The “great synod,” for anyone of the Dutch, Reformed tradition, is the Reformed, ecumenical synod that met in Dordrecht in 1618-19. This is the synod that dealt decisively with the Arminian errors. This synod was striving for unity. For the great breach in the church was the Arminian heresy. Luther and the Reformers understood that false doctrine divides. Indeed, long before them, Paul warned the saints at Rome, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Notice, the divisions were caused by departures in doctrine. Simply put: heresy divides. It causes schism in the church of Jesus Christ.
And the churches in the Netherlands were badly divided in 1618.
The destructive error that man had a hand in his salvation was infiltrating the church. The teacher was a minister and seminary professor named Jacob Arminius. Those who continued his teaching were called Remonstrants.
The Reformed churches of the Netherlands had known unity. From the Reformation on, through the 1500s, the churches enjoyed remarkable unity, even in the most difficult of times—times of fierce persecution. Philip II of Spain followed in his father’s repressive steps with a vengeance. He swore to the Pope that he would not be ruler over heretics. Untold thousands died martyrs. He did everything in his power to destroy the Reformed church in the Netherlands.
But God’s grace sustained these believers, and in the face of threats on their very lives they manifested their unity. They conducted ecclesiastical gatherings—independentism was not an option for them. As they were able, they held consistory meetings, as well as gatherings of classes and particular synods. They adopted common rules for governing the churches. They adopted the Confession written by Guido de BrÃ©s. They preached the Heidelberg Catechism, thus maintaining and strengthening their doctrinal unity.
The Reformed churches in the Netherlands were unified.
Until the false teachers crept in, and surreptitiously introduced the “damnable heresies” of which the inspired apostle Peter warned (II Pet. 2:1ff.). Indeed, these heretics were “denying the Lord that bought them.” For they claimed to believe in Christ. They publicly testified that they had been saved by His blood. They were baptized. They not only partook of the Lord’s Supper, they administered it. Yet they denied the sovereignty of Christ, the Lord, especially His lordship in salvation, and made salvation dependent on man.
According to Arminius and his followers, God’s election was conditioned on man’s faith and perseverance in obedience. Natural man’s depravity was not total—man has a free will to choose salvation, and to cooperate in faith. God’s grace, though necessary for salvation, was neither sovereign nor particular. Christ died for all, and God graciously offered salvation to all who heard the gospel. The perseverance of the believer to the end was not a sure thing. It depended on man’s being faithful to the end.
With the spread of these deadly errors, church unity was no more. In churches and regions where the errors were allowed to go unchecked, these heresies undermined the confessions, thus destroying the very foundation of the church, God’s truth.
In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Reformed believers in the Netherlands witnessed appalling division. One classis would condemn a particular teaching, and another approve it. A preacher might be condemned by a classis, but his consistory approve him. Or a consistory might vote to depose a minister for heresy, but the local magistrates, who paid the salary, might refuse to approve the consistory’s action, and continue to pay the heretical minister.
Division was everywhere. Congregations split; seminary faculties were divided. And there was no end in sight. For the government had too much power in the church, and it refused to allow a national synod to meet in order to deal with the Remonstrants and their erroneous teachings.
Finally, in the providence of God, who is truth, and who loves unity in the truth, the way was opened to hold a general synod—the great synod held in the city of Dordrecht.
Again, in the providence of God, nearly every delegate sent to the synod was Reformed. Thus the synod set about to heal the schism by repairing the breach in the Reformed faith. They would thoroughly examine the teaching of the Remonstrants in the light of the Bible and the confessions (the Heidelberg Catechism and the [Belgic] Confession of Faith), in order systematically to condemn and remove the lie. They would seek to repair the foundations, restoring truth, and expressing it even more clearly than heretofore.
Can you see, then, that although the battle was indeed for the truth, the disunity in the Reformed churches was on the mind of all the delegates, and in the consciousness of every Reformed believer in the Netherlands? For the God of peace, who loves unity in His church, places the same love in the hearts of His people. Unity was a goal of the great synod.
However, the threefold goal of these Dutch, Reformed believers (removing heresy, defending truth, and restoring unity) was not limited to the churches in the Netherlands. The Reformed in the Netherlands were not concerned merely about themselves, and their spiritual well-being. If that were true, they could have banished the Remonstrants, condemned their errors, and had peace in their own churches.
Their goals were broader and higher. They had in mind that the truth would be affirmed by all who called themselves children of the Reformation. They envisioned a rejection of the lie by all the churches that loved and preached the truth. They hoped for an ecumenical manifestation of true unity by the churches of the Reformation.
This Dutch desire for unity with Reformed churches outside of the Netherlands was not new. Indeed, as early as 1571, mindful of the need for unity with others, the Synod of Emden decided the following: “In order to demonstrate the unity in doctrine among the Netherlands churches, the brethren thought it well to subscribe to the confession of faith of the Netherlands churches, likewise to subscribe to the confessions of the churches in France, in order thereby to attest their agreement and unity with these French churches….”
With this in mind, the churches sent out invitations into Europe, asking for help, asking for delegations to come to the synod that began meeting in November of 1618. The ministers came as delegated by their churches and or rulers:
Great Britain (4)
The Palatinate (3)
Four Reformed Republics of Switzerland (5)
Geneva (2) Bremen (3)
The French churches delegated four representatives, but the Roman Catholic king refused to allow them to attend. And, although two men were appointed from Brandenburg, they were prevented from coming to Dordrecht due to intense Lutheran opposition in their region.
But the rest came. They participated in the great synod.
The road to unity was not always smooth. The greatest difficulty was with the Remonstants. Synod dealt with the uncooperative and deceptive Remonstrants for weeks. Finally, on January 14, 1619, President Johannes Bogerman sent them out with this ferocious speech:
You boast that many foreign divines did not refuse to grant your request. Their moderation arose from a misunderstanding. They now declare that they were deceived by you. They say that you are no longer worthy of being heard by the synod. You may pretend what you please, but the great point of your obstinacy is that you regard the synod as a party in the case. Thus you have long delayed us. You have been treated with all gentleness, friendliness, toleration, patience, and simplicity. Go as you came. You began with lies and you end with them. You are full of fraud and double-dealing. You are not worthy that the synod should treat with you further. Depart! Leave! You began with a lie, with a lie you ended! Go!
Not everyone among the foreign delegations appreciated that speech. Some thought it was long overdue. Now the synod could get to work, on doctrinal unity.
A study of the process reveals that their unity was not built on any compromise of the truth they confessed.
That is not to say that there were no compromises made. The final product was the result of study, debate, resolving disagreements on how to express the various articles, and even which articles to include. A few of the foreign delegates were weak on the doctrines of grace. Some delegates argued vehemently for the supralapsarian position, but had to settle for the infra position. The debate could get hot, even violently so. Diversity was clearly on display.
But out of it came unity. The wise procedure encouraged unity.
The various delegations met in the mornings to consider the views of the Remonstrants. In the afternoon, they presented their speeches publicly, and discussion followed. Each delegation wrote up their judgment on the views of the Remonstrants on each of the Five Articles. These documents were kept by President Bogerman and not made public until all the articles had been discussed and judgments made. These judgments were then read, discussed, and considered by synod. There was remarkable agreement.
Next a committee was formed to write the concept canons. This committee included Bogerman, the two vice presidents, three other Dutch delegates, and three foreign delegates—Bishop Carleton of England, Abraham Scultetus of the Palatinate (Heidelberg), and Johannes Deodati of Geneva.
In the end, all the delegates signed the Canons of Dordrecht. There was unity, based squarely on the truth. The truth that God is sovereign. The truth that salvation is of God alone. That election is sovereign, free, and unconditional. That grace is sovereign and particular. That God in the preaching does not beg, or offer, but rather commands all men to repent and believe. That Christ died for the elect alone, and His atonement is effectual. And that every believer perseveres to the end, because God preserves to the end.
On the doctrine, there was no compromise. There was unity.
The synod’s desire for unity in the truth was manifest in another striking way. The Dutch delegates wanted the foreign delegates to join in their approval of the Netherlands (or Belgic) Confession of Faith. However, the Dutch delegates also recognized that a number of the articles of the Confession dealt with practical matters of church government. There were differences among the foreign delegates on church government. The Dutch delegates did not want that matter to stand in the way of the foreign delegates’ approval of the Confession of Faith. Therefore, they excluded several of these articles from the resolution to have the entire synod approve the Confession.
Was this compromise?
Some are critical of the synod for this action. Not I. I see wisdom. I see an example for Reformed and Presbyterian churches today. The great synod did not say that Reformed church government is not important. Certainly it was and it is. The synod was not declaring that the Bible has nothing to say about church government. It does. But the essential doctrines of God, the Bible, Christ, the atonement, etc., and especially the sovereignty of God, those are central. That is, the truth unifies.
Do we agree on that viewpoint? That is the Reformed viewpoint.
Dordrecht is an inestimable blessing from God. The church found unity in the truth. This is the model for true, Reformed ecumenicity yet today. Churches seeking unity must meet together with the goal that they will reject the lie, agree on the truth, and be unified on the basis of truth.
But Dordrecht also demonstrates that unity does not mean uniformity. Two denominations need not be carbon copies of each other to have meaningful unity. They will not necessarily agree on all aspects of worship and church government and on all their teachings and practices. Reformed and Presbyterian churches who desire unity must hold to the doctrines of Dordt—sovereign, particular grace. They must agree on a doctrine of God’s covenant of grace that is in harmony with the Canons, namely, an unconditional covenant that God establishes with the elect. A Reformed church cannot be one with a church that holds to the well-meant gospel offer, to common grace, or to a conditional covenant.
History demonstrates, with striking negative examples, the importance of unity in the truth. The first is the 1892 union of the Afscheiding and Doleantie churches in the Netherlands. They did not work out their doctrinal differences on such critical doctrines as the covenant, baptism, and common grace. In 1944 two groups parted, and the Liberated Churches were formed, primarily from the branch of the Afscheiding churches that had maintained the well-meant gospel offer and the conditional covenant.
The second illustration is even more dreadful. In the early 1900s, those same two groups (Afscheiding and Doleantie) were present in the Christian Reformed Churches in America. They united in 1924 based on their agreement over common grace and the well-meant gospel offer in the adoption of the Three Points of common grace. Their unity, based on error, led the CRC down the apostatizing road it continues to travel yet today. A dreadful warning.
Reformed and Presbyterian churches must be committed to the ecumenical unity displayed in the great synod of Dordt. Unity in the doctrines of sovereign grace. But diversity on other matters. The difficulty is in working this out. Nonetheless, the ecumenical spirit of the Reformation was clearly displayed by the Synod of Dordrecht. That synod is an example for the church today.