Ten Myths about Calvinism:
Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition

A Book Review (Part 1)

August 3, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

The subject of Calvinism and Reformed Theology has been one of the “hottest” topics in the evangelical world generally, and among Southern Baptists in particular. Ten Myths about Calvinism[1] makes a valuable contribution to that dialogue. It is authored by Kenneth Stewart, a professor of theological studies at Covenant College in Georgia, who embraces Reformed Theology but writes with balance and fairness that is missing many times in this discussion.

Four Myths that Calvinists Propagate, But Should Not

Of the ten “myths” about Calvinism that Stewart proposes, the first four are myths he believes that Calvinists are circulating, but they should not be doing so.  These four Calvinist-propounded myths are:
(1) that one man (John Calvin) and one city (Geneva) is determinative of all of Calvinism,
(2) that Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours,
(3) that the ‘TULIP” is an appropriate yardstick concerning who is truly Reformed in theology, and
(4) that Calvinists take a dim view of revival and awakening.

Myth 1:  One man (John Calvin) and one city (Geneva) is determinative of all of Calvinism.

Regarding the first “myth,” Stewart builds a convincing and well-documented case that Calvin’s writings were impactful in his own day, but no more so than Reformed leaders of other Swiss cantons.  Calvin’s theological impact had “actually gone into eclipse by the late sixteenth century” (p. 29), and a hybrid form of “Anglo-Calvinism” that had blended with other traditions had emerged (p. 29). Indeed, even in Geneva, Anglican evangelical writer Thomas Haweis remarked in 1800 that “I doubt if there remains a single professor or pastor at Geneva who adheres to Calvin” (p. 25); and British visitor Henry Drummond was unable to find a single volume of Calvin’s Institutes available for sale in Geneva in 1817 (p. 31). It was Victorian England that brought a resurgence in interest in Calvin’s thought by republishing and promulgating his works.  In tracing the influence of the other Reformed thinkers other than Calvin himself, Stewart is, as the subtitle of the book indicates, attempting to recover the full breadth of the Reformed tradition.

Myth 2: Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours.

Stewart also provides compelling evidence to debunk the second “myth,” that Calvin’s view of predestination must be ours. First of all, Stewart traces the development of the doctrine of predestination in Calvin’s own thought.  In the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin endorsed only a modest “consolatory” perspective on predestination, that is, as an assurance of the salvation of believers (p. 49); and a confession penned by Calvin in the same year (1536) to which all the residents of Geneva had to subscribe did not even mention predestination or election (p. 49). It was only after Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva and his contact with the higher predestination view of Martin Bucer in Strasbourg that Calvin took a stronger stance on predestination (pp. 51-56). Key second-generation Reformed leaders such as Heinrich Bullinger and Peter Martyr Vermigli soft-pedaled Calvin’s perspective on predestination, particularly with regard to unbelievers.  It was largely the third generation of Reformed thinkers (principally Theodore Beza and William Perkins) who developed and popularized the stronger Reformed view of predestination (pp. 57-63).  However, most standard Reformed confessions follow Bullinger and the softer “consolatory” view of predestination, namely the Formula of Concord of 1577 (in Lutheranism), the Articles of the Church of England (1547, 1563), the Belgic Confession of 1559, the Scots Confession of 1560, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563, and the Second Helvetic Confession of 1566 (pp. 63-65).

Myth 3: The ‘TULIP” acronym is an appropriate yardstick concerning who is truly Reformed in theology.

It is Stewart’s third “myth” (that the “TULIP” acrostic is not regulative of what is or is not legitimate Reformed Theology) that has garnered the most comment about this book, and is probably its greatest contribution. Stewart notes that the “sovereign grace” school of Calvinism has considered the TULIP as a “sacrosanct” historical formula, while the “apologetic” school of Calvinism attempted to alter and reword the acrostic to soften its negative impact on non-Calvinist hearers. Stewart asserts, however, that both of these schools are “unwittingly working from a mistaken premise,” namely the “unwarranted belief” and “common assumption that the acronym TULIP is itself historic” (pp. 76-77).  Stewart traces how Calvinist theologians in the seventeenth and eighteenth century addressed the five doctrines arising from the Synod of Dort utilizing a variety of terms, and none used the TULIP acrostic.  The use of the TULIP acrostic as we now know it does not appear in the record until the twentieth century. The earliest published references are in a periodical article by R. M. Vail in 1913 (reprinted in the appendix of this book), which Vail took from some lectures by a Dr. McAfee in 1905 2(pp. 291-292).  The earliest best-known published source Stewart found (pp. 78-79, 86-87) was Loraine Boettner’s 1932 book The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination. However, even Boettner warned against “a too close identification of the Five Points and the Calvinist system.”[2] Stewart provides a useful chart summarizing how each of the major Reformed theologians in the last few decades has utilized the TULIP (pp. 93-95).  Since Stewart asserts that the TULIP acronym is built on a misunderstanding of the historical basis of this acronym, he challenges the “slavish, unquestioning loyalty” to the five points (p. 87).  Noting that various Reformed confessions do not align with the five points of the TULIP, Stewart boldly states, “Calling the paraphrasing of Dordt by TULIP a broad-brush approach is arguably too kind. TULIP cannot be allowed to function as a creed” (p. 93).

Myth 4: Calvinists take a dim view of revivals and awakenings.

Stewart does not build as strong a historical basis for the fourth “myth,” that Calvinists take a dim view of revivals and awakenings.  While he notes the involvement of some Calvinists in various awakenings and revivals, he must also list others who opposed the awakenings and revivals. For the most part, Stewart is offering only a moderately convincing apology for Calvinism in this chapter.  The same is true for the next chapter, the first of six myths that non-Calvinists should not be circulating, but they are. Somewhat related to Myth 4, Myth 5 asserts that Calvinism is largely antimissionary. Stewart’s evidence is rather anecdotal, listing a few well-known Calvinist missionaries but never providing adequate evidence that this was true of Calvinism as a whole.  Stewart also drifts off-target in this chapter by addressing the missionary efforts of Catholics, Lutherans, and others, which does little to establish his premise about the missions efforts of Calvinists

In addition to myth (5) that Calvinism is largely antimissionary, the other myths that non-Calvinists propagate are:
(6) Calvinism is antinomian,
(7) Calvinism promotes theocracy,
(8) Calvinism undermines the creative arts,
(9) Calvinism resists gender equity, and
(10) Calvinism has engendered racial inequality.

These will be the subject of the next post.

[1] Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011).

[2] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1932), 59, cited in Stewart, p. 88.

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Tim Rogers

Dr. Lemke,

So, “T-U-L-I-P” is approximately 100 years old. Wow, that is really not that old in the historical world of Christendom. Also, it is astounding to me that we have an entire movement within the SBC that regulates conservative doctrine by the number of points one adheres within this acronym.


Steve G

great article Dr. Lemke.

Ken Stewart

Dear Steve Lemke:
Thanks for drawing attention to my IVP book. As you continue the review, perhaps it will prove helpful to recall that in the first instance, I wrote the book as a conservative Presbyterian to other Presbyterian and Reformed people. Yet I was conscious that the book lent itself to wider applications in broader evangelical Christianity. If the audience for which I wrote the book will take it to heart, Calvinism in future will be more circumspect, less triumphalist, and value irenicism more. The most-contested question is that of which of many competing voices in print and blogland will dominate in defining this resurgent movement now and in future. I give out my cautions in the closing epilogue.

Les Puryear

I did not know the historical genesis of TULIP. Just assumed that it was part of Dort. Dr. Lemke is a gift to the SBC.

I think if the people in the pew knew what was going on with Calvinism and Reformed theology, they would rise up as one voice in massive protest. Perhaps it’s time to tell them.


Dave Miller

Are you guys sell adds in your verification system now? My anti-spam word was “ikea” – do I get free furniture.

Dr. Lemke, this is an excellent and helpful article. Thank you.

Scott P.

As a reformed Calvinist, I certainly take a dim view of revivalism and awakenings. Certainly the second but near equally the first.


Dr. Lemke,

Thank you for directing us all to this book and well presented critique.

I hope that those who find that the TULIP only ‘came to be’ in the last hundred years will hold out as much grace as they do for those who adhere to the dispensational pre-millennial eschatology which has its own genesis within the last 100-150 years.

It is very good to note that this presentation comes from one within a more traditional Reformed denomination. His critique of the Calvinist camp is good. I hope our non-Calvinist brothers will take his critique of them equally as well as they appear to be taking this first set.


Steve Lemke

Dr. Stewart,
Thanks for your comments. I did mention your Reformed identity in the first paragraph, along with an appreciation for your fairness. You’ll see in the second part of the review that I am highly recommending your book. I’ll deal with the issues that you believe non-Calvinists raise inappropriately in the second section, as well as your concluding recommendations. As a partial Calvinist Baptist, I’ll disagree with one of the myths, but I believe you have built a good case on the other issues. It’s a well-documented and well-written book, and an important book, and I’ll be recommending here and in a similar forthcoming review in the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.

Steve Lemke

If you take a dim view of revivals and awakenings, I would encourage you to read Stewart’s chapter on that myth for a rationale of why Calvinists might reconsider such a stance.

S. A.,
I agree that eschatological views should be held with some humility. Hopefully, our new book The Return of Christ: A Premillennial Perspective advocates such an eschatological position without any threat of breaking fellowship with believers who have differing perspectives.
The second part of my review will deal with the six myths that Stewart believes are propagated by non-Calvinists without due justification. I’ll also address, as Dr. Stewart alludes to in his note above, his conclusion is that Calvinists should be more aware of the diversity within their own tradition, be more irenic, be more circumspect about their claims, and reject triumphalism. I think these are good things for those in the Reformed tradition (and probably any theological tradition) to take seriously.

Steve Lemke

We would have asked for “Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd,” the Swedish words for which IKEA is the abbreviation, but we were afraid not many of our readers knew Swedish. . .

Dr. James Willingham

It has been my experience that I came to each one of the five points of the TULIP Acrostic by bits and pieces. Beginning with Total Depravity, Total Inability. It takes awhile to be able to see the evidence in the biblical statements for this truth, although it is there. Just note the idea in the word, “can”. It involves specifically the idea of ability. Thus, when Jesus says, “No man can come to me” (Jn.6:44, 65), he was basically saying no one has the ability to come. That ability was lost in the Fall, in the first sin. Other statements buttress the idea of inability. For example, spiritual deadness, that is, being dead in trespasses and sins, certainly implies, to say the very least, that man is no longer able to respond. Witnessing to the lost, inviting them to respond, is like crying out to a graveyard of dead people to live. The inanity is apparent. Even sto we do invite and command people to respond. Why ask the lost to come, to trust, to believe? It is to make them acquainted with the fact of their inability. Jesus said to one, “If you can believe.” The man responded, “I believe.” Then he realized his inability and made it the basis of his response: “Help my unbelief,” that is, overcome my unbelief. The command to repent, for instance, is a like a therapeutic paradox, designed to bring home to the person the sad and sore nature of his or her situation. Paradoxical intervention is the reality of the Gospel of Sovereign Grace and everyone of the truths taught in it. Limited Atonement is meant to win a million, million worlds (will man go to the stars or has he already gone?). The most intense evangelistic invitations are these truths, totally the opposite of what even most of its adherents think. It is the foolishness of the Gospel; it is the Goose that Laid the Gold Egg, the Lost Masterpiece, for this preaching produced the First and Second Great Awakenings and the launching of the Great Century of Missions.

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