Contemporary Calvinists suppose that the acronym TULIP is a time-honored, authentic distillation of what was achieved at the Synod of Dordt. They’re wrong.
The sacrosanct, historical formula understood to have been given to us by our Protestant fathers…
A formula that deserves consistent recasting to more effectively communicate the actual meaning of the five points that are often grossly misunderstood.
In the first case, you have what Covenant College professor Kenneth J. Stewart calls the “sovereign grace” tendency.
The second, an “apologetic tendency” towards TULIP.
Both tendencies, though, are grounded in a mistaken premise.
The Tragedy of TULIP
At least that’s Stewart’s argument in a recent essay “The Points of Calvinism: Retrospect and Prospect” [warning: PDF] in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.
Both tendencies–notable in the New Calvinists–suppose that the points of Calvinism (Total Depravity, Unconditional Grace, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints) are a time-honored, authentic distillation of what was achieved at the Synod of Dordt.
Stewart claims that’s a mistaken belief.
TULIP is NOT an accurate summary of the Dordt conference. And there are better ways to articulate it’s message than the contemporary, hardliner approach.
TULIP: A Brief History in the 19th Century
The most notable claim Stewart makes is that the acronym TULIP didn’t even appear in print until Loraine Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination [warning: PDF].
And that was in 1932.
Before that, in the 19th Century, you are hard-pressed to find a clear, positive reference to the acronym.
You have advocates for Calvinism. Proponents for the theology of Dordt. But no defenders of TULIP.
In fact, what you do find is subtle stiff-arming of the acronym.
In a small sample of 19th Century Calvinism Stewart demonstrates that consistency nor aggressiveness in stating the doctrines was on their mind.
For instance, Robert Dabney considered the five points of Calvinism “of little accuracy or worth; I use it to denote certain points of doctrine, because custom has made it familiar.”
TULIP: A Brief History in the 18th Century
Finding any sympathetic–let alone clear articulation of the modern TULIP–in the 18th Century is equally futile.
What most theologians of this time pushed was a presentation of “our common Christianity.” Things held in common with “Scriptural Christians.”
Most contended for Calvinist doctrine in a broad-brush approach, preferring “Particular Atonement” over “Limited” or “Original Sin and Incorrigible Depravity” over “Total Depravity.”
Even Augustus Toplady, fierce in his attacks on John Wesley’s Armenianism, did not use the formula.
What This Brief Historical Survey Means
This is what it boils down to: Stewart argues that contemporary advocates of the five points of Calvinism are wedded to a formula in a way quite unlike Calvinists of an earlier era….
A formula we’ve come to accept uncritically as a hallmark of Calvinist orthodoxy.
What does this say about us? Stewart contends:
“At very least, this use suggests that they have not understood their own past very well. At worst, it may mean that they have willingly consented to take a very loose rendering of the theology of Dordt in place of the actuality.”
What was once a gracious, sober minded egalitarianism has given way to a more slavish, unquestioning loyalty and use.
Not That We Weren’t Warned
To be fair, a few contemporary theologians have sounded the alarm.
Edwin H. Palmer–in his Five Points of Calvinism– stated in 1972, “Calvinism does not have five points and neither is Calvin the author of the five points.”
And in an essay written for a reprint of John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, J. I. Packer stated, ”It would not be correct to simply to equate Calvinism with the five point” and “the five points present Calvinistic soteriology in a negative and polemical form.”
In other words, the TULIP framework is deficient and the Calvinism of our age bears a belligerent, vehement streak in it…
This in spite of embracive attitude of former theologians and contemporary cautions.
The solution to this mess, Stewart rightly suggests, is engaging with the actual Canons of Dordt. At least quoting them. Even crafting a compressed summary of their actual content would do us a world of good.
One piece of advice in particular I’m going to follow is to read Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, a book Stewart believes will help us recover the “big picture” that was more evident in the past than it is now.
Anybody read it? What did you think? Looking forward to your thoughts.