The Synod of Dordt

Events Leading to the Synod

Jacob Arminius was called to pastor in Amsterdam in the year 1588. Shortly thereafter, several ministers in the area wrote a publication opposing Theodore Beza’s view of predestination. Since Arminius had studied in Geneva under Beza, he was requested to answer and refute this view. However, while examining the matter, he embraced the very view he was asked to refute! In fact, by 1591, he had begun to change his mind concerning the Reformed view of what later would be called “the doctrines of grace”.

His fellow ministers began to suspect that he had departed from the Belgic Confession, the document that was supposed to rule the Reformed Churches of Holland. Arminius, however, was very subtle. He steered clear of public controversy on the matter, choosing instead to privately woo several ministers and leading laymen over to his views.

In 1602, Arminius was called to the position of Professor of Divinity at the University of Leyden. Many ministers in Holland opposed his assumption of this prestigious post, feeling that he would be much more dangerous in this position than as a local pastor. However, he eventually was granted permission by church authorities to assume this post, upon the condition that he meet in conference with the other theological professors of the school. In that conference, he was to make a declaration of his faith regarding the important doctrines of the Gospel. In the course of this meeting, Arminius disavowed Pelagian teaching and declared himself in harmony with Augustine’s views on the subject at hand. Further, he promised he would teach nothing contrary to the received doctrine of the Reformed Church.

For a while, it appeared that he would honor this agreement. But after a year or so, it was discovered that he would teach one thing publicly as a professor, and quite another thing in private manuscripts circulated among his students. He subtlely insinuated that the Reformers were not quite on target, and that he would make his corrective views on the subject known at the appropriate time. Before long, many of his pupils began to manifest his views.

Many ministers were now deeply suspicious of Arminius’ views, and urged him to either make express his views clearly in a private manner to his fellow ministers, or to refer the matter to the consideration of an assembly of ministers (a “Synod”) representing the Reformed Church in Holland. Arminius only agreed to meet privately with his fellow ministers, providing they would keep confidential any deviations from Reformed doctrine they might judge him to hold! Next, he was urged to hold a conference with his colleagues at the University where he might make his objections known. This he also declined. Over and over, Arminius sidestepped every attempt to force his hand. In line with the historical way heresy arises, he complained over the unreasonableness of his accusers and claimed that any difference was only in “words”.

Finally, the patience of his opponents was exhausted. He was summoned by state authorities in 1609 to a conference where it was demanded that he explain himself. Before the conference ended, however, his health deterioated, and he died on Oct. 19, 1609, at the age of 49.

The Calling of the Synod

It was hoped by many that the death of Arminius would put an end to this controversy. But this was not to be the case. By 1610, his followers had organized themselves into a formal fellowship. They presented to state authorities a five-point statement of their beliefs called the “Remonstrance”, a word meaning a formal declaration of opposition or of grievances. These followers of Arminius became known in their day as “Remonstrants”. The purpose of this action was to secure protection from the government against the censures they were exposed to from the state church. Over the next few years, various attempts were made to bring this matter to a head, but the Remonstrants proved as adept as their teacher Arminius in evading these means. Finally, no less a figure than King James I of England, in 1617, sent a letter the the governing body of Holland recommending that a national synod be called to vindicate the received Reformed doctrine of the church. The state concurred, and issued a decree that such a synod would convene in November, 1618, in the city of Dordt in southern Holland. Each province of the state was to send six ministers as delegates to this assembly. It was the original intent that this assembly be composed of only delegates from Holland, but at the insistence of King James and others, it was decided to invite theologians from other protestant countries as well. So, in addition to representatives from Holland, there were delegates at the synod from Britain, Germany, and Switzerland as well.

The synod convened on Nov. 13, 1618. It consisted of 39 pastors, 18 ruling elders, and 5 university professors from Holland, together with 19 delegates from the continent, and 5 delegates from Britain.

The Findings of the Synod

That the synod should reject the tenets of the Remonstrants is no great surprise. Of the seated delegates, only one was an Arminian! It was not until the 22nd session of the synod that the Arminian party made an appearance. Episcopius, a leading Remonstrant, and 12 of his collegues were ordered to make an explanation and a defence of their doctrine. However, Episcopius insisted on first bringing a refutation of the doctrine of reprobation, perhaps the most naturally repulsive of all the Calvinistic doctrines. No doubt he did this in order to win over a faction to his side at the very beginning of the debate. However, the synod leaders reminded him that the purpose of the meeting was not to try long established doctrines, embodied in their confessions, but to examine the Remonstrants departure from these doctrines. Therefore, the Remonstrants were admonished first to prove their deviations from these doctrines by scripture. In spite of the admonitions of the synod, the Remonstrants refused to submit to this or any other plan. Shortly thereafter, they were expelled from the proceedings and the synod continued without them.

The synod ruled that the views of the Arminians were unscriptural and deadly errors, and that they who held them were enemies of the Belgic churches. They deposed Arminian ministers, excluding them and their followers from the communion of the church. With the aid of the secular rulers, they had a number of Arminian rulers banished from the nation. The synod was unanimous in this condemnation. It should be noted at this point, that many of these measures were eased after 1625, and many of the Arminian ministers were recalled from their banishment and restored to their churches.

The Canons of Dordt

Although there was unity among the synod in regards to Arminianism, it would be erroneous to think that they were all agreed on every point of Calvinistic doctrine. Gomarus, one of the best-known opponents of Arminianism, as well as many others, were advocates of the strictest variety of Supralapsarianism. Others were clearly in the Infralapsarian camp. And a smaller number of the delegates even held to what would become known as “modified” Calvinism. But they were all unanimous in their opposition to Arminianism.

The synod lasted until May 29, 1619. In all, there were a total of 180 sessions. Their findings were stated in a document known historically as the “Canons of Dordt”. These canons are arranged in such a way as to answer the five points originally raised by the Remonstrance. The positive doctrine is set forth first, and then the corresponding error of the Arminians refuted.

The order of these canons differs from what we in America might supposed. Our familiarity with these things is generally governed by our knowledge of the acronym “TULIP”, apparently derived by Lorraine Boettner in the early 1900s. The order given by the canons themselves is as follows:

1)The Doctrine of Divine Predestination

2)The Doctrine of the Death of Christ

3)The Doctrine of Man’s Corruption

4)The Doctrine of Man’s Conversion to God

5)The Doctrine of the Perseverance of the Saints

In fact, points three and four are joined together in the canons, but they were from the earliest recognized as distinct—the one dealing with “Total Depravity” and the other with “Effectual Calling”.

A complete discussion of the canons would be beyond the scope of the present article. Just a couple of excerpts will be cited which touch upon rather interesting facets of their findings. For instance, when dealing with the doctrine of God’s Predestination, speaking of the decree of God, we find:

“According to which decree, he graciously softens the hearts of the elect,

however hard, and he bends them to believe: but the non-elect he leaves,

in just judgment, to their own perversity and hardness.”

Note that this statement leans away from “Double Predestination”, which assumes an act of God determining that the wicked go to hell. Instead, it leans strongly towards what has been called “preterition”, i.e. the passing by of the non-elect, leaving them to their just condemnation.

Another matter concerns the nature of the atonement itself. On the one hand, it is held that:

“This death of the Son of God is a single and most perfect sacrifice and

satisfaction for sins; of infinite value and price, abundantly sufficient to

expiate the sins of the whole world.”

On the other hand, it is also stated:

“That Christ, through the blood of the cross,….should, out of every people,

tribe, nation, and language, efficaciously redeem all those, and those only,

who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father”

Thus, the synod follows the old formula, quoted favorably by Calvin himself, of an atonement that was “Sufficient for all; efficient for the elect”.

Finally, in regards to the Free Offer of the Gospel, the synod states most clearly:

“Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ

crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. Which promise ought to

be announced and proposed, promiscuously and indiscriminately, to all

nations and men to whom God, in his god pleasure, hath sent the gospel,

with the command to repent and believe.”

Thus, while rejecting the tenets of Arminianism on the one hand, the synod clearly rejected what is known as “Hypercalvinism” on the other. Like Calvin himself, they held to a warm and evangelistic, yet God-honoring and man-humbling, view of the sovereignty of God in His great work of salvation.