A Short Theology of the Tulip

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken March 28, 1999

The Rykens are trying to grow tulips again this spring. It has become an annual act of piety for us, in part because it is a family tradition. Believe it or not, my Dutch grandfather used to help plant a hundred thousand bulbs every year in preparation for Tulip Time. He had to dig them back up again, too, and store them over the winter.

Every fall now we plant tulip bulbs in our city window boxes, carefully spacing them out and pushing them down to the right depth of the soil. Add a little bone meal, and the tulips are ready for the long, cold winter. For months we wait for them, longing for spring, lovingly taking the boxes down to the garage when there is a hard freeze.

Finally spring arrives. A week or two ago the first tulips appeared, a blade here and a blade there, tentatively searching for a warm ray of sunlight. Almost overnight, the boxes filled with short, straight shoots, like so many sticks of dynamite, ready to explode into color. Now we wait for what Dylan Thomas called “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

What is the theological significance of growing tulips? I ask the question because all of life is lived unto God. If I am going to plant tulips I need to know how tulips glorify God? What do they reveal about the mind of their Maker?

To begin with, tulips testify to God's love of beauty, and to the immense variety of his creativity. The International Register produced annually by the Royal General Bulb growers’ Association in the Netherlands lists nearly 6,000 varieties of tulip. There have been some great tulips in history as well: the red and white streaks of the famous ‘Semper Augustus,’ the striking yellow and black of ‘Lawrence's Polyphemus,’ and so on.

The many varieties of tulip also testify to the creativity of human beings, for many hybrids have been cultivated by amateur florists. By carefully breeding special varieties, tulip lovers have allowed the possibilities of the God-given tulip to blossom.

The Bible does not mention tulips specifically. However, biblical scholars now tell us that the phrase “lilies of the field” refers to many different kinds of flowers, including the tulip [Leland Ryken, et al., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, InterVarsity, 1999, 294]. So when Jesus said that the lilies of the field have more splendor than Solomon (Matt. 6:28-29), he was talking about tulips, among other things.

What the Bible says about flowers generally is rather surprising. It does not praise their beauty, primarily. Instead, it shows how transient that beauty is, often comparing with it the fading glory of human beings. In the words of Isaiah,

“All men are like grass,

and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,

because the breath of the Lord blows on them” (Isa. 40:6-7; cf. Ps. 103:15-16).

Job said, “Man springs up like a flower and withers away (Job 14:2).

After what happened to our tulips last spring, we Rykens know what the Bible is talking about. Frankly, 1998 was a disappointment in the tulip department. Our flowers were short, for one thing, although we felt better about that once we realized they were a dwarf variety. But they only lived for about a week before they began to wilt. The grass withers, you see. The flowers fade. And those of us who are casual gardeners must remember that our labor is under God's curse (Gen. 3:17-19).

But tulips in springtime are also a sign of God's grace. A few weeks from now, there will be dozens of tulips on the platform at Tenth Presbyterian Church, helping us celebrate the Philadelphia Conference on Reformation Theology.

Every theological system should have its own flower, and the official flower of Reformation theology is the tulip. The Arminians, of course, have their daisies, in keeping with their “He loves me, He loves me not” approach to eternal security. But Reformation Christians have always been partial to tulips, especially during times of religious persecution. The Huguenots brought tulips when they fled from France to England in the late 17th century. In the 1800's my Dutch ancestors brought tulips from the Netherlands to places like Pella, Iowa.

One reason the tulip is the official flower for Reformation theology is that the word “TULIP” is an acronym for some of its major doctrines:

T stands for “total depravity:” We are all sinners all the way through (Gen. 6:5; Rom. 3:23).

U stands for “unconditional election:” God chose to save me for reasons known only to him (Eph. 1:4-5).

L stands for “limited atonement:” Christ got what he paid for when he died for his people, and his people alone (John 10:14-15).

I stands for “irresistible grace:” When the Spirit changes my heart, I will and I must come to God in faith (John 6:44-45). And, finally,

P stands for the “perseverance of the saints:” My faithful God will see me safely to my eternal home (Rom. 8:28, 30).

What makes that acronym especially appropriate is that those theological principles were fully explained at the Synod of Dort (1616-1619), which was held in the Netherlands. Thus, for almost 400 years, the best tulips and the soundest theology have both come from Holland.

Tulips should remind us of human depravity, and when it comes to depravity, we Calvinists not only believe in it, we practice it! This can be well illustrated from the history of the tulip. Back in the 1630's, tulipomania swept the Netherlands. Defying all sanity, tulip bulbs became the hottest selling item in the country.

As buyers bid wildly for scarce bulbs, the tulip became the ultimate status symbol. At one auction, the equivalent of $10 million changed hands, and a single bulb of the “Admiral van Enkhuijsen” sold for 5,400 guilders, the equivalent of fifteen years’ wages, more than the price for a townhouse in the best quarter of Amsterdam. Then, as suddenly as the craze began, it ended. The tulip market crashed, entire fortunes were lost, and speculators went bankrupt - thus proving the folly of greed.

But the tulip should reminds us of something more than our depravity. Its beauty should also remind us that from beginning to end, salvation is all of God. It is by his grace alone that we are saved: his grace to choose, his grace to atone, his grace to regenerate, and his grace to bring us home.

[For more information about the glorious tulip, see Anna Pavord, The Tulip: The Story of a Flower That Has Made Men Mad, London: Bloomsbury, 1999]

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