TULIP as Narrative
I want to say a few words about every theologian’s favorite acronym—TULIP. I don’t intend to say anything substantially new here. I also don’t mean to ostracize anyone who gets an allergic reaction when Calvinism is mentioned; if you think I’m one of those scary Calvinists who brews his own beer, has a big burly beard, and has multiple days worth of John Piper sermons on his iPod, well. . . that’s all true! But I promise you I’m not the scary kind (or, at least I don’t intend to be). As I’ve written before on this blog (almost exactly a year ago in fact), there is a genuine sense in which I believe my Calvinism doesn’t matter; I’d gladly do missions, ministry, church, and daily-life with my non-Calvinist Christian friends. It’s all good in the proverbial hood. So this post is not intended to be apologetic in any way (a note to the Arminian Internet Trolls: I will not respond to any instigations of debate. I will simply respond with an emoticon of my choosing). I simply have a few reflections on thinking of TULIP as narrative and I thought I’d share them here.
For those who are less familiar with the acronym TULIP it is essentially a mnemonic device to represent what is commonly called ‘The Five Points of Calvinism’ (T=Toal Depravity; U=Unconditional Election; L=Limited Atonement; I=Irresistible Grace; P=Perseverance of the Saints). The designation TULIP is apropos because of the prominence of tulips in The Netherlands where the term originated and where there is a rich Reformed heritage; it’s a beautiful blend of culture and theology. But for the past few months I’ve been thinking about how TULIP can be viewed as a story. At once this thought presented itself as an intriguing reflection because of the supposed dichotomy, especially in our postmodern context, between stale doctrine and engaging stories. So, rather than constituting five points of old doctrine, I want to consider TULIP as a drama.
Instead of being five a-contextual and a-historical points of dogma, TULIP seems to have an implicit narrative structure. This structure may even help to make the mnemonic device even more memorable. The story begins with the central plight of (T)otal Depravity; all humanity has rejected God, rebelled against their Maker, and been corrupted by sin and are therefore undeserving of any blessing from God. But we learn, as in a flashback, that God, because of his rich mercy, has chosen to (U)nconditionally elect some to receive the benefits of salvation. For those whom God has chosen before the foundation of the world he sent his one and only Son to make atonement (L)imited in scope to those he elected by absorbing their depravity in a violent and undeserved death. These chosen people, when effectively called by God, experience the (I)rrestible work of the Spirit that the Resurrected Christ poured out at Pentecost to revive and regenerate the depraved hearts of humanity by applying the Son’s atonement to them—the climax of the plight as experienced in the lives of individuals. The same group then, being the ones for whom Christ died, the ones chosen by God, and the ones irresistibly drawn by the Spirit of the Resurrected Christ, begin to walk in the inaugurated blessings of resurrected life and continue to live by faith—the dénouement—and (P)ersevere until their dying day when the final curtain falls.
The basic narratival structure can obviously be filled in with more detail. Indeed I believe that any Christian can fill in their personal story into this narrative. TULIP is therefore a stage play with multiple adaptations. Indeed, it is essentially a Trinitarian narrative in Three Acts. The dramatis personae are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Act I introduces the plight of humanity and the Father’s decision to thwart humanity’s feeble attempt at revolution (the plot), Act II shows the extreme and dark lengths that the Son was willing to go for those whom the Father gave him (“why have you forsaken me?”), and Act III provides the climax of the narrative and the dénouement when the Spirit of God conquers the rebellious hearts of humanity and transforms their lives to reflect the image of the Resurrected Son of God.
What’s more, taking TULIP as a narrative also has doctrinal implications. First, because the narrative is Trinitarian it gives proper context to Limited Atonement (the tricky one). The Son provides atonement for the same group that the Father chose and the same group that the Spirit draws to genuine faith. TULIP is Tri-Une; the Son works in accordance with the Father and the Spirit. So we cannot isolate Limited Atonement from its narratival context, it is especially when we do so that we find it egregious.
The second doctrinal implication of TULIP as a narrative, and the most helpful part for me, is how it necessitates an infralapsarian version of Calvinism rather than one that’s supralapsarian. In case those words sound like two different tribal houses from The Game of Thrones I’ll briefly explain. There is a long-standing debate about the logical order of salvation (ordo salutis) that goes like this: does God’s decree to elect logically precede the decree to permit the Fall (supralapsarianism) or does the decree to permit the Fall precede the decree to elect (infralapsarianism). Of course, chronologically the decree to elect takes place before the Fall took place, but this debate is about the logical order of the decrees. When we consider TULIP as narrative, it only works in an infralapsarian framework (which I prefer, because it means that God elects some to salvation from a corrupt mass of depraved humanity rather than—apologies for the caricature—downgrading and upgrading morally neutral humanity).
So TULIP can be thought of as a narrative and this can help us make sense of certain doctrinal complexities within Calvinism such as the atonement and the lapsarian debate. Also, because we’ve seen that TULIP is a Trinitarian narrative, we ultimately realize that we’re talking about their story. The three divine persons of the Godhead are the “actors” in the story of salvation. Humanity is rather like an audience that didn’t realize it was a part of the narrative and is then unexpectedly invited to join in the story of redemption. If TULIP were ever performed on Broadway the subtitle on the marquis would read “Salvation belongs to the Lord.” TULIP is a narrative performed in the theatre of human history, and one thing’s for sure, it’s not improv.