Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 2

A controversy that brought the Dutch church to the edge of a major split, the division over the Remonstrance was examined in part one. The response by the new Dutch government was to call a Synod of Reformed ministers in order to resolve this crisis.

The Synod was called for the 13th of November, 1618, in the city of Dordrecht (often abbreviated in English as ‘Dort’ or ‘Dordt’). There was a large backlash to the calling of the Synod as many Arminians felt that the Calvinists in the Dutch church were not in to position to objectively judge the issues in dispute. The Calvinists responded that they were upholding the Reformed teaching and so must be given the opportunity to judge the innovations of the Remonstrants against the established standard. However, the Calvinists did concede that, in the interest of fairness, the Synod was to be an international affair, gathering the views from delegates from across the Reformed world. This would mititgate any bias on the grounds of Dutch politics so that the true heart of the theological issue would be examined. Furthermore, the Arminians had the right to make their views heard at the Synod directly rather than relying on, potentially partisan, second – hand accounts.

The invitations to the Synod produced some embarrassing moments for the organisers. First was the snubbing of the Scottish Church. An invitation was sent for a delegation from King James I of England (VI of Scotland). He appointed a delegation of five bishops from England to the Synod (including the distinguised Bishop of Salisbury, John Davenant). The Presbyterian Church of Scotland was not impressed by this entirely English delegation. King James acquiesced and added a Scot (Walter Balcanqual) to the delegation. However, Balcanqual was actually a member of the Church of England, which displeased the Scots all the more.

The English (and Scottish) delegation notified the Dutch that they ought to have honoured seats in the Synod, owing to being the delegation from the greatest Protestant monarchy of Europe. Unfortunately, the French delegation also claimed a right to the most honoured seats on the basis that they were the delegation from the greatest of all monarchies in Europe. This potentially problematic seating arrangement was avoided since King Louis XIII (a papist) informed the French delegation that they would not be permitted to re – enter France on the return journey if they were to go to the Synod. At the Synod itself, the Dutch left visibly empty seats for the non – existent French delegation, placed just below the English seats.

Whilst delegates from England, Scotland, German territories (Palatinate, Hesse, Nassau, Bremen, and Emden), the German – speaking Swiss cantons (Zurich, Bern, Basel, and Schaffhausen), and the Dutch Republic itself, it was shaping up to be a truly international Synod, even without the French delegation. Yet more embarrassment was to await the Dutch. They’d forgotten to invite anyone from Geneva, which had arguably been the most important centre of Reformed learning for 80 years. A late invitation was sent and accepted.

The final delegation had a total of 84 delegates and 18 political commissioners. There was also a large contingent of the Remonstrants that arrived in December 1618 to defend their views. However, the Synod only named a leading 13 Arminians to attend the Synod. Not so much as delegates, but in order to stand trial as defendants of their theological unorthodoxy. The leader of these 13 was Simon Episcopius. The previous Remonstrant leader after Arminius himself had died, Uytenbogaert, had fled to Antwerp, in the Spanish occupied Netherlands.

The opening speech in defence of the Remonstrance was made by Episcopius. The speech was noted as a particularly dull affair, lasting over two hours. One British observer to the Synod, John Hales, noted that Episcopius had finally come to the part for which the Synod had all been wating: the end. Later one, the Arminians were to be expelled from the Synod by the president, Johannes Bogerman, for speaking at great length in unhelpful ways. They never returned.

The discussion of the Remonstrant theology by the Synod was no simple task by itself. In one particularly heated moment, the former theological faculty member of the University of Leiden, Francis Gomarus, challenged Martinius of Bremen to a duel on the floor of the Synod over a particular theological formulation. Fortunately, other members of the Synod kept heads cool enough so that peace prevailed without the need for the death of another Synod delegate.

Finally, however, the Synod approved a response to the Remonstrance in April, 1619. They were officially proclaimed in May of the same year. Based around the five point format that the Remonstrance used, the Synod of Dordt produced its Canons (meaning ‘rule’) as a five point ruling against the Arminians. Incidentally, here lies the origin of the so – called ‘five points of Calvinism’. Calvinism, as a nickname (originally given by Lutherans) for Reformed theology, has nothing to do with Calvin himself (at least not directly) and is itself much broader than simply the five points that the Canons of Dordt lay out. A full expression of true Calvinism (or, more accurately, Reformed theology) can be found in such confessions such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, or the Belgic Confession, and catechisms such as the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Westminster Shorter and Larger Catechisms. Calvinism never has had five points, but simply five answers to the five errors of Arminianism.

Following the format provided in the Remonstrance, the Canons of Dordt are organised around five heads of doctrine. As noted above, the third and fourth articles of the Remonstrance are paired together since article 3 is only problematic when considered alongside article 4.

The Canons are a significantly longer document than the Remonstrance. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the members of the Synod chose not to write the Canons in academic language but rather to make the Canons readable for the average church member. The Canons could have been much more concise if they had used for technical theological language, but their benefit to the common man would be diminished. Secondly, not only did the Canons state a their positive position on each of the five points, but they also answered some perceived objections that the Arminians might raise. Each head of doctrine (the third and fourth combined as one section) has up to 18 short articles stating the Synod’s teaching upon which they agreed and up to 9 short rejections of misunderstandings and errors.

The Canons themselves can be read in their entirety here. I would highly recommend reading them (at least the five heads of doctrine) for yourself. A brief overview of each head of doctrine will suffice in part three.

2 thoughts on “Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 2”

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