After long deliberation, the Great Synod officially adopted both the Canons themselves and a Conclusion. Although the Conclusion is not a part of our Reformed creed, it is very helpful to understand what the fathers said in it, and why. The Conclusion is instructive, not only for students interested in history. It has important application for Reformed believers today. We can learn from it.
But who has read it?
To spur on the reader to read the Conclusion itself, I present my own somewhat loose paraphrase of it. I trust even teenagers will understand my paraphrase, who might not make it past the first few sentences of it in the back of the Psalter. My paraphrase may even provoke some to disagree with its wording, which will not disturb me: it will have served my purpose to lure you to read the Conclusion itself. Consider it a commentary. I trust it is faithful [cf. p. 70].
In this Conclusion the fathers make clear that they were at war. They were not even “playing hardball,” for this was no game. This was battle, real war. The matter of truth was the most serious business one could engage in, for the honor and name of God were at stake. Unlike scholars today who refrain from sharp words in their writings, omit any judgmental language, and leave the impression that differences of opinion and even misrepresentation are just part of the game, the fathers at Dordt were in dead earnest about the contended doctrines. They would not allow the Remonstrants to get away with their campaign of slander, even if it meant repeating the calumnies they had spread abroad. A spade must be called a spade. The ‘spade’ himself is addressed. The Reformed fathers addressed the slanderers directly in this conclusion, not talking about them, but to them. “Consider the judgments of God that await you who bear false witness against us, who distress the weak members, who blacken our good name. The judgments of God are coming!” Would that such boldness be maintained, or restored, in Reformed churches today.
As in 1619, so today, the believer who might not read everything in a controversy must not be allowed to be ignorant. Ignorance exposes the believer to the temptation to leave a true church for another (less pure, or even false) because he does not understand the errors of the church he thinks to join, or because he believes the slanders spoken about his present church. Today, as in 1619, church leaders must inform their members of both the errors in other churches and also the slanders told about the Reformed faith, or their Reformed denomination. The Standard Bearer’s purpose includes this at its heart. Preaching and writing, to be faithful preaching and writing, will both explain truth and expose error.
In this Conclusion, therefore, the Reformed fathers explicitly address those who are observing the battle from the sidelines, as it were. They speak to them first. The fathers beseech1 as many as piously call upon the name of our Savior. Good instruction and exhortation are given here to the pious, common member: “Do not judge the Reformed faith from slanderers. There will be such. Do not give too much weight even to the private expressions of some men whom you respect. Some of these are misquoted by our enemies. Other good men may use expressions that you rightly judge to be improper. Instead, judge your church’s doctrine by reading the official expression of it in the confessions.” What good directives for the churches today when issues are contended and debated. Read! Read carefully! And when you hear expressions and opinions from various men, adopt (or reject!) these opinions not based on who the man is, but based on the official decisions rendered by the ecclesiastical assemblies.
Then the fathers exhorted the preachers and teachers in the churches. Also this exhortation was appropriate. For, fact of the matter is that, although official decisions are written and ought to be read, what the people would hear most was the preachers and professors. The pious members would listen to their sermons and read their articles. Thus, these leaders are solemnly exhorted to preach and teach with care. In the seminary and the churches, they must conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling the doctrine.
One can imagine the danger. There are many ways to violate this “order” of the synod, but elders in the churches must listen for violations. One may be tempted to soft-pedal error. Another to ignore the controversy. Yet another to speak in a way that unnecessarily offends. But the synod itself showed how preaching and writing ought to be done when it laid out three essentials: 1) Aim at the glory of God; that is, aim not at your glory; God forbid that the people talk about you when your sermons are finished or article read, but rather bow in humble adoration before the good and gracious God. 2) Aim at holiness of life; that is, aim not at mere intellectual growth, important as that is, but also and especially at godliness and sanctification of heart, mind, life. 3) And aim at comforting afflicted souls; that is, you may be tempted to aim at the strong, the bold, the big people; instead, aim at the kleine luiden, the distressed souls, the doubting spirits. Distress the comfortable and comfort the distressed, so to speak.
There is another danger the fathers addressed. At the Conclusion’s end, the fathers gave the good counsel to preachers carefully to regulate the language they used (even their thoughts, or “sentiments”) by Scripture itself. Preachers, not only young ones, must be cautioned against inventing novel language to explain truth. At the same time that they must be encouraged not to use all the old cliches, they are also warned, especially with regard to the controverted doctrines, not to use phrases that “exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of Scripture.” The Latin is difficult here, and could be translated: “phrases that exceed the prescribed limits of the genuine sense of Holy Scriptures.” But the fathers’ point is clear: It is possible to “go overboard” in the kind of language one uses. When that happens, we are warned here, we give just cause for the enemies to assail our faith, even vilify the doctrines which are the very name of God.
The Conclusion ends with a prayer, unsurprising in some respects, happily surprising in others. Read it again, and notice first how God’s Son is addressed: The Son of God who gives gifts to men. Dordt recognized that what truth they possessed and defended was not found by them, but given to them. “What do we have that we have not received?”2
Then they asked this Father of Jesus Christ 1) to sanctify them in the truth; 2) to convert those who erred; 3) to shut the mouths of the slanderers; and 4) to give the spirit of wisdom and discretion to preachers so that, on the pulpit, God may be glorified and the people edified.
Shall we follow this exemplary prayer, thinking carefully about the meaning of each petition, praying them perhaps even this Sunday evening before the minister ascends the pulpit in our church?
An abbreviated paraphrase of Dordt’s Conclusion
These five chapters are the clear, simple, and honorable declaration of the truth. They are written to set forth truth over against the errors that have recently been troubling the churches. Included after each chapter is a rejection of the errors. The doctrine all comes from Scripture; and it agrees with our confessions (the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism).
By reading these five chapters, you will see clearly that our opponents are violating truth, fairness, and charity when they vilify our Reformed doctrine. This is what they say, and we get these expressions from their own writings:
The Reformed doctrine of predestination leads Christians astray from godliness and faith. It is a mind-numbing drug from Satan that wounds some and kills others, either with despair or presumption. It makes God the author of sin—portrays Him to be an unfair and tyrannical hypocrite. It is no different from other false doctrines that are fatalistic and immoral (of the Stoics, Manicheans, Libertines, and Muslims). It makes men feel safe in their sin—nothing can change their election, no matter how wickedly they live. And on the other hand, if a reprobate would do all good works, it would make no difference for his salvation. The Reformed doctrine teaches that predestination is arbitrary, has nothing to do with sin, and that God created the worlds simply so that He could damn most men to hell. It teaches that reprobation is the cause of unbelief and evil in the very same way that election is the cause of faith and good works. This teaching even has innocent babes ripped from their mothers’ breasts and thrown into hell; nothing can save them—not the prayers of the church, not even their baptism.
With all our soul we detest these and other charges they make. They are false.
We call pious Christians: judge our doctrine, not from the multitude of slanders; not from quotes of our preachers either taken out of context or simply misquoted; not even from the personal opinions of some good men. Judge our doctrine from our official creeds, adopted unanimously at this synod.
We warn you who slander: Consider God’s terrible judgment that awaits you who bear false witness against our confession, you who distress weak consciences, you who labor to make us look evil who are actually faithful.
We exhort the brothers (especially the ministers): In your speaking and writing, both in seminary and the pulpits, 1) direct your teaching to God’s glory, to holy living, and to comfort for the afflicted; 2) regulate your language—even your thoughts—by the Scripture itself, always in context, using the creeds as guides; 3) and refrain from any language that goes beyond Scripture and that would give our enemies just cause to attack us or make us repulsive in the eyes of others.
We pray to God: May Thy Son, Jesus Christ, Who sits at Thy right hand and gives gifts to men…. 1) may He sanctify us in the truth; 2) may He bring those who are in error to the truth; 3) may He shut the mouths of those who slander; 4) and may He give wisdom to preachers so that all their sermons glorify Thee and edify those who hear. AMEN
1 “Conjure”—the word used in our Psalter—is to appeal to someone solemnly, to charge them earnestly.
2 Cf. I Corinthians 4:7. At Dordt, the fathers adopted this Dutch translation, “En wat hebt gij, dat gij niet hebt ontvangen?”