Taking the T.U.L.I.P. Out of the GardenRelating Calvinism to “the complexities of contemporary life.”Reviewed by Nathan Bierma posted 01/18/2005 9:00 a.m.

Calvinism in theLas Vegas Airport:Making Connectionsin Today’s WorldBy Richard J. MouwZondervan, 143 pp.; $14.99

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s WorldBy Richard J. MouwZondervan143 pp.; $$14.99

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.

In fact, God’s sovereignty, Mouw makes clear, is the main idea of TULIP as a whole. The purpose of TULIP is not to make God seem stingy; it is to affirm God’s rule over all of creation, and to place humans in proper relation to him. “Indeed,” Mouw writes in conclusion, if Calvinists “are ever faced with a choice between a theological formulation that diminishes God’s sovereignty and one that would diminish human freedom, we’ll go with sovereignty.” We do not wish to “detract in any way from the sovereign rule of God” or “give the impression that God is limited by our human choices.”

Still, Mouw says that TULIP is best used late—if at all—in conversations about Calvinism with non-Calvinists. In his chapter called “Jake’s Mistake,” Mouw returns to George C. Scott’s character Jake Van Dorn in Hardcore, and notes how uncaring it was to throw TULIP at Niki, instead of inquiring about her own fears and sorrows and speaking of Christ’s love for her. “She did not need a theology lesson,” Mouw says. “She needed a God who spoke to her in soft and tender tones.” And so, Mouw says, Scott should have started with Heidelberg One: “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong, body and soul, to my faithful savior Jesus Christ.” TULIP, Mouw says, should only come in “farther down the line … as a ‘looking back’ framework.”

I imagined what Schrader would think if he saw this book. Leave it to a former Calvin College professor to take a little gag in a movie and launch into a whole book about theology! But I love the way Mouw says, I get the joke, and it’s a valid one, but let’s put it to good use. In fact, Mouw is the one person I would introduce to Schrader as the polar opposite of George C. Scott’s character. Where Scott is hasty, harsh, and uncontemplative about his Calvinism, Mouw is careful, gentle, and deeply thoughtful about how doctrine is an expression of faith instead of the other way around. Mouw is also brutally—but helpfully—honest about the failings of his Dutch Calvinist tradition.

The point of Mouw’s book is to say that Calvinism “travels well.” TULIP does not—as I feared growing up—require certain academic and ethnic fertilizer in order to bloom. And so I made a point of reading his book in non-Calvinist locations—in a Starbucks in downtown Chicago, and on an Amtrak train. On the train, the man across from me saw the title and asked about it. Turns out he was a Zen Buddhist, and we launched into a cordial conversation about the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Calvinism. It was just a conversation, but it was a far more productive encounter than Jake had in the Las Vegas Airport.

Nathan Bierma is Books & Culture’s editorial assistant. He writes the weekly B&C weblog; he also writes the weekly “On Language” column for the Chicago Tribune.


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