The Canons of Dordt is an amazing document with an amazing history to match. Drawn up by the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-19, it sets forth the Reformed doctrine of salvation, explaining further the teaching of the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. Our purpose is to explore some of this history and its significance. What occasioned the Synod of Dordrecht? And how did God accomplish His purposes in the meeting of this great Synod?
The setting of the Synod was, first of all, Dordrecht, a city in the province of South Holland, in the Lowlands.1 The Lowlands was an area known for struggle and bloodshed for the sake of the Reformation. In 1517 Martin Luther posted his 95 theses for debate, sparking the Reformation. The Reformation soon spread to the Lowlands, and conflict was almost immediate. In fact, the first known martyrs of the Reformation were two monks from the Lowlands. The Spanish/Catholic oppression of the Reformation in the Lowlands was unequalled in all of Europe in the sixteenth century. Thousands were tortured and put to death, including the writer of the Belgic Confession of Faith, Guido de Bres.
Into that world in 1559, Jacob Arminius was born— two years before the Belgic Confession was published. Arminius was born in the town of Oudewater in the province of Utrecht. His father died about the same time, and a local priest assisted the family. Arminius received a good education, including instruction in various centers of learning in other countries. During one of his educational forays, the Spanish troops that destroyed Oudewater also killed his mother and siblings.
Arminius received his theological training in the new University of Leiden and subsequently in Geneva, where John Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza maintained the Reformed traditions. With Beza’s commendation, Arminius returned to the Lowlands and was ordained a Minister of the Word in Amsterdam in 1588.
About two years later he was asked to respond to controversial writings on predestination. Although Arminius agreed, he never published his answer, and it is generally thought that his own views on predestination began to crystallize, views contrary to what he had been taught.
Arminius’ aberrant views soon began to surface. He began a series on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. His sermons on Romans 7 led a fellow pastor, Petrus Plancius, to protest them for teaching Pelagianism. Arminius taught that the man described in Romans 7, who willed to do good, was unregenerate. When Arminius preached on Romans 9, Plancius again objected, for Arminius taught that God elects those who believe. In all this, Arminius escaped censure, though his own consistory examined him more than once. Eventually Arminius would be appointed to the position of professor of theology in Leiden, after promising to teach in harmony with the confessions. However, he did not keep his promise but continued to teach seminarians these errors.2
In these teachings, however, Arminius was hardly alone. Many pastors in the Lowlands churches disagreed with the doctrine of predestination taught by Calvin and Beza. However, the Reformed churches were not able to remove these men, often due to the church polity that was in force. Local magistrates controlled the church buildings and paid the salary of the minsters. There were times when a consistory or a classis condemned a minister and banned him from the pulpit, but the magistrates continued to support him and refused to pay the salary of another minister.
In fact, these false doctrines were spreading quickly in the Reformed churches in the Lowlands. To understand the widespread acceptance of Arminius’ teachings one must know that the Reformed churches in the Lowlands were far from united in doctrine. Yes, there were many sincere believers and preachers who loved the Reformed faith taught by Calvin. Yes, the Confession of Faith written by de Bres was widely accepted in the churches, and many classes and provincial synods had not only adopted but even required subscription to the Confession. Yes, the Heidelberg Catechism was much beloved, having been translated into Dutch and used for teaching and preaching in many churches.
However, from the start of the Reformation in the Lowlands many who joined the Reformed churches did not do so out of heartfelt conviction. When a local municipality decided in favor of the Reformation, the local church then began holding Protestant services. The townspeople could either continue to worship there, or travel to another town to worship in a Roman Catholic church. Many continued their membership in the town church. And this was even easier when the minister in that church was the former Roman Catholic priest who converted to Protestantism. Some of these priests genuinely confessed the Reformed faith, and some did not. Those who did not, continued to maintain Romish doctrine and, on the matter of salvation, these doctrines were Pelagian at bottom.
In all these years of reformation, the Reformed churches could not become purely Reformed. Persecution made it very difficult to hold ecclesiastical assemblies. And government regulations made it almost impossible to call a national synod—only three had been held to this point.
The upshot was that the doctrines espoused by Arminius were held by a multitude of members and preachers. And in this period, with the support of the local magistrates, as well as some powerful men in national government, the Arminians became bold. Increasingly they called for a national synod to revise the confessions. Sibrandus Lubbertus, professor of theology in Franeker warned that Arminius and his friends were creating doubt and controversy over the very fundamentals of the faith, including original sin, free will, predestination, faith, justification, sanctification, regeneration, and more.3 When Arminius died in 1609, the movement was in no way diminished, and theologians met in the Hague to draw up a “remonstrating” document with five heads of doctrine. They became known as the Remonstrants.
Things went from bad to worse. Reformed preachers were being put out of office by their consistories or local magistrates. In places the Reformed members formed doleerende kerken—grieving churches—because they could not in good conscience worship under Arminian preaching.
In short, everything hung in the balance. The days were very dark for the Reformed faith. Many sincere believers and pastors must have been very afraid for the future of the Reformed faith in the Lowlands, for the very existence of the Reformed churches there, and for their own children and grandchildren.
In that darkest of hours, God changed everything, demonstrating that “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water; he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). First, after decades of fighting, a truce was signed between the Dutch and the Spanish in 1609, allowing the government and churches of the Lowlands to focus on internal troubles, including Arminianism.
Second, England, which had significant influence in the provinces of the Lowlands, began to exert pressure on the government. In God’s grace and providence, the head of the Church of England at that time was George Carleton, Archbishop of Canterbury. Carleton was a Calvinist who had already dealt with similar errors in England. He saw problems in the Lowlands and influenced King James I to send letters opposing the appointment of the notorious heretic Conrad Vorstius to replace Arminius in Leiden in 1612. James also urged the States General to call a national synod to deal with the division in the Reformed churches due to the Remonstrants.
Third, God moved Prince Mauritz of the house of Orange to cast his lot with the Counter-Remonstrants. Mauritz used his large army (free from fighting against the Spanish) to disarm the local militia that supported the magistrates, and in some cases he replaced the magistrates who were opposed to him and had favored the Remonstrants.
Finally, in 1618, God moved the States General to authorize the Reformed churches to convoke a national synod and invite foreign delegates; they even pledged to finance the entire synod.
This was an astounding turn of events! Not to be overlooked is also this: the changes at the local level of government meant that nearly all the delegates sent to the synod in 1618 were not Remonstrants, but Reformed, something that could not have happened just two years earlier.
Looking back at this, one might wonder why God determined this course of events. Why allow the theology of the Arminians to grow until it seemed to dominate the churches, and only then sovereignly bring in a national synod—an international synod—that thoroughly and decisively rejected Arminianism?
God’s ways are higher than our ways, and His thoughts than our thoughts, so I cannot give all His purposes. And yet at least one is evident. That one has to do with God’s plan for maintaining His truth and developing right doctrine. Throughout the new dispensation, God used errors in doctrine to develop His truth. Errors brought into the church force the church to search the Scriptures. In and through her search, and guided by the Spirit of truth, the church rejects the lie. That sharpens the truth as it stands in relief over against error. But there is more to God’s plan. In this process, His truth is set forth more clearly and explicitly, sometimes in confessional form. There is development in doctrine.
Thus, it was the plan of God that these errors in the doctrine of salvation should be set forth in the Reformed churches in the Lowlands. These were not entirely new errors. Various forms had risen in the church in the past—the Judaizers condemned by the council in Jerusalem (Acts 15); the errors of Pelagius refuted by
Augustine (early 400s), followed by the Semi-Pelagians. Neither of those had truly been extinguished and they rose up in the Middle Ages in the full-blown work-righteousness defended by Rome. And now Arminianism. This was the culmination, the well-developed fruit of the false teaching of merit and free will, of resistible grace and conditional election, and of the denial of reprobation. God determined that the enemies of sovereign, particular, efficacious, saving grace should fully develop their heresies in the Lowlands.
And develop them they would—logically, so that all the parts of their theology would hang together. The many implications would be set forth, the “supporting” texts given their Arminian interpretation.
Once and for all, the church would be able to face the question: What does the Word of God teach on the doctrine of salvation? Is salvation truly all of God? Is there a part that depends on man? Does man merit something? Does he contribute to his salvation?
According to God’s eternal counsel, after the errors were fully developed and laid out for all to see, a gathering of theologians representing the Reformed church world of that day came together to reject Arminianism, which brought “again out of hell the Pelagian error (II, B, 3), and then set forth the Reformed faith on the doctrine of salvation. Refuting the errors of the Arminians, in five heads of doctrine they demonstrated clearly from Scripture 1) that fallen man is totally depraved and therefore contributes nothing to his salvation; 2) that Christ’s death is effectual because it is substitutionary and a true satisfaction of God’s justice, a complete atonement; 3) that God’s grace is always and only particular and saving; 4) that the saints cannot be lost, preserved as they are by God’s sovereign grace; and 5) that all of this is grounded in sovereign, unconditional, unchanging, eternal election.
That is the Canons of Dordt.
What a marvelous gift of God the Canons are to His church! The Canons define what is Reformed. None can legitimately claim to be Reformed who deny the doctrines so clearly set forth in the Canons.
God’s truth was and is on display there, over against the heresies of the past. God’s glory was and is on display there. With this certain knowledge we can worship this God in truth, not wondering, as Luther put it to Erasmus, “how much [of my salvation] I ought to ascribe unto myself, and how much unto God.”4
Salvation is all of God.
1 I will refer to this area as “the Lowlands,” rather than the Netherlands because the country of the Netherlands was not yet formed at this time.
2 A student of Arminius reports how his professor turned them from the writing of Calvin, Beza, Zanchi, and other Reformed writers, and toward heretics and Roman Catholic writers. See Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence: Arminius’ Theology in Context (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1991), 27-28.
3 Nicolas Fornerod, “‘The Canons of the Synod had Shot the Head off the Advocate’s Head’; A Reappraisal of the Genevan Delegation at the Synod of Dordt,” Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), ed. Aza Goudriaan and Fred Van Lieburg (Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2011), 188.
4 Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, transl. Henry Cole, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), 36.