This year marks the 395th anniversary of the publication of the Canons of the Synod of Dort. They were published on May 9, 1619. Canons are synodical rulings on a series of doctrinal issues and the synod published these decisions in response to a grave challenge to the gospel and to the Reformation posed by the rise and growth of a movement known as the Remonstrants or the Arminians. They were known as Remonstrants because of a five-point document, a Remonstrance published in 1610. That is why there are five points, because the Arminians posed five objections to the Reformation. They were known as Arminians because they followed the teaching of Jacobus Hermandzoon (c.1559–1609), whose Latinized name was Arminius. He was, as they say, a complicated fellow. Early in his career he was orthodox in his theology. He studied in Geneva and had a letter of recommendation from Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Like those who today are leaving Reformed theology for Eastern Orthodoxy or the Emergent Village or the self-described Federal Vision movement, young Jacob was restless and curious. He wasn’t satisfied with the Reformed and Protestant answers to some important questions and attempted to improve Reformed theology by changing it fundamentally.
He made it difficult to understand his views, however, because he was reluctant to come right out and say what he was thinking or admit what he was teaching. Even today it is most difficult to discern what he was about. One must do a fair bit of reading between the lines in order to infer what he was saying. Forthrightness was not a Arminius’ strong suit—even though he was given multiple opportunities to express himself unequivocally. He came under suspicion early in his ministry but he had support in high places and so was protected and even advanced to the highest levels of the University and all the while he and his supporters portrayed him as a victim, which they do to this day. He influenced many students and ultimately split the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. For more on Arminius see this review essay by Bob Godfrey and this biographical introduction.
Things became much clearer almost immediately after his death. His followers published a Remonstrance that argued:
- God decreed to saved those whom he foreknows will believe
- Christ died as the propitiatory substitute for all to make salvation possible for all
- Saving faith is truly good and the result of the Spirit’s renewing work (which made faith more than the instrument of justification).
- Grace is resistible
- Those united to Christ persevere only by cooperating with grace
There were some initial responses but there was much resistance to Reformed orthodoxy by powerful figures in the Netherlands and much support among the influential for Arminius’ views and for a broader, more inclusive church in the Netherlands. So, it took 9 years to respond definitively to the Remonstrants, during which the Netherlands nearly fought a civil war over the matter, before a national synod could be called to address the matter. Indeed, that synod was so significant that it became an international synod, hence it is sometimes called the Great Synod of Dort. Delegates attended from across the Netherlands, the Swiss Cantons, the British Isles, and German Electorates. The French delegates were prevented by the French crown from attending.
Of course, when we think of the Canons of Dort we think of acronym TULIP:
- Total Depravity
- Unconditional Election
- Limited Atonement
- Irresistible Grace
- Perseverance of the Saints
That’s not the order in which the Canons actually appear, however. The five heads of doctrine, as they’re called, appear thus:
- Unconditional Election (1st head of doctrine)
- Limited Atonement (2nd head of doctrine)
- Total Depravity and Conversion (3rd and 4th heads of doctrine)
- Perseverance of the Saints (5th head of doctrine)
As Richard Muller noted in 2009, the acrostic TULIP was a modern invention and isn’t even particularly accurate in certain ways. We should not think of the Canons of Dort as a theological system or even as a comprehensive confession. They were never intended to be the sum of the Reformed faith. They were specific responses to specific problems posed by the Remonstrants/Arminians. Certainly the Reformed theology, piety, and practice were never intended to be boiled down to five points.
One feature of the Canons that is frequently overlooked is the inclusion of Rejection of Errors. Under each head of doctrine is a collection of specific rejection of errors. These are so forgotten that sometimes, when the Canons are posted or reprinted they are omitted but a great deal can be learned about Reformed theology, how the Reformed understood the Arminians and the nature of the threat posed by Remonstrant theology by reading the Rejection of Errors. They continue to have much contemporary use. It was in re-reading the RE that I realized what the self-described Federal Vision really is: covenantal Arminianism. The moment the FV movement invokes “covenant” their theology becomes effectively Arminian. It is striking how often the criticisms aimed by the synod at the Remonstrants also apply to the self-described Federal Vision movement.
Finally, the Canons of Dort were an ecclesiastical document. They have a churchly source and context apart from which they cannot be properly understood. The Canons of Dort were not drafted by a temporary, shifting, alliance of protestants held together by leading personalities or as Carl Trueman describes them, “rock stars.” Though there were some very good theologians at the synod, arguably there were no “rock stars.” What held them together was a shared confession of faith (e.g., The Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism). They were meeting as a churches in ecclesiastical assembly not as an academic society (e.g., Evangelical Theological Society) or a para-ecclesiastical conference (e.g., T4G). Each of the delegates was sent by a church and each was accountable to his own church and to the synod for his ministry. These doctrinal deliverances were adjudicated by representatives of the churches after decades of discussion, argument, prayer, and study and they were binding. They weren’t pious advice to be taken or ignored. Confessional Reformed ministers in the Dutch Reformed tradition still subscribe (i.e., sign their names underneath) the Canons (and the Belgic and the Heidelberg) because (quia) they are biblical.
The Canons didn’t go “boom” literally but they did metaphorically and they still do every time someone rediscovers through them the riches of the doctrine of God’s intentional, accomplished, redemption graciously, sovereignly, freely applied to and preserved in helpless sinners who, in themselves, are lost in death and who, apart from grace, are bound for judgment.
Here are more resources on the Canons of Dort.