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Understanding Calvinism with TULIP: AP Euro Review

Note: This article was released prior to the 2015-2016 revision to the AP European History exam. In order to see what is still in the Course and Exam Description, explore the course framework here.

Calvinism was one of the most groundbreaking movements of the reformation, and is a crucial part of European History. This long-standing religious movement was founded by the theologian and preacher John Calvin. His beliefs, associated with the denomination of Calvinism, are summed up by the acronym TULIP, or sometimes seen just Tulip. As an AP Euro student, you need to be prepared to answer either a free response or multiple-choice question about the Calvinistic Tulip, and this guide will help you do so.


As mentioned earlier, Calvinism arose during the reformation movement of the 15th and 16th centuries. Martin Luther got the ball rolling with his famous “95 theses”, which were essentially complaints about the Catholic Church. This inspired many other theologians to take another look at the corruption of the church and seek religious alternatives. This was essentially the birth of Protestantism.

One prominent theologian named John Calvin also got in on the movement. Calvin shared a lot of beliefs with Luther and other Protestants, but also had some key differences in their thoughts. His ideas came to be known by the acronym Tulip. Calvin himself did not actually come up with the acronym or blatantly say that these were his beliefs. It was actually his followers who coined the term as a representation of their beliefs.

The Breakdown of TULIP

T – Total depravity: This belief essentially affirms the idea that all people are sinners and will never be good enough to save themselves. (A little depressing eh?) Calvin was influenced heavily by Augustine, one of the early Christian church fathers, and it is evident in this belief. This idea doesn’t necessarily mean that all human beings are totally evil and don’t have any goodness in them whatsoever. It basically just means that on their own, people are unable to choose to follow God. It assumes that people will most naturally just look out for themselves, and are not worried about honoring God. This plays into the larger theological question of original sin, and is a source of division among many protestant denominations.

U – Unconditional election: The ideas of Tulip build on each other. So the doctrine of unconditional election only works under the assumption that man is totally depraved. The main idea of unconditional election is that God chooses who will be saved and who will not be saved. Once again, there is nothing that anyone can do to get saved on his or her own, and they can never be good enough to get saved. The only way a person could become saved is by being chosen by God. This means that God already knows, and has always known who will be saved and who will go to hell. The people who he has planned to save are known as the “elect.” This is a source of much conflict, such as the predestination debate.

L – Limited atonement: Before you can understand the implications of this idea, you need to know what the word atonement actually means. In general terms, atonement is a word used to describe a payment for injury or crime. In theological terms, atonement is the term for the act of reconciliation of God and mankind through Jesus Christ. Basically, we, as humans had committed a wrong against God, and Jesus paid the price for it.

The idea of limited atonement combines this idea with the idea of God’s sovereignty. Basically this becomes a question of who Jesus paid a price for. Was it for all mankind? Or was it only for the “elect” who God has chosen to save? Most Calvinists believe that none of Jesus’ suffering was useless, so his atonement was only for those people that will be saved. They also ensure that it is not because he was unable to die for all, but that the atonement is only meant for those intended to be saved.

Calvinism AP Euro

By Hieronymus van der Mij, (1687-1761) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I – Irresistible grace: One of the main tenants of Calvinism is the total depravity of man, meaning that we as humans are drawn to sin and will always be drawn to sin. Our natural inclination is not to follow Christ, but rather to turn away from Him and live a life of sin. This principle implies that the grace of God has such a strong draw on each person that there is no way they can continue to turn away from God. Basically, if it is in God’s plan for a person to be saved, then they will definitely be saved. This idea also has heavy influences of Augustine, who felt that God had irresistibly called on him to turn his life over to God. Once again, this points back to an emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the assumption that He has already chosen who will be saved.

P – Perseverance of the Saints: This belief of Calvinism makes it clear that once a person has experienced salvation, they cannot lose that salvation. If someone is part of the elect, they will always be part of the elect. If someone claims to have turned their life towards God and then stops living that way, a Calvinist might say that they were never truly saved. It is also a promise against works based salvation, as this part of Calvinism says that there is nothing that can be done to make themselves saved or unsaved. Instead, a Calvinist would say that it is all about what God has planned for you.


The AP European History exam is probably not going to have too many insanely deep theological questions. However, it is important that you understand the basic beliefs of John Calvin and the followers of Calvinism, as summarized by the acronym TULIP. This is a handy guide to have when comparing Calvin’s beliefs with Luther’s or one of the other reformation leaders. In general, remember that according to Calvin, salvation is solely in the hands of God, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

By the way, you should check out for your AP European History review. We have hundreds of AP Euro practice questions written just for you!

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