Myth: The Calvinist Acrostic, TULIP, Has the Imprint of Antiquity
My Early Journey
Like a lot of persons who were introduced to Reformed theology after being raised in a different expression of evangelical Christianity, I was early-on exposed to authors easily recognizable by many who read this. I refer to titles like Steele & Thomas’ Five Points of Calvinism: Defined, Documented and Defended(P&R, 1963), Pink’s Sovereignty of God(1918; B.O.T. ed.1961) and Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination(Eerdmans:1932 & reprints from P&R). Here is where I “cut my teeth”, doctrinally; here also were the sources which first introduced me to the well-known acronym TULIP. TULIP was passed on by Boettner to Steele and Thomas as a handy ‘digest’ (if you will) of the determinations of the great international Reformed synod which met at Dordt, the Netherlands in 1618-19.
Now, if TULIP was a handy ‘digest’ of the conclusions of this synod, called to deal with the challenge posed by the early Arminian movement, then – as we were accustomed to saying, you needed “to have all the petals on your TULIP”, a more compact way of saying that you needed to robustly affirm belief in Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistable Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. At least…that is what I thought for decades…
An Intriguing Question Arises
But in 2005 while reading eighteenth century Calvinist authors in connection with another theological question, I became intrigued by the fact that TULIP – something looked on as quite elementary to any modern, card-carrying Calvinist—was strangely not to be found. There had been controversy about Calvinist doctrine, alright; about 1710 a liberal Anglican writer, Daniel Whitby (1638-1726) had ‘thrown down the gloves’ by publicly contesting the doctrine of election. There had been no shortage of stalwart Calvinists to reply. But none of them: John Edwards (1637-1716), Thomas Ridgley (1667-1734) or John Gill (1697-1771) ever mentioned TULIP; each used his own terminology in referring to and defending the doctrinal affirmations of Dordt. This planted a seed in my mind to which I returned twelve months later.
In the summer of 2006, I researched the question which had now crystallized: where and when had TULIP emerged in the centuries subsequent to Dordt (1618-1619)? The answer which research yielded was not at all what I expected. Beginning at the present, I began to trace the use of TULIP backwards in time. Something soon emerged: there were twentieth century writers who used this acronym without any reservation at all, while a second group used it more tentatively – and with a readiness to substitute other alphabet letters (and terms) for some of the TULIP ‘petals’. The ‘unreserved’ users of TULIP I called ‘sovereign grace’; the more tentative users of TULIP, I called ‘apologetic’ in the sense of ‘commending’.
After examining fifteen twentieth and early twenty-first century advocates of Calvinism (see my table at pages 93-95 of Ten Myths), i.e. both ‘sovereign grace’ and ‘apologetic’ writers, it was plain that there was no one employing TULIP before Loraine Boettner in 1932. B.B. Warfield (1851-1921), the famous Calvinist theologian at Princeton, though included in my survey of writers, had not. What should one make of this? Well then, perhaps Boettner had borrowed this from some nineteenth century writer still popular in his student days? But I could not find TULIP in Spurgeon, in Robert Dabney and a whole range of other British and North American writers of that century. And when I looked back to the turn of the eighteenth into the nineteenth century, I reached the same conclusion. But what did it all mean?
I had not proved that Boettner had ‘invented’ TULIP; I could only show that he was an early and successful popularizer of this acronym. It was only after 2008, when I published as an essay in the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology what I had delivered as a paper in the 2006 Evangelical Theological Society, that the next ‘layer of the onion’ came off. With the kind help of Justin Taylor, who publicized the existence of my SBET essay on his blog, “Between Two Worlds”, two independent sleuths came forward to help me. Ched Spellman, a student at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Bart Byl, a computer technician in Vancouver, independently located (with the help of Google Books) a 1913 magazine, The Outlook, in which an author, William Vail, described both how he had heard a lecture on TULIP in 1905 in Newark, N.J. and how he had later canvassed some leading Presbyterian ministers and theologians of his day on the question. The answers he garnered showed something which squared with the larger implication of the evidence I had previously surveyed. Vail’s respondents took considerable liberty in defining TULIP as they saw fit. Some made plain that they did not endorse it; in each case there were considerable variations in how the letters of TULIP were matched with doctrines. (Some believed that U stood for ‘universal sovereignty’) The only letter of the acronym to which a constant meaning was assigned was P for perseverance of the saints. And so, the implication became plainer than ever that what we have taken to be the fixed meaning of TULIP is in fact, the meaning assigned by Boettner in 1932. [The Outlook article forms an appendix at the end of Ten Myths].
What Does This New Interpretation Change?
Now some people collect old stamps, old postcards –memorabilia of all kinds. I am not one of them. But I hope you can see that this is not a ‘memorabilia’ or ‘trivia’ question. Do we understand that since 1932, Boettner’s assigned meanings for the TULIP acronym have been accepted simply as the intended meaning of Dordt (300 years earlier)? And do we understand that we have too often judged the orthodoxy of other Reformed believers by something which proves to have been only Boettner’s improvisation? It gets worse…
I noted above that a good number of modern Calvinist writers (those I have termed ‘apologetic’) have worked very hard (and commendably) to place TULIP in as positive a light as possible. They have had to explain what T (for Total) means and does not mean and what L (for Limited) means and does not mean. One, in particular has pointed out, further, that I (for Irresistable) actually misrepresents Dordt’s intention about the way God’s grace operates. It was Dordt’s critics who deliberately misrepresented the Calvinists as teaching that grace forces sinners to repent and believe. They taught no such thing! So, the efforts to ‘improve’ TULIP were all well-intentioned. But the simple fact is that there was never anything sacrosanct about this acronym to begin with. Dordt didn’t design it. No one had heard of it (evidently) until it was coined in 1905 in Newark. Refining and buffing up TULIP was not actually required. We can let it go, because it never was authentic. Dordt took positions, but its positions are not accurately summarized by this acronym.
If you take the long view, you might come to the conclusion (which I draw) that TULIP has not only been unfortunate (in that it was for too long awarded the weight of antiquity) but also has been pastorally harmful. It should matter to us (for example) that previous to 1905 the only Calvinists who cared to speak of Christ’s atonement as ‘Limited’ were those who by doing so opened themselves to the charge of being hyper-Calvinist. Spurgeon denounced this viewpoint in Vol. 1 of his autobiography (p.173). What is at stake is the free offer of the gospel; that requires an adequate atonement. Dordt had insisted that the death of Christ was “abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world”. Traditionally, Dordt-style Calvinists had always spoken of the atonement of Christ as Definite or Particular. But not since 1932!
The lesson I take from all this is that TULIP-lovers everywhere (and this American-rooted ‘exotic’ plant has now been transplanted to much of the rest of the evangelical world) owe it to themselves to read the Canons of Dordt and to judge for themselves how (un)faithful the acronym is to their actual intent. They should also read the literature (Reformed confessions and guides to them) belonging to the churches which stand in the stream of church life which produced Dordt in the first place.[Start by looking here: http://www.crcna.org/pages/dort_canons_main.cfm]. This advice is especially timely if your interest in Reformed theology draws no particular support from the official doctrinal stance of the church you are involved in.
I realize now, as I did not when I began to read Calvinist books while a college student, that those first guides I relied on actually got me off on the wrong foot. There were fundamental questions of accuracy and authenticity which needed to be asked but were not. Here I am, decades later, wishing clarity had been offered sooner!
Kenneth J. Stewart is professor of theological studies and former chair of the department of biblical and theological studies at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He holds an M.Phil. in early modern European history from the University of Waterloo and a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century Christianity from the University of Edinburgh. He is the author of Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition.