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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)

I just read the comments, I think from now on I am just going sit and read you guys.

Just one question for the reformed confessionalists, I understand to some extent why you seek to defend the term "reformed" from becoming too elastic than its historical meaning but at the same time what label would you give to common points between traditional reformed confessions and particular baptist confession like 1689?

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterSomeoneElse
This entire discussion represents an attempt to shift the mean. What I meant was, 'reformed' baptists aren't prone to using covenant theology, which is essential. A pastor spending a series going through the history of redemption proves my point. The history of redemption is essential to every Biblical text. It provides context, which is how I'm able to tell unbelievers that Christians don't do holy war or execute homosexuals or stone adulterers. Dispensationalism has no grasp of the concept of covenant theology.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterwalt
I ain't got a home.


I think its b/c those who get it right on baptism and soteriology (read "credo-baptists who hold to the 5 points) want to be distinguished from so much of the theology of other baptists. We're looking for a home but can't seem to find one.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJim

...and "no place to roam," as well?

yes, i have always figured it must be so hard for certain baptists who don't read that term to be synonymous with the rampant arminianism (read: evangelicalism) to be able to land anywhere. but your answer still seems to "make too much" of the soteriological dimension, i think. it's a vital dimension, don't get me wrong. but the focus seems odd to me, perhaps much the same way the sacramental focus of baptists brings up another question...

i have always also wondered why (most) baptists want to be considered "simply reformed believers who don't baptize their children," seeming to downplay the admin of the sacraments, as if the sacramental dimension were of little import. this is always the sense i get when speaking to them or hearing them speak, and they tend to make we reformed "sticklers" when we say this is a mark of the true chruch, etc.

yet their very name strongly suggests that they see this as a theological dimension worthy to divide. the name itself makes it loud and clear that this dimension matters. yet...they also seem to have a low view of the sacraments anyway. is that due to being more historically descended from the Anabpatists? or is my experience with more american evangelical made baptists thann with more "confessional" ones?

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
Carolyn - John Piper is as premill, but doesn't class himself as dispensational.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChris Stiles

I am encouraged by your post. How wonderful for you to be a member of a Southern Baptist church where its pastors & elders strive to lead their congregation by preaching, teaching, and practicing their original, confessional distinctives.

What you're describing reflects who and what Southern Baptists devoted themselves to become at the time of their founding (The Abstract Of Principles, 1858). To that extent, your congregation is a "reformed" Baptist church.

May your numbers increase!

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRon
It sure would be interesting to hear Rev. Ken Jones chime in huh?
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenternobody
(Thank you Chris.)

I wonder if "50 point" Reformed Confessionalists, or whatever you want to call yourselves now, are aware that Baptists dedicate their babies to the Lord. It is done up front, with prayer, the parents take a vow to train up the child according to the word of God, and often the congregation makes a vow to be good example to the child ( and all the children). Sometimes they lay hands on the kid and parents. I've seen it done in a few different styles.

The dedication of Jesus ( Luke 2:22) happened the 40th day, it was a redemption ritual, you can look it up.

Baptists dedicate their babies in hope of the glorious promises to our children. But they wait until regeneration and faith to baptize.

You can argue until you turn blue about what being reform is, fine.

But stop accusing Baptists of having no grasp of covenant theology. I bet Mary and Joseph understood the covenant just fine when they dedicated baby Jesus. Such accusations are - well- disgusting.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
Thank you Laura and Carolyn for your post - my husband and I are praying daily as he leads our church back to a truly Reformed Baptist Church - being SBC makes it slow in coming but to see the week by week change that God does through his Word is wonderful. Blessings to All
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
I guess it shows that people admire Reformed theologians so much that they want to attach that label to themselves. You know what though - I may admire the label "Harvard Alum" a great deal too, but unless my diploma is from there, how accurate is it for me to claim that title?

Thanks zrim and Chris C for continuing to point us to the REFORMED confessions for help in defining whether one is Reformed or not. There are some other confessions out there which espouse theological points which are similar to those of the REFORMED Confessions (e.g., the Particular Baptist "1689 London Confession" and the "Savoy Declaration") but none of these can properly be called "Reformed" as they differ from the Reformed confessions on such things as sacraments and ecclesiology.

When are we just playing word games and changing definitions to suit the labels which we want to claim? What if I wanted to call myself an Anglican even though I don't hold to the 39 articles? Folks, part of doing good theology is using precise and accurate labels.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew C
Dedicating babies?

Would some of our Baptist brothers and sisters please jump in and show that this logic is conceeding a large part of your argument to the paedobaptists?

Sorry Carolyn, I don't think you want to go down that road! It ends up in Geneva!

Just a correction: Jesus was not “dedicated” as evangelicals do today. He was circumcised on the eight day (as the previous verse indicates) and then the family, according to the Law, was to come to the temple at the completion of the purification of Mary (40 days) and offer a one year old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering (or, if the family was poor, as in their case, they were to take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, the one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering, cf. Lev. 12:6-8).

They were also required by the Law to set apart the firstborn, devote him to the LORD and redeem him at the temple (Ex. 13:2, 12, 15). This was not required of the other children, only of the firstborn, for reasons explained in Exodus and fulfilled in Christ.

So, as you see, this has nothing to do with “baby dedication” as modern evangelicals and Baptists have decided to do. There is no historical precedent for this practice of “dedication” for about 1600 years. Besides, I can’t “dedicate” people to the Lord, especially those who have not professed faith in him! I can’t dedicate my pagan neighbor to the Lord, even if he agreed to go to church with me and be “dedicated” just to make me feel better. If you want to argue that there is a distinction between the adult and the child, then you cannot be a credobaptist without self-contradiction.

I’m not really interested in getting into a debate about whether certain Baptists are Reformed (in the proper sense of the word) or not. I certainly do have a clear opinion about that, but that’s a fight I don’t want to pick here and now. I simply want to point out that Jesus was no Baptist. In fact, nobody in Jesus’ day, or even during the decades of the apostles, would have ever dreamed that children born in the covenant community were anything but full members of the covenant themselves. All members of the covenant received the sign of the covenant as they were born. Baby “dedications” would be as meaningful to them as the theory of relativity. So please do not be fooled by the wording of Luke 2:22.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza
thanks for that, marcelo, and well done.

i have always found it very connfusing to be accused by my baptist family of doing that "horrendous thing" when we had our daughters baptized because there is "no scriptural warrant for it," yet in their corporate worship they include this act called "baby dedications." but they have no scriptural warrant for it, neither do they seem to understand that they stand in relative novelty in church history.

they refused to attend our daughters' baptisms, yet we seem to be expected to celebrate yet another "niece or nephew dedicated." i have no problem attending for the sake of family civility (and do--you can bet there be an amount of "hell to pay" if we showed the same intolerant tenacity). why the same courtesy was not afforded us, while understandable, also betrays to me the relative "prejudice" many baptists can't seem to break free from. it's one thing to dig your heels in and insist on our confessional doctrines (however many points there are), quite another to not have the capacity for civility. being reformed in a family of baptists makes one have to learn that real quick.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
Thank you Marcelo and "one" for your comments.

I hope you at least understand the point I was trying to make, that those who call themselves Reform and Baptist do not limit their understanding of what Reform means to the 5 points....or the 5 points plus being amil.

Those who call themselves Reform and Baptist include many ( most?) who embrace the understandings of Covenant theology. Matter of fact I got my Mom Horton's latest book on this for her birthday...(she's baptist too.)

Now I realize that you 50 pointers will say that a FULL understanding and embracing of covenant theology will result in baby baptizing. And I don't feel like debating....there are 196 posts on page two's thread with plenty of good presentations on both sides. And yes, the parallels with Jesus being dedicated are faulty at best.

Maybe the semantics here would foster maturity and edification a little better if some of you could conceed- just a litle bit- maybe a tiny bit- that Baptists can read Horton or Clowney and think it's great....Baptists can actually, to some degree, even if you think it is limited, embrace Covenant theology. Can you at least try? I know you'll never be satisfied until the babies get sprinkled...but maybe, just maybe, we think they are sanctified because of their believing parents..even while unsprinkled.

And this is gonna shock you.....some of those kids grow up to be passionate servants of Jesus Christ even if they don't get dunked until age 8 or 12 or 14. And I've seen some 50 point presby parents weep over their grown up sprinkleds, who are walking down the broad path to destruction at the moment.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn

I am sorry for your experience. Not all Baptists are like that. We go to a PCA church, and understand the theology while remaining Baptist ( and we are not alone there). I would be honored to be invited a baby baptism, and thankful that the parents care.

Besides, junior can always do it right when he gets older :) :) :)
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
You express yourself well Carolyn. Our turning theologically was directly related to the Lord providing us opportunity to sit under RC Sproul numerous times. My husband uses Calvin, Boice, Pink, Ryken, Sproul, Barnhouse, Whitfield,Edwards, Owen, Piper, Packer , Jones etc. etc. when preparing for sermons. We participate in Founders, Alliance of Confessing Evangelical etc. I do my TableTalk Daily ..... I could go on and on we truly don't read anything that isn't Covenent/Reformed in its foundation. I only use materials that I find within reformed circles for teaching my women's Sunday School Class and other classes.
I have many PCA friend though we differ in the baptism area. Its funny but all of them share with me that baptism of infants has absolutely nothing to do with their salvation yet the one thing I am seeing here is that it has everything to do with their salvation and possible the truth is that "true" reformed people do believe in baptismal regeneration as the Catholics do after all??!! Which then leads me to consider are my PCA friends truly reformed????

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

yes, i like to think i have enough sense of things to appreciate that "not all baptists are like that." i certainly respect the audacity of some which leads them to such behaviors--means they actually believe in something. but, att he same time, some honestly don't understand how they take it too far and improperly apply their beliefs. i am sure you get me.

also, much as horton is the patron saint of my own reformed conversion and continues to be an edifying figure for me to say the very least, i am not so sure a shared adoration for a certain man's work suffices it for what it means to be reformed. for my part in answering your plea, i am not one iota amazed that "you" could be edified by certain men's works. if some others on the reformed side on this thread find such to be shocking i would find that, well, shocking. but when i took my vows upon church membership i don't recall anything like, "and do you, God helping you, think a guy like horton is great"? i would suggest you not muddy the waters with such criteria.

again, though, babies getting sprinkled (read: the sacramental dimension) is but one dimension in reformed confessionalism. Roman Catholics do that. sorry to sound like an "all or nuthin'" but at every doctrinal point we make we do actually mean it! again, i am relatively confused as to why baptists want the nomenclature of reformed. i see plenty of good stuff in lutheranism but have no need to be called lutheran. maybe you all feel impoverished in some sense? i know i did when i was in baptistic circles.

i would be really remiss not to suggest you go to the christ reformed church web site and search for KR's work on paedo-baptism, etc. it is absolutely some the best stuff out there to explain what we believe. you sound like you are a well read and studied person, so i am sure you have seen it all before. but that stuff from KR is unlike a lot of what i have read.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
Prominent Reformed theologian R. Scott Clark addresses the “breakthrough in Calvin studies coming from the San Fernando Valley.” Please see his blog:

Here’s a snippet:

(a quote from Calvin himself, whom the evangelical Bible church pastor apparently thinks would be a chiliast today):

“This fiction [chiliasm] is too puerile to need or to deserve refutation. Nor do they receive any countenance from the Apocalypse, from which it is known that they extracted a gloss for their error, (Revelation 20:4,) since the thousand years there mentioned refer not to the eternal blessedness of the Church, but only to the various troubles which await the Church militant in this world.”
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza
"Its funny but all of them share with me that baptism of infants has absolutely nothing to do with their salvation yet the one thing I am seeing here is that it has everything to do with their salvation and possible the truth is that "true" reformed people do believe in baptismal regeneration as the Catholics do after all??!! Which then leads me to consider are my PCA friends truly reformed????"

i really am pursuing these posts in all honesty, ladies. i am really quite interested in your takes on some things, so please don't take any of this as badgering, etc.

how could a sacramental regard "have nothing to do with your salvation"? to me this seems quite in keeping with the fact that american cult and culture has relatively little regard for a sacramental dimension and really sees these things as idiosyncratic. yet, we reformed include such things in our marks of the true church, and baptists must think so highly (at least historically) of it that they actually name themselves after what they believe sacramentally.

i mean, what if said my christology has nothing to do with my salvation, i believe in one God two persons and one is inferior to the other? if it "doesn't matter" then why not adopt our view and just be done with it?

i think we live in such a time that has such a low regard for something like the sacraments that people can actually utter it has nothing to do with our salvation, coupled with the idea that such a "religious" part of faith is just some polite idiosychrisy nobody *really* cares about.

and, no, no, no, we do not believe in baptismal regeneration. sorry, but, ugh, that one is like a fly in the face! where did *that come from*? just because we have a high view of the sacrament means we are somehow RC--i don't get that.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterzrim
One of the clear signs of discontinuity with the Reformed tradition is to treat the sacraments lightly. Those who think Baptism is a secondary issue, somewhat of a detail, are thinking within a framework foreign to the Reformers (and for that matter, foreign to the whole Christendom in 1600 years)

Most of the time, Baptists and evangelicals fall into the error I just described, and in this way they are clearly outside of the Reformation. Other times, more consistently, they consider the sacraments as something very serious and sacred, which therefore ought not to be abused. In this way, they consistently argue that baptism ought not to be abused by conferring it to people who have not evidenced regeneration by a confession of faith. Then again, they disagree with the all the British (both Presbyterian and Anglican), Continental, and Lutheran wings of the Reformation.

Here’s an example of the seriousness with which the Reformers took the sacrament of baptism, called the “washing of regeneration”:

Heidelberg Catechism
73. Q. Why then does the Holy Spirit call baptism the washing of regeneration and the washing away of sins?

A. God speaks in this way for a good reason. He wants to teach us that the blood and Spirit of Christ remove our sins just as water takes away dirt from the body.[1] But, even more important, He wants to assure us by this divine pledge and sign that we are as truly cleansed from our sins spiritually as we are bodily washed with water.[2]

[1] 1 Cor 6:11; Rev 1:5; 7:14. [2] Mk 16:16; Acts 2:38; Rom 6:3, 4; Gal 3:27.

74. Q. Should infants, too, be baptized?

A. Yes. Infants as well as adults belong to God's covenant and congregation.[1] Through Christ's blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults.[2] Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be grafted into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.[3] This was done in the old covenant by circumcision,[4] in place of which baptism was instituted in the new covenant.[5]

[1] Gen 17:7; Mt 19:14. [2] Ps 22:10; Is 44:1-3; Acts 2:38, 39; 16:31. [3] Acts 10:47; 1 Cor 7:14. [4] Gen 17:9-14. [5] Col 2: 11-13.

Belgic Confession article 34 (quoted in part)

[…] Thus the ministers on their part give us the sacrament and what is visible, but our Lord gives us what is signified by the sacrament, namely, the invisible gifts and grace. He washes, purges, and cleanses our souls of all filth and unrighteousness,[9] renews our hearts and fills them with all comfort, gives us true assurance of His fatherly goodness, clothes us with the new nature, and takes away the old nature with all its works.[10]

We believe, therefore, that anyone who aspires to eternal life ought to be baptized only once.[11] Baptism should never be repeated, for we cannot be born twice. Moreover, baptism benefits us not only when the water is on us and when we receive it, but throughout our whole life.

For that reason we reject the error of the Anabaptists, who are not content with a single baptism received only once, and who also condemn the baptism of the little children of believers. We believe that these children ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant, as infants were circumcised in Israel on the basis of the same promises which are now made to our children.[12] Indeed, Christ shed His blood to wash the children of believers just as much as He shed it for adults.[13] Therefore they ought to receive the sign and sacrament of what Christ has done for them, as the Lord commanded in the law that a lamb was to be offered shortly after children were born.[14] This was a sacrament of the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Because baptism has the same meaning for our children as circumcision had for the people of Israel, Paul calls baptism the circumcision of Christ (Col 2:11).

[1] Col 2:11. [2] Ex 12:48; 1 Pet 2:9. [3] Mt 3:11; 1 Cor 12:13. [4] Acts 22:16; Heb 9:14; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1:5b. [5] Tit 3:5. [6] 1 Pet 3:21. [7] Rom 6:3; 1 Pet 1:2; 1 Pet 2:24. [8] 1 Cor 10:1-4. [9] 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26. [10] Rom 6:4; Gal 3:27. [11] Mt 28:19; Eph 4:5. [12] Gen 17:10-12; Mt 19:14; Acts 2:39. [13] 1 Cor 7:14. [14] Lev 12:6.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza

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