With the contents of the Canons of Dordrecht, readers of the Standard Bearer are undoubtedly in a measure familiar. The truths of God’s sovereign grace in Christ are boldly preached from the pulpits of our beloved Protestant Reformed Churches. .This truth is confessed by the “pew.” This is as it ought to be. For the Reformed faith must ever remain the content of our worship. To confess the sovereign, particular and irresistible grace of God in Christ is to lift towards heaven an anthem of praise to God. Our praise in the pulpit must ever be our faithful preaching of God’s sovereignty. The truth of God’s glorious grace, freely bestowed unto salvation unto some and not others, is the thrust of the Canons. This truth we believe.
We should point out that the Canons of Dordrecht are currently the subject of heated debate in the CRC. Dr. H. Boer in particular has expressed “questions” and objections to the doctrine of sovereign predestination. Especially the doctrine of reprobation has fallen on hard times in the CRC. Dr. Boer, and others obviously, attack articles 6 and 15 of the first head of the Canons. There is, according to Dr. H. Boer, no Scriptural basis for the doctrine of reprobation as taught in the Canons.
To this debate in our “mother church” we must give a listening ear. We must be alert and sensitive to every attempt to undermine the Reformed faith and its doctrine of God’s sovereignty. Our own well-being as churches must be sought by viewing “how” and “why” others in another denomination attack truths which truly Reformed men hold dear.
But our purpose in this article is not to discuss this controversy in the CRC. We leave that to others. Our purpose is to give a historical perspective to the Canons. We want to show the significance of the historical events that form the background for our fathers who wrote the Canons. It is important, I believe, to have some knowledge of the historical circumstances in which the Church wrote the Canons. These include not only the events immediately preceding 1618-1619, but also the events and circumstances which lie many years before the convocation of this great Synod. If we are to appreciate fully the confession made by the fathers at Dordrecht then we must have some knowledge of the historical setting in which the Canons were produced.
A brother who has little appreciation of history might object to the above and ask: “Is not a conviction that the Canons are biblical sufficient? Can an understanding of the historical framework in which the Canons were born be of any real value?” Certainly, the fact that the Canons are based on God’s Word is fundamental. On the Word our faith is based. Surely! This is above all important. But this fact does not make the historical events and circumstances of little or no value.
Certainly, the historical is subordinate and secondary in importance to the scriptural basis for the confessions. But an understanding of the historical framework in which the Canons were written is of great value.
Let me point out why.
The events of one’s youth in a large measure form the man! One’s adult attitudes and perspectives of life are often expressions of what was deeply impressed upon him in the formative years of his youth. What a man is today can be explained in part by what he experienced in his youth. The joys, trials, and discipline of one’s youth leave their mark on this person many years later. The same is true collectively of the Church. The mature Church which at Dordrecht in faith gave birth to the Canons was a Church spiritually formed and prepared in its infancy to do just this work. It is often said that the Church which produced the Canons was of the “most flourishing period of Reformed. Theology.” Well, then, were not the unique events prior to 1618 the fertile soil, in part at least, which caused the beautiful flower of the Reformed Theology to flourish?
Flesh and blood believers, brothers in Christ, in the name of the Church of Christ and on behalf of the Reformed Church of the Netherlands, formulated the truths of God’s Word as expressed in the Canons. Who were these men? What kind of men were they? By what were they influenced? What shaped their faith and conviction? You say: through God’s grace and by the work of the Holy Spirit, Who applied God’s Word to their hearts. Yes, but what were the events of their youth through which God in grace formed them? Events and experiences are: means of grace, too. We must not deny the significance of historical events in the lives of God’s people.
We must remember that God prepares His people through historical events of the past to walk in faith and obedience in the present. Here the emphasis must be laid . . . on God’s Work. God forms men through events. The historical events of one’s life are events which God willed eternally, determined and brought to realization as His means in grace to form the believer for his work and station in the cause of God’s Kingdom. Thus, past historical events in the lives of God’s people are of immeasurable significance.
By way of example, who can deny the tremendous impact and influence the events of 1924 had upon our parents and grandparents? The ridicule and scorn they endured for the truth’s sake were trials which God used as His means, from the old foreordained, to strengthen their faith in the Word. Who does not understand the influence the depression years had in teaching our fathers the lesson of faith that we are but dependent children before God? If one suffers to obtain something, he will cherish that which he has finally acquired. So also the Church of any period of time which endures all trials and sufferings in obedience to God’s Word is a Church which will not soon lightly regard its confession which in times past she suffered to maintain.
The contrary is also true. The person which does not know how he came to own that which he possesses, nor what is its use, soon accounts this possession as useless and expendable. In demonstration of this fact, consider many so-called Reformed believers today who objectively possess the Canons as their confession. Many have no knowledge of how or why the Canons were formed. They do not know what the fathers from 1560-1619 had to go through to gain and maintain their proper confession. Besides, these same Reformed believers today have ever taken the way of compromise with the lie and amalgamation with the world. Every time obedience would require suffering hardship these “Reformed pilgrims” have chosen the “easy way out”—habitually rationalizing an errant walk! How, I ask, can anyone expect these Reformed believers today to maintain the unpopular truth of unconditional predestination as stated by the Canons? The fact is that an heritage, which one’s father would not jealously defend and boldly declare, has fallen to those who are spiritually ill-prepared to receive or defend it. If the first of any succeeding generations taught their children the way of compromise, how can they (or we) expect their children, the second generation, to suffer for the truths which their elders principally compromised away. Children who have not been diligently taught the truth of God’s Word by word and example are spiritually ill fitted to wage spiritual warfare for the truth. They, as their father, are “soft” re the truth. Historical events of the past, in this instance, are God’s means, which sweep today’s children, according to God’s severe justice, swiftly down the smooth highway of apostasy.
We, as all men, are children of our past.
Our fathers at Dordrecht were children of their past. What was that past? What were the influences of their lives which shaped their faith and confession?
To this history we turn next time.