The Canons of Dordt and missions (1)

This year and next mark the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt. One of the most significant labors of that Synod was to compose and adopt the Canons of Dordt. Although the main purpose and benefit of this creed was and still is to provide a clear, biblical response to the grievous, God-dishonoring heresy of Arminianism, surprisingly this creed also addresses, both indirectly as well as explicitly, the matter of the church’s calling to do mission work. As we commemorate the work of this Synod and the Lord’s guiding hand in that work, we do well to take a look at what the Canons of Dordt has to say about missions—perhaps especially in light of the fact that the Arminians, against whose views the Canons was written, accused the Reformed of not having a reason to do mission work because they taught that God has eternally predestined everyone.

Reformed creeds, including the Three Forms of Unity, have often been maligned as not saying enough about missions. Some have even argued that they say nothing at all about it. Such criticisms come both from within and from outside the denominations that have adopted these creeds.

Those who criticize the creeds often blame them for a perceived lack of missionary zeal and activity within Reformed denominations. The argument is that because the confessions are chiefly polemical and doctrinal, they fail to address the important and urgent work of the church to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth. It is said that the Reformed creeds encourage churches to be concerned only with themselves and their own survival. The creeds fail to inspire members or congregations to be conscious of, excited about, and active in missions. Some even go so far as to argue that the creeds are a hindrance to missions because they are doctrinal, and doctrine divides. They view the creeds, therefore, as a stumbling block for mission work.

It is worth noting that these accusations are in reality being directed against the Synod of Dordt itself. The charge that the creeds (including the Canons of Dordt) do not address the church’s calling to do mission work is tantamount to saying that the Synod of Dordt was not interested in and concerned about missions. That is simply untrue. The charge also implies that the five points of Calvinism (which are vigorously defended by the Canons of Dordt) have nothing to do with and nothing to say about mission work. That too is simply untrue.

Those in Reformed and Presbyterian churches who raise the above-mentioned criticisms suggest various solutions. The most radical solution suggested is that the church ought to write a new creed, one that specifically addresses missions and spells out in detail what the Scriptures teach concerning the church’s calling to do mission work, and how it ought to be done. It is believed that the church needs a separate creed for the task of missions.

Another proposed solution is that something be added to Article 29 of the Belgic Confession of Faith. This article concerns “The Marks of the True Church.” Some believe that mission work is not comprehended under the first mark of a true church, namely, “that the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein.” That mark, they argue, has an inward perspective and refers merely to preaching as the means for the preservation of the church. They suggest, therefore, that a fourth mark be added, namely, that the true church is one that faithfully carries out the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20.

Yet another solution to this supposed problem is the idea of adding an article to our existing creeds. This additional article would specifically address the church’s calling to do mission work and would serve to inspire the church and her members to be conscious of and active in this work.

Sad to say, one Presbyterian denomination in the USA did exactly what was just mentioned, namely, they added to their creed. This was done in 1903 by The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA). Their creed was the Westminster Confession of Faith. The result was that their version of this creed has an additional chapter entitled, “Of the Love of God and Missions.” As that title itself already indicates, their main purpose was to base mission work in the well-meant offer of the gospel. The PCUSA used the heresy of the well-meant offer as the reason why the church must do missions. It is as though they said that mission work is impossible and doomed to fail if you do not maintain that God loves all men, desires the salvation of all men, and freely offers that salvation to all men.

The chapter and articles that they added to their creed makes that explicit. Part of their addition reads as follows: “In the Gospel God declares His love for the world and His desire that all men should be saved; reveals fully and clearly the only way of salvation; promises eternal life to all who truly repent and believe in Christ; invites and commands all to embrace the offered mercy; and by His Spirit accompanying the Word pleads with men to accept His gracious invitation.”

One could hardly find a more blatant statement anywhere concerning the well-meant offer of the gospel. And this obvious corruption of the truth was added to a Reformed confession. That in itself ought to demonstrate the danger of and warn us against modifying or adding to our creeds.

But what about our Reformed confessions and the church’s work of missions? Are the confessions silent? And if not silent, are they inadequate? Do we need something more? If a Reformed denomination lacks missionary zeal, should we cast the blame at the creeds? And were the Arminians correct after all when they accused the Reformed of teaching a doctrine (double predestination) that destroys missionary zeal?

Our answer is that our Three Forms of Unity do adequately speak to and about missions and the calling of the church to be engaged in this work. They say much more than we might at first think or expect. And that includes the Canons of Dordt. In fact, out of the three creeds that constitute the Three Forms of Unity, it is the Canons that contains an explicit statement concerning the church’s duty to do mission work. It is, therefore, a creed that can guide us in our mission work. It sheds light on our missionary calling. It is an essential tool for Reformed churches and Reformed missionaries who purpose faithfully to carry out the Great Commission.

Before looking at and considering specific references to missions in the Canons of Dordt, we should realize that the very existence of this creed (and likewise of our other creeds) is itself significant for missions. That is, the creeds, even apart from what they might say about missions, themselves demonstrate that the churches who have and use them are conscious of doing and are doing mission work. Even if our Three Forms of Unity would say nothing at all about mission work, by virtue of their existence in our midst they indicate that our churches are mission-minded. Let me explain.

We refer to our creeds by various names: creeds, confessions, forms of unity, rules of faith, standards, and symbols. The last listed name is significant here, for it means the creed is like a banner or flag. And a banner or flag is a very public item. The purpose of a nation’s flag is to represent that nation as well as to distinguish it from other nations. When, therefore, we refer to our creeds as symbols, we are pointing out that they are a public expression of what we believe and confess. The creeds clearly identify us to others. They are a public and outward declaration of who we are and of what we believe. And thereby they issue a public call to others to join us in believing, confessing, and being comforted by the truths of Scripture that God has been pleased to give us.

The very fact that we possess confessions, therefore, ought to stimulate us to do mission work. The creeds are not intended to be locked away and kept secret. They are not intended to be kept to ourselves. The creeds are intended to be on public display at all times and to all peoples. They are intended to attract attention. They are intended to be hung like a banner and to be raised like a flag. They are intended to be printed in booklets and handed out to those who do not have them. They are intended to be discussed with those who are outside our churches in such a way that we encourage and even urge them to join us.

This is true because the creeds, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit of truth, set forth the truth of Scripture. They declare, therefore, what the Scriptures declare, that men are sinners who must repent of their sins and believe and trust alone in Jesus Christ. In this way they call those who do not have the truth concerning Christ to believe and embrace that truth as it has been graciously given and handed down to us in those creeds.

The very existence of our creeds means that we are a mission-minded denomination. By means of our creeds, the message that we give to all who do not have them is: “This is who we are, and this is what we believe. Come and join us!” Reformed churches, by virtue of being confessional, are also mission churches.

However, in addition to this, the Canons of Dordt also has some specific things to say about missions. The Lord willing, we will consider that in our next article on this subject.