’t so historic. I read about men forbidding women to work outside their homes, forbidding girls to get an education or have a choice in whom or when they marry, citing “their culture” and I shook my head. I puzzled over seemingly senseless wars in all corners of the world. I was dumbstruck by the universal pervasiveness of child porn.  I became outraged over the stories of the Arizona parents who locked their kid in a trunk – on purpose – as a punishment for stealing a Popsicle! Or the guy who shot and killed his neighbors’ entire family because their dog was barking. And then there were the politicians. I was undone.

 OK, my professor was right. People suck.

 I found this really amusing Tumblr that summed it up nicely:


So maybe I can begin to accept Calvin’s doctrine of Total Depravity. But I am also a HUGE proponent of grace! This is a conundrum. I know Calvin must have talked about grace somewhere in the myriad of writings he left. He did write about Irresistible Grace, but that was referring more to how God draws us into relationship, not necessarily the “overflowing love and mercy” kind of grace I’m thinking of.  There was much discussion of “God’s common grace” by followers of Calvin and later Reformed theologians. Common grace being the love and mercy which God bestows on all of creation and all people, just because. Grace flows because of God’s very nature. You know, “God is love” and all that. The Bible is pretty clear that God loves people.

 True Calvinists maintain that God’s common grace does nothing to improve our unregenerate nature, and it doesn’t improve our ability to change our moral standing before God. Huh.

 “But people were created in the image of God,” I argued, “It simply doesn’t make sense to ONLY say that people are totally depraved! That would imply that the Creator was also depraved!”

Calvin would roll over in his grave if that were the accepted logical conclusion. There is much more to it than that.

OK, so humans are created in the Image of God, and that’s good. But because of the fall, we’ve been relegated to the scratch-and-dent category (there’s the depravity) That’s bad. God clearly loves us and has forgiven us – isn’t that what the gospel is about?! And that’s good. Paul was always going on about how God “remembers our sin no more.” And once we are “in Christ, we are new creations.” And we “can do all things through Christ,” and so on. All good.  That doesn’t sound like much Total Depravity to me.

So, which is it? Are we worms? We cannot be just despicable, perverted worms. God doesn’t seem interested in developing relationships with worms. God loves people. God has been trying to develop relationships with people since we first became human! (see Genesis 1 and 2) And God wants a relationship with us – certainly not because of our depravity, and not in spite of it either. Perhaps God loves us just the way we are because that’s who God is…and by God’s Grace we are forgiven and loved and lifted up and empowered. When God looks at us, God sees us as capable, much-loved children, right? When Jesus was walking the earth, He assured us we can do whatever He did and more!

 We’re Worms with Superpowers!

 Now that’s a concept that requires more thought. I need to revisit the other parts of TULIP as well.  Stay tuned…


7 thoughts on “Tip Toe through the TULIP

  1. Worms with superpowers?! Ha! That’s something worth thinking about. I , too have struggled with the relationship between being both totally depraved and coincidentally created in his image to reflect God in the world around me. This certainly seems at odds. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us!

  2. Thank you SO much for this! Finally someone whiling to break TULIP apart and make it entertaining and readable. I’ll be looking forward to your thought on the rest of the ULIP 😉

  3. A helpful distinction I came across recently is the difference between total depravity and “absolute” depravity.

    The “totality” of total depravity is in it’s reach: all is touched by the fall. There is no corner of creation which has not been affected by sin.

    What total depravity is *not* is absolute. We are not all beyond the saving grace of God. For every Hitler (absolutely depraved) there is a Mother Theresa (still a sinner), for every Caligula (absolutely depraved) there’s a MLK (again, still a sinner). You get the picture.

    Hope that is helpful!

  4. Jonathan, thanks!
    I kind of look at this as a “sliding scale.” There are many shades of gray, so to speak, as there are many shades of depravity. I think you are right on! “We are not all beyond the saving grace of God.” 🙂

  5. Susan, thank you for this thoughtful yet playful post. It was quite engaging that way. I like Calvin better than Luther, mostly for all of the reasons you listed. I adore the systematician in Calvin! I love the 80 chapters divided up into 4 books. I love that he felt he was never done and updated it several times. Perhaps in picking theological partners, like often happens with romantic partners opposites sometimes attract. I’m prone to to get a little loose with my lips and on occasion a little sloppy with my drink, like Luther. To me Calvin is a role model as far as methodology. Though, each man has plenty not to love. Luther’s antisemitism. Calvin and Servetus.

    All that said, I have never cared much for the TULIP acronym. Several years ago I read Harry Boer’s An Ember Still Glowing and it rocked my world. Once upon a time I dug really deep into the age of reformed “rebels” at Calvin College. They were all before the time of my studies there. But they remain an inspiration. Harold Dekker challenged the “traditional” notion of election and pushed for racial equality in the CRC. He recruited Eugene St. Clair Callender, the first black pastor ordained in the CRC to start a CRC church in Harlem. Lewis Smedes questioned the church’s stance on gay relationships. And Harry Boer was just a plain – and way underrated – genius! and a courageous soul (In 1975 he wrote a letter to the CRC General Synod requesting biblical evidence to support the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons of Dort).

    Anyhoo, Boer said total depravity was the ultimate “misnomer.” He said the problem is that we always seem to have to start by saying what it doesn’t mean before we can finally explain what it does mean, much the way Jonathan does above with his totality/absolute distinction. Yes sin touches every part of us. But before that God said we were good, very good. I will save my hangups with ULIP for your further posts on the subject 😉

    But please make no mistake, I adore Calvin and consider myself very, very Reformed. Perhaps even a Calvinist. A twenty-first century Calvinist. But still…

    1. Thanks Wayne! I’ll have to check out Boer’s book. I read a biography of Calvin last summer, and was glad to get a different view of him, personally. For instance, I love the fact that he was in a blended family and had stepchildren! And, like you, I also love the fact that he was immersed in theological reflection and writing so much and that he was never “done” with his Institutes.

      I think much of what Calvin wrote has to be initially defined as what it isn’t. That is perhaps my real problem with TULIP. As Jonathan said, there is kind of a sliding scale to much of theology, and very few either/or concepts. When dealing with God and theology, we have to hold opposing ideas in tension much of the time. I’m growing more comfortable with that as I get older. 🙂

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