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The Canons of Dort for Today

May 3, 2019   |  Type: Articles, UPDATE Magazine

by W. Robert Godfrey

On May 29, 1619, the Synod of Dort concluded more than six months’ work with a worship service. The Synod did a great deal of work to provide for the well-being of the Reformed Church in the Netherlands for centuries to come. Most importantly it prepared and adopted the Canons, which responded to the theological challenge of Jacobus Arminius and his followers and have served as one of the confessional standards of many churches ever since.

Undoubtedly this Synod and its Canons were vital to seventeenth century Calvinism theologically and ecclesiastically. But beyond providing a four-hundredth anniversary about which church historians can write, are the Canons actually valuable for Christians today? Not surprisingly, I answer that question with a resounding, Yes! The Canons are of great value for Christians today in two key ways: first, for the truth they teach, and second, for the way in which they teach.

the truth the canons teach

The Canons teach what has come to be known as the five points of Calvinism. Those five points have often been presented in the acronym TULIP, although the order of the teaching in the Canons was ULTIP: unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.

Before and after the Synod, Reformed preachers and academic theologians had devoted time to demonstrate the truth of these doctrines from the Scriptures. While the critics of Reformed theology have often claimed that these teachings are driven by a desire to have a logical, rational theology, the Reformed insist rightly that their teaching presents the explicit and vital teaching of the Bible. Calvinism has always sought to be biblical, and historically has produced the most faithful, profound, and at the same time creative studies of the Bible.

While Calvinists would all agree that the five doctrines presented in the Canons are true, they may not all be clear about how important they are. I fear that the phrase, “the five points of Calvinism,” is actually rather unhelpful and confusing. First, the phrase implies that Calvinism summarizes itself in these five points. It does not and never has. Calvinism summarizes itself in its confessions (e.g., the Belgic Confession and the Westminster Confession) and its catechisms (e.g., the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster catechisms). A summary of Calvinism covers many elements not in the five points.

Second, the five points do not express the uniqueness of Calvinism. At least four of the five points have been taught in the history of the church by non-Reformed theologians. Indeed, the five points are not a Reformed self-expression, but a Reformed response to the five Arminian points (in the Remonstrance of 1610). The Calvinists responded with their five answers to the five errors of Arminianism.

Third, the five points may be used to suggest that Calvinism is a subset of evangelicalism with distinctive doctrines added to generic evangelical teaching. “Reformed” then is just the icing on the evangelical cake. Then Calvinism is just an optional addition to being evangelical. The effect of that thinking is to marginalize or trivialize the five points. Rather, the five points are integral elements of Reformed Christianity. Reformed Christianity certainly shares truths with other forms of Christianity, but it has its own character and integrity (and in fact predates evangelicalism).

The Arminian challenge to Calvinism was not about minor or peripheral matters. Calvinists from the Netherlands and from many parts of Europe saw this challenge as an attack on the fundamentals of the Reformation. Franciscus Gomarus, a Dutch professor of theology, delegate to the Synod, and at one time a colleague of Arminius at the University of Leiden, stated that the rejection of Arminianism was necessary to preserve the Reformation doctrine of justification. That claim may initially seem strange since the Canons have no discussion or definition of justification. But the doctrines discussed at Dort are indeed foundational to preserving and understanding justification.

One of the greatest recoveries of the Reformation was the biblical doctrine of grace. From its earliest days the Reformed taught that the problem of sin required a doctrine of grace that was sovereign and effective. That grace must be irresistible because those lost in sin would always resist grace. That irresistible grace of God must be grace that God had planned from eternity. That grace directs the work of Christ for the elect and preserves the elect in grace. Here is the very heart of the Christian vision of salvation. Here are sola gratia and solus Christus. Sola fide as taught from the beginning of the Reformation insisted that faith is not a work that receives what it deserves, but that faith is a gift that rests in the work of another, namely Christ. The Synod was not responding to a minor disagreement. It was saving the Reformation.

“For Reformed Christians, truth is not an intellectual game. Theology does not have as its goal scoring points off its opponents. Rather truth is enlivening and sanctifying. Truth is an essential element of our communion with God."

The Synod did not provide exhaustive exegesis for each element of its teaching. It believed that Reformed theologians had already provided such biblical evidence. Yet the Synod made clear in the Canons that its teaching expressed the teaching of Scripture alone. The Conclusion to the Canons states: “The Synod judges this declaration and rejection to be taken from the Word of God and agreeable to the confessions of the Reformed Churches.” It also appeals to “all colleagues in the gospel of Christ” that they “need to think as well as speak with the Scripture according to the analogy of faith. Finally, they need to abstain from all those phrases that exceed the limits prescribed for us in the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures….” Similarly, the Preface to the Canons (adopted by the Synod, but not an official part of its confessional teaching) recorded about the beginning of the Synod’s work: “After calling on the name of God, it bound itself by a holy oath to have for its judgment only the standard of Holy Scripture….” Here is sola Scriptura in action.

For Reformed Christians, truth is not an intellectual game. Theology does not have as its goal scoring points off its opponents. Rather truth is enlivening and sanctifying. Truth is an essential element of our communion with God. In teaching and protecting the truth, the Synod of Dort was advancing the Gospel for the church.

the way the canons teach

The way in which we teach is important to the truth we teach. The Apostle Paul makes that clear in his teaching on how brothers should speak to brothers: “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ…” (Eph. 4:15). The Canons are a model to Christians today, not only of the truth we should teach, but also how to teach it.

First, in our age of speedy communication, the Canons are a model of careful communication. The Synod met for more than six months, the majority of its time spent preparing the Canons. They carefully studied the writings of the Arminians, discussed a variety of ways in which they might respond, faced some internal disagreements among themselves, found appropriate compromises, and then reached a unanimous agreement. Such patience and commitment to communal cooperation should be an example to our age of radical individualism.

Second, the compromises that the synodical delegates made among themselves remind us that a key theological skill is the ability to prioritize issues. Not all theological points are equally important. Sometimes it is right to agree to allow disagreements when basic teachings are not at stake.

Third, the Synod thought carefully about the audience for whom they were writing the Canons. If the Canons were for academic theologians, then they could be written briefly in the technical, scholastic language of the universities. But the Synod judged that the audience they most wanted to address was the common people in the churches. The Arminian teachings had troubled the churches and raised in the minds of Christians both theological and spiritual questions. The Synod wanted to help the people understand, in the words of the Conclusion, “the glory of the divine name, the holiness of life, and the consolation of troubled souls.” To accomplish those goals, the Canons had to be written in the language of the people.

The official language used by the Synod for its Canons and other actions was Latin. Latin had to be used because the Synod was international, and the only language that all of the delegates had in common was Latin. The Synod’s work was promptly translated into Dutch and other European languages.

Latin is a language of great clarity and precision, but allows for very long sentences that remain completely understandable. The problem with most English translations of the Canons is that the translations have maintained the length of the original Latin sentences. Such long sentences in English can seem difficult and unclear, seriously undermining what the Synod intended and accomplished. In my new English translation of the Canons (in my book Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, Orlando, Florida: Reformation Trust, 2019) I have tried to make clear the essential helpfulness and simplicity of the Canons for the church.

Fourth, the Synod wanted to anticipate and answer any suggestion that the theology of the Canons was novel or sectarian. Each Head of Doctrine, therefore, begins with a catholic statement that Roman Catholics and Lutherans, as well as Calvinists, would have agreed with in the seventeenth century. From that common catholic foundation each Head of Doctrine shows its distinctively Reformed teaching as the only proper extension of that catholic beginning.

Fifth, the Canons demonstrate their great pastoral concern in all of their theological teachings. We can see that most clearly in the Fifth Head of Doctrine, where the Synod responds to the Arminian uncertainty about the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The Synod did not just teach perseverance, but went beyond the issues originally raised by the Arminians to provide helpful reflection on the relation of perseverance to assurance. Christians can not only know that the saints of God will persevere to the end, but can and should be assured that they are and will forever remain saints.

Sixth, the Canons provide a most helpful model for the ways in which to study and teach the doctrines they present. For example, the First Head of Doctrine is about election. There are many ways correctly and helpfully to approach that doctrine. One can begin with the mind of God in eternity. But the Canons wisely begin with the human situation of being fallen and lost in sin. For that concrete historical situation the Canons proceed to show how only unconditional election can solve that problem. The Canons provide a most helpful, step-by-step approach to teaching this great doctrine.

When the Synod concluded on May 29, 1619, one of the delegates who was also pastor of the Great Church in Dordrecht preached in that church before the Synod on the text of Isaiah 12. This text perfectly captured the concern and passion of the Synod. The text is a celebration—not of one or another point of doctrine—but of the great saving work of God. Isaiah 12:2: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of UPDATE Magazine.

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