Wednesday, October 26

The Canons of Dort

We didn’t get TULIP, the Five Points of Calvinism, from Calvin. Oh sure, the doctrines can be found in his magisterial Institutes of Christian Religion. But the idea that the great doctrines of the Reformation could be reduced to five essential points, T-total depravity, U-unconditional election, L-limited atonement, I-irresistible grace, and P-perseverance of the saints, comes to us from the Canons of Dort (sort of).

Actually, it is a bit of a complicated, convoluted story. In 1618 and 1619 a National Synod was held in the Dutch city of Dordrecht to sort out the theological controversies that had been raised by the teachings of the influential theologian Jakob Hermanszoon, best known by his Latinized name, Jacobus Arminius. Beginning in 1603, Arminius argued against several specific doctrines in the Belgic Confession. Though he had studied under Theodore Beza, during his years of ministry as a pastor in Amsterdam and as a professor at Leiden, he had gradually developed strong semi-Pelagian views of grace, God’s sovereignty, and free will, views that were clearly inconsistent with the Reformed tradition of Calvin and Beza.

Arminius died in 1609. Nevertheless, his followers continued to teach his views, calling themselves “Arminians.” And in 1610, they attempted to specify all their concerns with Calvinism, publishing a five point Remonstrance. They argued that man’s sinfulness is not so comprehensive that it deadens him to the convictions of faith; that divine decree of predestination is only conditional, not absolute; that the atonement is intended to be universal; that though the grace of God is a necessary catalyst to genuine faith, it does not act irresistibly in man; and that believers are always vulnerable to the danger of falling away from a state of grace. Essentially, they argued for the autonomous responsibility of man, pre-ordination through the foreknowledge of faith, and the universal sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. As you can imagine, such teachings created quite a stir in the Dutch church and beyond.

The Dordrecht National Synod was called to resolve the conflict. And the resolution came in a series of five responses, or canons. The canons were not intended to be a comprehensive explanation of Reformed dogmatics, but only an answer to those five disputed points of the Arminian Remonstrance. Nevertheless, the document that the Synod delegates drew up was so succinct, straightforward, and substantive, it quickly became a standard text for a clear exposition of the doctrines of grace. In short order, it was linked together with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession as the Three Forms of Unity.

What was intended to be a technical judicial response to a very specific case became a cornerstone for the building of the Reformed world and life view in the Netherlands and beyond.

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