Rev. Cammenga is pastor of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church in Grandville, Michigan.
When one thinks of the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, what comes to mind first of all are the doctrinal pronouncements made by the synod against the Arminians. Undoubtedly the Canons of Dordt are the great work for which this historic Dutch Reformed synod is known. The Canons repudiated the Arminian heresy that threatened the Dutch Reformed churches and defended the faith of the Reformation, in particular the sovereignty of God’s grace in the salvation of sinners.
But our debt to Dordt goes beyond its five canons. The work of the synod was far broader than dealing only with the Arminian controversy. Many other matters were treated by the synod. The lasting significance of the Synod of Dordrecht concerns decisions taken and work done in other areas vital to the life of the Reformed churches. As the fruits of these other labors of Dordt were enjoyed by the Dutch Reformed churches of the early 17th century, so also are those fruits enjoyed by churches today whose ecclesiastical roots derive from Dordt, including our own Protestant Reformed Churches.
It is the purpose of this article to point out our debt to Dordt in four distinct respects: Bible translation, church order, liturgy, and Sabbath observance.
Discussion of the need for a new translation of the Bible in the Dutch language took place early in Dordt’s deliberations.1 The matter was raised by the president of the synod himself, Johannes Bogerman. Bogerman was convinced of the need for a new and improved Dutch Bible translation and pressed the synod to undertake such a worthwhile project.
Other Dutch Bible versions were in use among the people at this time. There was the Liesveldt Bible, published in 1526 and named after its publisher, Jacob VanLiesveldt of Antwerp. The Liesveldt Bible was a Dutch translation of Luther’s German Bible. This was the popular version of the day. There was also the translation prepared by Jan Utenhove and published in 1556, as well as the Deux Aes Bible, published in 1562.
All of these versions had their shortcomings. Either they were translations of translations, or, although translated from the original languages, they were stilted and in need of improvement.
Earlier synods had faced the question of a new Bible translation. The Synods of Embden, 1571, Dordrecht, 1574, and again in 1578 had all been impressed with the need for a new translation but had postponed action on such a huge undertaking. Bogerman however was able to convince the Synod of Dordt to take up this worthwhile project.
The synod adopted the following guidelines for the new translation:
1) The original Hebrew and Greek would be the basis for the new translation.
2) The new translation would be a literal translation.
3) The translators would consult the existing versions, both in the Dutch language and other languages.
4) Any additional words or phrases deemed necessary for smooth translation would be included in brackets.
5) The Apocrypha would be included, but in different type and pagination, and with a preface explaining that the Apocryphal writings were not to be considered a part of the canon of Holy Scripture.
For various reasons, the translation project was delayed. It was not until September of 1637 that the new translation first appeared in print. Since the translation received the formal approval of the States General of the Netherlands, the new version became known as the Staten-Bijbel.
The Staten-Bijbel remains to this day a monument of Reformed biblical scholarship. Although more recent versions have to a great extent supplanted the Staten-Bijbel, still today there are many Dutch Reformed Christians who continue to use and cherish it. The principle upon which the Staten-Bijbel was based—a Bible in the language of the people based on the original biblical languages—is a principle esteemed by faithful Reformed churches down to the present. On the basis of that same principle, the Protestant Reformed Churches continue to make use of the King James Version of the Bible.
One of the most significant contributions of the Synod of Dordt was the church order drafted by the synod for the regulation of the affairs of the Dutch Reformed Churches.
More often than not, in church controversies, the church is forced to deal not only with doctrinal issues but also with church political issues. Such was the case also in the Arminian controversy.
The Arminians opposed the principles of Reformed church government. They favored the regulation of the affairs of the church by the civil magistrate. And they were disinclined to give to the broader assemblies of the church real authority in decision-making.
The church order produced by the Synod of Dordt was not an altogether new venture. The synod relied heavily on the work that had been done in this area by former synods. Church orders had been produced by the Synod of Embden, 1571, the Synods of Dordrecht, 1574 and 1578, the Synod of Middelburg, 1591, and the Synod of The Hague, 1586. The Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, compiled and refined the church orders of the past, producing a new church order that for centuries to come would serve the Dutch Reformed churches, as well as their daughters in other lands, in good stead.
The church order of Dordt enunciated clearly the biblical principles of sound church government. The church order insisted on the right of the church to govern her own affairs, especially in the calling of officebearers and in the exercise of Christian discipline. It defended jealously the autonomy of the local congregation, while at the same time firmly establishing the rightful authority of the broader assemblies, whose decisions were to be considered settled and binding in the churches.
The Protestant Reformed Churches are still governed by the church order of Dordt. Nearly 400 years after Dordt, Dordt’s church order, with but few revisions, regulates the life and labor of our churches. What a testimony to the enduring debt that we owe to Dordt!
There is yet another area in which we are indebted to Dordt. That is the area of liturgy. The whole body of liturgical forms in use in our churches derives from the Synod of Dordt.
Over and over again the church order requires the congregations to make use of the adopted liturgical forms: Art. 4, “Form of Ordination of the Ministers of God’s Word”; Arts. 22 and 24, “Form of Ordination of Elders and Deacons”; Art. 58, “Form for the Administration of Baptism”; Art. 62, “Form for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper”; Art. 70, “Form for the Confirmation of Marriage Before the Church”; Art. 76, “Form of Excommunication”; and Art. 78, “Form of Readmitting Excommunicated Persons.”
Also in the area of liturgy the Synod of Dordt relied extensively on the work that had been done by past synods. Liturgical forms had been produced and were in use in many of the churches. Dordt compiled and revised these forms and made the use of them mandatory. Whereas in the past not all the churches used the liturgical forms and not all who did used the same ones, Dordt ensured the unity of the churches by prescribing the use of the adopted forms.
The Netherlands Liturgy in which are included the public prayers, and the forms for administering the sacraments, the exercise of ecclesiastical discipline, the ordination of ministers, elders, and deacons, and the solemnization of marriage shall be reviewed by the revisers of the condensed minutes or by the clerk of this synod, and having been reviewed shall be added to the public editions.2
This body of liturgy forms an important part of the “minor confessions” of our churches. These forms contain important instruction regarding church office, the sacraments, and discipline. The neglect and replacement of these forms in the Reformed churches today is one indication of the drift from Dordt of these churches.
One last contribution of Dordt worth noting is its pronouncements with respect to the Sabbath.
These pronouncements were occasioned not only by the increasing incidence of Sabbath desecration, but also by the growing influence of those who took the position that observance of the Sabbath was unnecessary in the New Testament. The “Post-acta” of the synod take note of this. In Session 163 notice is taken of this position.
When the formulation concerning the removal of the dishonoring of the Sabbath [was discussed], a question is aired concerning the necessity of observing the Sabbath, which was beginning to be agitated in the churches of Zeeland….3
The result was the adoption by the Synod of Dordt of six pronouncements regarding the Sabbath.
I: There is both a ceremonial and moral element in the fourth commandment of the divine law.
II: The ceremonial [element] is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of the same day was especially enjoined upon the Jewish people.
III: The moral [element] is that a certain and definite day be set aside for worship, and for the purpose that as much rest as is necessary for worship and for pious reflection upon it [be provided].
IV: The Jewish Sabbath having been abolished, Christians must solemnly keep Sunday holy.
V: This day has always been observed from the time of the apostles in the ancient Catholic Church.
VI: This day must be so set aside for worship that on it people may rest from all ordinary labors (excluding those which love and present necessity demand) together with all such recreations that hinder worship.4
Dordt defended the enduring principle of the Fourth Commandment. Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath and is to be sanctified by the New Testament Christian. Dordt’s view of the Sabbath is the view embraced by the Protestant Reformed Churches. Many Reformed churches in our day disdain this view of the Sabbath. There is a sad neglect of the Sabbath and a disturbing abuse of the Sabbath. In recalling its Reformed heritage, the Reformed churches of our day need to return to Dordt’s pronouncements concerning the Sabbath.
From all this it is plain how far-reaching was the work of the great Synod of Dordt. How enduring are its contributions to the subsequent history of the Reformed churches. Clearly, the debt that we owe to Dordt is far greater than its doctrinal pronouncements relative to the Arminian controversy.
Thank God for Dordt!
1 The interested reader is referred to Marten H. Woudstra’s excellent chapter entitled “The Synod and Bible Translation,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in commemoration of the great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619, Peter Y. DeJong, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 1968).
2 Ecclesiastical Manual Including the Decision of the Netherlands Synods and Other Significant Matters Relating to the Government of the Churches, by P. Biesterveld and H.H. Kuyper, translated by Richard R. DeRidder (Grand Rapids, MI: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), p. 291. 3 Ecclesiastical Manual, p. 267.
4 Ecclesiastical Manual, p. 268.