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Calvinism/Predestination Explained, or When a TULIP is not a flower

A tulip brings to mind springtime and warmer weather, but it also refers to an idea in Christianity which can divide believers. This tulip idea is predestination. Yet how did a flower come to symbolize the choice of God over who goes to heaven? For this, we need to discuss a man who lived in the mid-1500s, another who lived in the late 1500s and early 1600s and a church council called to settle a dispute.

John Calvin (1509-1564) spent most of his life in Geneva. He lived during the time of the Protestant Reformation (that break from the Catholic Church), about a generation after Martin Luther. That meant the Reformation was already in full swing. So while earlier Luther had to contend with the traumatic experience of breaking from the Catholic Church, by Calvinís time tens of thousands of people had broken with the Catholic Church and formed groups such as Lutherans, Anglicans, and Anabaptists. This freed Calvin to turn his attention to ideas of how God related to Christians.

Along with establishing Geneva as a Protestant city, Calvin also wrote many books. His most prominent work is called The Institutes of the Christian Faith. Within this work he laid out his Protestant beliefs, including an idea not new to Calvin but one he learned from early church leaders, that of predestination. This idea, which dates at least to Augustine (354-430), states that God chose who would go to heaven and who would go to hell at a time distant in the past. Thus God chooses the path each person will take before that person is even born.

Not everyone agreed with Calvinís idea of predestination. Fast forward to a man named Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) who disagreed with this idea, believing instead that each person decides whether or not to have faith in Jesus; this idea is also known as "free will."  His followers became known as Remonstrants (to remonstrate is to vigorously opposed an idea; i.e., they vigorously opposed Calvin's ideas) and today as known as Arminians.  They developed his ideas into five points called the Five Articles of Remonstrance.

Eventually a church council was called in the Netherlands to help settle the dispute between Calvinists (followers of Calvin) and the Remonstrants (followers of Arminius); it was known as the Synod of Dort (1618-1619).  Among other decisions, the Synod countered the Five Articles of Remonstrance with five points of Calvinís thoughts. That is why there are five points of Calvinism (as it is popularly known).  Later someone reduced the five points to five phrases, and tulip, or TULIP, was born. The five phrases are:

T-Total Depravity of Humanity. People can do no good apart from Godís prompting.

U-Unconditional Election. God chose who would be Christians in the past. This choice is not determined by anything a person would do (that is conditional) but only on Godís pleasure (unconditional).

L-Limited Atonement. Jesus died only for the sins of Christians, also called the elect.

I-Irresistible Grace. If God chooses you, it is irresistible and you will be a Christian.

P-Perseverance of the Saints. God ensures that those he chose will remain Christians. This is also referred to as "once saved, always saved."

So Christians who refer to themselves as "Calvinists" (also sometimes "Reformed") believe in the five points of TULIP. And Christians who refer to themselves as "Arminians" believed in the free will of people to chose or deny Christ. The question of when God decided divided Calvinists. "Supralapsarians" believe God chose before the Fall of Adam, "sublapsarians" believe God chose after the Fall. ("supra" = before; "sub" = after; "lapse" = fall)

©2004, 2011 Mark Nickens

Questions, comments contact Mark at drnickens@triad.rr.com.

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