As early as January 2007 I heard whisperings from a variety of friends that John MacArthur was going to “shake things up a bit” at the Shepherd’s Conference that year. He was planning, I was told, to address eschatology in the opening, keynote message. I thought, “Oh, that will be an interesting subject.” Little did I realize what an understated and prophetic thought that was.
The first day of the 2007 Shepherd’s Conference arrived and I took a seat up in the sound/lighting booth so I could see John speak “live” rather than on a video feed in one of the many overflow rooms. The title of John’s message was “Why Every Respecting Calvinist Should be a Premillennialist.” [Audio available here].
His thesis basically argued that any Calvinist who affirmed the doctrine of unconditional election should also include in that affirmation God’s unconditional promises of election He gave to Israel in the OT. The main feature of those promises is the promise to establish Israel in a kingdom radiating from Jerusalem with Israel’s messiah reigning over all the nations of the world. This kingdom is specifically described in Revelation 20 as lasting for 1,000 years, and because this kingdom will be established upon the return of the Lord Jesus Christ as described in Revelation 19, those who believe in a physical, messianic kingdom lasting a 1,000 years are called premillennialists.
As he moved through his talk developing the thesis, John was critical of the theological systems of amillennialism and postmillennialism, because even though the adherents of those two systems are generally Calvinistic, they interpret the promises of a future, physical kingdom for Israel figuratively or typologically. In other words, amillennialists for example, believe there will be no future, physical kingdom centered in Israel with Jesus reigning over the entire earth as Israel’s messiah for 1,000 years, but rather understand the millennial kingdom as being Christ reigning in His kingdom presently today over and through His church.
John’s challenge was simple: A person who takes seriously the promise of God to fulfill His decrees of election in salvation will also take seriously God’s promise to establish Israel in their land and in a real, physical kingdom encompassing physical territory. Calvinists believe in unconditional election and eternal security for individual salvation, they should also believe the same concerning God’s decrees and promises with Israel.
Within hours after John gave his keynote address, bloggers attending the conference had hit the internet posting diatribes decrying John with some of the most profoundly ridiculous and hysterical articles I had ever read.
Bloggers claimed John was outright mocking his guests who would disagree with him. Others suggested John doesn’t know what he is talking about, that he should had never spoken on the subject because he is incompetent to address it. On one of my email discussion groups, a fellow leveled an insulting remark about John succumbing to age, whereas another predicted the demise of the Shepherd Conference because the other good men who were keynote speakers will never come back after such an unnecessary and mean-spirited attack. Still others dismissed John out-of-hand saying he has never been a relevant teacher of God’s Word because of his eschatological views and he should be ignored. Overall, the stuff people were saying in reaction to this one message was staggering, and a lot of it was from folks who didn’t even attend!
In the weeks that followed the Shepherd’s Conference, a handful of bloggers wrote up post series addressing various aspects of eschatology, with many of them attempting to answer John’s points. However, Reformed Baptist, Sam Waldron, did more than just write a series of blog posts addressing John. He has published a full book called MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto – A Friendly Response.
In his book, Sam lays out his case against John, explaining why he is woefully mistaken regarding his charge that amillennialists, in particular, are inconsistent Calvinists for believing there will be no future kingdom for Israel. Sam defends the amillennial view of Israel, explaining why he believes the Bible teaches the Christian Church fulfills all those land promises to Israel, and has become the “New Israel” consisting of spiritual Jews who are Abraham’s spiritual seed by faith in Christ. He also has an extensive section highlighting the hermeneutics between John’s premillennial position and his amillennial position.
There is much to be commended with his work:
1) First off, I appreciate the title. This is a “friendly response” declares Sam. Being around John’s ministry for as long as I have, I have seen countless self-published critical books over the years that speak of John’s heresy on this or that issue. So I was glad to see Sam’s book wasn’t called MacArthur’s Millennial Madness, or something along those lines.
2) The book is mercifully short and easy to read. Sam spared us from a gigantic tome of 700 plus pages detailing every nuance of eschatology outlined in scrutinizing detail. Though I personally would like to read a 700 page tome scrutinizing every fine detail of eschatology, in this instance, it was unnecessary.
3) The book is a well-done basic primer for Amillennial eschatology. More than just providing a response to John, Sam lays out his amillennial convictions, providing his biblical reasons for believing what he believes and why he thinks John is wrong.
For example, Sam provides a good, overall study of the Covenant Theology view of Israel and how the NT church has fulfilled the OT promises to Israel to become the “New Israel.” In response to John, he considers two of the key passages he claims presents his view, Romans 9:6 and Galatians 6:16, and even does an extended study on Ephesians 2:11-22 to demonstrate how this passage even strengthens his position.
The highlight of the book is Sam outlining the hermeneutics to his system. I say it is a highlight because I believe the crux of the disagreement between Sam’s amillennialism and John’s premillennialism, and how both understand the place of Israel in God’s purposes, comes down to the application of hermeneutics, or the principles one employs to interpret scripture. In the case between amillennialism and premillennialism, it is how each system interprets prophetic scripture specifically. Sam spends several portions of his book explaining the importance to those different approaches.
Yet, in spite of those commendable points with Sam’s book, the overarching direction the book takes turns it into a “not so friendly response.”
A patronizing tone resonates throughout the pages. It is as if I could hear the author saying, “I just love John and I know he’s had a wonderful preaching ministry for more than 40 years, but bless his heart…”
Within a few chapters, it went from being whiny to becoming galling. The arguments John puts forth in his premillennial manifesto are painted as being ignorant (2) outrageous (10), half-kidding (9), burning strawmen (39), self-serving (36), dishonest (21), unteachable (39), goofy (103), schismatic (127), and bordering on heresy (129). After finishing the book, a person is left with the impression that John would have an otherwise good ministry if he wouldn’t handicap himself by embracing that wacky Dispensational premillennialism.
A few of his criticisms are also problematic. For example, Sam spends 6 chapters laying out his case as to why the “New Israel” is just another name for the Church.
In his introductory chapter on the subject, Sam quotes from John’s “manifesto” where John mentions how the word “Israel” is used over 2,000 times in scripture and around 73 times in the NT (68 times if you take Sam’s quibble, fn. 2, p. 37), and in each instance the word “Israel means Israel,” an ethnic group of people. Sam likens John’s assertion to Arminian-like logic that says every reference to all in the scripture must always mean all people without exception (36).
That is a majority rule hermeneutic that doesn’t play out, according to Sam. He then goes on with an attempt to dismantle John’s claim by examining two key passages that supposedly uses the word “Israel” as a synonym for the NT Church, Galatians 6:16 and Romans 9:6.
I hope to address those passages in more detail in future posts, but I believe Sam’s argument only works if one presupposes the system of Covenant Theology.
For instance, in his discussion of Romans 9:6, Sam affirms John’s position that the Israel mentioned by Paul in the verse is a distinct ethnic group apart from the gentiles. Sam writes, “It is not Paul’s main point here to prove that Gentiles are now included in God’s Israel … Paul’s main point is not that Gentile Christians are part of God’s Israel, but rather that there is a remnant among ethnic Israelites in which God’s promise is fulfilled” (51). In other words, the word “Israel” means “Israel,” just like John said. But he goes on, “Yet, this is not quite the same as proving that the inclusion of Gentile Christians in God’s Israel is not implied.” (ibid, emphasis mine). Implications like those are generally driven by theological systems, not exegetical considerations. In Sam’s case, principles of continuity derived from Covenant Theology. Thus, with his approach, an expanded meaning can be poured onto the definition of the word which stretches it beyond what the text allows.
Sam also chides how John points out the historical uniqueness of the Jews. In his chapter, Must Israelites be Jews?, Sam takes a bit of an issue with John stressing how the Jews have had an unbroken ethnic heritage for nearly 4,000 years. He then makes the argument that Jewish ethnicity, though something of an essential ingredient in the Christian Church (I guess like fulfilling those Messianic prophecies) was not necessary for being a citizen of Israel. He then plays down the ethnic uniqueness of the Jews for the last 4,000 years.
Later, in the first appendix addressing the Jews in Romans 11, he concludes his comments by writing, “Romans 11 does not teach a great, future revival among the Jews. It does, however, contain two points of prophetic interest regarding ethnic Israel. First, it teaches a remnant of Jews will be saved in every generation. Second, it assumes by this the Jews will continue to exist as a distinct, ethnic entity until Jesus return” (140). So, is Jewish ethnicity important or not important? Is it just a curious factoid of history that they are the one people group that has maintained both its ethnic and religious heritage?
However, the most problematic aspect of Sam’s book comes at the end. In his concluding chapters, Sam writes about going to the Together for the Gospel conference and how even there John made some remarks about election and premillennialism. As an aside, Sam states the first T4G conference took place in 2007 (121), but the first one took place in 2006. Perhaps it is a typo, but he goes on to comment in a following chapter how John didn’t shelve his views on eschatology (124). I mention that only to note that John hadn’t addressed the subject of Calvinism and premillennialism before the first T4G. That address was in the spring of 2007.
At any rate, in Sam’s opinion, John is being divisive. Here is a substantial gathering of men all affirming and united around the Reformed understanding of salvation, yet John is willing to compromise such unity for the sake of an unnecessary controversial subject. Is eschatology really so important that a person would be willing to create schism among God’s people when unity around the essentials of the Gospel message is so imperative?
Compounding his divisiveness is the fact John is not just covenant premillennial, but Dispensational premillennial. If John held to the first position, he would be alright, but because he is Dispensational with his premillennialism, John’s injection of the issue amongst a bunch of Reformed folks is indefensible. How dare he claim to be Dispensational and attempt to equate Calvinism with premillennialism.
In a way, I read Sam as saying that John shouldn’t even be numbered among those other T4G guys. Especially if he has the audacity to claim to be Calvinistic and then adhere to Dispensationalism in any form. But to make sure as not to go too far, he writes, “Now, let me hasten to reaffirm what I have just implied above. I am not saying that Dispensationalism is heresy. I do believe, however, that it raises very basic issues with regard to the true nature of Christianity and the Gospel” (127).
Maybe it is just me, but any doctrine that “raises very basic issues with regard to the true nature of Christianity and the Gospel” is heretical. That is like Paul writing to the Galatians, “I am not saying that the Judaizers are heretical. I do believe, however that they raise very basic issues with regard to the true nature of Christianity and the Gospel.” What on earth?
So I ask, does Sam believe Dispensationalism is heretical or not? Is John heretical for holding to Dispensationalism no matter how “leaky” it may be? If the system isn’t, and John isn’t, what was the point of writing his book? Unless it was to grouse about some message given by a popular radio preacher you happen to disagree with.
Now, with my surface level review in place, I would like to return to many of the theological subjects Sam raises in his book and expand upon them for future articles so as to flesh out my perspective on those subjects, as well as provide a rejoinder to his amillennial assertions. I can say now that I do not speak in any official capacity for John or any of his ministries. I am confident he can respond on his own, and in fact, I understand a response may be forth coming at some point. My purpose will be to formulate my views by interacting with what was written against John.
Sam has become of a champion of sorts for young Reformed Baptist Calvinists, the vast majority of whom are refugees from Dispensational, premillennial oriented Baptist churches. Their testimony is perhaps similar to mine. They first discover the Bible teaches the Doctrines of Grace and embraced them with eagerness. Those doctrines revolutionized their thinking about God, Christ, man, and how one handles the Bible. Yet, in the zeal of discovering those timeless biblical truths, their personal reformation didn’t end with salvation, but continued with the abandonment of previous eschatological views they came to consider erroneous. In some cases, even their ecclesiology was “reformed” when they abandoned believer’s baptism for infant baptism.
I am for theological reform along all areas of doctrine; but I am not of the opinion I have to become either amillennial or postmillennial in my eschatology, or even adapt amillennial hermeneutics when it comes to the interpretation and application of prophetic literature, in order to be “completely reformed.” I think R.K. McGregor-Wright stated it well when he wrote,
It’s important that we as Protestants who take sola Scriptura seriously, not treat patterns of doctrine, especially the reformed tradition of theology that we have learned so much from, as a “package deal.” In fact, “reformed theology” as we find it in the literature, is no such thing. Reformed theology is a particular tradition of understanding emanating from the Reformation, not an exclusive system of divine truth that cannot itself be altered. No theology has the same status as Scripture, and no confession of faith has the same finality as the Word of God written. All theologies are the results of human effort, and they partake of the failures and partial successes of the men and women who have contributed to them down through the years. They are traditions, not additional revelations. Reformed theology is itself reformable today for the same reason catholic theology was reformable in the sixteenth century. The controlling principle of sola Scriptura still applies, Calvin or no Calvin. (The Premillennial Second Coming: A brief defense, pg. 1, unpublished paper).
I agree with him and will proceed with my study with that mindset.