The Synod of Dort

Dr David Chin

The ‘historic city of Dordrecht lies concealed between mighty rivers’,[1] largely forgotten, until the years 1614 – 1618 are brought to mind. Then, an august international body met under political auspices to produce a document still held symbolically by some churches today[2] and caused two divergent theological views to flow. 

In dealing with this historic event, we shall avoid the questions[3] that tickle but do not tackle the theological issues raised at Dort, and hopefully learn from it, lest history repeats itself.   


THE BACKGROUND TO THE SYNOD OF DORT 

a. Political and Cultural Background
When the Netherlands threw off Spanish yoke and became independent, the Reformed faith was officially recognized as the religion of the land. The provincial assemblies were ruled by the Stadhoder, whilst foreign affairs were the responsibility of the States General. The latter feared the rising power of the Reformed churches and helped by John Oldenbarnevelt, refused permission for a national synod to address the doctrinal teachings of Arminius then agitating the church.  James I,[4] though his Calvinism was suspect,[5] urged for foreign participation[6] when the States General[7] finally convened a synod. 

b. Theological Background[8]
‘Religious pluralism, tracing its roots to the late Middle Ages, had been a characteristic of the Netherlands since the beginning of the Reformation’,[9] unlike Germany where single confessions were held exclusively. Thus, before Arminius came into the scene, there were already semi-Pelagians amongst the Reformed constituency. These were ex-priests and monks who, realising that there was no safety in a sinking popish ship had sailed onboard the Reformation. Being opportunists, they would form willing supporters of anti-Calvinistic principles if these happen to be the prevailing religious wind. 

The Congress of Dort, 1572, guaranteed religious freedom. The Reformers supported the rebellion against Spain and so became the more powerful amongst the Catholics, Anabaptists and other sects. Within the Reformed constituency, however, there was tension between the broad-minded old-established merchants and the conservative merchants who fled from the Spanish.


THE ERRORS THAT WERE ADDRESSED

Although the Synod addressed Erastianism, the anti-confessional humanism of Erasmus and Koornhert and produced a Dutch Bible[10], it was chiefly the Five Articles of the Remonstrants, led by Uytenbogaert that were in focus. This resulted in the classic refutation of Arminianism, though it was not about Arminius[11] as he had already died and though he ‘did not work out or developed the system of doctrine that has come to be called by his name.” [12] 

1. The Doctrine of Divine Predestination
It has been suggested that the predestination doctrine of Calvin was not as universally embraced as his other teachings,[13] allowing for other variants. To support this, Bullinger is enlisted: 


"Believe me, many are displeased with what you (Calvin) say in your Institutes about predestination......" [14] 

Limborch,[15] alleged that ‘supporters of predestination conditioned on faith, were always teaching, preaching, and writing, basing their doctrine on the Dutch national creed; and that both they and their opponents were tolerated until the Synod of Dort.’[16]  

Space does not permit the refutation of this view; in the final analysis, it does not matter what was held then – what is important was that the result of the Synod brought into sharper relief the truth of the Gospel, which is, the ultimate legitimate reason for being involved in controversies. The preaching of the Gospel is to glorify God:

‘The grace of God is absolutely sovereign and every fail­ure to recognize and appreciate the absolute sovereignty of God in His saving grace is an expression of the pride of the human heart. It rests upon the demand that God can deal differ­ently with men in the matter of salva­tion only because they have made themselves to differ’. (Murray) [17] 

There have been objections that the Remonstrants were condemned over points they did not raise.[18] These technical deviations should not obscure the primary objective of the Synod. 

As for formulating lofty concepts, utmost care is needed; there is no danger of making God the author of sin, as Arminius pretentiously decried,[19] if one is cognisant of the limitations of human language. Berkouwer warned:

He who speaks of God’s counsel in terms of human categories will have to be aware of the inadequacy of his words. [20]

Dort affirmed that election was not based on some foreseen faith but was unconditional. Murray insisted: 

The hallmark of Calvinism is unconditional election and that is exactly what this highest type of Arminianism vigorously denies.[21]  

2. The Doctrine of the Death of Christ, and through it the Redemption of Men
Dort affirmed the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ as exemplified by the Westminster Confession, [22] not the limitedness of the Remonstrants:

The truth is that he (the Arminian) professes a despicable doctrine of limited atonement. He professes an atonement that is tragically limited in its efficacy and power, an atonement that does not secure the salvation of any. (Murray) [23]  

This is nothing but the incarnation of Pelagianism when ‘all the substance of the atonement is evaporated, that it may be given a universal reference’.[24] The natural man resists every attempt to milk him out of any vestige of self-aggrandisement. 

Dort further affirmed the ‘sufficiency’ of the death of Christ to redeem the world,[25] a term disliked by some Scottish theologians [26] and refined by others.[27] 


3. The Doctrine of Man’s Corruption and the Method of his Conversion to God.
Foster enthused:

The third article of 1610 was reaffirmed verbatim by the Remonstrants in 1618. It is such good Calvinism .............indicating the real views of Arminius, Uytenbogaert, Episco­pius.....[28]

Except that, as Murray pointed out, generalisations can be deceptive: 

Arminians do in general terms assert the depravity of fallen human nature. But a merely general statement of the fact does not touch the heart of the question. The real question is the seriousness with which the general statement of the fact is taken and the willingness there is to appreciate all the implications of it. In a word, it is the question of the totality or entirety of this corruption.[29]

As for whether grace was irresistible, it has been pointed out that ‘the orthodox Calvinist Paraeus advised the Synod to relegate it to the Jesuits, the authors of the distinction"’[30] and ‘in the Synod itself the orthodox member Sibrandus stated that on this point "there were some doubts which Calvin himself had not thoroughly satisfied’.[31] Again, it is beyond the scope of this paper to address this; suffice to say, all the doctrines proposed at Dort are so intertwined that they stand or fall together. 

4. The Doctrine Concerning the Perseverance of the Saints 
Arminius was ambivalent about the perseverance of the saints, pleading for more light from scripture but did not think it was a doctrine accepted by the whole church.[32] The Remon­strants at Dort asserted that believers might fall away from the true faith. It may well be that the perseverance of the saints, is not ‘in opposition to any creed given symbolical authority before 1618, so far as has been discovered, with the single exception of the articles adopted by Convocation of the Irish Episcopal Church, 1615.’[33] Progressive biblical understanding does allow for emendations to received truth, although corrected with extreme caution. 

The final perseverance of the saints is grounded in God's unchangeable purpose of election. On this point Synod shared common ground with Augustine and Aquinas. 

The Impact of the Synod
The canons of Dort were fully endorsed by the Reformed Church in France.[34] In other Reformed Churches they were received with respect, but not clothed with proper symbolical authority. In England and Scotland, the canons of Dort had little effect, though for entirely different reasons: in England, non-acceptance[35] of the Calvinism of Dort took the form of a via media between the two representative theologies, ‘the "common ameliorating bond" which united older bishops like Buckeridge and Andrewes with new ones like Davenant and Carleton’.[36] The Puritans contention with Arminianism also involved ‘the alliance between the monarchy and the episcopate, between Stuart theories of government and Laudian principles of ecclesiastical discipline.’[37] Though of little influence, Dort ‘marked the beginning of a special relationship between Dutch and British Protestants which eventually culminated in the reign of William III of Orange as King of England. William secured a Protestant settlement of the Church which remains the basis of the constitution of the United Kingdom to this day.’[38] Increasing encroachment of Laudian arminianism caused Hall to lament:

Not many years after settling at home, it grieved my soul to see our own Church begin to sicken of the same disease, which we had endeavoured to cure in our neighbours.[39]


Dort’s influence upon Scotland was minimal and indirect; it merely confirmed her Calvinism since in ‘Jacobean and Caroline Scotland there was little Arminianism to be found, whether in its Remonstrant or Laudian versions. Nevertheless, the representation of this teaching by a few Scottish divines, its more strenuous advocacy in England, and reports of its spread in Europe unnerved those who would lead the covenanting movement after 1638.’[40] The literature of the day[41] revealed how the vigilance of the Scots in the 1640's mirrored the Dutch conflict of the 1610[42] resulting in numerous pamphlets to ‘nippe in the bud’[43] the Pyrrhonian[44] heresy. This is collaborated by the swift removal of ministers if they held to ‘poynts smelling of Arminianism’[45] and Baillie’s preoccupation[46]:


Even at this early date (1634) Baillie showed the interest that was to engage him throughout his life, namely, his opposition to any introduction of popery, Arminianism, congregationalism and Independency in the Scotch Reformed church[47] 


Conclusion
Dort illustrates how the church must not vacillate when truth is compromised. The Remonstrants’ prestidigitation in formulating their theology of predestination and their meretricious arguments about the merit of man’s contribution to his own salvation are an attack on the certitude of truth: ‘part of the seventeenth century Pyrrhonian crisis, whether truth can be known, and if so, in what measure.’[48] A wedge had to be driven between the left-winged, liberal segment of the Dutch church, the rekkelijken and the conservative, strict-Calvinists, the preciezen. Without Dort, both sides would have been tolerated and the reformed stance left the weaker. 

The theological door must never be left ajar or a wind of change will clamour to blow it wider, since declension begins ‘from Calvinism to Arminianism, and from Arminianism to Modernism or Unitarianism.’[49]  There can be no via media with truth, ‘no consistent middle ground between Calvinism and Atheism’ [50] though many still foolishly hope.[51] 



BIBLIOGRAPHY
BOOKS

J Arminius, The Works of James Arminius, D. D. (Auburn and Buffalo, 1853), Vol. I and II
G C Berkouwer, Divine Election, (Grand Rapids, 1960)
L Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Michigan, 1932)
C Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, DD, [tr. John Guthrie], (London, 1956) 
G Bray (ed), Documents of the English Reformation, (Cambridge, 1994)
R L Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, (Edinburgh, 1967) Vol. 2
P. Y. de Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in commemoration of the great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Grand Rapids, 1968)
J Hales, Works of the Ever-Memorable John Hales, (Glasgow, 1765), Vol. I  
J Hall, Works, (Oxford, 1863), Vol. I
C Hodge, Commentary on 1 Corinthians , (Edinburgh, 1959)
K W. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1932-1940) 
J Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, 1982) 
W Laud, Works, (Oxford, 1862), Vol. VI, Part 2
F N Lee, The Sixth Point Of Calvinism: Eschato-Ethics (2003) The Historicism Research Foundation, Inc.
F N McCoy, Robert Baillie and the Second Scots Reformation, (Berkeley, 1974)
S Miller, Manuel of Presbytery, (Edinburgh, 21848)
M Muslow and J Rohls (eds), Socinianism and Arminianism: Antitrinitarians, Calvinists, and Cultural Exchange in Seventh-Century Europe, (Leiden, 2005)
C G Olson Getting the Gospel Right: A Balanced View of Calvinism and Arminianism, (New Jersey, 2005)
A Peterkin, Records of the Kirk of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1838)
J Row, History of the Kirk of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1842)
P Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, (New York, 21892)
L Stephen and S Lee (eds), Dictionary of National Biography, (New York, 1890). Vol. 24
N Tyacke, Aspects of English Protestantism, c.1530-1700 (Manchester, 2001) 
J Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1888) 
B B Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, (Philadelphia, 1915)

JOURNALS
C Bangs, (1961) Arminius and the Reformation. Church History, (30), 2,155-170 
G Davies, (1934), Arminian versus Puritan in England, circa 1620 -1640, The Huntington Library Bulletin, (5) 157-179
H D Foster, (1923), Liberal Calvinism: The Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort in 1618, The Harvard Theological Review, (16),1, 1-37
D G Mullan (1997), Masked Popery and Pyrrhonian Uncertainty: The Early Scottish Covenanters on Arminianism, Journal of Religious History, (21), 2, 159–177 
J Murray, (1936), The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes, The Presbyterian Guardian, (1)10; (1)12 
W B Patterson, (1972), James I and the Huguenot Synod of Tonneins of 1614 Harvard Theological Review (65),2,241-270
P White, (1983), Rise of Arminianism Reconsidered, Past and Present, (101), 34-54






[1] From the official website of the city: http://cms.dordrecht.nl/dordt?waxtrapp=htvrnDsHaKnPvBJWH
[2] Notably, the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.                      
[3] These include whether the assembly was ‘the best memorial . . . of the ignorance  ... and injustice’ (J Hales, Works of the Ever-Memorable John Hales, (Glasgow, 1765), Vol. I,  p. ix)  or was it ‘so like heaven.’? (Attributed to Bishop Hall, another of the British Delegates, quoted in S Miller, Manuel of Presbytery, (Edinburgh, 21848), p. 263) and was Hales (One of the British delegate) so impressed by the Remonstrants that he had to ‘bid John Calvin good-night’, or since ‘neither did he “say good-morning to Arminius” ’ ?( L Stephen and S Lee (eds), Dictionary of National Biography, (New York, 1890). Vol. 24, p.30 ) that this has more to do with etiquette than theology? 
[4] James I, was interested in religion as well as religious unity, (‘unity was the life of religion’), even to the extent of courting Rome. See opening paragraph of W B Patterson, (1972), James I and the Huguenot Synod of Tonneins of 1614 Harvard Theological Review 65(2),241-270: Less well-known is the fact that he was specifically interested in the cause of religious reunion and played a leading part in a movement to find a way to reconcile the different national churches of his day and thus significantly to reduce international tensions. His plans did not exclude the possibility of a rapprochement between the Churches of the Reformation and Rome...
[5] P White, (1983), Rise of Arminianism Reconsidered, Past and Present, (101),34-54, p.41
[6] The Reformed Churches in France, Switzerland, Germany, England, and Scotland took a deep interest in it, and sided, upon the whole, with the Calvinistic party; while the Lutheran Church sympathized to some extent with the Arminian.
[7] As it was in Calvin’s Geneva, so it was in Holland. The civil magistrates misinterpreted their role and thought they could have an executive role in the church. So whilst the controversy was purely theological in its nature, owing to the intimate connection of Church and State it became politically entangled.
[8] For a more comprehensive treatment, see L Praamsma, The Background of the Arminian Controversy, in Crisis in the Reformed Church (P Y De Jong, ed.)
[9] M Muslow and J Rohls (eds), Socinianism and Arminianism: Antitrinitarians, Calvinists, and Cultural Exchange in Seventh-Century Europe, (Leiden, 2005) p.3
[10] Francis Nigel Lee has translated the marginal notes of the Dordt Bible and termed it the Sixth Point of Calvinism. 
[11] There has been some debate about the ‘calvinism’ of Arminius. Did he accept the extreme supralapsarianism of  Beza and "with ears intent Arminius drank in his words; with eager assiduity he hung upon his lips; and with intense admiration he listened to his exposition (see C Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, DD, [tr. John Guthrie], (London, 1956), p. 20]) only to change his views later when assigned the task of refuting Koornheert's attack on Calvin and Beza?  There is evidence that he was never convinced of Beza’s views in the first place. See C Bangs, (1961) Arminius and the Reformation. Church History,30(2)155-170, p. 162: 
  What about the story, then, that Arminius was a disciple of Beza when he undertook pastoral duties in Amsterdam in 1588 and that he was accordingly honored with the commission to write a refutation of? It originates with a funeral oration delivered by Peter Bertius the Younger on the afternoon of Arminius's burial. It is unsupported by available collateral evidence. Arminius evidently accepted the assignment, but he never wrote the refutation. His publicized views soon revealed his objections to Beza, but he never in the extant writings mentions a theological crisis or refers to his al­leged former supralapsarian views. The story of the transition hangs on the solitary thread of the Bertius oration.
[12] P. Y. de Jong (ed.), Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in commemoration of the great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Grand Rapids, 1968), p. 54.
[13] This is generally the views of those sympathetic to the Arminians.  See C Bangs op. cit. p. 158: ‘Calvin did not gain ready concurrence or ultimate unanimity on predestination among those who accepted his leadership in other matters. It should be pointed out that the most consistent resistance to his predestination theory came from the Ger­man-speaking cantons’.
For a corresponding alternate view, see J Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray (Edinburgh, 1982) Calvin, Dort and Westminster on Predestination, p 205-215 
[14] P Schaff , History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, (New York, 21892), p. 490
[15] a later Remonstrant leader
[16] H D Foster, (1923), Liberal Calvinism: The Remonstrants at the Synod of Dort in 1618, The Harvard Theological Review, (16),1, 1-37, p.30
[17] J Murray, (1936), The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes, The Presbyterian Guardian, (1)10, p. 136
[18] For example, the ‘view of predestination condemned by the Synod of Dort, was not exactly what the Remonstrants declared to be their belief, but what was either put into their mouths or twisted from what they said, contrary to "plain gram­mar," as the Scotch delegate Balcanqual repeatedly noted in his letters’ or that ‘Synod condemned the doctrine of election "founded upon foreseen faith," although "foreseen" had not been used by the Remonstrants’. (See H D Foster, op.cit.,  p.15)
[19] J Arminius , The Works of James Arminius, D. D. (Auburn and Buffalo, 1853), I, p. 228.
[20] G C Berkouwer,  Divine Election, (Grand Rapids, 1960), p. 152
[21] J Murray, (1936), The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes, The Presbyterian Guardian, (1)10, p.164 
[22] See, for example, Westminster Confession of Faith,  Chapter 8:5 V: The Lord Jesus, by His perfect obedience, and sacrifice of Himself, which He through the eternal Spirit, once offered up unto God, has fully satisfied the justice of His Father; and purchased, not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of heaven, for those whom the Father has given unto Him.
[23]J Murray John, (1936), Presbyterian Guardian, (1)12, p. 201
[24] B B Warfield, The Plan of Salvation, (Philadelphia, 1915), p. 122
[25] Canons of Dort, Chapter II, Article 3: 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. 
[26] See J Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1888), p. 80: The phrase that Christ died sufficiently for all was not approved, because the “For” seemed to imply some reality of actual substitution.
[27] For further elaboration of the term ‘sufficient for all, efficient for the elect’, see R L Dabney, Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, (Edinburgh, 1967), Vol. 2, p.207,8; C Hodge C, Commentary on 1 Corinthians , (Edinburgh, 1959), p. 149
[28] Foster op. cit., p 22
[29] J Murray, (1936), The Reformed Faith and Modern Substitutes, The Presbyterian Guardian, (1)12, p.27
[30] Foster, ibid., p. 26
[31] J Hales,  Letters, quoted in Foster op. cit., p. 26
[32] J Arminius, The works of James Arminius, (London, 1828), Vol., 2, p. 726 : The opinion which denies " that true believers and re­generate persons are either capable of falling away or actually do fall away from the faith totally and finally," was never, from the very times of the apostles down to the present day, ac­counted by the church as a catholic doctrine. Neither has that which affirms the contrary ever been reckoned as a hereti­cal opinion ; nay, that which affirms it possible for believers to fall away from the faith, has always had more supporters in the church of Christ, than that which denies its possibility or its actually occurring.
[33] Foster op. cit., p. 23
[34] It was made binding upon the ministers at the Twenty-third National Synod, 1620 and the Twenty-fourth Synod, 1623.
[35] The impression of the English delegates were generally negative: there was Hales bidding goodnight to Calvin and Goad returning, disillusioned with Calvinism and a Laudian bishop stating that as ‘for the Synod of Dort, "our hope is that the Church of England will be well advised, and more than once over, before she admit a foreign synod, expecially of such a church as condemneth her discipline and manner of government, to say no more’. Laud, Works, (Oxford, 1862), Vol. 6, Part 2, p. 246 
[36] P White, op. cit., p. 44
[37] G Davies, ( 1934), Arminian versus Puritan in England, circa 1620 -1640, The Huntington Library Bulletin, (5) 157-179, p.159
[38] G Bray (ed.),  Documents of the English Reformation, (Cambridge, 1994), p. 453
[39] J Hall, Works, (Oxford, 1863), Vol. I, p. xliii
[40] D G Mullan (1997), Masked popery and Pyrrhonian Uncertainty: The early Scottish covenanters on Arminianism,  Journal of Religious History, (21), 2, 159–177 
[41] These include Rutherford’s Examen Arminianismi, (Utretch, 1668), Due Right of Presbyteries, (London,1644) 
? A Henderson’s The Reformation of the Church-Government in Scotland, (London, 1644).
[42] See also Wilbur K. Jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England (Cambridge, Mass., 1932-1940), II, 319-20.
[43] Arminianism was discussed at the 1638 General Assembly. This was the phrase used by Henderson the Moderator. See A Peterkin, Records of the Kirk of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1838), p. 156 - 9
[44] A favorite term for divines like Henderson and Baillie. 
[45] J Row, History of the Kirk of Scotland, (Edinburgh, 1842), p. 336
[46] He wrote a 128-page treatise: 'Ladensium Aὐτοκατάκρισις, the Canterbvrians self-conviction (1641) and A Scotch Antidote against the English Infection of Arminianism.
[47] F N McCoy, Robert Baillie and the Second Scots Reformation, (Berkeley, 1974), p. 25
[48] N Tyacke, Aspects of English Protestantism, c. 1530-1700 (Manchester, 201), p. 231  
[49] L Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Michigan, 1932),  p. 188
[50] ibid
[51] See C G Olson Getting the Gospel Right: A Balanced View of Calvinism and Arminianism, (New Jersey, 2005)