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Did the Canons Misfire: Five Points on Synod of Dort

Resident Faculty, W. Robert Godfrey   |   June 1, 1976   |  Type: Articles

For many members of the Christian Reformed Church the Canons of Dort have remained largely ignored in relative obscurity at the back of the Psalter Hymnal. Unlike the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons have little or no liturgical use in the church. Neither do they provide a concise summary of the faith as does the Belgic Confession. Rather, the Canons, with their detailed and extensive exposition of several vital points of Reformed Christianity, have guided the church in its understanding of the sovereign grace of God.

In recent years, the Canons have attracted the attention of several detractors who suggest that the Canons are not all that they could be. Even some ministers who are bound by oath to the doctrinal standards of the church suggest that the Canons represent a theology that is abstract, speculative, and systematic in a scholastic, rather than biblical manner.  Critics fear that the Canons undermine either the freedom or the justice of God.

Beyond these theological concerns, are practical ones: Can the doctrines of grace expressed in the Canons be preached effectively? Is evangelism in the church inevitably crippled by the kind of theology found in the Canons?

These critical questions go to the root of the Reformed faith. It is time to re-examine the Canons of Dort. Under the light of Scripture, the church must determine whether this binding confessional standard should be amended or the critics recalled to the truth.

The two articles in this series do not attempt this biblical re-examination. (Indeed, the biblical evidence offered in the works of Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof seems abundantly adequate.) Rather, the intent here is to present the Canons in an historical context which will provide a perspective and focus for discussions of their theological relevance to the life of the church today. This first article discusses the theological climate which gave birth to the Canons and the situation to which the Canons spoke. The second article will address more specifically the discussion at the Synod of Dort on reprobation and evaluate the Canons' formulations on this important doctrine.

Such an historical investigation may assist the church in determining whether the modern critics of the Canons provide keener theological insight into biblical religion than did the writers of the Canons. Following good Reformed tradition, this article presents five points on the Synod of Dort.

The Composition of the Synod - The National Synod of the Dutch Reformed Church assembled at Dordrecht on November 13, 1618 to confront a major crisis in the churches. For over a decade the government of the Netherlands had been protecting Arminius and his more radical followers from trial in the ecclesiastical courts. The government staunchly maintained that only a national synod could rule on the Arminian controversy, but consistently refused to call a national synod to decide the question.

As a result of this tactic, by 1617 the Dutch church was on the verge of schism and the state was on the brink of civil war. Only a timely change of government averted these disasters and finally permitted the synod to meet.

Although the Arminian problem was tied intimately to the Dutch church and state, it was not exclusively a Dutch concern. Reformed theologians from Great Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland had followed the development of the Arminian controversy with growing consternation.  Although communication between countries was slow in the seventeenth century, European theologians participated in a community of thought more than they do today. Latin was a common language in which they could all communicate. As students they also normally studied in several of the great European universities in the course of their education. Reformed scholars were attracted particularly to the most distinguished Reformed universities: Geneva, Heidelberg, Cambridge, and Leiden.

As a result of their international travels, theologians became personally acquainted with one another. Reformed theologians throughout Europe were kept informed of the issues in the United Provinces by personal conversations and correspondence. Several wrote treatises against the Arminians well before the Synod of Dort met.

Dutch theologians also realized that the impact of the Arminian controversy was not limited to the Netherlands. They realized the importance of an international Reformed consensus on the issues involved. Thus the Dutch invited theologians from the Reformed churches of Great Britain, France, and various areas of Germany and Switzerland to send delegates to the Synod of Dort.

All of the churches accepted the invitation and, with the exception of France, the international delegates sat as full voting members of the Synod. (While the French Reformed Church had appointed delegates to attend the Synod, they· never arrived at Dordrecht. King Louis XIII had declared that if the delegation left the country, members would not be allowed to return.)

Thus in a real sense this national synod was an international synod. The Synod of Dort functioned as an ecumenical Reformed council in a way that no Reformed gathering has before or since. The Canons of Dort therefore are not a Dutch production, but they represent an ecumenical consensus of the best minds in the whole Reformed community. Thus even those who seek to make the Christian Reformed Church less Dutch, should cling zealously to the Canons of Dort because they are the least provincial or national of all Reformed doctrinal standards.

The Issue at the Synod - One mistaken view of the Canons of Dort and "the five points of Calvinism" is that they deal with the theological periphery. Those who hold this notion prefer to stress doctrines held in common with other evangelicals. While they may admit that the Reformed distinctivenes of the Canons are valuable doctrinally, they do not see them as central and foundational.

This approach is not new. Arminians pursued this line of argument in the Netherlands by maintaining that their position did not deviate from the basics of Reformed doctrine. They claimed that their disagreements involved theological details of no more significance than the differences between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism.

Before the synod was called, Franciscus Gomarus, one of the leading supralapsarian theologians, rejected this Arminian ploy entirely. He declared that the issue between the Reformed and the Arminians was not some abstract detail of predestination. Rather, the very heart of the Reformation was at issue - justification by faith in Christ alone. Reformed theologians, whether infralapsarian or supralapsarian, agreed with Gomarus in his analysis.

The Arminian doctrine of predestination held that God alone elects to eternal life those whom He foresees responding by faith to the gospel. Thus man's election becomes dependent on faith. Reformed theologians properly saw that this was a fundamental distortion of the Reformation's rediscovery of a biblical understanding of faith. Faith is a gift from God to the elect, not another good work, not a new legal condition for the new covenant. They rejected the Arminian attempt to make human cooperation again crucial to salvation. The Reformed theologians saw properly that the only way to protect justification by faith alone was to ,assert as clearly as possible that faith is completely a gift sovereignly given by God to those whom He has chosen.

Each Head of Doctrine in the Canons therefore underscores, reinforces, and protects the foundational reality of Christianity: redemption is wholly of the Lord. The First Head of Doctrine stresses that faith is given to some on the basis of God's good pleasure alone, and not because of anything in the elect that makes them more worthy than others.

The Second Head of Doctrine shows that Christ died to accomplish salvation completely for the elect, not to make salvation an abstract possibility.

The Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine show that man is totally unable to help himself, being dead in sin and therefore totally dependent on the Holy Spirit to apply the benefits of Christ's death to the elect sovereignly, effectively, and fully.

The Fifth Head of Doctrine comforts believers with the assurance that after the Holy Spirit has given the gift of faith to the elect, He preserves them so that unfailingly God's own are kept in the Body of Christ throughout their lives.

Compromise at the Synod - Another myth about the synod is that it expressed a particularly rigid and narrow statement of Calvinism. This attitude reflects a misunderstanding of the synod. When the orthodox delegates gathered at Dort, it soon became clear that there were significant differences among them.
While all were agreed that the Arminian theology was both false and dangerous, they were not all agreed on how best to express the Reformed faith positively. Two particular areas of disagreement emerged: the doctrine of election and the extent of Christ's atonement.

On election, a large majority of the synod were infralapsarian while a prestigous minority were supralapsarian.
On the extent of the atonement, a large majority were satisfied with the traditional formula  – first used by Peter Lombard in the Middle Ages – that Christ's death was sufficient for all but efficient for the elect alone. There were two groups that dissented from this majority opinion: the first wanted to eliminate the category of sufficiency from the discussion altogether, while the second wanted to stress and elaborate the notion of sufficiency.

The debate on the atoning death of Christ troubled the work of synod in particular, and at one point some delegates actually threatened to leave. Theological wisdom and diplomatic necessity prevailed at the synod, however. During the discussions it became clear that the theological differences among the delegates were not on essentials and that a compromise formulation was possible. By a timely compromise the work of the synod was brought to fruition.

Today, compromise is often a despised word because too often theological compromise in recent decades has meant capitulation to gross theological error or heresy. But the compromise accomplished at Dort stands as a model for the life of the modern church. With rare sensitivity the Reformed theologians at Dort defended essential biblical truth
while leaving room for legitimate theological differences among the orthodox. For example, the final statement of the Canons allows for both infralapsarian and supralapsarian interpretation. On the extent of the atonement, both sufficiency and efficiency are taught, but the final nature of sufficiency is left open.

The Canons, then, are not a rigid statement of monolithic Calvinist orthodoxy. Rather the Canons are a moderate, inclusive compromise drawing all Calvinists together around the essentials of the faith and preventing the movement from fragmenting over peripheral matters.

The Language of the Canons - Delegates to the synod used basically two methods of presentation and discussion in their work. John Hales, an English observer of the synod, described them in his letters from Dort. On January 8, 1619 he noted with approval one discussion: "The order of discussing these arguments is by continued discourse after the manner of Latin sermons, or rather of divinity lectures, such as we have in our schools." Commenting on another discussion on January 18 of which he did not approve, he stated: "The manner of his discourse was oratorical, the same that he uses in his sermons, not scholastical, and according to the fashion of disputation and the schools."

When the time came to write the Canons, the synod had to choose between these two methods of presentation:  between the "scholastic" mode, that is, the technical form of a theological school lecture and a more popular manner, addressed to the church as a whole for its edification. Delegates decided that it would be most fruitful to frame the Canons so that they might be easily understood by and edifying to the churches. Hence the Canons are not scholastic, but basically simple and straightforward in format. To confirm this contention, one need only look at the First Head of Doctrine as an example. Articles one through six show precisely how election ought to be taught and how this biblical doctrine ought to be discussed for strengthening the church. Following the biblical model, the Canons begin with man's historic need of salvation, move on to God's provision of Christ in history, and then relates God's effective provision of salvation to his eternal, sovereign, and free will whereby some are elect and some are left in their sins.

The Relevance of the Canons - The Synod of Dort met from November 1618 to May 1619. The long months of labor by the outstanding Reformed theologians of Europe produced a statement that was widely hailed in the church as a brilliant expression of biblical Christianity. The simple and popular language of the Canons spoke to the deepest needs of Christian people.

The Canons called Christians to humility before God as they realized their complete bondage to sin. The Canons inspired gratitude for God's electing love, and for the complete redemption accomplished in Christ and sovereignly applied by the Holy Spirit. The Canons spoke comfort to the Christian heart casting out fear and declaring God's love that would never let them go. The Canons called the people of God to be liberated from morbid self-concern and to serve God in the world with love and joy.

The theology of the Canons did not bludgeon the Reformed community into inaction, but rather armed the Reformed church with the whole counsel of God. Strengthened with a confidence in God taught in the
Canons, Reformed Christians became the most dynamic and effective witnesses to Christ in Europe.

The church needs this vital biblical religion as much in the twentieth century as in the seventeenth. The church needs the Reformation vision not merely to preserve a tradition. The church must be equipped to face the problems of today head-on. American Christianity is plagued not with too much knowledge of the Bible and theology, but with too little.

Reformed Christians need to absorb the biblical insights of the Canons afresh so that the truths presented will permeate their hearts and lives. When the truth of God empowers the church, men are redeemed and restored to the glory which God intended from the beginning.

Originally published in The Outlook, June 1976 by Reformed Fellowship, Inc.  Used with permission

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