Canons Of Dort (3): Synod Approaches

Part 2

We live now in a “victim culture.” The best example of this is so-called “intersectionality.” This is a reference to the different ways in which one has been victimized. They intersect in the victim. It is like a game, the one with the great number of claims to victim status wins. Heather MacDonald explains: “‘Intersectionality’ refers to the increased oppression allegedly experienced by individuals who can check off several categories of victimhood—being female, black, and trans, say.”

In our time, this approach to identity politics and identity formation is the result of the various Marxist analyses of history wherein history is the story of oppressors, victims, and political/economic/social liberation (often through violent revolution& dash;see the 20th century in which Marxists ideology resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people in Russia, China, Vietnam, Cuba, N. Korea, and Cambodia to name but a few). Long before Karl Marx (1818–83), however, the Remonstrants adopted a victim identity. In their narrative, Arminius was just a godly Reformed pastor who was unjustly singled out for his preaching and teaching and they were unjustly persecuted along with him. In fact, concern over Arminius’ teaching arose almost immediate but the final resolution took nearly 30 years.

Further, concern about what Arminius and his followers were teaching was widespread across Europe and in the British Isles. It was perceived immediately as a fundamental attack on the basic Augustinian theology and the material doctrines of the Protestant Reformation (salvation sola gratia, sola fide). In Herborn, Johannes Piscator (1546–1625) wrote against the Arminians. Pierre DuMoulin (1568–1658) wrote The Anatomy of Arminianism (1618), still perhaps the greatest critique of Arminianism. For some years before Arminius, Peter Baro (1534–99) had been teaching something like what Arminius would teach in the Amsterdam and Leiden. Archbishop Whitgift (c. 1530–1604) responded in 1595 with the Lambeth Articles reaffirming the Augustinian view of sin, grace, and election. After Synod, William Ames (1576–33) would publish his Animadversions against the Remonstrants in 1629.

As the theological controversy heated up in the Netherlands, across Europe, and in the British Isles, the polarization between the Arminians and Calvinists threatened to break out into open warfare. Prince Maurice (Maurits; 1567–1625) and the de facto Prime Minister of the United Provinces, Jan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547–1619), were estranged. The latter supported the Arminians and Maurice sided with the orthodox. England, who had become deeply involved in the Netherlands, sided with Maurice against Spain. After the lines of disagreement had become clear, in light of the Conference at The Hague (1611), pressure mounted on Maurice to support the orthodox against the Remonstrants, to bring the matter to a resolution despite his misgivings about what that would mean for national unity (such as it was) against the Spanish. The Remonstrants had favored a synod but only to revise the church order in to give the (typically latitudinarian) magistrates more control over the church (the position advocated by William of Ockham in the 14th century against the papacy and by the sixteenth-century physician and lay theologian Thomas Erastus) and to revise the Belgic Confession to allow the Remonstrant view of conditional election.

There was some popular support for the orthodox in the Netherlands. Where the Remonstrants gained control of churches they had forbidden the Reformed to leave in order to start new, confessional congregations. This heavy-handed approach backfired. There was popular support in the churches for the confessional doctrine of salvation, for the contra-Remonstrant position as articulated in The Hague in 1611. In 1617 riots by the Contras broke out. Four provinces urged the States General to call a national synod to resolve the crisis.

The Province of Holland, dominated politically by Oldenbarnevelt and supporters of the Remonstrants, resisted the call for a synod. They sensed that things might go against them. Now the survival of the United Provinces was at stake. Oldenbarnevelt even sought to persuade members of the army to take an oath of allegiance to Holland against the United Provinces. In November the States General voted to call a national synod. Holland objected but when Prince Maurice and his battle-hardened troops met Oldenbarvenelt’s troops in Utrecht (situated between North and South Holland) Oldenbarnevelt’s troops gave way. In August, Oldenbarnevelt, Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), and others were arrested. The Remonstrant leader Johannes Uytenbogaert (1557–1644) fled the country. Oldenbarnevelt was condemned for high treason and would be beheaded at The Hague on May 14, 1619, after Synod. His son retaliated by attempting to assassinate Prince Maurice, whose father had been murdered in 1584.

Synod was called for November 13, 1618. The Reformed knew that the controversy with the Remonstrants represented more than a parochial theological dispute. The future of the nation and the Reformation was at stake. They believed that the Remonstrants were leading the nation backward toward the heresy of Pelagianism and thence to Socinianism. Their fears had some foundation. The theologian appointed to succeed Arminius in Leiden, Conrad Vorstius (1569–1622) was suspected of Socinianism as was Simon Episcopius (1583–1644), now the leading Remonstrant theologian. The orthodox were not the only ones to suspect Episcopius. In recent decades both John Platt and Sarah Mortimer have seen connections between Episcopius and Socinianism.

The Synod finally convened in the Kloveniersdoelen (a military armory) in Dordtrecht on 13 November 1618. Consisting of 84 members and 18 secular commissioners, of which 58 were from the Netherlands (designated interni in the minutes ), the rest foreigners (externi). In attendance as delegates and observers were some of the most outstanding Reformed theologians from across the Netherlands, Europe, and Britain in the early 17th century. There were three different types of delegations, political, foreign, and provincial. The political delegates represented the States General and officially convened the Synod. Foreign delegates represented the Reformed churches of England, the German duchies and the Swiss city-states. The French Reformed delegation, to be led by Pierre duMoulin was forbidden by Louis XIII from attending. Their absence was marked by an empty bench at Synod.
The orthodox (Contra-Remonstrants) were dominant in the Provinces, except for Utrecht (which had a split delegation). In early sessions, the Synod summoned the 13 leading Remonstrants to appear. Episcopius came as their spokesman.

As Donald Sinnema says, the general process of Synod

consisted of three phases. Before the arrival of the Remonstrants the Synod discussed several non-doctrinal matters, including Bible translation, catechism instruction, baptism of heathen slaves under the care of Christians, preparation for ministry, and book censorship. Then the bulk of its time was devoted to the doctrinal issue with the Remonstrants. After this work was completed in early May with the production of the Canons, the foreign theologians returned home and the Dutch delegates discussed various matters of specific relevance to the Dutch churches, including the question of church order and liturgy.

The major procedural question facing Synod concerned whether it had a right to judge the Remonstrants, since it was dominated by the Contras, who were the other party to the dispute. They wanted a conference not a court. For Synod, however, the question was whether “the Church has a right to judge doctrinal views that deviate from the confessional standards of orthodoxy” (Sinnema). The Remonstrants wanted to be able to refute the orthodox freely. They appealed to the letters of summons repeatedly as grounds for their claim. According the Sinnema, the intention of the letters was to call the Remonstrants to court, but their were two different versions of the summons, one of which (the summons to the political delegates) was sufficient vague as the give room to the Remonstrant argument that they had equal standing before Synod.

The Synod proceeded by a series of daily sessions during which the various “colleges” (committees) composed of national and provincial delegations prepared drafts of the responses on each head of doctrine. Remember, they had the Contra Remonstrance of 1611 as a template from which to work. These responses were then taken by an executive committee, which formulated the final version of the responses and presented them to synod as a whole. The final version was significantly different from any of the collegiate (committee) drafts. Some of the British were especially offended by what they regarded as Dutch imperiousness. Synod was called to vote “pleased” (placet) or “displeased” (non placet) to each of the heads of doctrine.

Of the Remonstrant delegation, only a minister from Brummel, Henry Leo, subscribed the Heidelberg Catechism, and the Acts of Synod, and retained his position as pastor. The rest of the 13 Remonstrant delegates were removed from their positions. About 200 Remonstrants were removed as pastors. Later 40 were restored after signing the formula of submission. 70 were allowed to live as private citizens after signing a promise not to promulgate Arminian views. The rest who refused to submit or be silent were banished.

The Remonstrants, however, did not disappear. Uytenbogaert, Episcopius, and others convened a Remonstrant Synod in Antwerp in October, 1619, attended by 40 Arminian ministers. They were protected were by Archduke Albert who benefited from ongoing controversy. Episcopius and Grotius moved to France, others to Denmark. Other Remonstrants held clandestine meetings across the Netherlands. The Princeton church historian, Samuel Miller (1769–1850) noted in 1841, that the Remonstrants were re-admitted to pulpits after Maurtitz’ death in 1625. It was not longer thereafter that rationalism began to spread through the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. The civil authorities were not thrilled with the church order by synod, which required Synod to meet every three years. This did not actually happen, and the weakness of the church relative to the magistrates and their lack of freedom from control and influence by the magistrates meant that Synod was not able to prevent the spread of error in the church. In the 19th century, “Synod” meant a few ministers traveling to The Hague to unlock th minutes from a chest to see that they were still present and then adjourning to dinner. That there had to be a separation (Afscheiding) by 1834 should come as no surprise.

In the view of the orthodox, it was not the Remonstrants who were victims but the orthodox who suffered for the sake of Christ. The preface to the Judgment of Synod publish on 9 May 1619, remarked on the constant persecution of the true church in this world. It described the danger of “crooked seducers,” who threatened the church. After being rescued from the

“tyranny of the Roman antichrist, and the horrible idolatry of popedom (papatus) and many times most miraculously preserved in the dangers of a long-continued war; and flourishing in the concord of true doctrine and discipline to the praise of her God, to an admirable increase of the republic and the joy of the whole Reformed world, James Arminius and his followers, holding out the name of Remonstrants, by various errors old as well as new at first covertly, and then openly assaulted, and while it was pertinaciously disturbed with scandalous dissensions and schisms, they had brought it into such extreme danger, that unless the mercy of our Saviour had most opportunely interposed in behalf of his most flourishing church, they had at length consumed it with the horrible conflagration of discords and schisms.”

The Synod of Dort was no mere political exercise. In the view of the orthodox, this was not about political control of the Netherlands but about “the glory of God” and and the “integrity of saving truth.” The Arminian revisions were a reversion to the pre-Reformation theology. They did elevate human reason (not because of Arminius’ scholastic method nor because of Ramism) to beyond its position in Reformation as a handmaid (ancilla) to theology to a master of theology. Arminian theology, as became evident in Episcopius, Grotius, and later in Wesley, does not begin where Augustine (354–430) and Anselm (1033–1109) had begun: “I believe in order that I may understand” (Credo ut intelligam) nor was it “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). Rather, Arminian theology sought to make Reformed theology more reasonable. They were prepared to believe what they could understand. So, with Pelagius, they minimized the effects of sin, made election conditional, the atonement universal, and called into question the grace of perseverance. They put believers back on a works footing and thus back under the covenant of works. Because they were dissatisfied with the Reformation doctrine of salvation, they turned the gospel into law in order produce the sort of obedience and good works they thought should be forthcoming.

This of course was not the Pauline theology, piety, and practice nor was it Luther’s, nor that of the Reformed churches who stood with Luther on Augustinian doctrines of sin and grace, unconditional election, an intentional, personal atonement (redemption accomplished, not merely attempted) freely offered to sinners everywhere, and the sovereign grace of God in the preservation of his elect through faith alone.

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  1. “Arminian theology, as became evident in Episcopius, Grotius, and later in Wesley, does not begin where Augustine (354–430) and Anselm (1033–1109) had begun: “I believe in order that I may understand” (Credo ut intelligam) nor was it “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum).“

    Dr. Clark, is it the case of men (Arminius, Grotius, Episcopius, et al.) who do not “believe in order to understand’ and who do not ‘have faith that seeks understanding”, that they were not chosen by God in Christ to believe and have faith in Him?

    Has the confusion of the 16th Century anti-Christ resulted in the deranged thinking of identity politics?

    • Catherine,

      I’m commenting on what I see in the theology of Arminius, Episcopius, et al not on whether they were elect. That’s no none of my business. We leave that to God. They did elevate the human intellect in a way that the Augustinians did not.

      As to identity politics, its roots are in the 19th century I think. They lie partly in Marx’s analysis of history (oppressors v the oppressed) and partly in the Romantic/subjectivist reaction to the the Enlightenment. That inward turn leads to talk of “my truth” and/or “my identity” divorced from objective reality.

      • Dr. Clark,
        Thank you for taking time to respond. With each of the distinctions, especially regarding God’s Sovereignty, I experience trusting Him more. He actually is God and He is Good across all generations of His Creation.

        I also appreciate the opportunity to ‘take in’ and learn from the devotion and the cost to the men and women who held to the Cannons of Dort. These are helpful cannons in our generation as we defend and teach the Truth of God’s Word.

  2. Thank you for doing this series on the Canons of Dort. The church is perennially threatened by rationalism that tries to make Christianity more reasonable and acceptable to natural man. The Canons wonderfully articulate the issues at stake, and thoroughly answer the errors. In our own time the same issues have been raised by nomists of various types, and the Canons are a resource we should be using in dealing with them.

  3. I am very much enjoying this series on the Canons. Every time I read one of these, I get a deeper appreciation for the effort put in by men to preserve the faith. Thank you Dr. Clark for your efforts.

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