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Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, by W. Robert Godfrey

John R. Muether

Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort, by W. Robert Godfrey. Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2019, xiv, 265 pages, $19.00.

A half-century ago it was widely accepted orthodoxy among church historians that the spirit of the Reformation was antithetical to that of the century that followed. Often described as “Calvin vs. the Calvinists,” this school of thought contended, in the words of one historian, that the “spontaneity, freshness, and joyfulness” of the Reformation was usurped by the “legalism, moralism, and rationalism” of the Protestant scholastics.[1] If the Westminster Assembly at mid-seventeenth century was the epitome of this alien spirit, the turning point took place in 1618–19 at the Synod of Dort in the Netherlands. Thankfully, that school of interpretation has been refuted by recent scholarship committed to a closer reading of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts.

In this book Dr. Robert Godfrey, recently retired as president and professor of church history at Westminster Seminary California, revisits the Synod of Dort, which was the subject of his 1974 doctoral dissertation at Stanford University.  Two words stand out in the title of this book. First of all, Godfrey is not content with merely crediting Dort with maintaining the spirit of the Reformation; more than that, Dort “saved” the Reformation in several respects. It served the recovery of Augustinianism by exposing a subtle version of semi-Pelagianism, it clarified the “solas” of the Reformation, and it prepared the church for its faithful witness when the Enlightenment emerged by century’s end.

Secondly, the title notes that the chief product of the synod, the Canons of Dort (though cast in the polemical form of articles to affirm and errors to reject) is preeminently a work of pastoral theology. This is a feature that is sometimes lost even among its defenders. Godfrey’s book is for teachers, because the Canons especially were composed for teachers in the church. Every head of doctrine includes instruction on how the doctrines of grace must be carefully and diligently preached and taught.

Part one sets the stage by describing the crisis in the Dutch Reformed Church that prompted the call of the synod. Godfrey surveys the rise of Jacob Arminius (1559–1609), who studied at Leiden, Geneva (under Beza), and Basel before pastoring in Amsterdam and then teaching at Leiden from 1603 until his death. Though controversy followed his teaching, the debates in the church were heightened after his death. In 1610, forty-two ministers appealed for tolerance of his teachings in the form of a five-point Remonstrance. By decade’s end an international Reformed synod gathered to respond, as Reformed voices throughout Europe joined ministers of the Dutch Reformed Church. The synod’s response to the Remonstrance, the Canons of Dort, contain what we have come to call the “five points of Calvinism,” though Godfrey suggests that they are better described as “five answers to the five errors of Arminianism” (13).[2]

In part two Godfrey offers a new translation of the Canons, followed, in part three, with his analysis and exposition of its five heads of doctrine. He illustrates how the synod refuted Remonstrant errors by constant and explicit quotations of Scripture. On the delicate matter of the extent of Christ’s atonement, the synod reached a consensus of acknowledging its universal sufficiency and its particular efficacy (115). The doctrine of perseverance was premised on the simple teaching on the faithfulness of God (155). Godfrey notes that, rightly taught, perseverance has encouraged humility and godliness in the churches of the Reformed tradition (163).

Godfrey underscores the pastoral dimension of the Canons in his summary of the synod’s work: 

The synod . .  addresses ministers and teachers in the Reformed churches to deal with these matters carefully and piously. These doctrines are taught by God in the Scriptures for “the glory of the divine name, the holiness of life, and the consolation of troubled souls.” The church must be faithful in teaching them just as God has. Teachers and preachers must speak as the Scriptures do and must avoid phrases (sometimes called “harsh phrases”) or expressions that can be misunderstood or abused either by the faithful or by those who reject Reformed teaching. (177)

There are five appendices to the book. The first (and by far the longest) offers a “new look” at Jacob Arminius. Godfrey surveys how biographers through the centuries have lauded the Dutch theologian’s example of “nobility, moderation, and heroism” in an age that had become narrowminded and polemic. Looking especially at the influential 1971 work by Carl Bangs (which is consistent with the Calvin vs. the Calvinists approach of this era),[3] Godfrey assembles evidence to paint a different and less complimentary portrait of the patron saint of the Remonstrants.

In addition, there are briefer appendices with helpful guidance for understanding the form and structure of the Canon’s heads of doctrine. Here, for example, Godfrey explains that because the synod intended each head of doctrine to be read on its own, there is some built-in redundancy, and so some arguments recur under different heads. Not to be overlooked is appendix five, a translation of the “Doctrinal Statement by the Synod of Dort on the Sabbath.” The synod did work beyond the Remonstrance debate, and while this statement is brief and preliminary, it challenges the popular notion that the Dutch Reformed and English Puritans were divided on the practice of Sabbath-keeping.

Godfrey’s book reminds us that the doctrines of Dort “are not peripheral or obscure” (165), contrary to the impression left by their absence from many contemporary pulpits. When predestination is preached with modesty and prudence, it shapes us in our gratitude and humility before God, far from leading us to despair or presumption. If the Synod of Dort “saved” the Reformation by clarifying the Bible’s teaching on grace against the errors of its day, a study of its “theology, piety, and strategy” (175) would no doubt benefit the church today as well. A careful study of Godfrey’s book would certainly help toward that end. Saving the Reformation might be especially fitting for book discussions in church sessions.

Endnotes

[1] Arthur C. Cochrane, Reformed Confessions of the Sixteenth Century (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1966), 30. Not surprisingly, mainline Presbyterians celebrated the Confession of 1967 as the church’s liberation from the  legalism of the Westminster Standards.

[2] The concept of “five points” comes from Dort, but the acronym “TULIP” does not emerge until the early twentieth century.

[3] Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1971).

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, October 2019.

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