Canons Of Dort Day 2016: Growing Beyond The TULIP

dutch-tulipsOne of the benefits of the interest in Reformed theology among broader evangelicals is a new openness, in some quarters, to moving beyond bullet points and slogans. Perhaps no points are more famous and less understood than TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. This acrostic however,  was, as Richard Muller has explained, a 19th-century arrangement. “As far as we know, both the acrostic and the associated usage of “five points of Calvinism” are of Anglo-American origin and do not date back before the nineteenth century.” Todd Billings agrees with Muller that the acrostic TULIP is misleading in a variety of ways.

One of the most misleading aspects of the Young, Restless, and Reformed appropriation of the acrostic is the widely held assumption that anyone who has picked the tulip is Reformed.  When the Synod convened on 13 November 1618, they never imagined that their work was to be taken as a complete statement of the Reformed faith. Far from it. They gathered in a specific context to address a series of challenges to the Reformation doctrine of salvation.

Here are five points about the Synod of Dort and her Canons which everyone should know:

  1. Canon is spelled with one n. Over the years I have seen many written references (and at least one edition of the Canons) spelled cannons. In this context, a canon is an ecclesiastical ruling.
  2. The Canons were not exclusively Dutch. These rulings were produced by an international ecclesiastical assembly, a synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands consisting of 84 ecclesiastical delegates and 18 secular delegates.1 58 of these were from the Netherlands and the rest were what the Dutch called externi (foreigners). Synod hosted delegates from England, Scotland, the Palatinate, Zürich, Basle, Berne, Schaffhausen, and Geneva. Brandenburg and France were supposed to send delegates but were prevented. Brandenburg excused their delegates because of age and the King of France refused to allow Chamier and Pierre du Moulin, who wrote the most thorough early refutation of the Remonstrants/Arminians, to attend. 2
  3. The Canons were developed, adopted, and published as an ecclesiastical response to the errors and misinterpretations by the Arminians or the Remonstrants. To remonstrate is to complain. The followers of Jacob Arminius, a pastor in Amsterdam, were dissatisfied with the Belgic Confession (1561) and Heidelberg Catechism (1563), which had been adopted by the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. Contrary to some presentations, it was the Remonstrants who initiated the controversy and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands et al. who were required to respond. The controversy threatened the very existence of the United Provinces since, far from being victims, the Remonstrants had powerful political allies who sought to use the state to modify the confession of the church in a medieval direction, away from the good news of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone toward a system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. That was the very system that the Protestants had rejected in the 16th century.
  4. The Canons were never intended to be taken as a complete summary of the faith and practice of the Reformed churches. The Canons were very limited in their scope. The churches confess a theology, a doctrine of Scripture, God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and sacraments. The churches also confess a piety, a way of relating to God in corporate worship and they have a practice of the faith. More about that below.  It is not as if Reformed theology, piety, and practice was radically amputated at Dort. Rather, the Canons simply re-asserted the Protestant and (in the old-fashioned sense) evangelical soteriology of the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles. Agreeing with the Canons is necessary for being Reformed but agreeing with them is not sufficient for being Reformed. To the end of addressing Christian worship and practice Synod also adopted a church order and doctrinal deliverances on the Christian Sabbath.
  5. The Canons refer to five heads of doctrine. Though some editions (e.g., the English text in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom) omit them, each head of doctrine contains two parts: a positive statement of what the churches confess and a rejection of errors. These rejections should not be neglected. E.g., there are some who profess to agree with the Canons but who support the so-called “New Perspective(s) on Paul” or the self-described Federal Vision theology. When one reads the rejection of errors, however, it becomes clear that it is impossible to affirm the Canons of Dort and these two positions.

On this date  (9 May) in 1619 the Great Synod of Dort concluded its work.3 The adjective great is often used because there were other synods that met at Dort prior to the Great Synod. This Synod, however, was great for an even more important reason: the gospel. Dort was not a narrow, bigoted assembly, as some would have us think. Rather, Synod gathered to preserve the gospel of salvation sola gratia, sola fide for sinners. No Christian, who knows the greatness of his sin and misery, how he is redeemed from all his sins and misery, and how he ought to be thankful to God for such a free redemption in Christ, should see the Canons as anything but a clear, warm, pastoral re-statement of basic gospel truths.


1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom (New York: Harper & Brothers, Publishers, 1878), 1.512.

2. James I. of England sent Drs. George Carleton, Bishop of Llandaff (afterwards of Chichester); John Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury; Samuel Ward, Professor of Cambridge; the celebrated Joseph Hall, afterwards Bishop of Exeter and Norwich (who, however, had to leave before the close, and was replaced by Thomas Goad), and Walter Balcanquall, a Scotchman, and chaplain of the King. The Palatinate was represented by Drs. Abraham Scultetus, Henry Alting, Professors at Heidelberg, and Paulus Tossanus; Hesse, by Drs. George Cruciger, Paul Stein, Daniel Angelocrator, and Rudolph Goclenius; Switzerland, by Dr. John Jacob Breitinger, Antistes of Zurich, Sebastian Beck and Wolfgang Meyer of Basle, Marcus Rutimeyer of Berne, John Conrad Koch of Schaffhausen, John Deodatus and Theodor Tronchin of Geneva; Bremen, by Matthias Martinius, Henry Isselburg, and Ludwig Crocius. The Elector of Brandenburg chose delegates, but excused their absence on account of age. The national Synod of France elected four delegates—among them the celebrated theologians Chamier and Du Moulin—but the King forbade them to leave the country (Schaff, ibid. 1. 512–13).

3. Two years ago I posted a memorial to Dort on 5 May. I was mistaken. Apologies to any whom I confused.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
    Author Image

    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 ›

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!