For the next week we will take a break from our study of the Gospel of John in order to observe the 400th anniversary of a council of which you may not be familiar. The council or synod began on November 13, 1618. It occurred in the Netherlands at a southern city called Dordrecht, which in English is shortened to Dordt. The resulting document from the synod is called the Canons (rules) of Dordt.
Many Christians are familiar with the acronym TULIP. It is a shorthand summary of the doctrine of salvation and God’s sovereign grace in that salvation. It stands for (1) Total Depravity; (2) Unconditional Election; (3) Limited Atonement; (4) Irresistible Grace and (5) Perseverance or the Preservation of the Saints. The acronym is most often associated with the Reformed pastor and theologian John Calvin.
However, not everyone knows that this acronym comes from the Canons of Dordt and was formulated 54 years after Calvin’s death. The Canons of Dordt are among the most famous but unread document of any Reformed Synod. The canons are more than just the five letters T.U.L.I.P. They teach a biblical doctrine of grace and provide a model for the stewardship of the Gospel. Along with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, they embody what is known as the Three Forms of Unity.
How and why did the Synod of Dordt occur? What were the reasons for writing the Canons of Dordt in the first place?
Dr. R. Scott Clark, professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California and associate minister of Escondido United Reformed Church, provides helpful information and insight. He explains, “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.”
It was at this time that James Hermanson (c. 1559–1609), commonly known to us as Jacob Arminius, was a student in the Genevan Academy where he evidenced promise as a biblical scholar. At the time, he displayed no obvious evidence of heretical doctrine or teaching.
However, concerns about Arminius’ doctrine began as early as 1590. However, Jacob supporters protected him. About 1594 he presented a new interpretation of Romans 7 in which he argued that Paul was not describing a regenerate person. Six years later, he concluded from his study of Romans 9 that a sinner’s inclusion in the covenant of grace was not determined solely by God’s sovereign grace alone. Instead, God chose to accept those who seek acceptance with Him by their own self-generated faith.
Dr. Scott states that, “This was a clever move. He (Arminius) 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.”
In spite of growing concern and doubts about Arminius’ orthodoxy, the regents of the University of Leiden appointed him to be professor of theology. Almost immediately, Jacob Arminius was controversial. He taught that God elected those to salvation who He foreknew would believe. Arminius also questioned the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works. Dr. Scott contends that, “In public, however, Arminius went out of his way to agree with his orthodox colleagues.”
By 1605, however, Reformed pastors were calling for discipline against Arminius and his growing band of followers (the Arminians). There were calls 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 agreeable to Arminius’ views.
Arminius died in October 1609, but the controversy he created entered a new phase. More to come when next we meet.
You might be asking where you might find a copy of the Canons of Dordt. A free downloadable copy of the entire document is available online from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. You can also find a copy in the back of The Reformation Study Bible, which is published by Reformation Trust.
Soli deo Gloria!