The ruling body in the Netherlands at the time of the Synod of Dordrecht was the States General—a gathering of delegates representing the seven provinces that comprised the Netherlands in that day. The seven provinces were Gelderland, Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Friesland, Overijssel, and Groningen, of which Holland was the largest and dominant. Called “the states of Holland” (North Holland and South Holland), it controlled much of the coast and contained many of the major Dutch cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Dordrecht, Leiden, and the Hague. Each of the seven provinces had but one vote in the States General. Initially, a motion required unanimous approval to be enacted. Later a majority would suffice, and yet, a majority vote without Holland’s approval would rarely be carried out.
This was a fairly new form of government for the Dutch. The provinces of the Lowlands were fiercely independent and were not eager to work together. The Dutch had thrown off the rule of Roman Catholic Spain through much bloodshed. The Twelve-Year Truce was signed with Spain in 1609, and the provinces now faced the very divisive religious conflicts brought on by Arminius. Though Arminius died in 1609, his followers, the Remonstrants, promoted his theology, while the Counter-Remonstrants defended the Reformed faith of the churches summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession.
The close relation between the Reformed churches in the Netherlands and the government had been forged in the battle to drive out the Spanish on one hand, and to break the death grip of the Roman Catholic Church on the other. But the result of this joint endeavor was that when the priests of Rome were put out of a given city, the local magistrates gave the Reformed congregation the use of the church building but retained ownership. The local magistrates also had power over the preachers in that they approved the minister to be called and paid his salary. The control of the state over the church also included this: No national synod might be called without the approval of the States General. Significant in that context is this: In many of the cities and towns of the province Holland, the town councils favored the Remonstrants. For years, therefore, the Holland province resisted the calling of a national synod to deal with the Arminian heresy that was spreading in the Reformed church in the Netherlands.
Actually, there was an exception to that. The Remonstrants regularly called for a national synod to revise the existing confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession. In 1606, the States General had approved the calling of a national synod with that provision. The Reformed churches refused to call a national synod for that purpose, knowing that the Remonstrants intended to corrupt or even remove the doctrines of sovereign grace, especially election.
As the conflict grew, the States General faced the issue again. In June and again in September of 1617, four of the seven provinces voted to convene a national synod, and in May of 1618, Overijssel joined the majority. However, the provinces of Holland and Utrecht steadfastly resisted.
In the meantime, Prince Maurice stepped in. Prince Maurice, of the house of Orange, had long held the position of “stadtholder” in five of the provinces, including Holland and Utrecht. The stadtholder had authority over appointment of regents to the town councils—an authority that had long been unexercised. Until 1618. Prince Maurice sided with the Reformed, and with his army he systematically travelled from city to city in Holland, replacing the regents on the town councils— from Remonstrant to Counter-Remonstrant men. With Holland’s stiff opposition removed, the States General could move forward with the plans for a national synod. And the States General took ownership of the endeavor.
Preparations for the synod
The States General first determined who would be invited to attend. It was determined that, from the Netherlands, delegates from ten provincial synods, (including the French-speaking Walloon churches), and one group of theological professors from five Dutch universities would be invited. The States General also determined the Remonstrant preachers to be summoned. Of tremendous significance was the decision to invite Reformed men from England, France, various regions of Germany, and from various Swiss cities, including Geneva (which still maintained the theology of John Calvin). The States General sent letters of invitation to the heads of state in foreign countries, except for France, the king being a devoted Roman Catholic, where the invitation went to the Reformed Churches.
The States General determined that the provincial synods must pay the expenses of the delegates that each sent. They voted to raise 100,000 guilders to pay the expenses of the foreign delegations, as well as those of the Walloon synod.
The synod’s location was set by the States General as the city of Dordrecht.
The great synod
The States General determined to have provincial deputies representing the States General sit in on all the meetings of the Synod (18 delegates came). The synodical deputies were to see to that this principle was observed at Synod: “The National Synod holden under the authority of their High Mightinesses the States General.” The synodical deputies opened the meeting of the Synod and welcome all the delegates. They received and examined the letters of the foreign delegates. The synodical deputies were to ensure that no political matters were ever raised at synod. The States General instructed them to “behave themselves…[in such a way] that they may tend to the Good, to the Peace and Unity of the Churches and Communities of these provinces.; and shall moreover do whatever may tend to promote the interests of the Reformed Christian religion.”1
In fact, the synodical deputies stayed in regular contact with the States General the full six months that the Synod met. On two occasions, the Acta (minutes) of the Synod were presented to the States General in The Hague for its approval. (In both instances, the minutes had to do with the treatment of the Remonstrants.) A final report was given to the States General on May 30, though the minutes were not then presented for approval.
One significant advantage of the States General’s authority was that the Remonstrants were compelled to cooperate with the Synod. When the Remonstrants did not, it was considered rebellion against the States General. When Bogerman dismissed the Remonstrants from the Synod, he had the approval of government officials. In addition, until the Synod was finished, the States General forbad the printing of any record of the synodical proceedings or any Remonstrant pamphlet, and they required the Remonstrants to remain in Dordrecht. These injunctions were designed to prevent the Remonstrants traversing the Netherlands with propaganda against the Synod.
When the Synod completed the Canons, the States General gave an elaborate banquet for all the delegates and sent the foreign delegates on their way with a gold commemorative medallion. (The Dutch delegates were given a silver medallion.)
The States General oversaw the printing of the Acts of the Synod, intended especially for the eyes of foreign rulers. The States General determined the content of the Acts with a view to strengthening the ties between the foreign powers and the Netherlands. The Twelve- Year Truce would end in only two years. Should the conflict with Catholic Spain be renewed, the Netherlands hoped for the support of the Protestant nations. The Acts were sent with a dedicatory letter that stated:
Moreover, so that it may be well-known to all how highly we regard you, kings, princes, counts, cities, magistrates, who have readily and generously stood with us in this so godly and lofty cause, also how highly we regard the erudition, godliness, trustworthiness and uprightness of the most eminent theologians whom you sent; but especially, so that no one can have doubts about our unanimity in religion, of those who were present in this venerable synod, we by our authority, following the example of the greatest princes, publish the Acta, as they were read and approved there [in the synod] and afterward carefully edited by our order and mandate.2
Although the States General did not interfere with the substantive deliberations on the Canons, its authority hung heavy over the Synod. After the Synod adopted the Canons and condemned the theology of the Remonstrants, the States General enforced the deposition and/ or exile of the Remonstrant preachers. On the negative side, the States General refused to approve the changes in the Church Order that would have reduced the authority of the States General over the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
The Reformed church in our day is not placed under the authority of the state, for Christ is the King of His church. Subsequent history demonstrated the importance of the church being free from governmental control. At the Synod of Dordt the proper relation of church and state was not restored, and the government’s control remained firmly in place. Over 200 years would elapse before another national synod could be convened. In that period, the Reformed churches apostatized, bringing about the necessity of the Reformation of 1834, the Secession (Afscheiding), under Rev. H. De Cock.
Yet, God providentially determined that in this significant moment of the Reformed church (1618-19) the government exercised significant control over the church, for the good. The prayer of Balthasar Lydius at the Synod’s opening session expressed hearty thanks to God for Prince Maurice and the States General for their role in the great Synod (for that prayer, see SB, Nov. 1, 2018).
In the providence of God, this monumental, international Synod convened in Dordrecht under the auspices of the States General. Without the support of the States General, it is unlikely that the many foreign delegates could have come, faced the Arminian error squarely, and worked for months to hammer out the magnificent confession we know as the Canons of Dordt. The Reformed churches from about Europe gathered to condemn the theology of Arminius and to set forth the truths of sovereign grace. There has never been a gathering like Dordt, either before it or since. God used this Synod to preserve the great Reformation—its truths, its liturgy, its presbyterial government, and even its emphasis on godly living.
“The king’s heart,” or in this case, the States General’s, “is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). And the Reformed church through the ages has reaped the blessings. All praise to God!
1 Geeraert Brandt, The History of the Reformation and Other Ecclesiastical Transaction in and about the Netherlands, vol. 3 (London: T. Wood, 1720), 12.