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Why John MacArthur Is Not "Reformed"

Richard Muller.jpgJohn MacArthur's opening lecture at the Shepherd's Conference created two main points of contention.  The first has to do with the on-going debate over eschatology (specifically the millennial question).  MacArthur--who is an ardent dispensationalist--stated and defended his position.  That's OK and no one is surprised or upset about that.  But people are upset because MacArthur so badly misrepresented amillennialism, and because he defined "premillennialism" as though it were dispensationalism.  Not true.  The loud howls of protest to MacArthur's dispensationalism coming from historical premillennarians is proof.  We'll talk more about this matter in the coming days.

The second point of contention is MacArthur's questionable attempt to co-opt "Calvinism" from amillenniarians and claim it for the dispensationalists.  This is seen in MacArthur's remarkable claim that amillennialism is inherently "Arminian." 

As I thought about drafting a response to this claim, it occured to me that it has already been done.  In 1993, Richard Muller--who was my Ph.D. dissertation advisor and acknowledged by all as the leading authority on Reformed scholasticism and Calvin (Click here: The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (Oxford Studies in His)--published a short essay entitled, "How Many Points?"

In this essay, Muller demonstrates why people like MacArthur are not Reformed.  MacArthur may hold to the "five points", but Muller shows why MacArthur is not "Reformed" nor a "Calvinist" in any meaningful or historical sense of those terms.

Before you read Muller's essay, please remember that the issue he's tackling is not whether those outside the Reformed churches are truly Christians (they are, if they are trusting in Christ).  Muller is not saying that they have nothing good to contribute to the cause of Christ, nor any other such thing. 

The specific issue Muller tackles is "who is Reformed?"  And John MacArthur is not.


How Many Points?

By Richard A. Muller (and published here with his kind permission) 

I once met a minister who introduced himself to me as a "five-point Calvinist." I later learned that, in addition to being a self-confessed five-point Calvinist, he was also an anti-paedobaptist who assumed that the church was a voluntary association of adult believers, that the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely "ordinances" of the church, that there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton, and that the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ's Second Coming but before the ultimate end of the world. He recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way. I also found out that he regularly preached the "five points" in such a way as to indicate the difficulty of finding assurance of salvation: He often taught his congregation that they had to examine their repentance continually in order to determine whether they had exerted themselves enough in renouncing the world and in "accepting" Christ. This view of Christian life was totally in accord with his conception of the church as a visible, voluntary association of "born again" adults who had "a personal relationship with Jesus."

In retrospect, I recognize that I should not have been terribly surprised at the doctrinal context or at the practical application of the famous five points by this minister — although at the time I was astonished. After all, here was a person, proud to be a five-point Calvinist, whose doctrines would have been repudiated by Calvin. In fact, his doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of "Calvinism" at any time during the late sixteenth or the seventeenth century. Perhaps more to the point, his beliefs stood outside of the theological limits presented by the great confessions of the Reformed churches—whether the Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformed church or the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism of the Dutch Reformed churches or the Westminster standards of the Presbyterian churches. He was, in short, an American evangelical.

To read the rest of this essay, Click here: Riddleblog - "How Many Points?"

References (1)

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Reader Comments (207)

wow, that's a must read! what a gem of an article to consume--thanks! muller is quite edifying here for those who constantly wonder what being Reformed really means in our american context.

i have received harsh words before when offering the following ink-blot test along these lines. inasmuch as muller's pastor friend seems to comport nicely with the long and short of american evangelicalism in so many ways, i usually find the answer to this telling: "is the phenomenon of billy graham mainly a beneficial thing or a problematic one"? those with the aforementioned sympathies answer in the former, while those with a "churchly, reformed and confessional" ethic such as muller descibes so well seem to answer in the latter. and the rarity of the latter answer from those who would have us to believe they claim the tradition is also bothersome.

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
What a wonderful summary of Reformed theology. Thank you for posting it.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJohn
Hello Dr. Riddlebarger,
Thanks for the article, it was a good read. I honestly don't understand every single sentence but what I can understand, I mostly agree.

I guess its clear the terms "Reformed" and "Calvinism" have shifted in meaning in contemporary times like the term "Evangelical", maybe not that bad.

I am quite intrigued by Reformed understanding of relationship with Christ, about it not being personal in the way its usually understood, I wasn't aware of this. Any good books or articles on this?

I also think from Scripture but not anywhere near sure that both baptism and circumcision are seals of the same work God has done for His people in Christ for their respective eras(Old and New Testament). Would I be right in saying baptism today for the children of believers work in the same way as the circumcision of Abraham's children Ismael and Issac(similarly Issac's Jacob and Esau)?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSomeoneElse
Outstanding. Muller says so much in such a short space. But I guess that wasn't so short.

I think it's Hywel Jones who likes to respond to "Are you a five point Calvinist?" with, "No, I'm a 50 point Calvinist"
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRick B.
Muller, indeed is "Reformed", MacArthur, indeed, is not. MacArthur's perspective, hermeneutically is very incongruent--since in my view the 5 points flow naturally from a particular view of the relationship between law and gospel--which takes the most coherent shaped as framed by "covenant theology" contra dispensationalism. And I'm actually an dispensationalist (progressive that is).
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBobby Grow
Well, after plowing my way through 196 replies on that recent thread that started about MacArthur, and which for the most part turned into a heated debate about whether or not Reformed Baptists are really reform, and whether one can be or not be truly reform if they practice believer baptism instead of infant baptism....

I suppose it would be redundant to comment here :)

I will say though, that the Reformed Baptists on that thread did a VERY good job defending their position both doctrinally and historically- that one can be truly Reform AND Baptist...although being reform, amil,and baptist myself I am no doubt biased :)

Being such a Riddlebarger fan I suppose it is good to have strong disagreement occasionally :)

Ya know, what came to mind as I read this is that probably no other person in the USA has had a greater impact on the masses, as far as introducing people to all the greats of the reformation- their biographies, their doctrines- than John Piper. And in addition to being baptist, he is premil, or so I've heard. He's almost single handedly set a nuclear bomb into the younger generations arminianism.

I cringe a little when articles like this just dismiss guys like Piper as not being Reform. I understand their thinking, but 48 points instead of 50 ought to count for something in todays dispy,arminian, "church growth strategy"nation of error.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
The Reformed tradition has to be THEE most God-honoring system around, and this article is a great example of that. THIS is why I'm attracted to the Reformed faith. Great essay, Mr. Muller!
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTyler
That was amazing! It read like a prosecutor's closing argument. What a communicator!
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterwapner
Reformed Theology must be defined by the teachings of the confessions: Heidelberg, Belgic, Dordt and Westminster. Go here for Reformed Theology before anything else.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris Coleman
I wonder... Are the post-mil or historical pre-mil positions taught anywhere in the Reformed confessions? If not, maybe we should throw them out of the Reformed camp along with the Baptists? How about old-earth creationists? Where do we draw the line?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDave
Is there any place online where one can read more of Dr. Muller's writings?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterC-Rod
When I read the title I thought this was a post from R. Scott Clark on the Heidelblog. Good to see someone else doesn't think the term reformed is infinitely elastic.

Dave, the reformed confessions are generally interpreted to allow postmil and historic premil, but they contradict dispensationalism. Some believe the Westminster Standards disallows old-earth creationism.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterScott Roper
Everything in the New Testament is viewed through the lens of eschatology. If you don't have that right, what do you have?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterwalt
Westminster (confession, longer, and shorter catechism) at seven places speaks of creation in six days...seens a bit odd to think there is a way around a young earth read, but hey, I know a number of ordained PCA elders that have this as their exceptions to the Westminster standards.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdgg
The OPC's Minutes of the Seventy-First General Assembly (June 2-8, 2004) gives a report on Creation and how the Westminster Standards defined "six days of creation." On page 258 the assembly concludes the following: "There is no known evidence that the framers of the Westminster Standards intended to prescribe that the duration of the creation days must be confessed to be days of twenty-four hours in length."

All this to say, again, that Reformed Theology should be defined by what is taught in the confessions.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris Coleman
Great article! And, if I understand Dr.Muller correctly, then John MacArthur is not only not Reformed, he is no Calvainist, either.

Thanks, Dr. Riddlebarger, for making this available to us.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRon
Reformed theology is MUCH more then the" 5 points". Thanks Pastor Kim.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDan

I removed your post because it was completely off topic. Geocentrism and creation is not what this thread is about.


I think you understand Muller correctly. In fact, that is his basic point.


Please keep on topic. If you have questions, email them to me.
March 13, 2007 | Registered CommenterKim Riddlebarger
I am Southern Baptist, totally a 5 point Calvinist, consider myself Reformed and Covenantal in Theology, Like JM but do know he isn't Reformed but to believe him to hold to the 5 points and do not agree with is dispy position or his push of it.
Question -- are some or all of you saying as the article seems to state that if you are not paedo that you can't be reformed or a 5 pointer. I must say I do believe that you must be a 5 pointer to be Reformed I don't believe in someone saying they are a 4 pointer or other....just wanting clarification regarding baptism etc.

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

You know, we had to shed the label "catholic" during the reformation. Today, we must forsake the term "evangelical" and call ourselves "Calvinists", as J. Gresham Machen said. But since "Calvinist" has come to mean a thousand things, as has been pointed out already, we are pushed to use a different term, namely "reformed".

But it's starting to see like we're going to have to give up that label too, if we really want to distinguish ourselves, as we have always sought to do.

For example, I learned recently that there's a difference between a Calvinistic Baptist and a Reformed Baptist. I don't know quite what that difference is, but I am informed that there is a difference.

So I say, we reformed should perhaps cast off this label too, sadly, in favor of something else. I don't know what that might be, but the Riddleblog is as good a place as any to discuss it.

How about "Confessional"? We can refer to ourselves as the "Confessionalists", and say that we are "Confessional".

Or maybe one fine day the URC and the OPC will merge, and we'll bring the WCF and the 3 forms under one head, and all of these will be subsumed under one name. What would that name be?

Well, even though I'm OPC, I think I'm going to start replacing "reformed" with "confessional", and I'll call myself a "confessionalist." "Reformed" has lost its meaning, just as "Calvinist" and "Evangelical" has and as "catholic" has.

Adieu, confessionalists!
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEcho_ohcE

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