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.

Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 1

Amongst the many great lessons that Church history can teach us, one of the most reliable is that controversy produces clarity. The great creeds of the Church, statements of faith, and core teachings of Christianity were largely written and defined amidst dispute. The debate about Arianism which helped the Church define the doctrine of the Trinity (see the Nicene Creed); the arguments of the Nestorians and the Eutychians which helped the Church understand the two natures of Christ (see the Formula of Chalcedon); the writings of Augustine who showed, against the Pelagians, the necessity of grace for the salvaiton of the believer; the Reformation that help to guide the Church into a clearer understanding of justification through grace alone by faith alone in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, on the authority of Scripture alone. All these theological disagreements (and many more!) has helped make the true teaching of Scripture clearer to Christians through generations, and continues to do so today.

One such disputation occured in the early 17th century Netherlands (or the Dutch Republic, as it was then). Part of the legacy of that controversy was one of the most valuable, but often one of the most neglected resources in the Church today – the Canons of Dordt. Before introducing Canons, we should start with the man who started it all – Jakob Hermanszoon.

Hermanszoon was born in the city of Oudewater, in the Dutch Republic (modern day Netherlands) province of Utrecht, in 1560. Hermanszoon’s early life contained a great deal of tragedy. He never knew his father, who died when he was in infancy. At the age of 15, while Hermanszoon was away being educated in the German city of Marburg, his home town of Oudewater was conquered by Spanish troops who massacred its inhabitants. Among the casualties were Hermanszoon’s mother, sister, and his two brothers. Under the generous patronage of Rudolph Snellius, Hermanszoon went to study in the Dutch University of Leiden and later went on study in Geneva and Basel. The leading professor in Geneva at the time was the famous theologian and scholar Theodore Beza, who was the immediate successor to John Calvin. Under the watch of Beza in Geneva, Hermanszoon received his theological education. He passed his student disputation, showing is theological proficiency, and was written a letter of recommendation by Beza himself as he returned to the Dutch Republic. Armed with a glowing academic reputation and a letter from the foremost theologian of the age, professor of the foremost theological centre of learning of the age, Hermanszoon could hardly have arrived at Amsterdam, as he did in 1587, with a greater theological CV. One year later, he married into an influential family and was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed church.

Almost immediately after starting his pastorate, Hermanszoon preached some controversial sermons on the book of Romans. First, he made a controversial point that in Romans 7, Paul was not talking about a Christian experience, but rather a pre – Christian experience. Not long after, Hermanszoon preached a sermon on Romans 9 where he expounded a view that God elects His people based on a forseen faith (fides praevisa) within them. In other words, God first considered those who would exercise faith in Him before choosing to elect them. Both of these views invoked a strong reaction in the Dutch Reformed church as they were seen as theologically problematic. In fact, it is surprising that no disciplinary action for this initial (or indeed any subsequent) controversy from the church authorities (both his own congregational elders and the regional Classis of local elders and other ministers). This is likely because of Hermanszoon’s influential supporters and the protection they were able to offer, but it is a quirk of history that such a divisive and controversial figure remained in good standing with the Dutch Reformed church throughout his life.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, despite this controversy, in 1603 Hermanszoon was given a position to teach theology at the University of Leiden. The suspicions around Hermanszoon did not die out whilst he was at Leiden. Many rumours and accusations that he was teaching theology that was not orthodox were circulated, but never proved. Such suspicions were difficult to ratify since Hermanszoon published almost none of his writings in his lifetime. Even more curiously, the governing body of the Univeristy of Leiden twice sent an experienced faculty member, Francis Gomarus, to investigate claims about the suspicious nature of Hermanszoon’s teaching. Gomarus had a reputation for a keen eye for theological detail and was reportedly a man of great learning. Twice, however, Hermanszoon managed to answer all of Gomarus’ questions without exposing himself to be violating the accepted Reformed orthodoxy.

The controversy surrounding Hermanszoon in his lifetime came to peak in 1608 when he was investigated by governmental authorities. In order to give a summarised expression to his views for the investigation, he wrote a work called Declaration of Sentiments in which he criticsed the established Calvinistic view of predestination, before outlining his own view. In Hermanszoon’s opinion, predestination, as he’d taught from his sermons on Romans 9, was not unconditional. Rather, God has elected some individuals to believe based on the faith he has forseen in them. Thus, God’s election was conditional on human faith. Moreover, the choice a person made to believe the Gospel was by a synergistic cooperation between both the human and Divine wills. Although Hermanszoon did not actually deny that humanity’s will had fallen dead to original sin in Adam (as some later claim), he did teach that God had restored, supernaturally, an ability for man to freely repent and believe the Gospel. This gift from God to enable or enliven the otherwise dead human was termed ‘prevenient grace’. In the final analysis, Hermanszoon affirmed humanity’s innate inability to repent and believe the Gospel, independent of God’s grace, but then taught that God had restored the human will out of that fallen state into a condition where the human will could in fact repent and believe in cooperation with God’s grace.

Hermanszoon’s Declaration was set to cause an even greater wave of controversy in its wake. However, Hermanszoon died in at the relatively young age of 49 in 1609 from tuberculosis. Instead of this being the end of the controversy surrounding this enigmatic professor, the controversy in the church only became more exacerbated.

Following Hermanszoon’s death in 1609, it had become clear that he had picked up a number of followers along the way. His successor at Leiden, Conrad Vorstius was even more radical than Hermanszoon himself, with accusations made of him that his views toed the line of Socinianism (a group who, among other things, denied the doctrine of the Trinity). Unlike his predecessor, however, Vorstius was unable to appear orthodox before Gomarus who became so disgusted by the new appointment that he retired. Vorstius was eventually forced out of Leiden, but kept up a stream of aggressively worded polemical works. Another particularly important minister who followed Hermanszoon was Jan Uytenbogaert, who had actually studied with Hermanszoon in Geneva and the two had remained friends. Uytenbogaert became the new leader of a controversial movement of Hermanszoon’s followers, that still made up a minority in the church. However, it just so happened that Uytenbogaert ministered in the most politically important church in the Dutch capital of The Hague, where the most powerful military figure in the land, Prince Maurice of Nassau was a worshipper. Moreover, the movement had a highly placed backer in the form of a government official, Johan von Oldenbarnevelt, who held the esteemed position of ‘land advoacte’ to the largest and wealthiest province of the Dutch Republic: Holland. He was essentially the Prime Minister of the Dutch Republic.

With such politically intimidating allies, the movement following Hermanszoon felt emboldened to publish a theological manifesto, known to history as ‘the Remonstrance’. Those who accepted the views of the Remonstrance were called ‘Remonstrants’, although they often go under a different name today – Arminians. This name comes from the original leader of the movement, Jakob Hermanszoon, whose name is commonly rendered in its Latin form: Jacob Arminius. Even despite their politically formidable supporters, the Remonstrants (or Arminians) recognised that they may still be disciplined by their local Classes for their views. The Remonstrance was an appeal to the civil government for their views to be tolerated within the church. The Remonstrance narrowed down the five main points of contention that they had with the established Reformation views. They can be summarised as follows (with my own emphasis in the quotations in bold; a full translation of the Remonstrance can be found here):

  1. The first article declared that with respect to election, God has “determined, out of the fallen and sinful human race, to save in Christ, because of Christ, and through Christ those who, through the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in this His Jesus and persevere in this belief and obedience even to the end, through this grace.”
  2. The second article says that, following the first article, Jesus “died for all men and for each man. He earned for them all…reconcilliation and the forgiveness of sins. Still, Christ died in such a way that no one actually shares in this forgiveness of sins, except those who believe.”
  3. The third article states that “it is necessary that…through the Holy Spirit, he be born again and renewed in understanding, affection, and will, and all powers so that he might rightlydo the truly good.”
  4. Continuing from the third article, the fourth article goes on to say that the “grace of God is the beginning, continuance, and completion of all good…all good works of which man can think must be ascribed to the grace of God. Butthis grace, it is not irresistible.”
  5. The final article ends in somewhat of an unsatisfying note. The Remonstrants stated first that “Those who are united to Jesus Christ by a true faithhave abundant power to fight against Satan, sin, and the world…and that Jesus Christ assists themif only they are ready for the conflict.” But the final concluding point is made that “whether they of themselves through neglect can lose the beginning of their being with Christreject the Holy Spirit once given to them…and abandon grace, must be taught further in the Scripture before we ourselves can teach it.”

A quick survey of the summary of the “five points of Arminianism” highlights for us the deep theological division that was brought into light by the Remonstrance. The first article teaches just what Arminius had taught from Romans 9: that the election of God was based on forseen faith (and the perseverence of that faith) in the individual. In a way, the Arminians were proclaiming a Biblical truth that God saves those who persevere in faith and obedience. However, where the Arminians differed from the Calvinists was that they turned this Biblical truth into the ground of God’s election. Unlike the Calvinists, who understood predestination to refer to certain individuals chosen for salvation, the Arminians considered God choosing qualifications that the individual must first meet before being counted among the elect.

Next, the Remonstrance focuses in on the death of Christ in its second article. They are initially very clear on their position: that Christ died for each and every man (and woman, presumably) who ever lived. Yet, the rest of the article is more vague, and it is not clear how the Arminians resolved the issue that if Christ died for each and every man, why are not all saved? Somehow, for the Arminians, the effectiveness of Christ’s death is triggered by the faith of the believer. Yet if Christ, as they seem to say, died for all the sins of every man, is unbelief a sin? If it is, then surely Christ died for it and must therefore save even those who do not believe. If unbelief is not a sin, then God cannot condemn the unbeliever for his unbelief and must also be saved. It is unclear, then how Christ could have died for the sins of each and every man yet not all be saved, as the article states.

Interestingly, the third article of the Remonstrance appears to restate the traditional Protestant understanding of original sin. The will of man is not truly free to choose to do good apart from the grace of God, and Calvinists would agree with the statement made, in isolation. However, the issue became how article 3 was continued into article 4.

In the third article, the necessity of grace to save fallen man was expounded. In the fourth article, the sufficiency of that grace is denied. Instead, it becomes clear that the Arminian system depends upon cooperation with grace in order to be justified. The sinner must, at the very least, acquiesce to the grace of God before God can save them. The nature of the Arminian conception of grace in article 3 denies that the sinner can do good apart from God’s grace, yet the conception of grace in article 4 requires a cooperative effort with grace in order to be saved. To be consistent, this would require an act of the human will cooperating with grace not to be a good work (since it would require grace to perform) and how this can be so is not enitrely clear.

The fifth and final point was considered quite disingenuous by its critics. It affirmed that grace was able to sustain the believer against sin, the world, and the Devil yet, out of the other side of their mouth (so to speak, as the Dutch Calvinists saw it) they did not know whether the believer could ultimately lose their salvation. This final point of the Remonstrance is indeed a curiously flimsy one. Intended, as it probably was, to come across as a mark of humility and submission to the authority of Scripture, it implied that they hadn’t really thought through what they were teaching. It appears to me, at any rate, that they saw the logical conclusion to their position to lead them to the idea that believers could indeed lose their salvation, but they were unwilling to say so as it would wrench the assurance of salvation out from under the feet of their congregations.

Nevertheless, the Remonstrance was signed by some 42 ministers, and presented a serious challenge to the established Calvinist majority of the Dutch church that needed a response.

A response was offered by the church in the form of the ‘Counter – Remonstrance‘. This document was the result of a 10 day conference in 1611, and used 7 points to refute the Remonstrance. However, this document didn’t so much as settle the controversy, but simply defined the battlegroud. The polarisation of the two sides steadily increased, with the church on the precipice of a major split. Moreover, the most powerful military figure in the Republic, Prince Maurice, left his congregation (which had an Arminian minister) and started to attend a church with a Calvinist pastor. Whilst the political figures like Oldenebarnvelt continued to support toleration for Ariminians, Maurice (and therefore his army) came to support Calvinism. On the brink of civil war, Prince Maurice marched his army into Holland and arrested Oldenebarnvelt in July 1618. A new government, with Maurice at the helm, sanctioned a national synod to address the Remonstrance.

The Synod that did convene later that year would prove a landmark event in the history of the Protestant Church, and the events surrounding the Synod will be the subject of part two.