Prof. Dykstra is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The history of the events leading up to the Synod of Dordt in 1618-19 is a record of deceit, intrigue, and endurance. By this we refer to the incredible deceit of the Arminians, the political intrigue played out largely by the supporters of the heretics, and the endurance of those committed to the Reformed faith, in the face of arduous struggle and hardship.
The seeds of deception were sown already in the Reformation in the Netherlands in the mid-1500s. When the Protestant Reformation swept through the Netherlands, many who were not truly converted to the Reformed faith joined the Reformed churches. This had a weakening effect on the church. It was especially disastrous when priests became ministers in the Reformed churches, but still clung to their Romish beliefs. (Significantly, Rome’s doctrine was, and is, Semi-Pelagian, at best, and Pelagian at worst.) At various times in the fifty years before the Synod of Dordt, synods had disciplined ministers who manifested their antipathy to the Reformed faith in their preaching and/or godless walk. It was undoubtedly this element that fiercely contested the practice of ministers subscribing to the creeds (the Heidelberg Catechism and the [Belgic] Confession of Faith.)
Jacob Arminius himself was a master of deception. He was born in 1560 into the bosom of the Reformed churches. Any early reservations Arminius had about the Reformed faith he kept to himself. Two Reformed ministers sponsored his training at the Academy at Leiden, and the merchant guild of Amsterdam financed his further studies in Geneva under Beza. Arminius returned to the Netherlands and became a minister in the church in Amsterdam in 1588.
Arminius was a gifted preacher, though there were suspicions about his soundness in the Reformed faith early on in his ministry. His consistory asked him to refute the works of a certain Dirk Volkertszoon Coornhert (1552-1609), a Roman Catholic writer. Coornhert published powerful attacks on the doctrines of the Reformation, particularly predestination. However, Arminius never did reply to Coornhert. He kept putting off a response with one excuse or another. The real reason was that Arminius found that he agreed with Coornhert! It is generally thought that Arminius’ views on the doctrine of salvation crystallized through his reading of Coornhert. These views became apparent in his series of sermons on Romans. From election to the final perseverance, Arminius placed the real power of salvation in the hand of man.
Up to this point, Arminius was under the supervision of a sound, Reformed consistory, and could do little to promote his views. Under the providential hand of God, this was about to change.
In 1602 the professor of Sacred Theology at Leiden, Dr. Franciscus Junius, died. Uytenbogaert, a personal friend of Arminius with much influence in the political sphere, highly recommended Jacob Arminius for the position. However, deputies of the church objected to his appointment out of concern for his orthodoxy, and the consistory in Amsterdam refused to give Arminius a testimonial of dismissal to take the position. Under continued pressure, the consistory finally granted the testimonial upon two conditions. First, Arminius was required to have a conference with the staunch Dr. Franciscus Gomarus, a professor at Leiden who opposed Arminius. Secondly, he was obligated to express his views before a conference of theologians. This latter conference was held in 1603 by the Curator of the university and the deputies of the synod. At that time Arminius
testified that he expressly rejected the chief points of the doctrine of the Pelagians: Concerning natural grace, concerning the powers of the free will, concerning original sin, concerning the perfection of man in this life, concerning predestination, and others. He testified also that he agreed with all that which Augustine and other Fathers had written against the Pelagians…. Moreover, he promised at the same time that he would teach nothing which conflicted with the adopted doctrine of the church.1
Arminius was appointed as professor to the seminary, but he had lied to get the appointment. He soon used his position to teach the opposite of what he had promised. Calling the Reformed doctrines of grace into question, “he recommended the writings of Castalio, Coornhert, Suarez, and such like to his pupils, and spoke deprecatingly of the writings of Calvin, Beza, Martyr, Zanchius, Ursinus, and other outstanding leaders of the Reformed faith.”2
The result was predictable. “His students, when they came home from the Academy or departed to other Academies, brazenly took position against the Reformed Churches, disputing, contradicting, and criticizing the doctrine.”3
Reformed men in the churches were alarmed. The deputies of the synods of both North and South Holland soon approached Arminius with questions about his views. He refused to discuss anything unless they agreed not to report it to their synods, a condition they rejected.
In 1604 the consistory of Leiden (where Arminius was a member) admonished him to come to a friendly conference of theologians in the presence of the consistory. He balked, making excuses for not coming.
Arminius and his followers used every trick imaginable to avoid being condemned. They resisted all attempts to have a hearing before a synod. They managed to get the condition added, that if a national synod were called, part of the agenda would be the revision of the creeds. If they were called to account by a consistory, they claimed that they were answerable to the States, not the churches.
Later, in 1608, when the High Council of the States-General called Arminius to a conference with Gomarus, Arminius refused to set forth his views. When the synod of the South Holland churches demanded that he express any disagreements he had with the confessions, he promised to submit them in writing. He never did. Arminius died in 1609, having, by means of deception and delay, escaped official condemnation.
Arminius’ death did not bring an end to the struggle. His followers were not only active, they were far more bold in advocating his positions. They continued the same pattern of protraction, refusing to submit their views to any church body with the power to condemn them.
By 1610, however, the followers of Arminius, called the Remonstrants, were confident enough of their power that they gathered together at Gouda and drew up a document summarizing their doctrines in five main points.
The second notable feature of this history is the political maneuvering for the cause of the Remonstrants. That political forces could play so prominent a role in this struggle was due to the unusual relation of the church to the state at this time. The church, being virtually the state church, was dominated by the state. At the 1586 synod at the Hague the Reformed churches had adopted a church order which gave the church most of the power to govern herself. The States-General (the legislature of the Netherlands) had rejected this change and steadfastly refused to allow another national synod for some thirty-two years!
This power of the state over the affairs of the church was pressed into the service of the Remonstrants. This is due primarily to the great influence of the elder statesman, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt. Oldenbarnevelt, an advisor first to Prince William and later to his son Maurice, figured large in the political arena in the five decades that preceded the Synod of Dordt. Though officially he held office in just one of the eleven provinces of the Netherlands, Oldenbarnevelt exercised tremendous influence in all branches of the national government.
The significance of this is that Oldenbarnevelt sided with the Remonstrants. He desired political stability and unity and therefore wanted the Reformed churches to tolerate a broad spectrum—essentially all who rejected the Roman Catholic Church. Therefore he did all in his power to protect the Remonstrants and hinder any effort at church discipline of any minister with errant views.
The result was schism and chaos in the churches. Godless ministers could not be disciplined. When a minister was condemned, be it even for more radical heresies than the Remonstrants, government officials prevented any discipline from being executed, often reinstating the suspended ministers. In other places the authorities deposed faithful ministers. Congregations split.
The anti-confessional views were dividing the churches. Faithful consistories were desperate for a national synod to settle the differences and to deal with the doctrinal issues. But Oldenbarnevelt, pressing for tolerance, was determined that the Arminians not be condemned, and his influence carried the day. No amount of pleading from the churches could gain the permission of the States-General to hold a national synod.
Meanwhile, the supposed tolerance of differences evaporated wherever the Remonstrants gained the upper hand. In such places, ministers who courageously defended the Reformed faith were suspended, some deposed. As a result the faithful took to the fields to hear Reformed preaching, even though they suffered persecution for attending these outlawed meetings.
In the face of such opposition, the faithful battled for the truth of sovereign grace. Professor Gomarus is a prime example. Unshakable he was in his commitment to the truth of sovereign grace. Tirelessly he defended the truth at every opportunity. No matter that Arminius and his followers lied, covered up their true beliefs, and refused all demands for accountability. Gomarus and others continued to defend the faith.
However, the Remonstrants were gaining in numbers and influence. By 1617, the Reformed believers must have well nigh despaired of ever rooting out these errors.
Then something remarkable happened. For whatever motive, Prince Maurice publicly aligned himself with the Reformed by attending a worship service of the separated faithful in the Hague.
Oldenbarnevelt and company were alarmed. Within a month they rushed through the States of Holland a resolution that allowed municipalities to muster their own standing armies. The goal of Oldenbarnevelt was to enable these municipalities to defend the Remonstrants, in the event that a national synod were called which condemned them!
Again, God moved the heart of Prince Maurice. At an opportune moment he discharged the regiments of soldiers commissioned by the municipalities, and removed Oldenbarnevelt and others from office.
The way was now open for the provincial synods to purge the ranks of the ministers guilty of godless living and/or heresy. This was done, although those who were accused only of supporting the Remonstrants’ doctrines were not tried. This was left for the national synod. For, yes, finally, the States-General agreed that a national synod was necessary to resolve the issues tearing apart the churches and the nation. The synod was set to meet in 1618, in the city of Dordrecht.
1 Historical Foreword to the Acts of the Synod of Dordt, p. 48. At least two translations of this Historical Foreword Addressed to the Reformed Churches of Christ are readily available. It is found in Homer C. Hoeksema’s excellent and thorough exposition of the Canons of Dordt, The Voice of Our Fathers, (Grand Rapids: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1980), pp. 45-102, from which all references in this article have been taken. It is also included in Thomas Scott’s translation, The Articles of the Synod of Dordt, (Harrison: Sprinkle Publications, 1993), pp. 94-240.
2 Historical Foreword, p. 49.
3 Historical Foreword, p. 49.