By the name “de groote synode” Reformed people of Dutch ancestry are wont to call the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19. And well may we continue to remember it as the “great synod”. For grep.t it was in every respect. In a way we may say that it marks the arrival at majority, the maturing, of the Reformation in the Netherlands. Great was this synod, to be sure, as far as its length was concerned. For it gathered in almost uninterrupted sessions from November of the year 1618 until May of 1619. Great it was, too, as far as its method was concerned. For it labored with long patience toward those indicated on the five counts of Arminian heresy; and when no amount of patience would quicken even common decency in those recalcitrants, the synod continued to labor thoroughly, methodically, and unhurriedly for an additional four or five months, in order officially to gainsay the Arminian errors, defend the pure gospel of holy writ, and maintain the very foundation of Reformed truth. Great it was also as its personnel were concerned. For a roll call of the membership of the synod sounds like a “Who’s Who” of the Calvinistic movement at that time, with few exceptions. But of course, most of all does that synod deserve the name “great” because of its chief fruit, the famous, but not well enough known, Canons of Dordrecht.
Once again, it is not our intention to furnish a detailed history of the Synod of Dordt. To do so does not belong within the realm of this study. And besides, it would unduly lengthen our writings, and perhaps trouble the reader with needless detail. It is, however, beneficial for our understanding of the Canons briefly to notice some of the outstanding facts concerning the Synod which produced these Canons, its personnel, its machinery and method of labor, and the thoroughness of its manner. And to these we devote our attention in the present chapter.
In the previous chapter we already took notice of the fact that the Arminians throughout their battle had the protection and often the positive help of certain forces in the government, the well-known Olden-barneveld at their head. This was possible because of the peculiar relationship between church and state in the Netherlands. For a long time it looked as though this governmental protection and support would spell defeat for the Reformed cause in the Netherlands. In the end, however, Prince Maurits chose the side of the Contra-remonstrants, and in a lightning coup took the reins of government out of the hands of the wily Oldenbarneveld, the latter paying with his life after being condemned for treason. When one reads the history of these years, the question cannot be repressed as to the part which political aims played not only in the actions of Oldenbarneveld, but also in those of Maurits. And although it seems almost certain that at least part of the fire on the altar was not of a religious, but of a political variety, we will not here pass judgment on the character and motives of Maurits.
Certain it is that God caused Maurits and Willem Lodewijk to rescue the cause of the truth from the fierce assaults of the enemies. For when Maurits came in control of affairs, the tide of battle immediately turned in favor of the Contra-remonstrants. Done now were the long and fruitless conferences which the Arminians had always been so willing to hold under the watchful eye and protective wing of the government. No more did the Contra-remonstrants’ pleas for a national synod,—and such a national synod had not been held for years, though often requested,—go unheeded. When once action came, it came swiftly. The matter must be decided. And after allowing time for the various particular synods to convene and to appoint delegates, a national synod would be convened at the earliest possible date.
Thus it was that on November 13, 1618 the National Synod of Dordrecht opened its historical sessions. The hour of decision had struck!
The personnel of the Synod we will not discuss in detail, although, as we said, many a shining light in the firmament of Reformed church history signed his name to the Canons when finally the sessions of Synod were ended. The churches of the Netherlands were represented by 34 ministers and 18 elders, among whom were many men of renown. Different the synod was from our present synodical gatherings, in that ministers and elders were not equally represented. To the regular delegates from the various provincial synods were added the theological professors. Among the latter the name of Gomarus stands out, of course. And although what he called the “higher view”, that is, the supralapsarian view of the decrees of God, was not incorporated in the Canons, nevertheless the outcome at Dordrecht was a mighty and sweet victory for that staunch defender of the faith who had first opposed Arminius at Leiden, and who even afterwards, both in the ministry and in his later position in the University of Gronigen, never ceased to do battle in the cause of the Reformed truth. Polyander and Thysius, Walaeus and Lubbertus were the other professors present at the Synod. Among the delegates to the Synod we must not fail to mention Johannes Bogerman, the fiery and capable president of the Synod, who will long be remembered for the manner in which he dismissed the Arminians from the floor of the Synod. Nor must we overlook such names as Voetius, Trigland, Hommius, and Damman, the last two being the able clerks, whose task was indeed tremendous. Outstanding about the membership of the Synod in general is the fact that they stood directly in the line of the Calvinistic Reformation. When one takes the trouble to study the educational background of these men, he discovers that many of them had at least part of their theological training at those great centers of Reformed theology, Geneva and Heidelberg. At Geneva many of them had enjoyed the instruction of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor. And at Heidelberg, the birthplace of our Catechism, it stands to reason also that many a soundly trained minister of the gospel was instructed. Hardly can one escape the impression that exactly with a view to the Arminian controversy God had raised up these mighty warriors for the truth.
One of the most interesting features of the Synod is the presence of the foreign theologians. Of these there were 27, representing the Reformed churches of Great Britain, the Palatinate, Hessia, Switzerland, Wetteraw, Geneva, Bremen, and Emden. Delegates from France were invited, but were unable to attend because of government interference. In addition, the Synod also received the written opinions of the aged Dr. David Paraeus, from the University of Heidelberg, who by reason of age and infirmity was unable to attend, as well as the written opinion of Petrus Molinaeus, minister at Paris, concerning the Five Articles of the Remonstrants. Here again one is immediately struck by the fact that at this Synod the very flower of the Reformation was represented. For many of these men were not only the giants in the church at that time, but were only a step or two removed in history from the Reformers themselves.
In the meantime, we must not imagine that the Synod was really a sort of Ecumenical Council of the Reformed churches at that time. On the one hand, it cannot be gainsaid that the delegates from foreign churches had more than an advisory vote, at least in the sense that we speak of an advisory vote today. In consulting the Acta, as well as a detailed history of the Synod such as that of Dr. Wagenaar, it becomes plain that the foreign theologians played a very active part in the Synod and wielded much influence. In the first stages of the Synod they spoke and argued about the attitude and treatment of the Arminians right along with the national delegates. And in fact, throughout the sessions of Synod it appears that their influence was large, and that the national delegates were very loath, to say the least, to act without the approval of the foreign delegates. Besides, when it came to the matter of treating the Arminian heresies, all the foreign delegations handed in their opinions concerning the Five Articles along with the national delegations. And these were treated on equal footing. In fact, there are places in the Canons where the particular formulations adopted were so formulated largely through the influence of the foreign delegates. Especially the English theologians seemed to have much influence, due undoubtedly to the fact that there was close political intercourse between England and the Netherlands at the time. And when finally the Canons themselves had to be formulated, all the doctrinal opinions of the various delegations having been heard, the foreign delegates were very active again. For three of them, Carleton (the English bishop), Scultetus (from the Palatinate), and Diodati (from Geneva), took their places in the committee of nine which was to serve the Synod with Concept-Canons. Besides, the Canons as finally adopted were signed not only by the national but also by the foreign delegates, even though the Swiss theologians had been expressly forbidden to do so.
On the other hand, however, all this does not imply that the Synod was an Ecumenical Council. For first of all, the various Reformed churches were not equally represented. There were 57 delegates from the Dutch churches (if we include the five professors), while from all the foreign churches together there were only 27 delegates. The Synod, therefore, was still predominantly Dutch as far as its personnel was concerned, and therefore also as far as its voting power was concerned. In the second place, although also the foreign churches were vitally interested in maintaining the Reformed truth, we must not forget that as far as the concrete case was concerned which was treated on the Synod, it was strictly a national matter. It was for this reason also that while the foreign delegates were more than willing to deliberate upon and decide the doctrinal matter on the Synod’s agenda, they limited their activities to this matter strictly. When it came to the matter of disciplining the ministers who were guilty of the Arminian heresy, the foreign delegates withdrew, and left the national delegates to decide their own affairs. In the third place, the Canons of Dordrecht, although signed by the foreign delegates, were, of course, never recognized as being an official standard of any other churches than those of the Netherlands. What these foreign delegates adopted, they adopted not for their own churches, but for the Dutch church. At Dordrecht, therefore, we had no Ecumenical Synod.
Nevertheless, the presence of these delegates at the Synod was of great influence in the formulation of our Canons. But what is more, the fact that they aided in the composition of the Canons and the condemnation of Arminianism, and finally affixed their signatures to our Canons means that the latter are undeniably Reformed. They are not merely the expression of one branch of the Reformed churches. They cannot be condemned as the work of a narrow sect. They are the proper expression of the Reformed truth, according to the testimony of the whole Reformed church at that time. If I am not mistaken, this was the last time that such close intercourse between churches of Reformed persuasion took place. We may safely say, therefore, the contempt of many historians notwithstanding, that our Canons are the ultimate expression of the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace and sovereign predestination.