The Canons (rules) of the Synod of Dordt were written after years of controversy within the Reformed churches in Europe and Britain. In the late sixteenth century the Reformed doctrines of sin, grace, faith, justification, atonement, perseverance, and assurance faced a growing resistance. At the same time, James Hermanson (c. 1559–1609), known to us as Jacob Arminius, was a student in the Genevan Academy where he showed promise and no obvious evidence of heterodoxy.
Questions about Arminius’ doctrine arose as early as 1590, but Jacob had married well and his patrons protected him. About 1594 he developed a new reading of Romans chapter 7 in which he argued that Paul could not be describing a regenerate person. By 1596, after studying Romans chapter 9, he concluded that inclusion in the covenant of grace is not determined solely by God’s sovereign decree. Instead, God has willed to accept those who seek acceptance with Him by faith. This was a clever move. He appeared to be defending justification by faith all the while redefining the doctrine of election and the definition of faith. As time passed, his views became more well known. Confessional pastors and theologians in the Netherlands and elsewhere began to sound the alarm. Dialogues were conducted and Arminius said the right things, leaving the orthodox uneasy but without hard evidence of error. Despite swirling doubts, the regents of the University of Leiden appointed Arminius to professor of theology. Almost immediately, Arminius was controversial. He was reported to teach that God elects those whom he foreknows would believe. He also raised questions about the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works. In public, however, Arminius went out of his way to agree with his orthodox colleagues.
By 1605, however, confessional Reformed pastors were calling for discipline against Arminius and his growing band of followers (the Arminians). The orthodox called for a national synod to discipline the Arminians, but the politicians refused. Instead, leading Arminians in the government called for a synod to revise the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism to make them more amenable to Arminius’ views.
Arminius died in October 1609, and the controversy entered a new phase. The Arminians published a remonstrance against the Reformed churches in which they outlined five objections to Reformed doctrine. Some preliminary responses were drafted as early as 1611, but it was the Remonstrants who first gave us five points to which the Reformed churches would respond at the great Synod of Dordt.
The Synod of Dordt almost did not occur. Political forces within the government worked mightily to prevent a national synod to address the problem. The theological crisis threatened to break out into warfare. Prince Maurice of Nassau (1567–1625), who sympathized with the orthodox, called for a national synod. The Remonstrants responded by organizing riots in 1617. Maurice’s chief rival threatened war, but when Maurice arrived in Utrecht (an Arminian stronghold) in 1618 with battle-tested veterans, the opposition melted.
The greatest international Reformed synod convened in Dordrecht, on 13 November 1618. In attendance were delegations from across Europe and Britain. Forbidden by Louis XIII from attending, the French delegation was
In 1610 the Remonstrants proposed these five points: One: Election conditioned upon foreseen faith and obedience; Two: Universal atonement; Three: Regeneration enables sinners to do good toward salvation; Four: Resistible grace; Five: Believers may fall away.
Because the synod replied to the Five Articles of the Remonstrants point by point, the order of the Canons is not actually TULIP. The first head of doctrine concerned divine election and reprobation. With the apostle Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, the synod ruled that, by virtue of Adam’s fall, we are so profoundly sinful that we deserve only condemnation and are able to do nothing to prepare for grace or even to cooperate with it toward our justification (1.1). The instrument of justification is a faith that embraces Christ alone for salvation (1.2–4). Only the elect come to faith (1.5–6). Election in Christ is God’s unchangeable and eternal choice of a certain number of persons to salvation unconditioned by anything in the sinner (1.7–11). Believers find comfort in this truth since only the elect believe, and their faith is evidence of God’s grace toward them. The elect will, in different ways, attain assurance of God’s grace toward them, “not by inquisitively prying into the secret and deep things of God,” but by believing the Gospel and paying attention to “the infallible fruits of election” (1.12). Those who doubt should “nevertheless make use of the means which God has appointed for working these graces in us” (1.16).
The second head of doctrine teaches that Christ’s death did not simply make salvation available for those who will, but rather our Savior actually secured the salvation of all His people. His death satisfied God’s justice for all the elect (2.1–2). Christ’s death is of infinite worth, but intended to satisfy God’s wrath for the elect. Therefore, the promise of the Gospel is that “whosoever believes in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have eternal life” (2.5). Contrary to the caricature of Calvinism, the synod said that, by His death, Christ redeemed “out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation and given to Him by the Father” (2.8).
The third and fourth heads of doctrine were combined to articulate the Reformed doctrine of sin and regeneration. Though we were created good and upright, we freely chose sin and with it death (3/4.1). We are so corrupt by nature that we are incapable of life or free choice apart from “the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit” (3/4.3). The natural knowledge and law of God only condemns us (3/4.4–5). Only God the Spirit “through the word or ministry of reconciliation” raises His elect to life (3/4.6). We believe because God has made us alive (and not the reverse), but the Spirit makes us alive by working through the administration of the Word; the external proclamation of the Gospel is sincere and the Gospel promise sincere (3/4.8, 11, 17). Those who refuse the Gospel are responsible for their choices, and the regeneration of the elect must be credited only to God’s sovereign grace (3/4.10, 12). God’s sovereignty does not make us “stocks and blocks” because the Spirit works through the Word. It “spiritually quickens, heals, corrects, and at the same time sweetly and powerfully bends it, that where carnal rebellion and resistance formerly prevailed” (3/4.16).
The fifth head defended the perseverance of the saints. Those to whom He gives the gift of faith, whom He “regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he also delivers from the dominion and slavery of sin” (5.1). Our ongoing struggle with sin gives us reason to humble ourselves and to seek heaven (5.2). Left to ourselves, we would fall away, but grace “mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves” us “even to the end” (5.3). Sometimes believers, such as David, fall into grievous sin and lose the sense of God’s favor, but God preserves them (5.4–5). God never allows His people “to proceed so far as to lose the grace of adoption” (5.6). Christ “certainly and effectually renews” His people “to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins” (5.7). The Spirit grants assurance to His people not, however, “by any peculiar revelation,” but rather it “springs from faith in God’s promises” (5.10). Assurance of grace does not produce immorality among Christians. Rather, “it renders them much more careful and concerned to continue in the ways of the Lord” (5.13). As the Spirit makes us alive through the preaching of the Gospel, He strengthens our faith and assurance through the sacraments (5.14).
The Canons of Dordt represent a remarkable consensus of conviction among the Reformed churches on essential doctrines. Indeed, the very Reformation was at stake. If God’s favor is conditioned upon anything in us, then we are lost because we are dead in sin. If the Gospel is reconfigured to include our obedience, then it is no longer the Gospel. If atonement is merely hypothetical, if the elect can fall away, then grace is no longer grace.
The synod’s response was careful, pastoral, and firm. The synod concluded that it does not help piety or assurance to make our salvation depend on anything in us. The Gospel is Christ for us. The Canons of Dordt are an inheritance to be treasured, but they are also to be used in our congregations, in our catechism classes, and as an example of how to respond to challenges.