TULIP: Where Did It Go Wrong?

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  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 “” [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 .

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  [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,  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 , 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 – 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 , 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  and contemporary cautions.

The Solution

The solution to this mess, Stewart rightly suggests, is engaging with the actual . 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 , 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.

2 thoughts on “TULIP: Where Did It Go Wrong?

  1. Ken Stewart


    Thanks for “crunching” so effectively the argument of that SBET article. Since it appeared, two further significant things have unfolded. First, when this article was kindly highlighted on Justin Taylor’s _Between Two Worlds_ blog around 2010, two readers who were very effective web-sleuths were able to independently track TULIP back to 1908, when a magazine article reminisced about hearing TULIP propounded for the first time in 1905. The spokesman of 1905 was a Northern Presbyterian minister who, for a time, taught at McCormick Presbyterian Seminary, Chicago. This was a Dr. McAfee. However, the 1908 article went on to show that there was absolutely no uniformity in 1908 as to how TULIP was defined.

    Second, that magazine article of 1908 was reproduced as an appendix in my 2011 IVP book, _Ten Myths About Calvinism_. The TULIP article which you first read in SBET format appeared in revised form in the _Ten Myths_ book. It is going to take time, but I believe that we will live to see the end of TULIP. What will replace it is unclear; but it should be plain to all who look into it that it is inaccurate and the breeding ground of problems.


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