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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)

Tony, Joel Osteen and JMac on the same line......???? Give us a break!

What would you say if someone said that John Calvin is like Rick Warren?

Back to the issue,

To the covenantalists, where do you see the promises and covenant between God and Israel broken?

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndy
I just realized something else.

I like the label "body-builder." I know that one of the things that body-builders do is run. I like to run, though I don't like to do any of the other things that body-builders do. Because I do one of the things, however, I think I am going to insist that I am a body builder. After all, people like Governor Arnold have simply failed to define the term "body-builder" broadly enough.

Oh sure, you "old-school" body-builders out there can split hairs about who really is a body-builder and who is not, and you can try to define body-builders as those who also lift weights and do push-ups and such, but since I agree with most of the things that body-builders do and in some cases actually practice some of the same things, I definitely have a right to that label.

Now that I think about it, I just realized that I can also be classified as a gourmet chef. Wow, things are really looking up for me - the possibilities are endless!
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew C
Andy, that's my point. "His doctrines would have gotten him tossed out of Geneva had he arrived there with his brand of "Calvinism".." It's worse to profess to be a reformed calvinist and misrepresent the truth while at the same time, than it is to be like Osteen and Warren who seem to be doctrinally ignorant. With all due respect to them as pastors. It reminds me of the parable of the two sons. The one that didn't say he was going to do it was honored above the other son who said he would but didn't.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony

I am surprised that you took my comments as a crass demeaning of scripture, and say I resent Presbyterians. Being as my family is in a PCA church that we love, and were in a PCA church in another state before we moved that we also loved, I really do not think I resent Presbyterians. And yes our beloved pastor knows exactly what we think...and so did the former one.

The real point I was trying to make is that certain people seem to think any Baptist lacks understanding of Covenant theology. That is false. Hubby went to Westminster TS and got his MDiv,and they cram you full of Covenant theology. (And there were plenty of Baptists students there all getting cramed full of it too, who went on to pastor as Reformed Baptists)

We have occasionally come home from letting our kids take communion the first Sunday of every month, and talked about how sad it is that Presbys don't really grasp covenant theology, and that kids can share in the covenant meal because the promises are to our kids as well (and yes, even young ones can search their hearts and repent first). We just happen to think baptism follows regeneration, which happens at an older age.

And ya'll sit here reading and typing and thinking how sad it is that we Baptists don't "get it" about Covenant theology. Kind of ironic actually. Maybe we could all cut each other a little slack, and pray for each other, that we all understand the covenant of grace a little better. None of us in our finiteness understands it all.

I know people who are "Reformed 3 and halfers", or 4s or 4 and a halfers. At this point I am so happy to see people rejecting Arminianism and dispensationalism I rejoice at every single point.

Anyway, we are not going to change our label, sorry, we'll still say "Reformed." You'll have to change yours and be the 50 point confessionalists or whatever.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
"To the covenantalists, where do you see the promises and covenant between God and Israel broken?" Andy

They were noy broken;
“Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He [God] does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16).

All who are in Christ have eternal life according to the promise and covenant.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony

None of the promises of YHWH to Israel are broken.

They are all fulfilled in Christ, who is the new Adam, the true Israel and the true temple.

All of God's promises are yes and amen in him, who is the true David whose tabernacle is rebuilt in the gathering of the Church (Acts 15:12-18). He is the true Israel called out of Egypt (Hos. 11:1, Mat. 2:15), who undergoes baptism in the Jordan and in his crucifixion, who goes to the wilderness and does not break the covenant, who keeps the Law perfectly in thought, word and deed, who is rejected by those who say they are Jews and are in reality the synagogue of Satan.

He is the true Israel who receives the punishment east of the gate, going into exile in the grave. He is the true Israel who is revived on the third day (Hos. 6:2), and who takes captivity captive. He is the true Israel who is also the true temple (John 2:19-21) and tabernacle of God (John 1:14), upon whom the Spirit dwells (Lk. 3:22, 4:18) and whom he fills with His glory (Ex. 40:35; 2 Chron. 7:1-3; Mat. 17:1-5).

He is the true Israel who receives the promise no longer in type and shadow (a little plot of land in Palestine), but in glorious cosmic universality (the new heavens and new earth). And all of those who are mystically united to him by the Holy Spirit through faith are the true sons of Abraham (not unbelieving Israel, who is the son of the bondwoman Hagan, cf. Gal. 4) and the body and temple of Christ. Therefore the sign of the covenant is no longer ethnic and for males (circumcision), but universal (baptism).

There are many more things that could be said in the subject, but I am on my way out. Hope this helps.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo Souza


I read your post.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterEcho_ohcE
A good resource for this is Graeme Goldsworthy's According to Plan,

"Progressive revelation establishes the principle of typology. While the underlying relationship [“the people of God”] remains the same, the form in which it is given undergoes a certain development or expansion until the fulfillment is reached…"

This book helped me understand the relationship of the OT with the NT, particularly God's relationship with Israel. I admit I was an avid dispensationalist. Like Dr. Riddlebarger said, "it's like being an ex-smoker." Thanks for the book recommendations, Kim:)
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony
Just stopping by for a minute -- So I guess all the true reformed on this site dislike the Alliance, Together for the Gospel etc. and all the reformed ministers who mix with the so called baptist reformed pastors and then those such as JMac.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor
"Just stopping by for a minute -- So I guess all the true reformed on this site dislike the Alliance, Together for the Gospel etc. and all the reformed ministers who mix with the so called baptist reformed pastors and then those such as JMac.
March 14, 2007 | Taylor"

Uh, no. Did you read KR's post?
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterwalt
Could someone share with me what makes a person "reformed" in a short list form please? Also list of denominations and theologians who would be reformed? Short 1,2,3,A,B,C would work I believe because all posting understand enough not to make this to complicated.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTaylor
Thank you E.

Taylor...very simple.

A.You are reformed if you agree with every single word of the Westminster Confesssion of deviations.


Z. You are reformed if you hook up with one of the Sovereign Grace Ministries Churches where they are generally at least 3& 1/2 pointers...maybe 4...and Baptist, and Charismatic with "prophecies".

I'll let somebody else work on B through Y. John Piper is in there somewhere, so am I.

I'm curious to see how they rate the PCA.

This should be good........ :)
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered Commentercarolyn
Short form: Grow a long pointy beird and wear a funny hat and you're reformed. Hehe.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony
Time out.

This may be a tad unfair (to blame what I'm about to say re: MacArthur on Mac himself), but just think of all the "ink" (i.e., posts and counterposts) that's been spilled at the Riddleblog since Mac's "Calvinism necessitates premillennialism" speech!

If I recall, we'd been talking about the top rock songs before all this!

I guess it just goes to show all of us that what we say, and how we say it, can have a significant impact on others. I was just reading Mt. 12:33-37 earlier this evening, as it relates to good trees/good fruit and bad trees/bad fruit, and judgment based on our words. It really reminded me that though there's nothing wrong (in fact, I think there's everything right!) with holding our positions passionately, we need to do so with both grace and truth, and speak the truth in love, etc.

I need to remind myself of this time and again, because temptation is such a battle.

Perhaps, then, in addition to all the lessons we've learned and are debating re: logic and theology, there's also a practical lesson we're all learning as well relative to Mac's comments.

May we all seek reformation in our doctrine as well as revival in our lives! (Or something like that.)

With that...

Time in. Let the debate continue!!!
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Rohde
Just returned from church and can't really remember everything I have had to catch up on since I left. I do note this one thing, there are a lot of angry people on this site.

I like Taylor's question. Seems we would need some clarification of what those that consider us as others could show us why were are other than them - if that makes any sinces.

I do have a question for you with your statement about SGM only being believers in 31/2 or 4 points. I thought CJM was a 5 pointer?

Carolyn this would be one of those places we part company on what we believe. I do fully believe that a person that claims to be a Calvinist must agree with all 5 points. I also believe a dispy can't be reformed or a believer in Covenantal Theology so.....

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn
I don't know how Carolyn's name got on the bottom of my post?
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKaren
Thanks, Wayne.

At the heart of Reformed doctrine of the Protestant Reformation is Covenant Theology. God does not have two plans for two people-groups. Reformed Christians believe that the NT has the final word, whereas dispensationalists interpret the OT and then go to the NT and try to fit the teaching of the New Testament with their previous interpretation of the OT. That’s how they end up with multiple peoples of God, i.e. Israel, church saints, tribulation saints, millennial saints, and multiple dispensations including a seven-year dispensation and a thousand-year dispensation. That, in my view is the main difference between Covenant and Dispensationalism (John MacArthur), whether or not he teaches the truth about the 5 points and the 5 Solas of the Reformation. Reformed theology is all about the Covenant.

Some of my fovorite Reformed theologians Kim Riddlegarger, Meredith Kline, Edward Young, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd Jones, Oswald Allis, Abraham Kuyper, Geerhardus Vos.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTony
Premillennialism vs. Amillennialism - a very nice collection of the recent posts throughout the web on this topic

On John Piper's website (Desiring God) today:
This Week's Question
What does Piper mean when he says he's a seven-point Calvinist?
January 23, 2006
Historically, there are only five points of Calvinism, so what are the extra two?
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDavid

The same thought occurred to me!

Re: your note about Calvin and the 5 Points, and your note about dispensationalism vs. Reformed and/or covenant theology, try this on for size:

I think the first one illustrates what I tried to say about labels. Since Calvinism as a belief system holds to all five points (TULIP), by definition one must hold all five points to be a Calvinist. I'm committed to all five points; I'm a Calvinist in this respect. I also know lots of people that are pretty committed to all but limited atonement. I guess my conclusion would be that they have every right to their opinion, but in that they deny limited atonement, they thereby prove that they are not complete Calvinists. (As to whether being in favor or unlimited atonement is consistent or inconsistent with the other points is not my point.)

I think the second example illustrates positions that are mutually exclusive. To be covenant, among other things, is to be non-dispensational. Therefore one cannot really embrace covenant theology and dispensationalism at the same time. Thus MacArthur may very well be "Reformed" with respect to the 5 Points, but he is certainly not Reformed by any stretch of the imagination with respect to eschatology!

By the way, I gladly share Tony's comments re: the one people of God, etc. One of the things that drives me bonkers about dispensational ecclesiology and eschatology is the concept of multiple peoples of God, multiple resurrections and judgments, etc. Especially bothersome to me is the dualism re: Israel/earth and church/heaven. And downright irksome are people like Hagee that hold to one covenant for the Jews and another for the church! All of these elements of a spectrum of dispensational beliefs (though most are not true of progressive "D") served as red flags to move me out of the dispensational system.

Just today I was reflecting on the rather humorous attempts of some of the Dallas profs to figure out which uses of the new covenant in Hebrews were for Israel, and which were for the church!

I'll leave a tight definition of what constitutes the Reformed faith or covenant theology to others. But in that Reformed folks hold to a number of creeds, confessions, etc. --which don't seem to be to be absolutely identical-- I still remain interested in what one must minimally believe to be considered to be 100% Reformed, and where there's a degree of wiggle room.

March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Rohde
Wayne Rohde,

Concerning baptism books, you must check out a new book published by a couple of my pastors. I am a student at Southern Seminary, so I attend a church that Dr. Thomas Schreiner, NT prof, and Dr. Shawn Wright, Church Hist. prof, are elders at.

They just released what, I think, is the definitive work right now on believer's baptism. The chapter that defines the book is Dr. Stephen Wellum's chapter on the relationship between the covenants. He approaches Scripture in a covenantal way, and shows, through a biblical-theological study of the covenants, that there is unity in God's way of salvation but a plurality of covenants.

He shows that it is wrong to speak of ONE covenant of grace when the bible never speaks that way. It speaks of a plurality of covenants which funnel into the fulfillment of Christ's work. He shows that the whole question of baptism hinges on Christology since the genealogical principle, according to baptists, is also part of progressive revelation, ultimately being fulfilled in the true fleshly Son of Abraham. It is in light of Christ that the genealogical principle is that God will be God to Christ and all his seed (read: believers). Hence, believer's baptism. I still struggle over this issue, but Wellum's chapter is the best defense(and I have read many Baptists) of believer's baptism I have ever encountered.
March 14, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterChase Vaughn

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