The Rejection of Errors (1): A Brief History of the Antithesis

Part two of this series is here.


Kim Riddlebarger is working his way through the Canons of Dort. He’s covering the Rejection of Errors. The RE was the Synod of Dort’s way of re-asserting the anthesis between the Reformed faith and the compromise with moralism and rationalism known as Arminianism or the Remonstrant theology.

One of the things I like most about the Reformed faith is its doctrine of “the antithesis.” This is inside code for, “not of this world.” In Reformed churches this isn’t just a clothing line. It’s a way of thinking about ourselves, about the church, about the world, and about where where we are in history (eschatology).  According to the Apostle Paul there are two ages: “this age” and “the age to come.” Although expressed in temporal (i.e. about time) categories, these two “ages” are actually contemporaneous. They exist at the same time. Christians, those saved sola gratia,sola fide (by grace alone and through faith alone) have been made participants in “the age to come.” There is an antithesis between “this age” and “the age to come.” The Bible is chock full of antithesis going all the way back to “this fruit” and “that fruit” and “in the ark” and “not in the ark.” Israel was to believe and live in antithesis with “the nations.” 

In the modern period the idea of the antithesis has largely been jettisoned. It was compromised, of course, in the Constantinian church. For most of the medieval period we lost our sense of antithesis with “the world” (a phrase from John that is roughly equivalent to “this age” in Paul). The Reformation helped us to begin to recover the antithesis.

Before the 16th was closed, however, there arose early strains of what we know as modernism. There were already in the early 16th century anti-Trinitarians, who rejected the Trinity on the ground that it wasn’t rational. Rationalism also manifested itself in the form of Socinianism. In the early stages, the Socininians said that they were “just following the Bible.” They found that the Bible didn’t teach much of what we know as historic Christianity (the trinity, the two natures of Christ, the substitutionary atonement). One of the great concerns the confessional Reformed churches had with Arminius and the Remonstrants was their rationalism. They placed human rationality above the Word of God. They denied it of course but by the middle of the 17th century the rationalist fruit of the Remonstrant movement was evident for all to see.

With the rise of early modernity (the assertion of autonomy in the modern period), the Protestants, the original evangelicals, faced a choice to embrace the antithesis between historic and biblical Christianity and modernism (autonomy, rationalism, empiricism, and subjectivism) or to compromise. Some of the Protestants in the late 17th and early 18th centuries took the plunge and took an antithetical stand relative to the ideas that we now call “the Enlightenment” as it spread across Europe and Britain. Many did not. 

That segment of the Protestant movement that did not took two forms. The first move was to attempt a synthesis between modernity and historic Protestantism. This synthesis between what was, in principle, unbelief, and belief failed. Those who tried it had created an unstable compound of two competing principles. Something had to give and it did. Most of those became liberals. Like your tonsils, they quit fighting the infection, gave up, and joined the other side (HT: BIll Cosby). Another move was to say, “We believe the faith, but what really matters is your personal, immediate encounter with the risen Christ.” That’s pietism. The children of the pietists became liberals, i.e. they stood openly in judgment over Scripture and the historic Christian faith. 

Beginning in the 18th century, what we today call “evangelicalism” began to develop as the great grand children of the Protestants began to try once more to synthesize historic Christianity with modernity. They did it by using conservative versions of what came to be called “new measures” in evangelism. They did it by turing to a more radical version of experiential Christianity, by synthesizing pietism with Protestantism. They did it by adapting elements of rationalism and idealism (think Plato). That attempt, in colonial Congregationalism, mostly became the New England Divinity. 

At various times in modernity others have tried to construct a synthesis with modernity. That’s what virtually all of what we call “Evangelicalism” is. The Emerging movement is nothing less than an attempted and failed synthesis between modern subjectivism and rationalism with Christianity. This is why we find Emergent Village leaders naively mouthing old liberal and Socinian slogans. The history of theology tells us that the synthesis never works. Just as old Princeton Seminary and old Westminster Seminary re-asserted the antithesis between belief and unbelief, between historic Christianity and various compromises with modernity, so too those who believe historic Protestantism must continually re-assert the antithesis between modernity and Christianity. 

If you want to see the spirit of the Reformed antithesis with the early stages of modernity, the Canons of Dort, of which the Rejection Errors are a part, is a great place to start. Why do you think that people hate the Canons so? It’s not just because they teach the “Five Points” but it’s because they re-assert the antithesis. Augustine taught the substance of the Five Points over against the Pelagians and the semi-Pelagians, but he doesn’t draw the wrath of the haters. The Canons are hated because they stand as a witness to the compromise of modern evangelicalism, rooted in the rationalism and moralism of the Remonstrant theology.

More next time on the antithesis and eschatology.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

    More by R. Scott Clark ›

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  1. “Just as Princeton Seminary and Old Westminster Seminary re-asserted the antithesis between belief and unbelief…” Should it not read Old Princeton and Westminster or is this intentional?

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