As all our regular readers know, 2018-19 marks the 400th anniversary of the great Synod of Dordrecht. This Synod was a momentous gathering of theologians from many different regions of Switzerland, Germany, England, and Scotland, as well as all the seven provinces of the “United Netherlands.” The importance of the Synod cannot be overstated. The Reformation, not even one hundred years old, was experiencing its most severe threat since the days of Luther and Calvin. The churches of the Netherlands were facing the question— Will the churches be Reformed—in doctrine, church polity, confession, and worship?
The doctrine of salvation defended in the Reformation was openly denied, even such cardinal truths as justification by faith alone and the certainty of “once saved, always saved.” In its place were posited fallen man’s free will, a resistible grace, universal atonement, and a conditional election. The confessions (the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession) were contradicted in public preaching. Many rejected the Reformed church government developed by Calvin and implemented in the Netherlands.
Sabbath observance was shockingly poor in many areas of the Netherlands. That in turn led to increased worldly living. It was a crisis. The very future of the Reformed churches was at stake.
Dutch and international delegates came together to deal with the doctrinal controversies and to affirm the Reformed confessions. The Reformation was preserved. And the carefully drafted and approved Canons of Dordrecht became the third confession of the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
The Synod was significant beyond words.
For good reason, therefore, the Reformed church world took opportunity to commemorate this significant synod. The Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary did likewise. In April of this year, a three-day conference was held in the Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, MI. It was entitled Dordt 400: Safe-Guarding the Reformed Tradition (dordt400.org). The Trinity PRC congregation organized the conference in conjunction with the seminary, and the congregation, led by their Evangelism Committee, did superb work. Every detail was looked after, enabling the entire conference, from speeches to coffee breaks to book buying, to go forward without a hitch. The many hundreds who attended took notice of their work with appreciation.
What follows is a brief synopsis of the conference speeches.
The conference began in fine form as a full auditorium eagerly anticipated the first speech by Rev. Angus Stewart, minister in the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland, on the subject “The Canons as the Original ‘Five Points’ of Calvinism.” No one was disappointed. Rev. Stewart carefully demonstrated what the Canons maintained over against the five points of the Remonstrants. The beauty of the speech was its ability to set forth these profound truths with such clarity and simplicity that all, including the many youth in the audience, could understand them. The speech demonstrated that the truth of God’s sovereign grace is never complicated or hard to understand. Rather the lies of the Arminians are twisted and convoluted—deliberately so.
The next day a very sizable crowd came for the bulk of the conference consisting of five speeches from 8:30 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. (with lengthy breaks). First up was Rev. Brian Huizinga, pastor of the Hope PRC (Redlands, CA), who spoke on “Warring a Good Warfare with the Canons.” He brought out beautifully the polemical nature of the Canons. The whole of the Canons is polemical. Obviously, each head of doctrine in the Canons has a (polemical) rejection of errors. But Rev. Huizinga pointed out that polemics runs through the positive sections of the Canons as well. The fathers at Dordt knew the importance of polemics, not only for the sake of defending the truth, but also for the pastoral care of the people. The believers in the Netherlands had heard and read so many errors in many years of controversy. The Canons would assist God’s people by identifying and rejecting the lie from Scripture. But the speech demonstrated that its value does not end there. The Canons are of unspeakable value for the church today in “warring a good warfare.”
Rev. Mark Stand (accompanied by his wife Susan) traveled from Tasmania (Australia) to address the conference on “The Unfeigned Call of the Gospel.” It was certainly worth our while that he came. As one has come to expect from Rev. Shand, his treatment of this doctrine was scholarly and thorough. He focused much of this speech on the Arminian error of the well-meant offer of the gospel, and did so by demonstrating that modern-day theologians in the Reformed and Presbyterian camp actually teach the offer that is condemned by the Canons. The publication of his speech will be particularly helpful as he demonstrated his assertions with many quotations.
The next speech was delivered by Prof. Douglas Kui- per. His topic was “The Doctrine of the Covenant in the Canons.” Prof. Kuiper pointed out that the Reformed doctrine of God’s covenant of grace was not yet settled at the time of Dordt. In addition, the purpose for writing the Canons was not to set forth this doctrine. Nonetheless, he noted, the doctrine of covenant was very much discussed in the Arminian controversy—he demonstrated how the Canons condemned the Remonstrant errors in the doctrine of the covenant. The Canons, therefore, assume the doctrine of the covenant of grace. From this he went on to show what the Canons teach on the covenant.
The Synod of Dordt dealt with many ecclesiastical matters other than the Arminian controversy. One significant matter was the formulation and adoption of a Reformed Church Order. Rev. William Langerak addressed this work in his speech “Maintaining Good Order in the Church of Christ” (the opening words of the Church Order adopted by the Synod). Now, Rev. Langerak had the most difficult task—how can one hold the interest of a general audience with a speech on the church order? He did. Admirably, in my judgment. He filled the speech with stories and anecdotes from the history of the church and the development of the church order. His speech demonstrated superb scholarship. His published speech will be of great interest to all officebearers and members who know the importance of “maintaining good order in the church.”
Friday night was the climax of the day with Prof. Cammenga’s speech on election—the main point of dispute between the Arminians and the Reformed. But the interesting approach was to deal with reprobation, as the title indicates: “Illustrating and Recommending the Grace of Election—Dordt’s Doctrine of Reprobation.” The astute reader will recognize the language of the Canons I, 15. Reprobation was the doctrine attacked most ferociously by the Arminians in the seventeenth century, and still today. The speech will be of much value in its published form, and all the more because Prof Cammenga ran out of time in the presentation.
The concluding speech of the conference was delivered by Prof. Gritters on Saturday morning. He spoke on “Assurance: Sovereign Grace’s Speech to the Heart.” It was a moving presentation of the doctrine of assurance, which was at the heart of the controversy 400 years ago. The Arminian doctrine robbed believers of their assurance of salvation. The fathers at Dordt took pains to emphasize the certainty of salvation and therefore, our blessed assurance.
The Protestant Reformed Seminary holds conferences generally every other year. We have held conferences on H. Bavinck, J. Calvin, the Reformation of 1517, the Heidelberg Catechism, and the King James Version. Of them all, this 2019 conference may well be the most significant. For God used the Synod of Dordrecht to preserve the gospel. This precious gospel, restored by Reformation from the Pelagian degradation of Rome in the 1500s, was threatened in the 1600s to return to the Pelagian error out of hell. To celebrate Dordt—truly to celebrate the defense and development of the doctrines of grace—is to rejoice in these doctrines and confess that one is willing to stand and fight for them to the death. It is also to say, “Ebenezer,” that is, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us.” And that necessarily implies that He will continue to do so in the future. By His grace alone will we persevere.
Interested readers can find the speeches, along with the seven historical PowerPoint presentations, at the Seminary’s YouTube channel (prcts.org—video) and Trinity PRC’s Sermonaudio page (audio).
The Reformed Free Publishing Association recognized the significance of the great Synod and the value of the conference, and have acted to print the speeches—enlarged in some cases, with references in all. The push is on to have the book available this Fall. It will be entitled For God’s Glory and the Church’s Consolation: 400 Years of the Canons of Dordrecht. It will include the seven speeches, but also a historical introduction to the controversy, and a very important addition is Prof. Kuiper’s summary of the 180 sessions of the Synod of Dordt. This will be a regular RFPA book club selection, and any others interested in purchasing it may contact the RFPA. We will keep you posted. For God’s Glory and the Church’s Consolation.