How Many Points—Some Comments

By Robert Keith Fall

Dr. David Burggraff (PDF), vice president for spiritual formation and ministry development at Clearwater Christian College (Clearwater, FL), spoke at the November 2006 Northern California Regional meeting of the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship International. He handed out various notes and articles during his messages to the attendees. “How Many Points” by Richard A. Muller, an article from the November 1993 issue of the Calvin Theological Journal, was one of those handouts. fall_tulip.jpgDr. Muller seems to represent a stream of Reformed thought not usually found among fundamentalists in America. He comes out of Continental Calvinism rather than from Scottish Presbyterianism or English Puritanism. Dr. Muller’s definition of what constitutes Calvinist or Reformed theology stands in stark contrast to how many Anglo-American Baptists define the term.

In his article, Dr. Muller recounts his encounter with “a minister who introduced himself to me as a ‘five-point Calvinist.’” Dr. Muller’s description of the minister (p. 425) fits many who post here at SI. The man …

  1. “was an anti-paedobaptist.”
  2. “assumed the church was a voluntary association of adult believers.”
  3. assumed “the sacraments were not means of grace but were merely ‘ordinances’ of the church.”
  4. assumed “there was more than one covenant offering salvation in the time between the Fall and the eschaton.”
  5. assumed “the church could expect a thousand-year reign on earth after Christ’s Second Coming but before the ultimate end of the world.”
  6. “recognized no creeds or confessions of the church as binding in any way.”

Dr. Muller makes the following observation about the man:

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 (pp. 425-426).

The man, in Dr. Muller’s estimation, was mistaken in his limiting his “Calvinism” to five points.

In other words, it would be a major error—both historically and doctrinally—if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism (p. 426).

On pages 427-428, Dr. Muller asserts, “There are … more than five points.” His other points are the following:

  1. “the baptism of infants”
  2. “justification by grace alone through faith”
  3. “the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification (the ‘third use of the law’)”
  4. “the identification of sacraments as means of grace”
  5. “the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world”

He believes if these other points “are stripped away or forgotten, the remaining famous five make very little sense.”

His “case in point” is “the theological system propounded by the English high (some would say ‘hyper’) Calvinistic Baptist, John Gill, and the way that his system has been read out into the life of some of the so-called Particular Baptist denominations” (p. 428). In Dr. Muller’s view, Dr. Gill “most certainly affirmed the five points” [ibid] as well as the following:

  1. He “held an intensified version of the third point by arguing that Christ’s work was limited in its sufficiency as well as in its efficacy: Christ’s satisfaction was not merely, according to Gill, efficient for the elect only, it was also sufficient for the sins of the elect only.”
  2. “With this radical sense of election,” he viewed “the entire order of salvation as taking place in eternity—justification and adoption were now eternal acts of God.”
  3. “Since nothing took place in time except for the enactment of the decree, there was no need in Gill’s system for a temporal order of grace. Sacraments could be considered simply as ordinances, and baptism could be viewed as a sign administered to adults only, after the eternal decree had been executed in an individual.”
  4. “Those who have followed Gill’s theology allow no offers of grace but only a preaching about grace. They have tended to offer no instruction in Christianity for children and they have typically opposed Christian missions—because no human agency is needed in God’s elective work.”

Dr. Muller draws the following conclusion about Dr. Gill’s system:

The logic of such a theology is to view God’s electing grace as an unmediated bolt from the blue. No one knows where it may strike and no one can find any assurance either through participation in the life of God’s covenanting people or on grounds of belief or conduct that he or she will be or, indeed, is now numbered among the elect. Gill held forth an antinomian gospel that could declare in its preaching of grace that no obedience to divine commands was required for salvation and no offers of grace ought to be made in the church. On Gill’s own terms, membership in his Particular Baptist community could be no sign of salvation and no assurance of its possibility. Grace and salvation could just as easily occur on a desert island (pp. 428-429).

Please note that many of our Primitive and Old Regular Baptist brethren are in agreement with Dr. Gill.

The “minister,” on whom Dr. Muller bases his essay, is not merely “an American evangelical” (p. 426). The man represents the flow of historic Baptist thought in America. Whether the man considered himself a Baptist is beside the point. He could just as easily be a nondenominational “Bible Church” man. However, he is one who is fairly Baptistic in his polity and doctrine.

In his defense of the various Reformed confessions, Dr. Muller ignores the historic “confessions” of the English-speaking Baptists. Nowhere in his essay does he mention the London Confessions, the Philadelphia or the New Hampshire Confession. Somehow or another, Dr. Muller seems uninformed about the Baptist distinctive of “The Bible is our only rule of faith and practice” (Dr. Richard Weeks, late professor of Baptist History and Polity, Maranatha Baptist Bible College).

In the essay, Dr. Muller writes the following about the doctrine of infant baptism:

Because, moreover, “Christ has shed his blood no less for washing the children of believers than he did for adults,” infants as well as adults “ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant” (BC, XXXIV) (p. 429).

Baptism, rightly understood from the human side, signifies the placement of our children into the context where the promised grace of God is surely at work. And who more than an infant, incapable of meritorious works, can indicate to us that this salvation is by grace alone?”(p. 430)

The conversion experience associated with adult baptism and with the identification of the church as a voluntary association assumes that children are, with a few discrete qualifications, pagan (p. 431).

These remarks effectively dismiss the Baptist concept of the immersion of believers.

Dr. Muller makes much of the “covenant community.”

The Reformed doctrine of grace—the irresistible grace of the five points—not only identifies God’s grace as unmerited but also locates the primary working of that grace in the covenanting community of believers where it is presented through the means of word and sacrament. This covenanting community or church, the Belgic Confession tells us, “has been from the beginning of the world and will be to the end thereof … supported by God against the rage of the world” (p. 429).

The church is not, therefore, a “voluntary association”—certainly not in any usual sense of that term. It is the divinely mandated and established covenanting community within which and through the agency of which the Word is preached, the sacraments faithfully administered, and the grace of God mediated to a needy world” (p. 429).

In so doing, Dr. Muller shows a misapprehension of the Baptist concept of ecclesiology.

Inside the locker room, Baptists have discussions about the existence, nature, and place of a universal church. Nevertheless, for practical purposes, they agree on the following as a working definition of a local New Testament church:

It is an organized, autonomous band of immersed believers; having New Testament Officers, practicing New Testament Ordinances, and actively carrying out the Great Commission (Dr. Richard Weeks).

However, Dr. Muller states the following:

The Reformed teaching concerning the identity of the church assumes a divine rather than a human foundation and assumes that the divine work of establishing the community of belief is a work that includes the basis of the ongoing life of the church as a community, which is to say, includes the extension of the promise to children of believers (p. 431).

In dealing with the Baptist concept of ordinances, Dr. Muller writes the following:

Our confession of the divine foundation of the covenanting community also directs our attention from the doctrine of the efficacy and irresistibility of grace to the conception of sacraments as means of grace and not mere ordinances. This is not a magical association of a human activity with the beginning of divine activity but rather the simple assumption that God has, in the sacraments as in the preached Word, identified the place where his grace is most surely and freely bestowed. The sacraments are “visible signs … of something internal and invisible”—and not merely signs but “seals” as well, granting that it is God who has there made available his promise to us and who has irresistibly inaugurated the work of his grace in our lives (cf., BC, XXX). Mere ordinances can be omitted or deemphasized as insignificant or “empty,” but because the sacraments are signs “by means of which God works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit” they are hardly “empty and hollow” but an integral part of the life of the church that knows its members to be called by grace and justified through faith (ibid.) (p. 432).

Somehow, this opinion seems hollow. The appellation “Baptist” signifies the importance and non-negotiabilty of at least one of the ordinances.

He “protests against” the concepts of being “born again,” “accepting Christ,” a “personal relationship with Jesus,” “knowing Christ as personal Savior” (p.430).

The issue is that this language itself is neither Reformed in its content nor suitable for transfer into a Reformed confessional context. In the first place, the terms are unclear and can tend toward an ill-defined affective piety that, at its worst, can violate certain of the Christological and soteriological norms of the Reformed community. I have often commented to evangelical friends that, for me, having a personal relationship or knowing someone personally means that I can sit down at a table with him and have a cup of coffee, that I can speak to him and he can respond in an audible fashion. But I can’t sit at a table and have a cup of coffee with Jesus. And if I speak to him, he does not answer audibly. As an angel once rightly noted, “He is not here: for he is risen,” and, indeed, ascended into heaven. Reformed Christology has always insisted not only on the resurrection of Christ’s body but also on the heavenly location and finitude of Christ’s resurrected humanity. Christ now sits at the right hand of God and visibly rules the church triumphant. The language of personal relationship is, at best, equivocal. At worst, it detracts from the majesty of the doctrine of Christ’s kingship (p.430).

Dr. Muller further protests that …

this use of the language of personal relationship with Jesus often indicates a qualitative loss of the traditional Reformation language of being justified by grace alone through faith in Christ and being, therefore, adopted as children of God in and through our graciously given union with Christ. Personal relationships come about through mutual interaction and thrive because of common interests; They are never or virtually never grounded on a forensic act such as that indicated in the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works—in fact personal relationships rest on a reciprocity of works or acts. The problem here is not the language itself: The problem is the way in which it can lead those who emphasize it to ignore the Reformation insight into the nature of justification and the character of believers’ relationship with God in Christ (p. 431).

He views the language of a personal relationship, saying that it …

all too easily lends itself to an Arminian view of salvation as something accomplished largely by the believer in cooperation with God. A personal relationship is, of its very nature, a mutual relation, and dependent on the activity—the works—of both parties. In addition, the use of this Arminian, affective language tends to obscure the fact that the Reformed tradition has its own indigenous relational and affective language and piety; a language and piety, moreover, that are bound closely to the Reformation principle of salvation by grace alone through faith alone (p. 431).

Historically, Baptists have been all over the eschatological map. Good men have been pre-, post-, and amillennialists. On the point of amillennialism, Dr. Muller again misapprehends the non-amillennial position as follows:

There is a powerful difference between the faith and the church of those who await a millennium and who hold that now Satan bestrides the earth seeking whom—including members of the voluntarily gathered church—he may devour, and the faith and church of those who hold that the ministry of Christ and his work on the cross bound Satan, who may no longer devour God’s people however else he may roam about (p. 432).

The problem of multiple dispensations of salvation is clearly related to the problem of the millennium. Such a teaching assumes not only that salvation has been administered differently in various ages of the world but, contrary to the Reformed Confessions’ understanding of Scripture also that one church has not existed “from the beginning of the world,” will not “last until the end,” and has not been universally “preserved by God against the rage of the world” (BC, XXVII) (p. 433).

Not all Baptists hold to a dispensational view of Scripture. John R. Rice was well-known for holding to an Old Testament church. However, among the dispensationalists, few would assume salvation “has been administered differently in various ages of the world.”

Some conclusions can be drawn after reading Dr. Muller’s essay.

First is his own conclusion. “Surely there are more than five” (p. 433) in speaking of classic Calvinist\Reformed theology. Dr. Muller says the five are to be understood “not as the sum total of the church’s confession but as elements that can only be understood in the context of a larger body of teaching, including the baptism of infants, justification by grace alone through faith, the necessity of a thankful obedience consequent upon our faith and justification, the identification of sacraments as means of grace, the so-called amillennial view of the end of the world” (ibid).

Another conclusion is drawn in light of Dr. Muller’s conclusion. Many who are not General or Free Will Baptists are uncomfortable self-describing themselves as Calvinist and Reformed in light of Dr. Muller’s conclusions. Some would go further and view the combination of Calvinist/Reformed and Baptist as an oxymoron, especially after reading, “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” (p. 425). Many are familiar with the treatment of Baptists in territories controlled by the Reformed and Calvinist churches. In America, they are well aware of the treatment of Obadiah Holmes in seventeenth century Massachusetts Bay Colony.

The issues of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are still valid for many brethren. They see men like Dr. Muller as descendants of the same men and institutions that persecuted their spiritual forefathers. According to their logic, they have no problems agreeing with their Calvinist\Reformed cousins on various theological matters. However, they will only acknowledge a truce, not a peace treaty between themselves and the Calvinist\Reformed. These brethren are by some measure eclectic in their theology. To title them “Biblicists” is to do a disservice to their Calvinist\Reformed and Arminian brethren. Both would say they loved the Bible and were trying to follow it.

Even though many Baptists and Methodists (Welsh Calvinist Methodists) have adopted the adjectives, their usage of the terms is not the same as their Presbyterian (excluding the Free Presbyterians) and Reformed brethren. They seemingly believe there are only two theological choices; one is either Calvinist\Reformed or one is Arminian. In seeking a simple way of identifying themselves, they have set up a false choice. If Dr. Muller is correct, these brethren’s Calvinism bears the same relationship to classical covenant Calvinism as a Taco Bell burrito does to what can be bought at Tortillaria y Taqueria El Grano de Oro (Pacifica, California) and even less to what you can buy by that name in Guadalajara. Therefore, when a Baptist identifies himself as “Reformed” or “Calvinist,” he needs to understand that his definition of his identification is a denominationally and perhaps a geographically (Anglo-American) provincial one. It is not one shared by those who are in direct descent from the continental groups.

fall.jpgRobert Keith Fall is a rare bird. A native of San Francisco, California, he serves the Lord in his birthplace. He returned home after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI) and is a member of Hamilton Square Baptist Church. Robert and his wife, Anna, are members of HSBC’s Russian Ministry Team.
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