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Reviewed by Nathan Bierma


Taking T.U.L.I.P. Out of the Ghetto

Relating Calvinism to "the complexities of contemporary life."

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My Las Vegas Airport moment came four years ago in Chicago's South Loop neighborhood. I was interviewing a source at his office as an intern at a weekly newspaper. He casually inquired where I was a student. When he said he hadn't heard of Calvin College, I seized on the moment to testify. I explained that Calvin was a place where people believe that faith isn't just a matter of your inner spiritual feelings, but a view of the whole creation as the place where God is present and powerful. The man nodded.

"That sounds a lot like my daughter's beliefs," he said. "She's a Unitarian."

Had we been on the phone, that would have been the point where I put down the receiver and buried my head in my hands.

At these and other moments, I've been reminded of a memorable line from ex–Calvinist Paul Schrader's movie Hardcore, which I watched in a film class (I promise) at, fittingly enough, Calvin College. There's a scene where George C. Scott, playing a stodgy West Michigan Calvinist named (as approximately half the West Michigan population is) Van–something, befriends a prostitute named Niki in order to investigate the whereabouts of his prodigal daughter.

At one point, Niki asks about his church. In one of the funniest scenes I've ever seen on film, Scott's character proceeds to explain the T.U.L.I.P. model of John Calvin's doctrine to this prostitute, right there in the middle of the Las Vegas airport. She doesn't get it. Scott says, "Well, I admit it's a little confusing when you look at it from the outside. You have to try to look at it from the inside."

I grew up on the inside—raised in West Michigan by parents of Dutch heritage, in the Christian Reformed denomination Schrader so heartily ridiculed. In fact, one of the scenes of Grand Rapids in the opening montage of Schrader's movie is a shot of Neland Avenue church, the church in which I was raised. And so Scott's comment hit close to home. Was the Calvinism I was raised with only an inheritance from my tribe? Was it only a reality to me because I had always "looked at it from the inside"? And what would I have said if I were in Scott's shoes?

So imagine my delight when I picked up a book from one of my favorite authors, Fuller Seminary president (and Books & Culture editorial board member) Richard Mouw, entitled Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport. "This is a book for people who want to see how it is possible to draw on the strengths of Calvinism as they make their way through the complexities of contemporary life," he begins. Although the book is inevitably about doctrine, Mouw says he is "more interested here in questions about Calvinist character and mood. I want to focus here on how to be a Calvinist in the twenty–first century." So did I.

Mouw starts by summing up TULIP (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistable grace, and Perseverance of the saints.) As he does, Mouw counters what may be the most common complaint about Calvinism—a complaint I often make myself. The complaint is that Calvin's God is a salvation Scrooge, reluctantly doling out redemption to an elect few rather than lavishing his grace on all of humanity. This paints God as miserly, cruel, and arbitrary. Take the L, for example—limited atonement. This means that God's salvation is limited to those who are predestined to be saved. In my experience, Calvinists who confidently endorse this point—or even endorse it at all—are rare.

Mouw affirms these misgivings, to the point of stating that it's not fully clear whether Christ died for "all," for "the elect," or whether "all" means "all of the elect" or "elect" means "all." Different passages of Scripture support different interpretations. Mouw doesn't arrive at his inconclusive conclusion casually; he does so only after working his way through Owen Thomas' 300–plus–page book The Atonement Controversy in Welsh Theological Debate, 1707–1841. I think the 99 percent of us who have not read that work should defer to Mouw's summation that this is one of the mysteries that ultimately lies beyond human comprehension.

But before he leaves it at that, Mouw makes a compelling case for the L of TULIP. "Limited atonement" is a negative term; Mouw's positive term for the concept is "mission accomplished." Christ successfully saved everyone for whom he died. If you believe salvation is offered to all but only some accept it, then in some ways you are calling God a failure. God is only able to save those who allow him to do so; he fails, despite his ambitions, to redeem the rest. When you look at it this way, denying the L of TULIP can be just as uncomfortable as accepting it. But saying "mission accomplished" (should we make it "TUMIP"?) instead of "limited atonement" affirms God's sovereignty: everyone he died for goes to heaven. No one he died for goes to hell.

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