How Many Points?

How many points does one have to believe to be a Calvinist?

From the Calvin Theological Journal, Vol. 28 (1993): 425-33 via Riddleblog

By Richard A. Muller

Calvinism or, better, Reformed teaching, as defined by the great Reformed confessions does include the so-called five points. Just as it is improper, however, to identify Calvin as the sole progenitor of Reformed theology, so also is it incorrect to identify the five points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. 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.

These historical and theological comments would seldom if ever be disputed by a member of a confessionally Reformed denomination. It is virtually a truism that the Canons of Dort do not stand by themselves as the confession of the church — and that they exist in order to clarify disputed points in the church’s full confession of faith as represented by the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. It is also the case that the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are substantially in agreement with the confessional standards of other branches of the Reformed church, whether the Geneva Catechism or the First and Second Helvetic Confession of the Swiss Reformation or the Scot’s Confession and the Westminster standards of the British and American Presbyterian and Reformed churches. And beyond the confessional consensus, there is a broad theological agreement that built toward the confessional teaching of the Reformed churches in the sixteenth century and has continued to build upon it since that time — from Calvin’s Institutes to Kuyper’s Dictaten Dogmatiek and beyond.

Any of these documents, in addition to standing in substantial agreement on the so-called five points — total inability to attain one’s own salvation, unconditional grace, limited efficacy of Christ’s all-sufficient work of satisfaction, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints — 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 on the assumption that our assurance of the salvation, wrought by grace alone through the work of Christ and God’s Spirit in us, rests not on our outward deeds or personal claims but on our apprehension of Christ in faith and on our recognition of the inward work of the Spirit in us. Because this assurance is inward and cannot easily or definitively be externalized, all of these documents also 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 — as far as the confessions and the Reformed dogmaticians from Calvin to Kuyper are concerned — 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 here is more than simple confessional allegiance. 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.

…The larger number of points, including but going beyond the five of Dort, is intended, in other words, to construe theologically the entire life of the believing community. And when that larger number of points taught by the Reformed confessions is not respected, the famous five are jeopardized, indeed, dissolved —and the ongoing spiritual health of the church is placed at risk.

You can read the full article here»

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