The “New Calvinists” and the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has brought new interest in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. In the last 15 years Mark Driscoll and John Piper have been the gateway for many to find and join Reformed congregations. I spent an hour yesterday with just such a fellow. He was in a Calvary Chapel congregation. He discovered Driscoll, Piper, et al. and from there he found the White Horse Inn and from there he found his current congregation (Christ URC in Santee, CA). That is a happy journey. That is the way the story should end but it does not always end there. American evangelicalism is organized around personalities more than theology, piety, and practice. Just as Romanists place implicit faith in the Bishop of Rome and the councils of the church, many American Christians place implicit trust in celebrity preachers. In Driscoll’s case, he confessed to abusing the flock in Seattle so badly that the whole multi-campus organization was disbanded and he was removed from ministry. True to form, however, he has re-emerged as leader of a religious enterprise—the traditional Reformed category would be sect—in wealthy Scottsdale, AZ. Personality über alles. Meanwhile, Piper has signaled his fundamental disagreement with the basics of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide). The YRR movement has gathered some tarnish and dents.
Today is the 399th anniversary of the publication of the Canons of Dort. The word canons means “rules” or “rulings” of the Synod. These are what people commonly (but incorrectly) call “the Five Points of Calvinism.” First, Calvinism was a nickname given to us. The Reformed Churches do not call themselves by Calvin’s name. We designate ourselves by our theology, piety, and practice (Reformed) or by our polity (Presbyterian) but not by Calvin’s name. He is an honored voice in the history of our churches but he is not (contrary to popular opinion) the beginning and end of our theology, piety, and practice. We might even call him first among equals (primus inter pares) but we do not subscribe Calvin’s works. We subscribe (lit. “to write one’s name underneath”) the Reformed confessions, which themselves are merely an ecclesiastical summary of the most important points of theology, piety, and practice out of God’s Word. In other words, the confessions and catechisms work for Scripture not the other way round.
The Reformed theology, piety, and practice cannot be reduced to five points. Those five points were the response by the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles to a particular (severe) challenge, in a particular context. They are an interpretation of Scripture and the confessions regarding the objections (Remonstrance) made by some ministers and politicians who had adopted some very serious errors in theology and biblical interpretation. The Canons are part of the “Three Forms of Unity” (with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) but they hardly the be all and end all of Reformed theology. Treating the Canons and the summary of the whole faith is like treating a repair manual as the sum of world literature. That would be a mistake.
The Canons are wonderfully pastoral, clear, and concise. In them the Synod responded biblically and thoughtfully, during a very difficult time, when the freedom of the Netherlands was in jeopardy, to some subtle but devastating errors. When we talk about the Canons we often omit the word synod. The rules or canons were the product of a synod, an ecclesiastical body. The Canons were not the product of a conference or a para-ecclesiastical gathering but a gathering of ministers and elders (with some political delegates). We cannot properly understand the Canons without remembering the ecclesiastical context. The Dutch Reformed Church met to do business before the external (foreign) delegates arrived from England, the German electorate, and the Swiss Cantons. They met to do business after the external delegates left. The delegates were sent by (state-)churches. This was not a private meeting of Reformed “thought leaders” selected by other “thought leaders” to meet in secret to solve a problem. This was a public assembly to deal with a problem that all the Reformed churches across the Western world (that then was) saw and felt.
One way to get a handle on the ecclesiastical context of the Canons of Dort is to get to know the Church Order produced by the Dutch Reformed Churches at the very same synod that produced the Canons. There we see something of the actual life of the churches. The first topic the church order takes up is the question of offices. The Reformed churches had a polity, a form of government. They distinguished between the people (laity) and special offices: ministers, elders, and deacons. The church order explains how ministers are called and what are their responsibilities. It explains what to do if a minister commits gross sin against God, his law, and his church. Since the churches are connected to each other, the congregation is not left to handle it alone. In a Reformed church, ministers are regarded as servants and not as masters. They are not allowed to abuse the flock. They are not allowed to use it to build a personal empire. The church order speaks directly to these problems. Emerging as they did, from the Roman communion, they were well aware of the problem of personal empires (the pope was the first ecclesiastical “rock star”) and of abuse of the flock by priests, bishops, archbishops, and popes. They wanted nothing to do with that so they put limits on the authority of the ministers. In the Reformed churches we have no regional managers. Our ministers are not allowed to “lord it over” their own congregation let alone others. If a minister gets out of line not only may he be charged in the assemblies (courts) of the churches, he may be removed from office. Under a Reformed church order, a disgraced minister could not re-locate and start a new congregation.
Under a Reformed church order ministers had to be properly educated. They were not ordained because they were popular, charismatic, “blessed,” but because they were determined by the churches to have the qualities of a minister as described by Scripture. Before ordination not only were they to be rigorously educated but they were tested and examined by the churches before beginning their ministry. This process was not foolproof but it helped. When the churches erred, they had the authority to fix their mistakes by removing men from office.
The order discusses the distinct roles and authority of the elders and deacons. The elders (plural) are to lead and the deacons are to minister to the practical needs of the body. In both cases, the well-being of the church, her members, and the truth is paramount.
Reformed churches are connected. They are not ordinarily isolated from one another. They are accountable to one another. They bear one another’s burdens. They pray for one another. They meet to share concerns and joys. They correct one another. They serve one another.
In the church order, the churches agreed as to how they were going they were going to worship, on the Lord’s Day, and how they were to administer the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper). E.g., the Reformed churches were all, every one of them, paedobaptist. No one who denied infant baptism (and the covenant theology behind it) was admitted either to lay membership or to special office in the Reformed churches. Church Order art. 55 speaks to infant baptism:
56. God’s covenant shall be sealed for the children of Christians by baptism as soon as its administration can take place, and that in a public meeting when God’s word is preached. But in places where few preaching services are held a certain day of the week shall be set aside to administer baptism extraordinarily. Nevertheless, this shall not take place without a sermon being preached.
The Reformed churches also fenced or guarded the Lord’s Table, which was open to all those who had made a profession of faith in the Reformed churches:
61. Only those shall be admitted to the Lord’s supper who, according to the usage of the churches which they join, have made confession of the Reformed religion, together with having testimony of a godly walk, without which also those who come from other churches shall not be admitted.
The churches agreed as to what God’s Word commanded us to sing in response to his Word:
69. In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, O God, who art our Father.
Despite pressure from liberalizing civil authorities and other influential people, the churches stuck to their conviction that God’s Word is sufficient for public worship and that only God’s Word was to be sung in public worship.
There is more that could be said. The order addresses the practice of church discipline. In it God’s people are protected from abuse by elders and ministers, who might be tempted to use it as a rule but it is upheld according to Matthew 18. The concern is always for the restoration of the sinner, for his spiritual welfare, and for the building up of the body.
The Canons of Dort have a churchly context. The churches convened to consider them. They revised them. They adopted them. The Canons were not the product of “evangelical leaders” but of the churches. Some scholars would recognize some of the names of some of the delegates but most of us would not. That anonymity is appropriate. Ministers come and go. The gospel is permanent. Christ promised that he would always be with his church, that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church. The Canons are a testimony to his faithfulness to his promise.