The Canons of Dordrecht: An Historical Perspective (2)

Spread of the Reformed Faith 

The Reformed faith had to earn its right of existence in the Lowlands. Its spread was continually opposed. Our Dutch fathers were to gain the faith only by purchasing it with their blood. Thousands were killed for cherishing its truth. The Calvinistic or Reformed faith gained its right to existence in the Netherlands only through suffering and death. It would be maintained only in the same way. 

Christ, our Lord, died to gain the victory over depravity, sin, guilt, and the forces of Hell. There was no other way. The pattern for God’s people was set. Christ’s sufferings we must fill up. If the world hated the Master they will also hate His disciples. Christ was victorious in death. In the lives of His people Christ is always victorious too: faith inevitably makes its confession of the truth. But this victory of Christ by His irresistible grace is gained only through suffering. This truth our Dutch fathers learned from 1540-1585. God uses historical events and circumstances to form His people spiritually. One of His instruments was Philip II of Spain. 

Several historical factors comprised God’s means to bring the light of the gospel to His people in the Lowlands, who were engulfed in spiritual darkness and ignorance and exploitation by Roman Catholicism. Preparatory to the spread of the Reformed faith was, first of all, the dissemination of Luther’s writings from 1520 onward. Luther showed clearly the corruption of the papal system, on the one hand; on the other hand, he made transparent the beauty of the gospel of grace. Secondly, the Anabaptist movement indirectly served to prepare for the spread of the truth. Anabaptism, if anything, served to awaken in the people a desire to grant religious freedom. 

But there were two historical factors which directly insured the spread and reception of the Reformed faith by the people. The first was the wide and rapid spread of Calvin’s writings in the southern provinces of the Lowlands. These southern provinces were French speaking. Consequently the lucid, forceful writings of Calvin found ready access by the people eager to learn the truth of God’s Word. 

The second momentous event that enhanced the dissemination of the Reformed faith was the translation of the New Testament from the original into the Holland language. Luther’s German Bible was also widely used in the Lowland, after it had been translated into the Holland.¹ 

This spread of the Reformed faith was in a measure unrestricted till 1559. Charles V opposed it but not wholeheartedly. Most of his severe edicts were not enforced widely. Consequently, from 1540 till 1559 the truth of God’s Word as set forth by Calvin cast its illuminating rays and life-giving power into the spiritual darkness which engulfed our forefathers of the Netherlands. 

The Political Situation in the Lowlands 

In order to understand the motive and power of those who so mercilessly persecuted the Netherlanders and especially our Reformed fathers among them it is necessary to take a brief look at the political situation in the Lowlands from 1540 to 1585. In 1581 the northern seven provinces declared separation from the ten provinces of the south, which had made peace with Philip on the basis of a common faith—Roman Catholicism. In the year 1581 the northern seven provinces became an independent republic under the leadership of William of Orange. But at the midway point of the 16th century the Lowlands comprised seventeen provinces loosely joined together in a States General. Each province was self-ruling, enjoying local rights and privileges. However, these seventeen provinces that comprised the Lowlands (modern Netherlands and Belgium) were part of the domain of Charles the V in 1550. He had received the right to rule the Netherlands before 1519 in which year Charles became the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles ruled all of western and central Europe with the exception of France, England, Portugal, and the Papal States. The glory and grandeur of a Roman Emperor had long before vanished by the time Charles obtained his position. Charles V, who was a physically weak man, occasioned by repeated illness, was called upon to rule a .revolutionary Europe and a people aroused and excited by the reformation of the church. Charles was by birth and upbringing a Lowlander. He had watched helplessly the spread of the Reformation from Wittenburg to Geneva and to his homeland, the Lowlands. He tried to stop its spread but was too humanitarian. Though he murdered thirty thousand Lowlanders in his attempt, it was not enough.³ In his old age Charles cursed the day that he had not killed Luther, as Leo X begged him to do. 

Physically weak and broken in spirit, Charles, at the age of 55, abdicated and gave to his son Philip on October 25, 1555 the position as King of the Lowlands and a year later the title Philip II of Spain. 

Economically the Lowland in the middle of the 16th century was the most prosperous nation of all Europe. Antwerp excelled Venice in commerce and trade. The Netherlands was so wealthy that they provided 1,500,000 livers ($37,500,000) as taxes to Charles, which constituted half of all his revenue. Religiously they were beginning to prosper in the truth. But it was all to change with the rise of Philip II, son of Charles V, bigoted, murderous, and, of course, a dedicated Roman Catholic. 

Persecution by Philip II of Spain 

Philip was a Spaniard in every detail. He was Roman Catholic in conviction. He did not understand the people of the Lowlands and had no regard for their physical well-being. When Philip began to rule in 1555 he was young, healthy, strong-willed and ungodly. For four years, 1555-1559, he remained in the Lowlands continuing his father’s policies. Philip II had one burning desire which motivated him in all his actions in the Lowlands. It was to “root out all heresy.” He secretly plotted with the King of France to suppress and destroy all heretics. Philip was a cruel man. When reports came to him of the merciless slaughter of seventy thousand Huguenots centered on St. Bartholomew’s Day (1572) . . . he laughed uproariously.4 The Church of Christ wept and groaned . . . had God forgotten to be kind? 

This enemy of the truth used three means to “root out heresy” in the Lowlands. First, he sent in his troops, placing them in the important cities. Secondly, he broadened and intensified the hierarchical rule of the Roman Catholic church. With the Pope’s permission in 1559 Philip established three new archbishoprics and eighteen new bishoprics. Now the people were directly under the powerful hand of an aroused and determined Roman Catholic clergy. Thirdly, the bloody Inquisition was used to ferret out and kill many of the Reformed believers. With military power the youthful king backed up the tenacious activity of the Inquisition. Philip left the Netherlands in 1559 to live in Spain. He ruled the Lowlands through his half-sister Margaret of Parma and three heads of state which he had appointed. These three formed a consulta to advise Margaret and to carry out the policies of Philip. Self-rule and ancient privileges of the people were disregarded. The nobles, the people in general, and the Church of Christ resented Philip II of Spain. 

The years 1559 to 1581 are crucial in an understanding of how the Reformed church was brought to spiritual maturity. For, first of all, at the beginning of this period the Reformed churches began to take shape and were organized as Reformed in distinction from Roman Catholic. By the early sixties the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism became the confessions of Reformed believers in the Lowlands. These two confessions served to unite and identify the Reformed Churches. In 1569 the Reformed Churches held their first “synod” or conference at Emden, Germany; here because it was not safe to meet in the Netherlands. The Reformed church had emerged as a separate entity and began to manifest itself institutionally over against Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism.

Secondly, it was during this period that the Reformed people were severely persecuted by Philip. The Royal Academy of Belgium has published papers of Granvelle (a cardinal appointed as one of the three advisers to Margaret, Philip’s Regent) which show that from the first Philip II urged the extirpation of heresy as the most important work to be undertaken by his government.5 Philip was undoubtedly emboldened and fortified in this endeavor, if he needed it, by the Decrees of the Council of Trent in 1563. 

People were burned, buried alive, or hanged by order of the dreaded Inquisition. The Spanish troops were guilty of pillage and rapine. The people of Zeeland declared that they would rather perish in the waves of the ocean than longer endure the outrages of Philip’s troops . . . thus she opened the dikes. News reached the Netherlands that the father of the Belgic Confession, Guido de Bres, had been executed in 1567. People fled the country. Commerce and economic prosperity had ground to a halt. After having recalled the first Spanish troops, Philip sent the Duke of Alva with thousands more and with extensive political power that made the Duke’s word the word of the King. Alva was on his own. 

Alva invented an instrument of persecution called The Bloody Tribunal. This Council punished treason with death. Treason was defined as follows: to have presented any petition against the Inquisition and the new bishoprics, to have tolerated public preaching, to have asserted that the King had not the right to suspend the charters of the provinces, and to’ maintain that the Council of Tumults (Bloody Tribunal) had not the right to override all the laws and privileges of the people of the Netherlands.6 Thousands were killed. People were condemned to death in batches of ninety-five, eighty-four, forty-six, thirty-five at a time. Alva reported to Philip that on Ash-Wednesday morning fifteen hundred were killed in their beds. On another occasion eight hundred were condemned to death. In 1572 news of the butchering of the seventy thousand Huguenots by the French King, who had secretly plotted with Philip II to “root out all heresy,” reached the Netherlands. The city of. Antwerp was sacked. Leiden escaped total ruin only by flooding the countryside by opening the dikes and thereby allowing the ocean waters and the Sea Beggars to drive back Alva’s troops. 

But enough! The reader with a little imagination can gain a picture of the extent of the blood bath by which Philip attempted to root out the Reformed faith. Edward Gibbon estimates that the number of Protestants who were executed in a single province and a single reign, far exceeded that of the primitive martyrs in the space of three centuries of the Roman empire. Possibly more than one hundred thousand Lowlanders lost their lives for their religious beliefs during Philip’s reign. 

But what now is the significance of this horrible suffering? What does this tell us about our fathers, the Church at Dordrecht in 1618-19? The significance of this history is that this horrible suffering, was the means God used to prepare the Church boldly to confess and maintain the truth at Dordrecht. Fifty-eight of the delegates of this Synod were Netherlanders. Many were born about the time of the beginning of Philip’s reign. Their youthful souls were deeply affected and influenced by the dedication and faith of those who suffered and died for the truth of God’s Word. In their youth they learned what it meant to choose to suffer affliction with the people of God, rather than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season, to esteem the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures and favor of Spain’s King. 

But we must remember that it is the Church as a whole that writes creeds and not just a handful of men. Therefore, not only the 58 delegates from the Netherlands but the whole Church at Dordrecht had gone through this experience in its youth. Youthful saints during the years 1560-1590 must have asked time and again “why?”; “what is so important about what we believe?”; “is it worth it?” Always their parents had answered: “for the truth’s sake,” “because we love the Reformed faith.” Ultimately, the answer was, “we are willing to suffer loss of property and life if necessary that we may be able to confess the Reformed faith to the glory of our God. This living confession was sealed with the blood of many. Faith validates its confession by a godly walk! 

Thus the Church at Dordrecht and its 58 representatives had counted the cost of discipleship; they knew and loved the truth of God’s Word. They had been prepared to stand for the truth at all costs. They were not about to compromise it away. The generation before them had, by God’s grace, not failed them! God had through the means of one suffering generation prepared a second generation to give us their creed, the Canons of Dordrecht, wherein God’s sovereignty and glory is beautifully set forth. 

Next time we will take a brief look at the events that occasioned this synod in 1618.

¹ Kromminga, D.H.; The Christian Reformed Tradition, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1943, p. 21 

² Lindsay, Thomas; A History of the Reformation, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1910, Vol. ii—p. 239 

³ Durant, Will; The Reformation, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1957, p. 632 

4 Lindsay, op. cit. p. 298-200 5 ibid, p. 243 6 ibid, p. 256