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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)

Interesting thought provoking article. I agree with much of what Muller writes here. The baptist doctrine misses Calvin's and the reformed exposition of the covenant of grace as administered before the Incarnation and after the Incarnation. The premil and dispensational doctrines do the same thing in a similar way. The careful exegesis of Colossians, Romans, Galatians, Hebrews, etc as they reveal the covenant of grace all are very much a fundamental part of the definition reformed and Calvinistic. At the same time, I really appreciate Dr. Macarthur and others who generally confess and preach the five points and the five solas in contrast to what usually passes for sound doctrine in baptist circles, even if they think that Calvin would have ditched his view of the OT NT for a copy of "Left Behind." People are funny.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCraig Phelps

Paedobaptism is taught explicitly by the Reformed confessions (Heidelberg: Lord's Day 25 and 26, Westminster: Chapters 27 and 28, Belgic: articles 33 and 34) So, it seems that if "Reformed" is defined according to what is taught in the confessions then Paedobaptism is in fact a "reformed" distinctive.


"Confessionalist" is okay with me. But it seems that this can refer to any of the confessions popular during the Reformation period (that clearly do not line up with the 3 Forms and Westminster). Maybe "Historic Reformed Confessionalists" or "HaRCs!" I don't know. ;)

Back to the books. Late.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris Coleman

Good point about confessionalism. During the Reformation, that was a given; there were no Reformed who were not confessional.

However, I must make an important correction to what you said: Reformed Christianity did not “shed the label '\catholic.” This is a very important point in order to understand what “Reformed” is.

We are the catholic Church. We are not sectarians, schismatics, independents, modern evangelicals, baptists, or anything of that sort. We are not the apostate “Roman” Catholic Church – term which, as Calvin rightly pointed out, is oxymoronic in that it localizes (in a place and in a person) a church supposed to be universal. We stand in continuity with the apostolic Church, with catholic theology and with the early ecumenical creeds. We are not reinventing the wheel every Sunday, every month, year, decade, or generation. We are the catholic Church, and all of our confessional standards emphasize so – to the point of stating there is no salvation outside of this catholic Church, as Cyprian, Augustine and others argued (Belgic Confession 28).

- The Apostles Creed we recite
- Heidelberg Catechism q. 22, 54
- Westminster Confession 25
- Belgic Confession 27-32

This is something that goes beyond mere questions of labels; realizing it is crucial for understanding the historic Reformed faith, piety and practice.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza
I forgot to mention the Athanasian Creed as another important example. We recite it yearly on Trinity Sunday at Christ Reformed Church.

(We recite the Apostles Creed in our liturgy every Lord's Day, except when we recite the Nicene Creed.)
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza
I will email some of the earlier statements to you.

I have some questions from Muller's article.

If Reformed is defined by Muller then the Reformed Baptist are not Reformed neither are the group from Founders (Southern Baptist). Even Luther is disqualified.

But who is Muller to be the defining factor for who is Reformed or not?

March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
I tell people I'm a reformed confessionalist.

I've noticed that 'reformed' Baptists and other such churches have no handle on redemptive history. The infant baptism issue is just a symptom. The preaching tends to take on a one-dimensional quality that doesn't interact with the text in question, or it just moralizes it. Really, it becomes the pastor reading the issues he wants to discuss into the text. Very frustrating.
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterwalt

That is not true at all. Look at the ministry of Albert Martin! No handling on redemptive history? Just because one or two Reformed Churches is lacking in that area that doesnt mean all are lacking.

Just because some Presbyterian churches are not mission minded or not evangelistic at all doesnt mean that all Presbyterian churches are, right?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
I've been reading with great interest the about the contraversy begun by Dr. MacArthur's presentation at the Shepards' Convention.

Just wondering... If DrJMac is a council member of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals... What does he confess?

I was under the impression that council members held to one or more of the historic confessions... am I incorrect?
March 13, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKJ
Walt, I know of a local Reformed Baptist Church where the minister is going through the history of redemption in a sermon series right now.

What distnguishes Reformed Baptists from others is our adherence to the 1689 Confession (thus Reformed Baptists are 'Confessionalist'), which is almost identical to Westminster (I think you can work out where the differences are).

Since many Puritans seem to have been post-millenial, were they really 'Reformed' in Dr. Muller's sense? It would be fascinating to know. Also whether the Savoy Confession (the Congregationalist version of Westminster) counts as 'Reformed', since Muller did not mention synodical Church government as a 'point'. If it does then the 1689 Confession departs from the 'Reformed' at the one point of Baptism.
And of course we have far more in common with our Presbyterian Reformed brethren than we have with the majority of the general (Arminan) Baptists.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterThe Highland Host
Here are a couple of interesting posts dealing with reformed distinctives as they relate to reformed baptists. One about covenant theology and then an answer to a commenter more thoroughly here

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterjohnMark
Christ is in or midst!

I have learned much over the last year by listening to the WHI and reading Modern Reformation and Kim's blog.

In regards to this post I appreciated the comments of Carolyn on John Piper. There is more right with Piper than wrong. Personally I much prefer Piper over MacArthur for a number of different reasons. Would not others agree?

I also appreciated the humor of Echo's post on which name we should call ourselves. Marcelo's response to Echo's suggestion is right on point.

Thanks Kim for all the work you do.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

really good point. i agree with what you say (and souza brings some good dimension as well). i share walt's self ID as reformed confessionalist (well, you know this from some exchange on another blog!)

however, much as i am extremely tempted to "cast off" or delete the term evangelical, i don't think that would be prudent at all. that term is both biblical and historical. it may help to say that we confessionalists are evangelical (small e) but we are not Evangelicals (big E).

when we are comfortable deleting the term catholic from the Creed, then perhaps we could delete evangelical from our general nomenclature. until then, evangelical should remain a subset term for the broader "reformed confessionalist," just like calvinist, etc. are subset of a much richer understanding.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
The 1689 Confession is Reformed, as Andy says, but for one point which I believe at the end of the day even with the very most Reformed people I know consider it a secondary issue. Well secondary until church membership becomes an issue. I am somewhat offended by Walts comment that some think they Reformed Baptist are incorrectly label as not preaching the word correctly. Have you listened to some of these Bapist. My husband happens to be one of those SBCers who is Reformed and holds to the historic confessions. He preaches verse by verse expostionally exegeting the text. Sunday mornings we are going through Matthew,Sunday evenings Genesis, Wednesday evenings Hebrews, and he takes seriously the fact that you can't seperate redemptive history from old to new that you must teach it from beginning to end. I quess if I am not one of the fold, so to speak, I should just be most greatful to God that he claims me as his own and I stand totally on the whole council of God. At the end of the day our names we give ourselve or of no worth just mans way of pointing to our differences.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
This is my first post on the current debate surrounding the MacArthur message. I greatly appreciate the asticle on "Who is Reformed?" As one who is a Baptist it is my conviction that the term "Reformed Baptist" is an oxymoron if there ever was one and having spent a number of years in the Reformed Baptist movement I am convinced they are nothing more than "wanna be" presbyterians. I have many close friends who are not baptists and have graduated nyself ftom a Weslyan and a Presbyterian school. I could only wish that my Reforned Baptist friends were as consistent in their theology and doctrine as ny non-baist friends. Only tine will tell, but maybe MacArthur has done us a favor and will force Baptists to finally get serious about the whole counsel of God and seek to apply it consistently as they work out their distinctives.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSkylinerfan
Wannabe Presbyterians? Gosh this thread's getting ugly! I shall therefore count to fifty before continuing this post.
Right. First of all, I hold no brief for any modern 'movement', not 'Evangelicalism', not 'Fundementalism', and not a 'Reformed Baptist Movement'. The greatest problem with modern Evangelicalism, dare I say it, is that it is sold on 'movements'. 'Movements' suffer from being outside the Church and imposing their will on the Church, not the other way around. Obviously you speak from experience. I can only speak from mine that I have come through the 'wannabe Presbyterian' stage and am now a confirmed Strict and Particular Baptist. It is unfortunate that these words are misunderstood today, as if they were not I would gladly leave the 'Reformed' label to Presbyterians.

It interests me, by the way, that Muller does not define Synodical Church government as a 'point' of being Reformed. Does he want to keep John Owen and Thomas Goodwin as 'Reformed', I wonder? But if amillenialism is a 'point' then David Brown the commentator, despite being a Scots Presbyterian, wasn't 'Reformed' (since he was post-mil). And the Bonar Brothers (historic pre-mil) weren't either!
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterThe Highland Host
Highland Host,

Thank you for your response. I have long believed that there had to be a better term to describe Baptists who have not given in to cov theology. I also firmly believe that Baptists can espouse a biblical soteriology without become classic covenant theologians. Sometimes I fear we so desire to be accepted in the "reformed" camp that we are willing to give up many of our distinctives. If Dr. MacArthur feels that the millennial question is part of these distincctives then I applaud him for the courage to say so.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSkylinerfan
OK. I'm historic pre-mil, I have a god-daughter, and I attend a seminary with strongly reformed theology.

And I'm Baptist.

My church is affiliated with both the SBC and the Acts29 network, and our teaching elder (one of six elders) is preaching through Matthew -- we've been there for about 15 or 16 months and we're just over halfway through it. He and our entire elder team hold to all the doctrines of Grace. Our worship, which varies in style from week to week, and our liturgy both emphasize that we gather to respond to God who has reached down to us in our helplessness. We take communion every week, including wine (believe it or not), and our pastors call it "this sacred meal." We follow the liturgical calendar.

What does this make me? Am I reformed enough for you all, or should I wait around for further discussion and a final vote? *sigh*
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLaura Roberts
Laura we have some differences but I think you and I are in the same boat - I hope we will be told what we are if we are not Reformed.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
Ha Ha, what goes around comes around...this tempest in a teapot sounds alot like the days when those crazy fundamentalists refused to hold truck with anyone who didn't cross their "t's" and dot their "i's" like them. So now the reformed follow along after them in their own peculiar way. Sigh.. cough, cough.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTimotheos
uh-oh, laura. you serve wine whilst affiliated with the sbc? i thought they finally made de facto their de jure legalism recently?

and in general, what's with all the hub-bub and latent sour grapes by baptists who hear themselves as "not being reformed"? i get the sense that it would not be the same if a lutheran said they are not lutherans. why is the term "reformed" assumed to be so reductionistic and applicable to to those outside the tradition? is it a myopic hold on that subset called "calvinism"? why can't baptists be content to say they are baptists?

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim

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