“Four hundred years ago in 1618, the Synod of Dordt, a Synod of Reformed theologians, began to meet in the Dutch city of Dordrecht. The fruit of that great Synod, which concluded in 1619, is the Reformed creed or confession, the Canons of Dordt.
The history behind the great Synod of Dordt begins with a Dutch orphan called Jakob HermansZoon (James Arminius) (1560-1609). Having been orphaned in his childhood, Arminius was given a soundly Reformed education in Leiden, the Netherlands, and in Geneva, Switzerland, where he studied under John Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza (1519-1605). In 1588 Arminius was ordained as a pastor in Amsterdam, where Pieter (Peter) Plancius (1552-1622) was also a pastor. In the 1590’s when Arminius began a series of sermons on Romans, his theology began to alarm Plancius, the consistory in Amsterdam, and many of the members of the congregation. For example, Arminius taught contrary to Romans 5-6 that Adam would have died even without sin. Moreover, he taught that in Romans 7:19, where Paul wrote, “For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do,” the apostle is describing an unregenerate person. By teaching such doctrines Arminius implied and even taught, that the unregenerate person has the will to do good and has a real, spiritual hatred of evil. Such a teaching contradicts the scriptures and the creeds, which teach that the unregenerate sinner cannot desire to do good but is totally depraved. In his sermons on Romans 9, where the apostle clearly teaches sovereign predestination, Arminius undermined the teaching of unconditional predestination, proposing instead conditional predestination.
Arminius was given the task of refuting the writings of a Dutch heretic called Dirck Volckrtszoon Coornhert (1522–90), who had attacked predestination. However, as Arminius studied the writings he found himself in agreement with Coornhert. Nevertheless, instead of admitting that he disagreed with the Reformed creeds on predestination, Arminius stalled by repeatedly delaying his promised refutation of Coornhert, a task that Arminius never accomplished.
Arminius’ behaviour became increasingly troublesome for the orthodox consistory and membership in Amsterdam, as well as for his Reformed colleague Plancius. Nevertheless, Arminius was evasive, he refused to be frank about his true beliefs. In addition, Arminius had friends in high places, which made censuring him difficult. One of his close friends, who had been a fellow student in Geneva, was Jan Uytenbogaert (1557-1644), shared the heterodox convictions of Arminius. Uytenbogaert was the chaplain of Johan van Oldenbarneveld (1547-1619), who was the governor in the Netherlands. During that time in the Netherlands, the civil government wielded an inordinate amount of power over the church. For example, the state even interfered with discipline and funded the churches, paying for the buildings and the salaries of pastors. Therefore, although the church in Amsterdam greatly desired an official examination of Arminius’ doctrine, and his suspension and deposition from office, if he should be condemned for his false teachings, political conditions made it impossible to accomplish that. Arminius and his followers enjoyed the protection of the state.
The situation worsened further when in 1602 the theological professor at Leiden University, Franciscus Junius (1545-1602), died, leaving the chair of theology open. To the horror of the consistory of Amsterdam, but with the urgent recommendation of his good friend, Uytenbogaert, and with the approval of the civil magistrate, Arminius was appointed to the theological chair. If Arminius could disturb the sheep in the Amsterdam congregation, how much more havoc could he not cause in the theological school, where he would train future pastors for the Reformed churches in the Netherlands? (Unfortunately, the meddling of the state allowed such a wolf access to the theological students, for the appointment of professors to theological chairs was not under the authority of the church alone but required government approval). The other professor of theology in Leiden was Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641), a staunchly Reformed theologian who resisted Arminius’ appointment to the faculty. Gomarus only reluctantly agreed to the appointment after a meeting with Arminius in which Arminius claimed to be orthodox and promised to be faithful to the Reformed confessions.
Soon Arminius began to undermine the Reformed faith in the theological school. He had to be careful, however, because Gomarus did not trust him and kept a watchful eye on him. Arminius gathered a following among the students, teaching them one form of doctrine privately and in secret, while appearing orthodox in his public lectures. Gormarus and others tried multiple times to expose him, but Arminius responded with lies, equivocation, or delaying tactics. When put under pressure, Arminius would appeal to his friends, Johan van Oldenbarneveld, and Jan Uytenbogaert, in the Dutch government. Arminius’ heresy spread through the churches like leaven. As his views spread, those who loved the Reformed faith began to ask for a national synod to examine the teachings of Arminius, but the government repeatedly refused to permit the convening of such a synod.
Arminius was like many heretics: sophisticated, likeable, friendly, debonair. He was a brilliant scholar and a gifted preacher, but he was dishonest and manipulative. Gomarus, his opponent in the theological school, was the opposite, blunt, bad-tempered, and unsociable, but a fierce defender of the truth.
Suddenly, Arminius died of tuberculosis on October 19, 1609, but his heresy did not die with him. In fact, after Arminius’ death his followers, confident of the state’s protection and even approval, became more outspoken in their views. On January 14, 1610, some forty-six Arminian preachers presented their remonstrance in The Hague in the Netherlands. The Remonstrance, written by Jan Uytenbogaert, outlined five points of doctrine that the Arminian preachers, known as Remonstrants, wished to protest against the Reformed faith. It was in response to those five points of the Remonstrance that the great Synod of Dordt was assembled and against which the synod formulated five points, which have become known as the five points of Calvinism.
The five points of the Remonstrance are, briefly, as follows: conditional election; universal atonement; partial depravity; resistible grace; and conditional perseverance. I will examine these ideas in considerable detail as I explain the articles of the Canons of Dordt.
Theologians in the Netherlands continued to debate the doctrines presented in the Remonstrance for some time. What was needed, what was urgently needed, was a national synod. At such a synod the Arminian doctrine could be thoroughly examined. At such a synod doctrinal controversy could be settled from the word of God. Nevertheless, the Arminians, whose numbers and political influence were growing, resisted the convening of a synod. The only kind of synod to which the Arminians would consent was a synod at which the creeds (the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession) would be revised and at which they, the Arminians, would be fellow-delegates, not defendants whose theological views would be examined. Enjoying political influence, the Arminians succeeded in shielding their party from ecclesiastical discipline, and even in orchestrating the suspension and deposition from office of orthodox and Reformed pastors. Some believers began to meet separately to hear the pure preaching of God’s word in what was called the doleerende Kerken or mourning churches. Those in attendance at such unauthorised worship services were subject to persecution.
With the death of Arminius in 1610, the theological chair in Leiden again became vacant. The Arminians pushed for the appointment of Conrad Vorstius (1569-1622) as Arminius’ replacement. In that the Arminians overplayed their hand, for Vorstius was a worse heretic than Arminius had been, Vorstius was a Socinian. Socinianism denies fundamental doctrines of Christianity such as the Trinity, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, and justification by faith alone. In disgust, Gomarus resigned from the theological faculty in 1611. The appointment of Vorstius also caused international unrest, for King James, I of England protested his appointment, so that Vorstius was dismissed in 1612.
Calls for a national synod increased, but Johan van Oldenbarneveld and Jan Uytenbogaert still refused to authorise such a gathering of the church. With a change in direction blowing of the political winds in the Netherlands, the situation in the church suddenly took a turn for the better when in 1617 Price Mauritz (Maurice) of Orange (1567-1625) openly sided with the doleerende Kerken against the Arminians. From 1618 Maurice ruled the Netherlands, while his rival, Johan van Oldenbarneveld, was arrested, imprisoned, tried, and finally beheaded on May 13, 1619, supposedly for treason. Whether Oldenbarneveld was guilty or was fairly tried or not is hard to determine, but God used the political situation for the welfare of his church. Finally, a national synod could be called to examine the Arminian question and bring peace to the church.
The great Synod of Dordt (1618-19) saw the gathering together of delegates from the Netherlands, and from Reformed churches throughout Europe, making it a truly international synod. Present at the Synod were thirty-eight ministers, twenty-one elders, and five professors (from the Dutch churches), eighteen representatives of the state, and twenty-eight foreign delegates from the Palatinate, Hesse, Nassau, Emden, Bremen, Switzerland, and Great Britain. The French Reformed church appointed delegates, but the king of France refused to let them attend the Synod, so the French delegates submitted their opinions to the Synod in writing. The Brandenburg delegates declined to come because of the opposition of the Lutherans.
The opening of the Synod took place on November 13, 1618, with Johannes Bogerman (1576-1637) appointed as the president. On December 6, 1618, the Arminian party appeared at Synod, represented by their leader, Simon Episcopius (1583-1643). Immediately, the Arminians attempted to disrupt the synod, refusing to recognise its authority, attempting to delay its proceedings, engaging in procedural wrangling, and seeking to curry favour with the foreign delegates, who, of course, was not as familiar with the duplicity of the Arminians as the Dutch were. The Arminians wanted the Synod to recognise them as delegates instead of defendants in a theological trial. The Arminians were required to explain and defend their views from the scriptures, something they refused to do. Episcopius, for example, in his speech before the Synod on December 7, 1618, strongly condemned the Reformed teaching of predestination, seeking to prejudice the minds of the delegates, especially the foreign delegates, against reprobation in particular.
After enduring months of wrangling by the Arminians, the president, Bogerman, exasperated by the Arminians’ behaviour, rose to his feet and dismissed the Arminians with a fiery speech.
The foreign delegates are now of the opinion that you are unworthy to appear before the Synod. You have refused to acknowledge her as your lawful judge and have maintained that she is your counter-party; you have done everything according to your own whim; you have despised the decisions of the Synod and of the Political Commissioners; you have refused to answer; you have unjustly interpreted the indictments. The Synod has treated you mildly; but you have, as one of the foreign delegates expressed it, “begun and ended with lies.” With that eulogy, we shall let you go. God shall preserve His Word and shall bless the Synod. In order that she be no longer obstructed, you are sent away!
“Thereupon the undeniably wrathful president thundered” ‘You are dismissed, get out!”
With the departure of the Arminians, the Synod could begin its work. Its procedure was simple. First, the delegates studied the writings of the Arminians, including the Opinions of the Arminians that they had submitted to the Synod. Then various articles were written in response to the Arminians, these being crafted in committees and then openly debated on the floor of the Synod. Finally, the wording of the articles was finalised and approved. The result was the Canons of Dordt, which consist of fifty-nine positive articles setting forth the truth from the word of God, alongside thirty-three negative articles, or errors and rejections, arranged under five heads of doctrine.
The five heads of doctrine are a direct response to the five points of the Remonstrance of 1610. Against conditional election, the Synod set forth unconditional election and reprobation; against universal atonement, the Synod expounded the truth of limited, effectual, or particular atonement or redemption; against partial depravity and the heresy of free will the Synod defended the truth of total depravity; against resistible grace the Synod taught irresistible grace; and against conditional perseverance of the saints the Synod insisted on the truth of unconditional perseverance of the saints.
The Synod completed its examination of Arminianism when the Canons were officially adopted and signed on April 23, 1619. On May 29, 1619, after the Synod dealt with other ecclesiastical issues of interest to the Dutch churches, the great Synod of Dordt came to a close, having defended the Reformed faith to the glory of God and the comfort of pious souls.
I thank God for preserving the truth of the gospel through the work of the Synod of Dordt. In this book, I will explain the individual articles of the Canons of Dordt.
From “Grace and Assurance” by Martyn McGeown
Published by “Reformed Free Publishing Association”
Used with the publisher’s permission.
The book can be purchased at:
Grace and Assurance