Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
It is not our purpose to give a history of the Synod of Dordt in this article, but we do wish to sum up the work of the synod, particularly its composition and adoption of the Canons, and the significance of this synod for the history of the Reformed faith.
Over the years a debate has been carried on between defenders of the Westminster Confessions and people loyal to Dordt over the question of whether the Synod of Dordt or the Westminster Assembly is the greatest assembly of divines in post-Reformation times. I am not interested in entering the debate. Nor is there any answer to the question that will satisfy. The meetings were for different purposes. They were brought about by different circumstances. They produced different types of documents. And they are of significance for different parts of the Calvinistic church world.
Nevertheless, the Synod of Dordt was one of the great ecclesiastical assemblies of all time. To note a few reasons why this is true would be worth our while.
First of all, the Arminian controversy itself is instructive and enlightening, because it gives us an insight into the way heretics usually operate in the church. Heretics attempt to clothe their erroneous positions in ambiguous and outwardly orthodox language. Their motive is deception. They attempt to present aberrations from the faith as genuine Reformed doctrine. They plead that they are simply stating old truths in new and fresh ways, or that they are giving the people of God fresh and innovative insights into long-cherished doctrines. But they lie.
A noted Presbyterian theologian of the last century, Samuel Miller, writes thus of Arminius:
This is a painful narrative. It betrays a want of candour and integrity on the part of a man [Arminius] otherwise respectable, which it affords no gratification even to an adversary to record. It may be truly said, however, to be the stereotyped history of the commencement of every heresy which has arisen in the Christian church. When heresy arises in an evangelical body, it is never frank and open. It always begins by skulking, and assuming a disguise. Its advocates, when together, boast of great improvements, and congratulate one another on having gone greatly beyond the “old dead orthodoxy,” and having left behind many of its antiquated errors, as they “differ from it only in words.” This has been the standing course of errorists ever since the apostolic age. They are almost never honest and candid as a party, until they gain strength enough to be sure of some degree of popularity.
As heretics spread their views in the church and attempt to persuade others, they plead for toleration, but toleration only so long as they are in the minority. As soon as they detect that their views are ready to be received into the church, they become, towards those who oppose them, the most intolerant of people. One author writes: “The toleration which these men [the Arminians] pleaded for, was precisely like that which Papists demand as emancipation—that is, power and full liberty to draw over others to their party by every artful means, till they become strong enough to refuse toleration to all other men.”
The Canons arose out of controversy in which the truth of God Himself was at stake.
Secondly, the significance of the synod lies in the fact that it was international in character. Delegates from every Reformed country and province in Europe were present, with the exception of delegates from France, who were refused passage out of their country. The intellectual and spiritual gifts of the delegates are astounding. The list of delegates reads like a “Who’s Who” of Europe’s outstanding theologians. They were all devoted to the Reformed faith—though some to a greater degree than others. The only real sympathizers of the Arminian position were the delegates from Bremen and two of the delegates from England. The Canons are an expression of what Europe, one hundred years after the beginning of the Reformation, considered to be the truth of Scripture, of the Reformed confessions, and of the Reformed churches of Europe.
Thirdly, the Canons are a sharp and unambiguous condemnation of all forms of Arminianism. It would be difficult to improve on the Canons in any respect, for their negative refutation and positive statement of the truth are unexcelled in the history of the church. One will not find a clearer statement of the error of Arminianism than there is in the declarations of the synod that met in Dordrecht.
This implies several other truths concerning the Canons. In the first place, the Canons connect unmistakably the error of Arminianism with the error of Pelagianism, and, indeed, call Arminianism the old Pelagian heresy resurrected out of hell.
In the second place, the Canons repudiate all the implications of the Arminian error, even a conditional salvation. Dr. Fred Klooster, long-time professor of theology in Calvin Theological Seminary, could say: the Canons refute an “Arminianism [which] is characterized by conditionalism.” The very word “condition,” when it appears at all, is found in the mouth of the Arminian.
Thirdly, the Canons repudiate every effort to smuggle into the church Arminianism under the guise of a grace common to all men and a general desire on God’s part to save all men. But, while the Canons are devastating in their repudiation of the Arminianism implied in these doctrines, the Canons do not become hyper-Calvinist or radically one-sided. They insist that the gospel must be preached to all to whom God is pleased to send it. They teach clearly that in the gospel is both the promise of salvation to all who believe and the command of God that men turn from their sins and believe in Christ. And when dealing with predestination, the Canons are careful to point out that election and reprobation are one decree, that that one decree is absolutely sovereign, but that the conclusion may not be drawn that as election is the fountain and cause of faith, reprobation is “in the same manner” the cause of unbelief.
Fourthly, the Canons are solid in their discussion of the extent of the atonement. In their statement concerning this doctrine, they specifically state that the extent of the atonement, also in the purpose of God, is limited to the elect “and to them only.” This is stronger than the Westminster Confessions. While limiting the extent of the atonement to the elect, Westminster, in full awareness of what Dordt had decided, deliberately dropped the exclusionary phrase, “and for them only.” At least in part this was done because of serious objections to it by the Amyraldians who were present on the Assembly.
All these characteristics of the Canons make them an insurmountable barrier against Arminianism. The Canons served that purpose in the seventeenth century; they continue to serve that purpose today. The only way to introduce Arminianism into the church is to bypass the Canons. And so it happens.
The significance of the Canons lies further in the fact that the Canons are explanations of some points of doctrine found in the Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. The Arminians wanted the confessions to be revised so as to make them more congenial to their heresies. The Reformed churches at Dordt insisted that these confessions were the truth of the Scriptures and that the Canons only made explicit what was implicit in them.
Yet, the Canons appeal as proof of their statements to Scripture alone. The synod was forced to do this. The Arminians insisted on it and the government laid this down as the one restriction that the synod was to observe. And so the Canons prove their teachings from Scripture alone. But this does not mean that they wanted to separate the Canons from the other two creeds. Nor did it mean that the fathers at Dordt conceded the point that doctrine had to be proved from Scripture alone. They specifically, in the Formula of Subscription, which Dordt drew up, stated that all officebearers must agree with the Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism “together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19.”
Finally, the Canons are eminently pastoral. Much has been written about this, and we need not develop this idea beyond stating it. But in this respect too the Canons are more appealing than the Westminster Confession of Faith. The latter is objective in its doctrinal statements; the Canons are intended for pastoral use in the churches and for demonstrating to the faithful the remarkable comfort that is to be derived from a firm commitment to the truths of God’s sovereign grace as they apply to all areas of our life. So pastoral are they that I have frequently used them myself in pastoral work, and I am sure other pastors have done the same. Although all the Canons speak to the heart of the believer as well as to his mind, the last chapter on the perseverance of the saints is so alive with the warmth of God’s great faithfulness to us in all our unworthiness that I find it strengthening and encouraging to read for personal devotions at times of great temptation. They have brought solace to the hearts of many troubled, doubting, anxious souls.
God used the great errors of Arminius to give to the church this remarkable document.
I began these articles by saying that though Dordt was a mighty victory in the battle for the truths of God’s sovereign and particular grace, Arminius won the war. So it would seem. Nevertheless, there is now and there always will be, until the Lord returns, faithful people of God who love and cherish the Canons.