Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 4

The final part of this short introduction and overview of the Canons of Dordt finishes by considering the third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine. A list of some useful resources for further study is attached at the end.

The Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine

What the first two heads of doctrine have in common, as we saw in part three, is that they were considering the salvation of believers in terms of God’s intention and decree. First in terms of election in eternity past, and then in the work of Christ on the cross. The Canons concluded, as we have seen, that God’s purpose in election was to show His grace in the predestination of a specific people unto election, soley for His glory and not on the grounds of any foreseen merit or work within the believer. They then concluded that Christ’s intention on the cross was to save for Himself a people, given to Him as a gift by the Father, and that those people would be wholly and actually saved through His blood, rather than simply to make salvation generally ‘available’.

In contrast, the third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine focus in on the experience of the believer in the salvation process. In terms of the TULIP acronym, these heads of doctrine line up with the ‘T’, total depravity, and the ‘I’, irresistible grace.

As mentioned previously, the third and fourth heads of doctrine are considered together. This is because what the third article of the Remonstrance said about God’s grace was not controversial, except in the context of what the Remonstrants went on to say in the fourth. The third article expounded the necessity of grace for salvation; that man does not have saving grace within himself but must be born again of God. The Arminians even sound like Calvinists when they say “that man has not saving grace of himself, nor of the energy of his free-will, inasmuch as he, in the state of apostasy and sin, can of and by himself neither think, will, nor do anything that is truly good (such as having faith eminently is)” (article 3 of the Remonstrance; all emphases in quotations are my own).

What the Arminians are doing is denying the Pelagian view of humanity that claimed man was able, in and of himself, to do that which is good apart from the grace of God. This is what the Canons themselves teach in article 1. However, a troubling thread of thought finds root for the Remonstrants at this point. Notice that they say that having faith is a ‘good’ that the sinner cannot (innately) ‘do’. Although this is formally true, what they go on to claim, in article 4 of the Remonstrance is in fact that good cannot be done “without prevenient or assisting…co-operative grace”. Now the Remonstrance in article 4 have re – defined grace. Compare this statement again to their words in article 3: “that it is needful that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers”.

In other words the Arminians say “you cannot do good without grace, including faith” (article 3) but then say “to do good I must co – operate with grace” (article 4). Surely co – operating with grace is a good…but they have already said they can’t perform such a good.

In reality, then, grace as the Arminians define it is not simply an instrument of receiving, believing, and resting in Christ, but grace works in two ways. There is God’s grace that actually restores man’s nature to one that can do some good (previent grace – as Arminius himself taught, see part one) and then that nature is able to co – operate with the saving grace of God.

The clearest positive repudiation of this view came from article 14 of the Canons:

“Faith is therefore to be considered as the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred upon him, breathed and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should by the exercise of his own free will consent to the terms of salvation and actually believe in Christ, but because He who works in man both to will and to do, works in man both to will and to believe, and indeed He works all in all.

Here the Canons explicitly say God’s grace is not such that He gives them the power to believe and then requires some further co – operation, but that God works in man both to will and to believe. On the flipside, they negatively reject the Arminian position in rejection 4:

“That the unregenerate man is not really nor utterly dead in sin, nor destitute of all powers unto spiritual good, but that he can yet hunger and thirst after righteousness and life, and offer the sacrifice of a contrite and broken spirit, which is pleasing to God.  For these things are contrary to the express testimony of Scripture: “you who were dead in your trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1,5).  And: “every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5, 8:21).  Moreover, to hunger and thirst for deliverance from misery and for life, and to offer unto God the sacrifice of a broken spirit, is peculiar to the regenerate and those that are called blessed (Ps 51:17; Mt 5:6).”

Aside for this issue, the Canons also deal pastorally with difficulties that might arise. Firstly, in article 15 below, they address the issue about considering those who are not saved and the apparent injustice of God giving saving grace to some but not others. The Canons highlight how man – centred this view of thinking is, but do so in a humble way. They make the point that God owes grace to no – one. If He did, we would no longer be talking about grace. By definition, God’s grace is entirely free. The question, of course, is not why some people aren’t saved, but why anyone is saved at all. They advise charity to those who do profess faith (however weak it may seem) and actually call the Christian to use this teaching to act with humility, because God did not chose us because we were better than anyone else. This means that a ‘proud Calvinist’ ought to (but is not always) a contradiction in terms.

God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can He be indebted to one who had no previous gifts to bestow as a foundation for such recompense?  By no means, how can He be indebted to one who has nothing of his own but sin and falsehood?  He, therefore, who becomes the subject of this grace owes eternal gratitude to God, and gives Him thanks forever.  Whoever is not made partaker thereof is either altogether regardless of these spiritual gifts and satisfied with his own condition, or is in no apprehension of danger, and vainly boasts the possession of that which he has not.  Further, with respect to those who outwardly profess their faith and amend their lives, we are bound, after the example of the apostle, to judge and speak of them in the most favorable manner; for the secret recesses of the heart are unknown to us.  And as to others who have not yet been called, it is our duty to pray for them to God, who calls the things that are not as if they were.  But we are in no way to conduct ourselves towards them with haughtiness, as if we had made ourselves to differ.”

They also reject the modern view that ‘the Holy Spirit is a gentleman; He will never force Himself on you’ as a way of explaining that the Holy Spirit can be resisted. They say, in rejection 8:

“That God in the regeneration of man does not use His omnipotence to potently and infallibly bend man’s will to faith and conversion; but that all the works of grace having been employed which God uses to convert man, man may yet so resist God and the Holy Spirit, when God intends man’s regeneration and wills to regenerate him, and indeed that man often does so resist that he prevents entirely his regeneration, and that it therefore remains in man’s power to be regenerated or not.  For this is nothing less than the denial of all that efficiency of God’s grace in our conversion, and the subjecting of the working of Almighty God to the will of man, which is contrary to the apostles, who teach that we believe according to the working of the strength of his might (Eph 1:19); and that God fulfills every desire of goodness and every work of faith with power (2 Th 1:11); and that “His divine power has given us all things that pertain to life and godliness” (2 Pt 1:3).”

The third and fourth heads of doctrine explain how God effectively calls those whom He has chosen, and for whom Christ died, and worked in us a gift of faith. We are, in our fallen nature, entirely unable to exercise faith or co – operate with God’s grace as we are truly dead in our sins. This is a monergistic work of God, in that there is only one worker, God, in regeneration, rather than the synergistic model offered by the Arminians, where God and man co – operate.

The Fifth Head of Doctrine

Finally, we come to the fifth head of doctrine, the ‘P’ – perseverance of the saints. The Remonstrants were decidedly unsure on this is issue of perseverance, and seemed to lean (but not with any real conviction) on the side that true Christians indeed could lose their salvation and completely depart from grace. Whilst the believer has the power to resist the lure of Satan, sin, and the Devil, as they said in article 5, the believer might not actually resist and fall away altogether.

Into the Arminian uncertainty, the Synod provided clarity and assurance. In article 3 they clearly state:

“By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and also because the temptations of the world and of Satan, those who are converted could not persevere in that grace if left to their own strengthBut God is faithful, who, having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.”

Article 1 had maintained that sin did always remain in the believer on Earth (denying Perfectionism). However, as article 3 above says, these sins would actually cause the believer to lose their salvation if they relied on their own strength. Yet God upholds us by His grace to preserve them in faith. This does not mean, however, that the Canons sanction the ‘once – saved – always – saved’ system (often preached in Fundamentalist Baptist circles) that teach that you can be saved on a profession of faith and that repentance and obedience to the law is not a necessary fruit of justification. It’s not a ‘free ticket to Heaven’ theology. Article 2 has already stressed that:

“[B]lemishes cleave even to the best works of the saints.  These are to them a perpetual reason to humiliate themselves before God and to flee for refuge to Christ crucified; to mortify the flesh more and more by the spirit of prayer and by holy exercises of piety; and to press forward to the goal of perfection, until at length, delivered from this body of death, they shall reign with the Lamb of God in heaven.”

Moreover, the Canons even admit that truly regenerate believers can fall into serious sin, in article 5, but the believer “sometimes for a while lose the sense of God’s favour, until, when they change their course by serious repentance”. The Canons maintain the seriousness of sin, and its need for repentance, all whilst assuring the believer that they never can fall further than God’s grace. This leads to the Canons’ statement in article 6, defining clearly what the preservation of the saints means:

“God, who is rich in mercy, according to His unchangeable purpose of election, does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people even in their grievous falls; nor does He allow them to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption and forfeit the state of justification, or to commit the sin unto death or against the Holy Spirit; nor does He permit them to be totally deserted and plunge themselves into everlasting destruction.”

This is a most comforting doctrine for God’s children. We can know full assurance of our salvation; God will not let us fall from His grace. We may be tempted, and fall into sin. We may lose the sense of God’s grace and God may seem far from us for a season, but we have a sure hope that God will preserve us for His glory.

Rather than being a licence to sin or live without holiness, the Canons say the exact opposite in article 12:

“This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that on the contrary it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.”

This legacy is borne out in history. Following the Synod of Dordt, those who adhered to its confession were sometimes referred to as ‘Precisionists’ in the Dutch Republic. In England, they were known as ‘Puritans’. These are not people typically associated with a low view of holiness in favour of licentious living.

Finally, the Canons make sure to pastorally point to the means of grace (the Word preached, and the sacraments – baptism and the Lord’s supper – administered) as the instruments through which He preserves us by His grace. As article 14 says:

“[I]t has pleased God, by the preaching of the gospel, to begin this work of grace in us, so He preserves, continues, and perfects it by the hearing and reading of His Word, by meditation thereon, and by the exhortations, threatenings, and promises thereof, and by the use of the sacraments.”

Here, the Canons are touching on a wider Reformed view of the means of grace. The central importance of Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper in the life of the Church is established. They are not optional extras. They are the way in which God saves His people (yes, the Scriptures uses that language, see 1 Peter 3:21) in the sense that He preserves us in the faith. They are the visible word of promise to us.

We persevere, not by our own strenght, merit, or goodness. We persevere because the Holy Spirit upholds us, strengthens us, and works in us by the means He has ordained. We may feel far from God is difficult seasons, but we have assurance that God will never release us from His hands.

The Canons of Dordt stand in history as a triumph of a classic understanding of God’s predestination unto election. It stands in the tradition of Paul against the Judaisers, Augustine against Pelagius, Luther against Erasmus. The Canons give assurance to the believer in their salvation, because it ultimately does not hinge upon what we do – in our exercise of faith or whether we are able persevere. Instead, the Canons teach that salvation is of the Lord, and it’s all about grace.

Another name of the summary of the theology of the Canons of Dordt is “the doctrines of grace”. They express the Biblical reality of salvation by faith alone, through grace alone, in Christ alone. They remain a confessional standard for the Dutch Reformed churches, along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism (collectively known as the 3 Forms of Unity), and is widely revered across the Reformed world.

Futher Resources:

The Belgic Confession (1561)
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
The Remonstrance (1610)
The Canons of Dordt (1619)
R. Scott Clark, Commentary on the Canons of Dordt (33 part)
R. Scott Clark, Growing Beyond TULIP
R. Scott Clark, The Synod of Dort: Keeping Venom from the Lips of Children
Echo Zoe podcast, featuring Dr. R. Scott Clark.
Office Hours podcast, featuring Dr. W. Robert Godfrey
W. Robert Godfrey, Who Was Arminius?
W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Reformation Trust, Orlando, Florida, USA (2019) [D.r Godfrey’s translation of the Canons in this work is particularly excellent]
Richard Muller, The Problem of TULIP

Hitting the Target: The Canons of Dordt, Part 3

Readers may be familiar with the ‘five points of Calvinism’ (which has already been shown in part two to be somewhat of an anachronism) that seek to summarise the Canons of Dordt in five points that spell TULIP. Whilst this is an imperfect, yet admittedly useful acronym the Canons themselves are arranged in the order ULTIP, to correspond with the order of the articles of the Remonstrance.

Here, I will look at the first two heads of doctrine of the Canons of Dordt (to be read in full here for reference).

The First Head of Doctrine

The first head of doctrine concerns the predestination and election of God, often summarised as teaching unconditional election (the ‘U’ in TULIP). The Canons teach that God elects, out of the sinful mass of humanity, a people for Himself. Those to whom God predestines to give the gift of faith are truly saved; others are left in their sins. The basis of this predestination unto salvation of the elect, the Canons stress, is not on the basis of forseen faith in the believer. Over against the Arminians, the Canons (specifically in article 9) express that the faith of the believer is not a prerequisite condition upon which God saves, but faith flows forth from God’s election.

Perhaps clearest and most forceful refutation of the Arminian position is found in article 7 (emphases in all quotes are my own):

“Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, He has out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of His own will, chosen from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of uprightness into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom He from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect and the foundation of salvation.  This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God has decreed to give to Christ to be saved by Him, and effectually to call and draw them to His communion by His Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of His Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of His mercy, and for the praise of the riches of His glorious grace; as it is written: “Just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him, in love having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, by which He bestowed grace upon us in the Beloved” (Eph 1:4-6).  And elsewhere: “Whom He predestined, these He also called, and whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified” (Rom 8:30).”

The Canons, in multiple articles, are quick to point out that those whom God does not elect (or passes over) are not treated unfairly. In this sense, the Canons clearly define, as in article 15 below, that this predesination is a “double predestination”. That is, the election is not simply God electing some special people, and then the rest of humanity are left to choose whether to believer or not. Rather, due to the fundamental condition of humanity (as the third and fourth heads of doctrine will flesh out later), those who are not elected never believer because they will alway choosing to sin against God. Therefore, all the non – elect are necessarily predestined by omission and this is the decree of reprobation.

The Canons are careful to refute the misrepresentation that implies that God is the author sin in the lives on the non – elect in order to damn them. This is the view known as “equal ultimacy”. This is a ‘positive – positive’ view of double predestination. It holds that God works equally in the predstination of the elect as He does the reprobate: ‘positively’ working new life in the hearts of the elect and, in the same and equal manner, ‘positively’ working new evil in the hearts of the reprobate. The view of the Canons is instead a “positive – negative” double predestination. God ‘positively’ works new life in the believer, and ‘negatively’ refrains from giving mercy to the reprobate. Calvinists are often accused of believing in equal ultimacy, but the Canons explicitly rule it out as blasphemous. Instead, God condemns the reproabte out of the sin they themselves have wrought in their sinful nature, by their own choice. God in no way needs to work evil in our heart to cause a just basis for His condemnation. In the words of article 15:

“[N]ot all, but some only, are elected, while others are passed by in the eternal decree; whom God, out of His sovereign, most just, irreprehensible, and unchangeable good pleasure, has decreed to leave in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves, and not to bestow upon them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but, permitting them in His just judgment to follow their own ways, at last, for the declaration of His justice, to condemn and punish them forever, not only on account of their unbelief, but also for all their other sins.  And this is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the Author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy), but declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous Judge and Avenger thereof.”

The articles of the first head of doctrine address some more pastoral concerns. Some people, the Synod envisaged, would worry about being unchangeably numbered among the reprobate and therefore would never be saved. They saw their struggling Christian life as a liability for assurance of their salvation and perhaps thought to give up hope in the face of the knowledge that some people are not predestined to salvation by God. The Canons answer this concern most helpfully in article 16:

Those in whom a living faith in Christ, and assured confidence of soul, peace of conscience, an earnest endeavor after filial obedience, a glorying in God through Christ, is not as yet strongly felt, and who nevertheless make use of the means which God has appointed for working these graces in us, ought not to be alarmed at the mention of reprobation, nor to rank themselves among the reprobate, but diligently to persevere in the use of means, and with ardent desires devoutly and humbly to wait for a season of richer grace.  Much less cause to be terrified by the doctrine of reprobation have they who, though they seriously desire to be turned to God, to please Him only, and to be delivered from the body of death, cannot yet reach that measure of holiness and faith to which they aspire; since a merciful God has promised that He will not quench the smoking flax, nor break the bruised reed. But this doctrine is justly terrible to those who, regardless of God and of the Savior Jesus Christ, have wholly given themselves up to the cares of the world and the pleasures of the flesh, so long as they are not seriously converted to God.”

Those who are granted faith in God, however weak, however troubled, however discouraged, should not be worried about reprobation as He is gracious to carry even the feeblest of us. The doctrine about reprobation ought to convict those who are in no way desirous of the things of God and lust only after the pleasures of the flesh.

Furthermore, the case of infant mortality is also considered briefly in article 17, calling on Christian parents that they ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy.”

After the initial 18 articles, the Canons procede to offer 9 rejections of Arminian errors. The most important of these rejections is Rejection 4, which explicitly calls out the idea that “in the election unto faith this condition is beforehand demanded that man should use the light of nature aright, be pious, humble, meek, and fit for eternal life, as if on these things election were in any way dependent” as a mark of the Pelagian heresy of the 5th century, where men must do good works in order to earn their slavation. This was the fundamental error of the Remonstrance’s first article that the Synod categorically denied, both in a positive (through the articles) and negative (through the rejections) fashion.

The Second Head of Doctrine

Whilst the first head of doctrine was the longest, the second was the shortest, with 9 articles and 7 rejections. In terms of the familiar acronym, TULIP, the second head of doctrine corresponds to the ‘L’ – limited atonement. Since this is the most controversial section of the Canons, it is worth taking some extra care here.

First is to note that the popular English slogan for what the Canons teach here is misleading. It is not misleading in the sense that it is false, but in that it is not really specific to what the Synod was attempting to convey. From the beginning, we must recognise that every theological system in Christianity (unless you are a Universalist and believe in the salvation of every single human being) limits the atonement in at least some way. All of them – Calvinism, Arminianism, Molinism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy. The issue at stake is about in what manner the atonement is limited.

In the discussion here between the Arminian and Calvinist views, it would be useful to recall what the Arminians themselves wrote in the Remonstrance of 1610. Article 2 states:

“Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer

Clearly, the Arminians held to a universal or unlimited view of the extent of the atonement. That is, they believe that Jesus’ sacrifice was applied to, and was intended for, the redemption of every human being. However, the Arminian position held that the efficacy or effectiveness of the atonement is limited. If everyone has the atonement of Christ applied to them, then it cannot be effective in all of them since all are not actually redeemed and forgiven. Therefore, the Arminians presented a system where the atonement has an unlimited extent, but a limited effect.

Over and against this, the Synod taught that the atonement should properly be considered as having a limited extent. That is, Christ’s death on the cross was only ever intended to redeem His elect. In doing so, the Synod recognised that whilst the extent of the atonement was limited, its effect must be unlimited and completely effective. In other words, Christ’s death accomplishes salvation for each and every person to whom it is applied, since it is only applied to the elect.

It is important to note that the Canons make it clear that despite the atonement being limited in its extent, that does not mean that the Gospel should only be preached to some and not to all. Article 5 proclaims:

“Moreover, the promise of the gospel is that whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life.  This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of His good pleasure sends the gospel.”

Although many attack Calvinists for thinking that ‘limited atonement’ must mean we ought to limit those to whom we preach the Gospel, the Canons of Dordt deny this. The simple reason is that nobody knows who the elect are. If God dictated to us who the elect were, we would only need to preach the Gospel to them. But since He has not chosen to do so, we must share the Gospel widely in the earnest hope that God will use our preaching to save sinners. All those He does save through the proclamation of the Gospel are shown to be of the elect.

However, whilst the Gospel ought to be shared freely and widely, we must recognise that God has predestined to save His elect (as in the first head of doctrine above). Article 8 expresses the reality of the extent and efficacy of the atonement succinctly:

“For this was the sovereign counsel and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of His Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation; that is, it was the will of God that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby He confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father; that He should confer upon them faith, which, together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, He purchased for them by His death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them, free from every spot and blemish, to the enjoyment of glory in His own presence forever.”

The Canons make it abundantly clear that while the Arminians claimed that Jesus made salvation possible for all people, the Calvinist view teaches that Jesus’ death on the cross actually and effectively saves all those for whom it was intended. To put it somewhat more crudely, the cry of Calvary for the Arminian is “Jesus might save some, if they choose to believe”, but for the Calvinist it is “surely God has guaranteed the salvation of His people”.

The third, fourth, and fifth heads of doctrine are the subject of part four.

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.

Review: Saving the Reformation – W. Robert Godfrey

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dr. Godfrey takes us back to the early 17th century to highlight the importance of what appeared, at the time, to be a local controversy among Dutch churches. However, the Remonstrance of 1610, the subsequent Synod of Dordt, and the following controversy surrounding the character, theology, and following of Jacobus Arminius proved to be anything but a mere local, intra-Reformed disputation.

In seeking to unravel this time period in history where, Dr. Godfrey claims that the Reformation was saved, the author focuses his attention around the historical context, and theological content, of the Canons of Dordt.

The work begins with a brief historical note on the state of the Dutch churches from the time of the Reformation to the early 17th century, providing necessary the historical backdrop to the meeting of the Synod of Dordt. This chapter was a real strength of the book, and Dr. Godfrey makes several interesting points about the international nature of the Synod (including the controversy about the seating arrangement for the British and French delegates, even though the French delegates were banned from attending!) and the disputations arising between members of the Synod (including the challenge of a duel). On a particularly amusing note, Dr. Godfrey was keen to highlight how the Synod invited the Arminians to testify at the Synod to give them a fair hearing. However, the verbosity of one Arminian, Simon Episcopius, led to the scribe noting that “Episcopius finally came to the part for which they had all been eagerly waiting: the end” (p. 26). Dr. Godfrey is gifted in making this historical section both concise and captivating.

After showing the reasons for the Synod’s meeting in responding to various teachings and accusations of the Remonstrants, the main section of the book focuses on an exposition of the Canons in a new translation.

The translation itself is very readable and fulfils its aim in making the Canons more accessible to modern readers without fundamentally diluting its content. The translation accurately captures the warm pastoral heart of the Canons, which is an aspect of the Canons that his highly stressed in this work. Personally, I am a fan of the translation, and the fact that it is included as a chapter as a stand alone, without any exposition, means I will endeavour to use it as my own translation of the Canons in future.

Dr. Godfrey’s exposition is clear and helpful in understanding both the overall structure of the Canons, its main intention in every Article and Rejection. The exposition also helps show how one Article relates to another, which is very beneficial in understanding the flow and internal logic of the Canons. Again, a major strength of the exposition is showing how the Articles and Rejections were intended to edify the church and be pastorally sensitive.

A rather frustrating caveat to an otherwise elucidating exposition, is Dr. Godfrey’s repeated reference and redefinition of Pelagianism. A partial explanation of Pelgianism is given in both the First and Second Heads of Doctrine, and then is again redefined in Article III.2 on original sin. Several other technical theological terms are treated in this manner and is a little frustrating to read. As a result, it is unclear what the expected understanding of the reader is throughout the book. Dr. Godfrey seems to be assuming that the reader has a strange intersection of not necessarily being able to define Pelgianism but also having a working knowledge of both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.

This lack of clarity around certain assumed theological terms is exacerbated in an otherwise intriguing evaluation of Arminius’ teaching in Appendix 1. For example, it would have been helpful to at least have a passing mention as to the core teachings of Ramism in order to understand why Arminius holding to such a philosophy was potentially problematic. Despite this, however, the Appendix does reveal a perpespective about Arminius that rejects the prevailing notions the he was a non – controversial figure that was viciously attacked and misrepresented by Calvinists. In fact, the opposing view is supported. Indeed, a key remark that Dr. Godfrey makes, is that wherever Arminius positively defines his own doctrine of predestination, it is invariably Molinistic at its core.

In summation, this book effectively aids in the understanding of the Canons of Dordt, including placing them in their historical context. The translation itself is worth reading, as is the study of Arminius in the first Appendix.