The Canons Of Dort (1): Introduction And Background

Few of our Reformed confessional documents are as valuable and yet as neglected as the Canons of Dort. Today most who know about them think of them as the so-called and quite misleading “Five Points of Calvinism” or TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Strangely, for many, especially those in the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, the “Five Points” have become the be all and end all of “Reformed theology.” The truth is that there is much more to Reformed theology than the five points. Indeed, it is anachronistic and reductionist to call them the “Five Points of Calvinism.” It is anachronistic because Calvin had been dead for 54 years when the Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands. It is reductionist because the Canons were never intended to be anything like a complete statement of the Reformed faith. They were the product of ecclesiastical deliberation on the attempt by some within the Reformed church in the Netherlands fundamentally to revise our doctrine of salvation. The Canons do not speak to many other topics in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Further, what the churches were defending was the Word of God as confessed by the churches, not the formulations of a single pastor, however significant and influential, in Geneva. “Calvinism” was a nickname given to Reformed theology by its Lutheran critics. The Reformed churches and theologians described themselves as Reformed. The widespread use of “Calvinist” is a modern phenomenon.

Indeed, as Richard Muller has noted for years, even the acrostic TULIP is misleading. It does not accurately reflect the order of the doctrines addressed in the Canons, which would be: ULTIP. In The “Five Points” are not five distinct points because of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine form one point, as it were.

The only reason the Synod issued five points is because Remonstrants (i.e., the Protesters) published their Remonstrance in five points, in 1610, about a year after the death of Jacob Harmenzoon (Latin, Arminius), the leader of the movement, in 1609. The Reformed five points were only and ever intended to be a specific, point-by-point response to the five points formulated by the Remonstrants (i.e., the Arminians).

A canon is a rule. So, the Canons of the Synod of Dort are the rulings of the Synod in response to the Arminian objections. The issues, however, did not arise in 1609, with the death of Arminius. Indeed, there were precursors to Arminius in the British Isles but it was a minister in the Reformed churches, Arminius, who began to formulate revisions to Reformed theology. There was little about young Jacob that would have signaled his dissatisfaction with the Protestant Reformation. As a theological student in Geneva, he studied under Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Born in 1560, in Utrecht, he grew up in the Reformed church. His mother was martyred by the papists when Arminius was 15. He was a student in the famous university of Leiden, where the theology faculty was Reformed.1 From there he studied in Geneva with Beza, who gave him a letter of recommendation when he finished. There has been speculation that he disagreed with Beza over philosophical and logical method. Arminius was committed to Ramism and Beza was more traditional but one of Beza’s friends and students, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), was also a Ramist in method as were a number of orthodox Reformed theologians in the period. Arminius’ student disputation gives us no evidence of any dissatisfaction with the Reformed confession. He used Geneva as home base from which he made study trips the a variety of famous schools to study with scholars from a variety of backgrounds. It seems likely that these trips combined with some of his contacts while he was in Leiden, e.g., Caspar Koohaas (1536–1615). The latter was Reformed minister in Leiden who was later disciplined by the Reformed churches for refusing to subscribe the Belgic Confession. Whether he was influenced by Romanist theologians during his tour of Italy has been disputed but there is some evidence for it in the texts that he assigned when he began teaching in the theology faculty in Leiden and in his writings.

After his studies, he returned to Amsterdam, was called to a pastorate there and married into an influential family. Almost immediately he found himself embroiled in controversy. His sermons in Romans were especially controversial. On Romans 7 he theorized that Paul could not have been speaking about himself as a Christian. Rather, he argued, Paul was describing his pre-Christian experience. On Romans 9 he postured as a defender of justification by grace alone, through faith alone but set up a system in which God elects on the basis of foreseen faith (fides praevisa). These sermons provoked a strong reaction in the church led by the father of Reformed missions, Petrus Plancius (1522–1622), but he was not disciplined by his consistory (the congregational ministers and elders) or the Amsterdam Classis (the regional ministers and elders) most likely because of protection of influential supporters. Many of the civil magistrates in the Netherlands had been influenced by sub-Protestant ideas. They wanted Christians to love Jesus but they tended to be doctrinally indifferent and strongly opposed to religious conflict. They tended to support the Erastian theory of government wherein the visible church is said to be a creature of the state. The Reformed churches, by contrast, tended to support the liberty of the church over against the state.

There were practical reasons for the magistrates’ opposition to religious conflict. In 1555, Philip II (1527–98), who was devoutly Romanist, became “Lord of the Netherlands” and the next year, King of Spain. In the years following, he conducted a vicious and expensive campaign in the Netherlands in his attempt to exterminate the Protestants, especially the Reformed. He was so devoted to this cause that he bankrupted Spain 3 times in its prosecution. The Spanish martyred about 12,000 Reformed Christians in this period. From 1568 the provinces of the Netherlands revolted against Spanish control. The Dutch magistrates wanted to downplay religious differences and to foster a united front against the Spanish.

The Crisis
Despite the controversy attached to Arminius’ teaching he was called, in 1603, from the pastorate to a position in the theology faculty in the University of Leiden. This fact and the fact that Arminius would be given a high-ranking position in the University before his death, argues against the Arminian narrative that Jacob was a victim of mean-spirited Calvinists. Indeed, his appointment was controversial and the governors of the university—by modern American standards a small college—twice commissioned a faculty member, Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641), to investigate Arminius’ views. He suspected Arminius of heterodoxy but he was never able to prove it.

Arminius was a winsome and persuasive teacher and, over the years, accumulated a following among students, who became pastors and spread his teaching in the church. He died in 1609 and his supporters sought to replace him with an even more controversial theologian, Conrad Vorstius (1569–1622), who had studied in Heidelberg, Herborn, and Geneva among other places. He was suspected, however, of harboring Socinian sympathies. Gomarus was so upset by the appointment that he left the University. Ultimately, however, Vorstius never took up his position in the University.

Into this boiling cauldron of controversy, mutual suspicion, and recrimination came the Five Points of the Remonstrants, crystallizing the issues. For all the doubt surrounding what Arminius was saying it became clear what the Arminians were teaching. It seems unlikely that the movement came to such clarity so quickly and entirely independently of Arminius’ influence.

  1. The first article of the Remonstrance confessed that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith and perseverance. They said, “God…has determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith.”
  2. Second, they confessed that Christ died “for all men and for every man, so that he ha s obtained for them all…redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer.”
  3. Third, “it is necessary that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers…”. The controversy here was what the Remonstrants did not say, that human depravity is such and true faith is such that it is only the gift of God.
  4. Fourth, the Remonstrants confessed grace “is not irresistible,” confirming the Reformed conviction that the Remonstrants made human cooperation of the essence of justification and salvation.
  5. Fifth, they said the “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations” and “extends to them his hand” to those who are “ready for the conflict…”. Here they made grace conditional upon our cooperation. They concluded, somewhat disingenuously, by raising a question about perseverance. They suggested that it might be possible that true believers might be

    capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.”2

Their fifth point constituted a serious departure from the Reformation doctrine of assurance. It found support among some of the Lutheran orthodox, who themselves had departed from Luther on this point. It constituted a direct assault on the basis for assurance as it put the believer back on a works footing (via cooperation with grace) for his assurance. It confirmed that the intent and result of the Remonstrance was to overturn the Reformation doctrine of salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) sola gratia, sola fide.

Part 2


1. One of his professors at Leiden was Lambert Daneau (c. 1535–c.90), who is known for his advocacy of the old physics and a heliocentric astronomy in the face of the physics and astronomy. One wonders if, rather than the humanist Beza, it was the reactionary Daneau who contributed to Arminius’ reaction to Reformed theology?

2. Compare the Remonstrant statement on perseverance with the “Federal Vision Profession” (2007) on apostasy:

We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.
We deny that any person who is chosen by God for final salvation before the foundation of the world can fall away and be finally lost. The decretally elect cannot apostatize.


  1. W. Robert Godfrey, “Who Was Arminius?”
  2. Resources on the Canons of Dort
  3. The Latin text.
  4. Richard Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy
  5. Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford, 2012).
  6. P. Y. DeJong, ed. Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Granville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).

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  1. In Recovering the Reformed Confession you suggest two reasons why covenant moralism has become a problem in Reformed churches, in spite of the clarity of our confessions on justification by grace alone, through faith alone, and in Christ alone. The first is the ignorance, not only of the members on the pews, but even of elders and ministers. The second is a “sincere, but misguided desire to produce sanctity among God’s people.” In my opinion, the combination of these two factors is absolutely deadly to the health of the Reformed churches. Because of that ignorance of what it means to be Reformed, the members of our churches have become open toward welcoming those, like the FV, who propose rationalist schemes to produce sanctity, as they see the moral decline in the world around them, and the easy believism that they see as a threat to true Christianity. Because of their ignorance of true Reformed doctrine, they are not discerning of the false religion of salvation by works that is being introduced by such covenant nomists. The only way that I can see, to end this crisis, is by dedicated efforts to recover our Reformed confessions, including, and especially, the Canons of Dort.

    • Well said Angela. I totally agree. It is imperative that those who profess to be Reformed learn(or relearn) what it is to be Reformed. There is a lot of ignorance, and I fear a lot of not wanting to know. I think we get complacent because the minister preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and there is no real desire to learn more about our confessional standards by the average person. To often, we blindly trust the minister because they went to seminary, and the elders feel the same. It makes me wonder what future ministers are being taught in seminary? What are parents teaching their children at home? Not an indictment on anyone, just wondering.

    • Your words are to be read and repeated for all those who are currently Reformed in their theology, faith and practice, but so many today are slowly slipping away from the faith once delivered to the saints,.. this makes the links and articles found on the Heidelblog that much more important, I am encouraged by your zeal for the truth and perseverance of the confessions and now with part one of the Canons of Dort, may we grasp its importance and study and share this with the world and with those who hold to the Reformed faith.

  2. TULIP is a memory device apparently first used by Presbyterian minister Cleland Boyd McAfee in a popular lecture referred to by William Vail in The Outlook, 21 June 1913. McAfee at the time appears to be an evangelical Calvinist although he subsequently moved with the times to a less definite position. His U in Tulip was actually Universal Sovereignty, not Unconditional Election. Boettner and particular in the 1960s Steele and Thomas, popularised it. It limits understanding, and easily becomes an slogan to bash others into uniformity.

    • Rowland: I don’t see how TULIP limits understanding. It seems pretty clear to me. And you say that it “becomes a slogan to bash others into uniformity”. Uniformity to what? I think the vast majority of truly Reformed believers believe that the 5 points are accurate statements even though they don’t describe the entirety of what it means to be Reformed.

    • Roland,
      Your statement, regarding the the use of TULIP as memory device for the Canons of Dort, “It limits understanding, and easily becomes a slogan to bash others into uniformity, ” is unsupported, and seems pejorative, to the purposes of the Canons of Dort, to maintain the Reformed doctrine of salvation, by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The Remonstrants were proposing revisions of Reformed theology that would effective!y deny its core teachings and return the teachings of the Reformed churches to the soteriology of Rome. The Solas of the Reformation are not tolerant of divergent thinking on how we we are saved, that is what they insist on the term, “alone.”

      • Angela,

        In Rowland’s defense, I think he is suggesting that the TULIP acrostic does not always represent or is not always presented with the same nuance as the Canons themselves. In other words, in the hands of some (I’ve seen this done) the TULIP, abstracted from the Canons themselves, becomes something else and that something else (a caricature of the canons) is used as a tool with which to beat people.

        There are hyper-Calvinists, who deny the free offer, who deny the distinction between theology as God knows and theology as it is revealed to us, who have been known to use TULIP the way Rowland describes.

        I don’t interpret him as maligning the Canons themselves. I know him to be an orthodox and faithful minister of the Word.

  3. Unrelated, but I’m beginning to think Dr. Clark considers it reasonable not to send your children to public school. 😉

  4. Sorry if anyone drew the conclusion I don’t think the five points are not correct in themselves. They are but I’ve seen the wrong use of TULIP just as Scott describes.

    • Hi Rowland: I apologize if I misunderstood your point. My experience in a middle of the road PCA church is probabably the opposite problem. I doubt that even 50% (being generous) of the congregation could even tell you what TULIP even means. I don’t know which is worse: mis-using TULIP or not being able to use it at all.

  5. Rowland and Dr. Clark,
    I’m confused. I don’t get what you mean when you say that TULIP becomes a caricature of the Canons and is used to beat people into uniformity. The only context in which I have come across such a complaint is from covenantal nomists, or FV who disagree with the Canons of Dort and want them to be relaxed to allow for their revisions of Reformed theology, just to allow for us to be required to do our part, complaining that their ideas should be accommodated, and that they are unfairly treated by requiring strict subscription to the confessions, particularly the Canons of Dort. They claim that they are just maintaining that human responsibility plays a part in salvation, and that this is only reasonable. They object that the Canons are used to beat them onto “uniformity”.

    I don’t think I have ever come across a hyper-Calvinist, but they seem to teach that we have no responsibility to preach or believe the gospel since God is sovereign in salvation. But God uses means to bring about the salvation of the elect, and every person is responsible to believe to the gospel, even though they can only do so by God’s sovereign, monergistic working by the Holy Spirit using the means of grace. So here we have another sense of how human responsibility is to be considered in salvation.

    Perhaps you might consider posting an article on just what role human responsibility does play in Reformed soteriology, and how the TULIP acrostic fails to convey the nuances of the Canons of Dort, and is used to “bash others into uniformity.”

    • Angela,

      Dr Ward’s comment is in re my observation (following Muller) that the very acrostic TULIP is modern and potentially (and sometimes actually) misleading. The acrostic re-organizes the Canons for pedagogical purposes from ULTIP to TULIP. See the link to Dr Muller’s material on this.

      I can’t speak for Dr Ward on this but there are contexts in which the re-organized and de-contextualized Canons become, as it were, a weapon (pun intended).

      Yes, you’re exactly right, on the other extreme, there are those such as the FV and others, who want to marginalize the Canons or substitute their revisions of Reformed theology for the Canons.

      Hyper-Calvinism exists. It does damage in its own way. I suspect that, in some cases, the FV folks are an ill-informed over-reaction to hyper-Calvinism.

      Understand that I’m advocating the Canons but I do think that readers should be aware of the some of the consequences of the TULIP (in contrast to the ULTIP). E.g., as I might have mentioned in the article, the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has seized on TULIP and used it to re-define Reformed theology solely in terms of their appropriation of the Five Points (not even the actual Canons) and arguably sought to enforce a kind of uniformity. Some of us advocating for the confessional Reformed theology, piety, and practice have been subject to considerable pressure at times from “Big Eva” to shut up and to stop rocking the boat. TULIP allows the creation of a trans- or extra-ecclesiastical and extra-confessional organizations and coalitions, which tends to marginalize the covenantal context of the Canons, the ecclesiology behind the Canons, the doctrine of the sacraments of the Canons. E.g., few of the YRR would agree with CD 1.17, which assumes the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of grace and infant baptism.

  6. Dr. Ward and Dr. Clark,
    Yes, now I understand, thank you for explaining how TULIP becomes a distorted version of what it means to be Reformed. The YRR, who mostly have a very different hermeneutic, covenant theology, eschatology, understanding of who the people of God are, the sacraments, piety, and the church, are trying to use the acrostic TULIP to redefine what it means to be Reformed. There are many young Christians who are being misled into a reductionist caricature of Reformed theology. One hopes they will not stop there, but that it may lead them to study the Reformers and the Reformed confessions. This really underlines how important the confessions are, they define what it means to be truly Reformed.

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