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The Synod of Dort: Keeping Venom from the Lips

R. Scott Clark

Introduction

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. Indeed, it is anachronistic and reductionist to call them the “Five Points of Calvinism” because Calvin had been dead fifty-four years when the Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands. It is reductionist because the Canons were never intended to be 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 doctrines of God, man, salvation, the church, and sacraments. 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.

Background

Outwardly there was little about young Jacob Arminius (c.1560–1609) that would have signaled his dissatisfaction with the Protestant Reformation. Born in 1560, in Utrecht, he grew up in the Reformed church. His family was martyred by the Spanish when Arminius was away at school and he was supported financially by members of the Reformed church. He was a student in the famous university of Leiden. From there he studied in Geneva under Theodore Beza (1519–1605).

Given that he learned his theology from stoutly Reformed theologians in Leiden and Geneva, it is not easy to explain why Arminius became, if we may, an Arminian. One theory is that he reacted to Beza’s theology, but there is little evidence of this. Arminius’s student disputation shows no evidence of any theological movement. Further, the theory rests on a dated, untenable caricature of Beza’s theology. If Arminius did react to Beza’s supralapsarianism,[1] Beza was unaware of it. He wrote a letter of commendation for Arminius.[2] Another theory is that Arminius’s shift may be traced to his adoption of Ramist logic and pedagogy, but this theory fails to explain too many exceptions. Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), one of Beza’s friends and students, and a formative orthodox Reformed covenant theologian and editor of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) was a Ramist as were William Perkins (1558–1602) and William Ames (1576–1633), whose Reformed orthodoxy is also beyond question.

Arminius did, however, use Geneva as home base from which he made study trips to Basel, Zürich, and Padua to study with scholars from a variety of backgrounds. It is possible that these trips combined with some of his contacts in Leiden, e.g., Caspar Koolhaas (1536–1615), may have helped to facilitate his desire to revise Reformed theology. The latter was a Reformed minister in Leiden who was later disciplined by the Reformed churches for refusing to subscribe to 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. One possible explanation for his theological movement is to be found in his desire to explain the problem of evil, which was rooted in his grief over the massacre of his family and his consequent struggle with the problem of evil and divine sovereignty.[3] In this period, perhaps during his visit to Padua, he came into contact with the work of Luis de Molina (1535–1600). As a consequence, he seems to have not only rejected both supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism but also to have adopted the doctrine of middle knowledge (media scientia) as part of his theodicy.[4]

As Gisbertus Voetius (1589–76), who was Arminius’s student in Leiden, Francis Turretin (1623–87), and J. H. Heidegger (1633–98) concluded, the doctrine of middle knowledge, that God sovereignly arranges the circumstances but does not decree the choices of contingent creatures, makes God contingent upon humans and is incompatible with a Christian doctrine of God.

After his studies, he finally returned to Amsterdam to be examined by classis (presbytery) in 1587. He sustained his examination and was called to a pastorate there and, in 1590, married into an influential family.[5] One reason to think that Arminius’s theology shifted significantly during his study trips from Geneva is that almost immediately upon taking up his pastoral duties in Amsterdam he found himself embroiled in controversy over his sermon series in Romans. On Romans chapter 7 he concluded that Paul could not have been speaking about himself as a Christian.[6] He argued that Paul had adopted a persona of a man under the law.[7]

On Romans 9 he postured as a defender of justification sola gratia, sola fide but set up a system in which God elects on the basis of foreseen faith (fides praevisa).[8] These sermons provoked a strong reaction in the church led by the father of Reformed missions, Petrus Plancius (1522–1622), but Arminius was not disciplined by his consistory or classis most likely because of protection by influential supporters.

Less well known, Arminius rejected the Protestant doctrine of justification sola fide by making faith, rather than Christ’s alien righteousness, the thing imputed.[9] Part of his motive for this revision was his concern that the Protestant doctrine of justification made believers careless about their sanctification.[10]

The Crisis

Despite the controversy attached to Arminius’ teaching, in 1603 he was called from the pastorate to a position in the theology faculty at Leiden. His appointment was controversial and the governors of the university twice commissioned Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641) to investigate Arminius’s views. He suspected Arminius of heterodoxy, but he was never able to prove it to the satisfaction of the governors or the Erasmian civil authorities.

In his career at Leiden University, Arminius 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 there.[11]

Into this boiling cauldron of controversy, mutual suspicion, and recrimination came the five points of the Remonstrants, crystallizing the issues.[12] For all the doubt surrounding what Arminius had been teaching, it became clear what the Arminians were teaching. The first article confessed that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith, obedience, and perseverance.[13] They revised the doctrine of the atonement by arguing that Jesus did not die as the substitute for his elect to accomplish their redemption. Rather, they confessed that Jesus died “for all men and every man” so as to make redemption possible for those who meet the conditions. Their third and fourth points must be read together since what the Remonstrants gave with the third they took away with the fourth, in which they confessed the resistibility of grace. The Synod of Dort would reply to these points by combining the third and fourth heads of doctrine. The fifth point of the Remonstrants was, to put it plainly, disingenuous. After already implying the possibility of falling from a state of grace, which they suggested explicitly under the fifth point, they go on to coyly claim that they had not yet made up their minds.[14] Their rejection of the Reformed doctrine of perseverance, of course, laid waste to the Protestant doctrine of assurance and pushed the Reformed churches back toward the very Franciscan covenant theology against which Luther had rebelled in the early sixteenth century: “To those who do what lies within them, God denies not grace.”[15]

The Crisis Intensifies

Because the followers of Arminius have been (mostly) ecclesiastically separated from the Reformed churches for centuries, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Arminian crisis occurred originally within the doors of the Reformed church. Despite the grave reservations about his theology and teaching expressed by Plancius and other ministers in his classis, and by his colleagues Gomarus and Lucas Trelcatius Jr. (1573–1607), Arminius was and remained a minister in good standing in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. The fact that he conducted his ministry and died within the church intensified the problem, because, in the absence of any unequivocal ecclesiastical pronouncement, that fact made it possible for his apologists to say that “he is a minister in good standing.” Thus, the Remonstrants defended their right to teach their revisions of Reformed theology within the bounds of the church. They also actively campaigned, with help from sympathetic civil magistrates, to revise the Belgic Confession (1561), the church order, and the relationship between church and state (toward Erastianism), so that those sympathetic magistrates might not only defend them but advance their theology, piety, and practice within the Reformed church. Remember, too, that while this theological-political contest was occurring, the Netherlands was at war with Spain and that destructive Thirty-Years War (1618–48) was approaching. The tensions inherent in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) were about to be resolved one way or another.

The orthodox responded to the Articles of the Remonstrance at a ten-day conference at The Hague from March 10–20, 1611. Six representatives from each side, the Remonstrant and the Reformed, presented their case. The formal goal was to see if there was a way to reconcile the two sides. It became clear through the Collatio[16] (Latin for comparison) that the differences were fundamental and irreconcilable. That much became clear in the text of the Contra Remonstrance, much of which was later incorporated in the Canons adopted by the Synod of Dort.[17]

One of the most intriguing and perhaps surprising points of the Contra Remonstrance is their confession that “children of the covenant” are to be reckoned as “God’s elect children” and “children of the covenant so long as they do not manifest the contrary” and thus, “believing parents, when their children die in infancy, have no reason to doubt the salvation of these their children.”[18] We know this doctrine from Canons 1.17. Contrary to the Remonstrant caricature,[19] most of the Reformed were not and never have been supralapsarian.[20] Believing parents are to rest on the promises of God in Christ made to them in the covenant of grace and signified and sealed in baptism.

Synod Approaches

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’s teaching arose almost immediately, but the final resolution took nearly thirty 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 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 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 Maurits (Maurice of Orange, 1567–1625) and Jan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547–1619), the de facto prime minister of the United Provinces, were estranged. The latter supported the Arminians, and Maurits sided with the orthodox. England, which had become deeply involved in the Netherlands, sided with Maurits against Spain. After the lines of disagreement had become clear, in light of the conference at The Hague (1611), pressure mounted on Maurits 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 order to give the (typically latitudinarian) magistrates more control over the church 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. When the Remonstrants gained control of churches, they forbid 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 contra-Remonstrants 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. His troops gave way, however, and in August, he, 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 was beheaded at The Hague on May 14, 1619, after synod. His son retaliated by attempting to assassinate Prince Maurits, whose father had been murdered in 1584. A synod was called for November 13, 1618.

The Reformed knew that the controversy with the Remonstrants represented more than a parochial theological dispute. They believed that the Remonstrants were leading the nation backward toward the heresy of Pelagianism and thence to Socinianism. Not only had they supported Vortsius’s appointment to Leiden University, but the Remonstrant leader Simon Episcopius (1583–1644) was also suspected of being sympathetic to Socinianism. In recent decades both John Platt and Sarah Mortimer have seen connections between Episcopius and Socinianism.[21]

The Resolution

The Synod of Dort did finally convene in the armory in Dordrecht on November 13, 1618, and concluded their work in May 29, 1619. Though the Remonstrants were defeated at synod they did not disappear. Uytenbogaert, Episcopius, and others convened a Remonstrant Synod in Antwerp in October 1619, attended by forty Arminian ministers. They were protected by Archduke Albert who benefited from the ongoing controversy. Episcopius and Grotius moved to France, others to Denmark. Other Remonstrants held clandestine meetings across the Netherlands.[22] The Princeton church historian Samuel Miller (1769–1850) noted in 1841 that the Remonstrants were re-admitted to pulpits after Maurits’s death in 1625. It was not long thereafter that rationalism began to spread through the Reformed church in the Netherlands.[23]

Finally, one aspect of the Canons that has not received much attention is its formal judgment against the Remonstrants and their theology. Synod used the word heretic of the Remonstrants, beginning in the preface, where synod complained about the “impious violence of heretics.”[24] Synod equated the Remonstrants with the “proud heresies of Pelagius” (Canons of Dort 3/4.10; hereafter, CD),[25] and urged authorities to “check all heresies and errors, unquiet and turbulent spirits.”[26]

Given synod’s affirmation of the judgment of the ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) against Pelagianism (CD 3/4.10), we should see the implicit condemnation of the Remonstrant error as heresy when synod says that their doctrine of conditional election “savors of the teaching of Pelagius” (Rejection of Errors, 1.4; hereafter, RE).[27] In RE 2.3 synod denounced the Remonstrants for “recalling from hell the errors of Pelagius” for their doctrine that Christ made salvation possible for those who do their part.[28]  In RE 2.6 synod complained bitterly that the Remonstrants, by using the distinction between “meriting” and “appropriating,” tried to “give to the people to drink the venom of Pelagianism.”[29] Synod called Remonstrant theology Pelagian in 3/4.2, 7, 9 and in RE 4.9 and in RE 5.2 “manifest Pelagianism” (RE 5.2).[30]

Observations

Four centuries after Synod, in North America, Dort might seem remote, but it should not. The confessional Reformed churches may not be facing Spanish persecution, but we are a distinct minority in an overwhelmingly Arminian evangelical culture. The assumptions that fueled the Remonstrant movement live on. We may not have Remonstrants within Reformed churches today but we do have Federal Visionists, who openly affirm the Remonstrant denial of the perseverance of the saints. There are those in our midst who would turn the covenant of grace into a covenant of works and who seek to revise the doctrine of the atonement. The setting changes but the issues remain. Thus, the Preface, the Canons, the Rejections of Errors, the Conclusion, and the Sentence of the Synod of Dort all continue to instruct us as we seek to feed our flocks and keep the venom of Remonstrant theology and piety from their lips.

Endnotes

[1] “Supralapsarianism (also called antelapsarianism, pre-lapsarian or prelapsarian) is the view that God's decrees of election and reprobation logically preceded the decree of the fall while infralapsarianism (also called postlapsarianism and sublapsarianism) asserts that God's decrees of election and reprobation logically succeeded the decree of the fall.” Herman Bavinck.

[2] The faculty in Basel was quite impressed with him and wanted to award him a doctorate. Johannes Jacobus Grynaeus wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation. See W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2019), 196–97.

[3] Herman Selderhuis observed this connection in an interview broadcast May 9, 2019. https://wscal.edu/resource-center/the-canons-of-dort (accessed July 6, 2019).

[4] Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), 19–21; Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 191–95; Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 45, 66–69.

[5] Contra Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Death by Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 170, which bizarrely claims that Arminius married Calvin’s daughter. On Arminius’s marriage see Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 201–2.

[6] Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 3 vols. (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1882), 1.510–11

[7] James Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, trans. James Nichols and William Nichols, The London Edition, 3 vols. (repr., Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 2.491.

[8] Arminius, Works, 3.485–88.

[9] Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius, 168.

[10] Stanglin and McCall, Jacob Arminius, 182–83.

[11] In May 1619 the Synod published a sentence against Vorstius declaring him to be a Socinian.

[12] See Schaff, Creeds, 3.545–49.

[13] Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 101. He comments that, in Remonstrant theology God does not elect persons as much as conditions. “Saving the Reformation,” Office Hours podcast, Westminster Seminary California (website), March 4, 2019, https://wscal.edu/resource-center/saving-the-reformation.

[14] Compare the fifth point of the Remonstrants with the doctrine of apostasy confessed in “A Joint Federal Vision Profession (2007),” in which the authors use the same sort of language on the same issue. This document has recently been deleted from its original site. See “A Joint Federal Vision Profession (2007),” R. Scott Clark (blog), accessed July 6, 2019, https://rscottclark.org/a-joint-federal-vision-profession-2007/.

[15] See Heiko Oberman, “Facientibus Quod in Se Est Deus Non Denegat Gratiam: Robert Holcot O.p. And the Beginnings of Luther’s Theology” in The Reformation in Medieval Perspective, ed. Stephen Ozment (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971), 119–41; idem, Heiko A. Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983),135–39; idem, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications(London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 103–04.

[16] The Collatio Hagiensis (1611) was the conference held at the Hague between the Remonstrants and the Contra-Remonstrants.

[17] See P. Y. DeJong, ed. Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, 1968), 209–13.

[18] De Jong, Crisis, 211. See also R. Scott Clark, “Baptism and the Benefits of Christ: The Double Mode of Communion in the Covenant of Grace,” The Confessional Presbyterian Journal 2 (2006): 3–19.

[19] See the “Conclusion” (Latin, Conclusio) of synod, which restates the orthodox case against the Remonstrants (Schaff, Creeds, 3.576, 3.596).

[20] Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 190–91.

[21] John Platt, Reformed Thought and Scholasticism: The Arguments for the Existence of God in Dutch Theology, 1575–1650 (Leiden: Brill, 1982), 218, 231; Sarah Mortimer follows Platt in Reason and the English Revolution: The Challenge of Socinianism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 26.

[22] Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477–1806, Oxford history of early modern Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 464.

[23] Samuel Miller, “Introductory Essay,” in The Articles of the Synod of Dort, trans. and ed. Thomas Scott, (repr., Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 1993), 46–47.

[24] “et hæreticorum impietate” (Schaff, Creeds, 3.550).

[25] Schaff, Creeds, 3.566.

[26] “omnes hæreses et errores, spiritus inquietos et turbulentos compescant” (Schaff, Creeds, 5.579).

[27] “Pelagium enim sapiunt” (Schaff, Creeds, 3.557).

[28] “Pelagianum errorem ab inferis revocant” (Schaff, Creeds, 3.563).

[29] “populo perniciosum Pelagianismi venenum conantur propinare” (Schaff. Creeds, 3.564).

[30] “manifestum Pelagianismum” (Schaff, Creeds, 3.574).

R. Scott Clark is a minister in the United Reformed Churches in North America and serves as professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, October 2019.

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