As we remarked in the beginning of this chapter, one of the reasons why the Synod of Dordrecht merits the reputation of being “the great synod” must undoubtedly be found in the method which it followed in its labors. And because of this method, of course, the Synod produced such a sound and lasting product. Sound methods and sound products are inseparable.
In order to evaluate the method which Synod followed, it will again be necessary somewhat to enter into the history, this time the history of the Synod itself, as it is recorded for us both in the official Acts and by church historians.
The Synod convened in November 1618. For approximately a month it gave its attention to matters other than the Arminian controversy, so that it was not until the sixth of December that the most important part of Synod’s labors began. On that date the Arminians made their appearance for the first time on the floor of Synod. They had, according to proper ecclesiastical procedure been indicted, and were called to defend themselves and their views before the broadest gathering of the church. The elite of the Arminian party were represented by the group of heretics who appeared at the Synod. At their head was Episcopius, erudite, polished of manner, conceited, and, admittedly, a rather capable leader. He had some years before been elevated to the chair of professor of theology at the University of Leiden, and is usually acknowledged as the theological leader of the Arminians after the death of Arminius himself. At the Synod he certainly acted as their spokesman.
Before appearing at Dordt, the indicted Arminians had assembled at Rotterdam, in order to determine upon a plan of action. They had decided upon two things. In the first place, they would cling to the illusion that the Synod was really a conference between the opposing parties, at which the political commissioners, aided by the advice of the foreign theologians, would act as arbiters and make the final decision. In the second place, their strategy was, especially with an eye on the foreign delegates, to depict the national delegates as men who maintained horrible, God-dishonoring opinions, and further as schismatics and as persecutors of the innocent and simple. Characteristic is this strategy of all heretics, and especially of those who assail the truth of God’s sovereign predestination. It is nothing new that heretics refuse to abide by proper ecclesiastical procedure. Nor is it an innovation when they attempt to portray those who hold to the truth as terrible men, hard, implacable, cruel. But notice that in this double strategy the question of the truth is not so much as mentioned. Their purpose was, if at all possible, to avoid the issue of the truth, and as long as possible to obstruct the procedure of Synod.
From the very beginning they attempted to follow this strategy. Already before they appeared at the Synod they tried, first with the foreign delegates, and then with the political commissioners, to have Bogerman removed as president of the Synod. They failed. Then, at the time of their entrance, having been given the floor by President Bogerman, Episcopius amazed the entire assembly by piously pronouncing a blessing upon them. Thereupon he announced the readiness of the Arminians to proceed to the matter at hand, but spoke pointedly of a conference. This was but the beginning (for we have not the space to recount the daily proceedings of the Synod) of a lengthy period of pious subterfuge, obstructionism, and forthright flaunting of the authority of the Synod by the Arminian defendants. Steadfastly they avoided entering into the doctrinal issues. Patiently, yea, almost to the point of folly, the Synod labored with them, tried to examine them, allowed them at their own request more time to prepare their opinions. All was in vain. Finally, even the foreign theologians, who apparently were not very well acquainted with the cunning craftiness of these heretics, also agreed that the Arminians were incorrigible. And on the fourteenth of January, 1619, when once more they refused to submit to the authority of the Synod in the matter of their examination, President Bogerman burst forth with those memorable words of dismissal : “The foreign delegates are now of the opinion that you are unworthy to appear before the Synod. You have refused to acknowledge her as your lawful judge and have maintained that she is your counter-party; you have done everything according to your own whim; you have despised the decisions of the Synod and of the Political Commissioners; you have refused to answer; you have unjustly interpreted the indictments. The Synod has treated you mildly; but you have,—as one of the foreign delegates expressed it,—’begun and ended with lies.’ With that eulogy we shall let you go. God shall preserve His Word and shall bless the Synod. In order that she be no longer obstructed, you are sent away!” Thereupon the undeniably wrathful president thundered: “Dimittimini, exite! You are dismissed, get out!”
All the Remonstrants arose and left. Episcopius cried out: “With Christ I shall keep silence about all this. God shall judge between me and this Synod.” Nielles appealed to Christ’s throne. And Naeranus, another foremost Arminian said: “You, who now sit as judges, shall soon stand with us before Christ’s judgment seat.” To his associates another of the heretics, Hollinger, called: “Go forth, go forth out of the assembly of the godless!”
Everyone was, of course, upset. But now that the Arminians were dismissed, the Synod could proceed with its work.
One could conceive of it that the Synod could now have justifiably ended its sessions, and simply refused to have anything further to do with the Arminians and their heresies. After all, they had shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that they did not want to be Reformed, and had, besides, made themselves unworthy of being dealt with, through their stubborn rebellion and refusal to recognize the Synod. But this did not happen. The fathers were determined to rid the churches of these false teachers and their evil doctrines once and for all, and to set up such confessional barriers that they could never again occupy any rightful position in the Reformed Churches.
Now began the long and tedious process of judging the Arminians’ views and of constructing a careful formulation of the Reformed truth in opposition thereto. For this purpose the Synod divided itself into as many committees of pre-advice as there were delegations from the various Dutch particular synods and from the foreign churches. Each group of delegates worked separately, and was instructed to present in writing a thorough and well-grounded opinion concerning each of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants. The Arminians had now no personal representation at the Synod, but were judged from their writings. The Commissioners, with extraordinary longsuffering, still permitted those who were indicted to present to the Synod in writing whatever they wished in the way of a further defense and explanation of their views. This they did, and wrote voluminously. In all, their defense of the first article comprised more than two hundred pages. Later they came with similarly lengthy documents concerning their other points. By the eighteenth of March (though they had been allowed only 14 days originally) they were finished, and concluded their defense with the claim that they fought the Contra-Remonstrants out of reverence for God, seeing that the Reformed view fell short of God’s honor, was injurious to true piety, and offensive to Christianity. But in all that they wrote there was nothing new, and though the Synod very patiently read their lengthy documents, it is evident that the heretics were at their same old strategy of obstructionism, trying their level best so to tax the patience especially of the foreign delegates that the Synod might perhaps break up.
Finally, however, by the twenty-second of March, 1619, all the written opinions of all the delegates had been received and heard by the Synod. In order to understand how thoroughly the Synod worked, you must remember that the Acts of the Synod of Dordt comprise a volume of almost a thousand large, finely printed pages, and that by far the largest part of this volume is made up of the various written judgments concerning the Arminian errors. The Synod was at long last ready to formulate its official stand. President Bogerman presented to the Synod his own formulation of concept Canons 1 and 2. But the Synod would not work this way. A committee consisting of the president, the two assessors, three foreign delegates, was appointed to present concept-Canons to the Synod. This Committee worked until the sixteenth of April, and on that date presented the Synod with its formulation of the first two Canons, which included in each case a Rejection of Errors, something which Bogerman had not provided in his personal formulation. On that date the first two chapters were adopted, and the following day was set aside as a day of prayer and thanksgiving by order of the States General. The Remonstrants called it “Ahab’s prayer day.” On the eighteenth of April, in its 130th Session, the Synod adopted Canons 3, 4 and 5, thereby finishing its main work. Now it only remained to formulate and adopt an Epilogue and a foreword to the Canons, which work was completed without great difficulty, in spite of the fact that there were some delegates who also wanted to include a condemnation of certain “hard” Reformed expressions. And now the Canons as we know them were finished! Synod had, after long and hard labor, given birth to our third Form of Unity.
The Synod gathered yet until the ninth of May, busying themselves with various matters connected with the controversy, and then the foreign delegates formally said farewell, after receiving the thanks of the Synod for their long and helpful labors. Following this a Post-Synod was held, of a strictly national character, with whose labors we need not busy ourselves.
Such, then, were the methods of labor of the great synod. Small wonder it is, in the light of all this, that our Canons have now for more than three centuries stood without change, and without any need of change, as a redoubtable bulwark of the Reformed truth.