Reformed: More Than the 5 Points of Jesus and the Apostles

St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, where John Calvin preached from 1536-38 and 1541-49

St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, where John Calvin preached from 1536-38 and 1541-49

So many people have weighed in the issue of what is Reformed Christianity, or what’s a Reformed church, or who’s Reformed.

About four years ago, John MacArthur delivered a scathing attack on Reformed amillennialism entitled, “Why Every Self-Respecting Calvinist is a Premillennialist.” Worse, his rant was a bad misrepresentation of amillennialism in a conference where he had also invited several well-known amillenarians. Here’s the part of JMac’s lecture where he connects amillennialists with Arminians:

But bottom line here, of all people on the planet to be premillennialist it should be Calvinists; those who love sovereign election. Let’s leave amillennialism for the Arminians… Perfect! Arminians make great amillennialists. It’s consistent … We can leave amillennialism to the process theologians … or the ‘openness’ people … Let’s leave amillennialism to the charismatics in the semi-Pelagians and other sorts of go in and out of salvation willy-nilly; makes sense for their theology . . .

If Calvin were alive, he would not only be throwing up in disgust, but furious, and would invoke the 9th Commandment against JMac. Why so? Calvin would have pointed out JMac’s gross error of millennialism:

This fiction 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 (Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.25.5).

For Calvin, nothing can be farther from Scriptural teaching than dispensationalism’s basic tenet that there are two separate peoples of God, Israel and the church, for whom God is fulfilling two separate salvation plans:

From the preceding observations it may now be evident that all those persons, from the beginning of the world, whom God has adopted into the society of His people, have been federally connected with Him by the same law and the same doctrine which are in force among us … [T]he fathers were partakers with us of the same inheritance, and hoped for the same salvation through the grace of our common Mediator … (Institutes 2:10:1).

We have the remarkable saying of our Lord, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad,” (John 8:56). What Christ here declares of Abraham, an apostle shows to be applicable to all believers, when he says that Jesus Christ is the “same yesterday, to-day, and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). For he is not there speaking merely of the eternal divinity of Christ, but of his power, of which believers had always full proof … the salvation revealed in Christ was a fulfillment of the mercy promised “to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever” (Luke 1:55, 72). If, by manifesting Christ, the Lord fulfilled his ancient oath, it cannot be denied that the subject of that oath must ever have been Christ and eternal life (Institutes 2:10:4).

So in response, Dr. Kim Riddlebarger wrote a piece entitled, “Why John MacArthur is not Reformed.” In his blog, Riddlebarger republished Dr. Richard Muller’s 1993 essay, “How Many Points?” (To download a printer-friendly version of this essay, click here) In this essay, Dr. Muller, a leading authority on John Calvin, says that the so-called Five Points of Calvinism—a misnomer, by the way—is a very small part of a whole system of doctrine popularly known as “Calvinism” or “Reformed.” Thus, Riddlebarger points out that JMac’s affirmation of the Five Points doesn’t make him Reformed or Calvinist. JMac fails horribly just in one test: eschatology.

Muller says that Calvin recognized that his teachings were only part of a greater Reformed movement as taught by other Reformers such as Heinrich Bullinger, Peter Martyr, and Wolfgang Musculus, and later embodied in Reformed confessions and catechisms, notably, the Three Forms of Unity (Dutch); the Geneva Catechism and the First and Second  Helvetic Confession (Swiss); or the Scot’s Confession and Westminster Standards (British and American). These and other Reformed confessions—over 30 in all—which all agree in substance, define the boundaries of the Reformed/Calvinist movement. Muller summarizes the content of this system of doctrine as written in these documents:

Any of these documents, in addition to standing in substantial agreement on the so-called five points … also stand in substantial agreement on the issues of the baptism of infants, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, and the unity of the one covenant of grace from Abraham to the eschaton. They also — all of them — agree … that the church is both visible and invisible — that it is a covenanted people of God identified not by externalized indications of the work of God in individuals, such as adult conversion experiences but by the preaching of the word of God and the right administration of the sacraments. Finally, they all agree, either explicitly or implicitly, that the “thousand years” of Revelation 20 is the kingdom of grace established by Christ at his first coming that extends until his Second Coming at the end of the world.

There are, therefore, more than five points and … there cannot be such a thing as a “five-point Calvinist” or “five-point Reformed Christian” who owns just those five articles taken from the Canons of Dort and who refuses to accept the other “points” made by genuinely Reformed theology … The issue is that the confessions and the classical dogmatic systems of Reformed theology are not an arbitrary list of more or less biblical ideas — they are carefully embodied patterns of teaching, drawn from Scripture and brought to bear on the life of the church. They are, in short, interpretations of the whole of Christian existence that cohere in all of their points. If some of the less-famous points of Reformed theology, like the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification (the “third use of the law”), the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world, and so forth, are stripped away or forgotten, the remaining famous five make very little sense.

If the above embodiment of the whole of Reformed theology in Reformed confessions is true, then Muller has established—albeit negatively—that many evangelicals misconstrue themselves as “Calvinist” or “Reformed.” However, Muller, Riddlebarger or myself, are not saying that people of other persuasions are not true Christians. The issue is that many people, Reformed Christians included, mistakenly refer to John MacArthur and many others as heirs of the Reformation or children of Calvin.

And anyway, the Five Points are not the Five Points of Calvin, but the Five Points of Jesus and the Apostles.

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