Canons Of Dort Day 2018: Their Churchly Context

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.

RESOURCES ON THE CANONS OF DORT

The Canons of Dort (text)

The Church Order of the Synod of Dort

    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.

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15 comments

  1. Thank you Dr. Clark for this informative post. I have a question that is a little off topic. I have a friend that is very sympathetic to Eastern Orthodoxy, and he claims that the early church fathers taught a “moral influence” theory of the atonement. From what I can gather this view of the atonement is problematic at best and heretical at worst. I was wondering this my friend’s claim is valid?

    • You piqued my curiosity! I have found some very interesting information on the Internet. Moral Influence seems to be connected to an idea that we are like God and that through enlightenment we can follow Christ’s example to reach moral perfection, and that will be the basis of our acceptance with God on the last day. Sound familiar? It seems to have connections with Gnosticism, Arianism and Socinianism. That is why the early creeds were written, to defend the faith against these heresies. You can find some really helpful information in lectures by Ryan Reeves on the early church fathers and Eastern Orthodoxy. Just as we see in the letters of Paul, false teaching has plagued the Church from the very beginning. They seem to always focus on an attempt to deny the sufficiency of trust in the God/man, Christ for our acceptance with God.

  2. Thank you for this Dr. Clark. I noticed that Dordt included the word Reformed in their Church Order as to participation in the Lord’s Supper. The Church Order of the URCNA does not include this. Do you know why and when it was removed?

    • Peter,

      That’s a good question to which I have not yet found an answer. The URCs adopted the ambiguous expression “biblical church membership,” which I should think has to be interpreted in light to Belgic Art. 29. The current CRC church order says very little about who may come to the table. I don’t know what the CRC CO said before 1995, however. The c current CRC order reads quite like the current RCA order, however, which says nothing about fencing the table:

      The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper shall be administered, if possible, at least once every three months in every church. “The Office for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper” or a liturgy approved by General Synod for occasional use shall be read. All baptized Christians present who are admitted to the Lord’s Supper are to be invited to participate.

    • Dr. Clark, article 59 of the CRC church order from 1979 states “members by baptism shall be admitted to the Lord’s Supper upon a public profession of faith of Christ according to the Reformed creeds, with the use of the prescribed form. ”
      It speaks very little of guests, other than the basic requirements which the URCNA uses. It would appear that the current wording is an adaptation carried over from the practices of the CRC. The CRC Synod of 1975 adopted the following guidelines for guests:
      a)It is the responsibility of the consistory to identify guests in order to supervise properly the Lord’s Supper.
      b) It is the responsibility of the consistory to inform guests as to the requirements for participation in the Lord’s Supper as to the consequences of partaking in an unworthy manner.
      c)It is the responsibility of the consistory to invite guests “who are truly sorry for their sins, who sincerely believe in the Lord Jesus as their Savior, and who desire to live in obedience to him, “to come to the Lord’s Supper..
      Grounds:
      1) These guidelines safeguard the integrity of the Church.
      2)These guidelines address themselves to the relationship of the guest to Christ.
      3) These guidelines preserve the sanctity of the table.

  3. When it says reformed religion according to the usage of the churches they join is the synod saying those they are in federation with or ‘reformed’ meaning other reformed communities such as presbyterys?

    • Thomas,

      I don’t know with certainty. The Synod was ecumenical. It had English Episcopalians, Dutch congregationalists, and Dutch, French, Swiss, and German Reformed. I’m reasonably sure they would have been eligible for communion under the Dort Church Order. The Anabaptists, however, certainly were not because they denied the Reformed confession of baptism and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone.

  4. Based on what I see online, it does not seem as though many of the confessional Reformed denominations have planted churches in certain parts of the United States. Most of the Reformed Churches in the Southeastern United States are PCA, and very few of their presbyteries are confessional (they allow for exceptions). In my home state of North Carolina, there is just one URC church. There are a growing number of OPC congregations, but this has been a recent phenomenon. I am curious why there are so few non-Presbyterian Reformed churches in the Southeastern United States. I would love to hear why that is.

    • Brad,

      It’s mostly about immigration patterns. History matters. The 1st wave of Dutch settlers (c. 1710) were in NY and NJ and Chicago. Hence those are strongholds of the RCA. The 2nd great wave of Dutch immigrants was in the 1850s and after and they settled in Grand Rapids and Chicago. Hence, they were strongholds in the CRC. The German Reformed came about the time of the Dutch in the 18th century and they settled in PA and then Ohio and on west. The Presbyterians were Scots Irish and they settled in Philadelphia, New Jersey, and then migrated west to Pittsburgh and into the wilds of Ohio, the lower plains, and finally to California. The South came to be dominated by the Baptists and the Methodists.

      In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the liberals in the Presbyterian mainline and later in the RCA essentially wrecked those denominations with higher criticism and theological liberalism. They gave up missions and church planting as traditionally understood. The Huguenots were in the Carolinas, hence some French Reformed influence and there were plenty of Presbyterians in the southeast but the Dutch and Germans didn’t do much there. The Germans wrecked their denomination at the same time the mainline (PCUSA) Presbyterians did. All that was left was a small group in the Dakotas. The Southeast USA was essentially ceded to the Baptists.

      The CRC began moving toward liberalism openly in the 70s, 80s, and 90s thus provoking a split, which formed the URCNA. We’re smaller than the OPC and still struggling to find our church-planting feet.

  5. Dr Clark,
    Thank for the post by Darryl Hart. He addresses the dangers of self authentication on the website that also are a danger to the passive fencing of the table practiced by many congregations.

    I was blessed at the first Reformed church I attended, as they practiced active fencing with the Elders, and I in fact had the plate pulled from me when they did not know if I, “Had the permission of the Elders”, one of the then qualifications for partaking of the Sacrament.

    Most Reformed churches I have inquired about on this have since gone to a self authentication model, leaving it up to the visitor[ or long time attendee] themselves to read a list[ and hopefully understand it]. I asked a former Elder of mine if he was willing to pull the plate from someone he knew was not Reformed [Arminian or Romanist]and did not believe what the church taught, and I was told that “Our church was not that kind of church”.

    Taking time to get to know personally anyone who desires to partake is best addressed with active fencing by getting to know them prior to the administration, as you avoid many dangers to the table itself, the congregation with whom they will commune with, and the person themselves as we are warned of in Scripture.

    In my opinion, verbal and written warnings with the final choice being a self authentication is filled with dangers, and I pray we learn from history such as you wrote above in the piece, and referenced in the link, and start talking to them for their sake, and the sake of our own congregations and table practice.

    Blessings, Thomas

    • For their own protection and the protection of the church, against God’s judgement, it would seem obvious that we should ensure that those who are allowed to commune in our churches understand what it means to examine themselves if they truly understand that the Supper is an affirmation, that we are saved by trusting in Christ alone. What of those who are of the FV persuasion, if they should want to commune with us, on the basis that they identify as Reformed, and have been baptized? Would it not be our responsibility to withhold the Supper, just as we would from a Roman Catholic until they come to understand their doctrinal errors?

    • Angela,
      You make an outstanding point, in that FV is within our gates, and we must confront it inside our churches, not just with a “Strongly worded letter”, but actively as much as those groups outside as I listed above.

      I would take it wider than just FV, and add in the similar variants like New Paul Perspective, and any mixing of Law Gospel teachings that end up with “The Law is Gracious” as the conclusion, all of them need our attention.

      I was once told that, “We don’t evangelize Evangelicals” at a Reformed church, and I simply cannot agree, and your point that if we should be testing those teaching outside our gates, we must also test those within is a good reason why. I need to hear the Evangel every day, let alone each Lords Day from a pulpit as this means of grace is vital to us.

      Elder visitation properly administered in the true church reveals over time issue like this within the congregation, and the church has always had at it’s disposal a way to address them personally, I hope we avail ourselves of our beautiful history and step up.

      Blessing Thom

    • Thank you for this Thomas, I could not agree more with the points you have made here.

  6. Thank you for the interesting article, Dr Clark. I have to questions regarding Church Order art. 69:
    1. What is meant by 12 Articles of Faith?
    2. Why are the hymns from the prophets like Isa. 40 or Hab. 3 not included in the list?
    This is my first question on your blog. Thanks for considering a question of a theology student fromZurich,Switzerland.

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