Canons Of Dort Day 2018: Their Churchly Context

We subscribe the Reformed confessions, which themselves are merely an ecclesiastical summary of the most important points of theology, piety, and practice out of God’s Word.

Today is the 399th anniversary of the publication of the Canons of Dort. The word canons means “rules” or “rulings” of the Synod. These are what people commonly (but incorrectly) call “the Five Points of Calvinism.” First, Calvinism was a nickname given to us. The Reformed Churches do not call themselves by Calvin’s name. We designate ourselves by our theology, piety, and practice (Reformed) or by our polity (Presbyterian) but not by Calvin’s name. 

 

The “New Calvinists” and the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement has brought new interest in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. In the last 15 years Mark Driscoll and John Piper have been the gateway for many to find and join Reformed congregations. I spent an hour yesterday with just such a fellow. He was in a Calvary Chapel congregation. He discovered Driscoll, Piper, et al. and from there he found the White Horse Inn and from there he found his current congregation (Christ URC in Santee, CA). That is a happy journey. That is the way the story should end but it does not always end there. American evangelicalism is organized around personalities more than theology, piety, and practice. Just as Romanists place implicit faith in the Bishop of Rome and the councils of the church, many American Christians place implicit trust in celebrity preachers. In Driscoll’s case, he confessed to abusing the flock in Seattle so badly that the whole multi-campus organization was disbanded and he was removed from ministry. True to form, however, he has re-emerged as leader of a religious enterprise—the traditional Reformed category would be sect—in wealthy Scottsdale, AZ. Personality über alles. Meanwhile, Piper has signaled his fundamental disagreement with the basics of the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone (sola fide). The YRR movement has gathered some tarnish and dents.

Today is the 399th anniversary of the publication of the Canons of Dort. The word canons means “rules” or “rulings” of the Synod. These are what people commonly (but incorrectly) call “the Five Points of Calvinism.” First, Calvinism was a nickname given to us. The Reformed Churches do not call themselves by Calvin’s name. We designate ourselves by our theology, piety, and practice (Reformed) or by our polity (Presbyterian) but not by Calvin’s name. He is an honored voice in the history of our churches but he is not (contrary to popular opinion) the beginning and end of our theology, piety, and practice. We might even call him first among equals (primus inter pares) but we do not subscribe Calvin’s works. We subscribe (lit. “to write one’s name underneath”) the Reformed confessions, which themselves are merely an ecclesiastical summary of the most important points of theology, piety, and practice out of God’s Word. In other words, the confessions and catechisms work for Scripture not the other way round.

The Reformed theology, piety, and practice cannot be reduced to five points. Those five points were the response by the Reformed churches across Europe and the British Isles to a particular (severe) challenge, in a particular context. They are an interpretation of Scripture and the confessions regarding the objections (Remonstrance) made by some ministers and politicians who had adopted some very serious errors in theology and biblical interpretation. The Canons are part of the “Three Forms of Unity” (with the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism) but they hardly the be all and end all of Reformed theology. Treating the Canons and the summary of the whole faith is like treating a repair manual as the sum of world literature. That would be a mistake.

The Canons are wonderfully pastoral, clear, and concise. In them the Synod responded biblically and thoughtfully, during a very difficult time, when the freedom of the Netherlands was in jeopardy, to some subtle but devastating errors. When we talk about the Canons we often omit the word synod. The rules or canons were the product of a synod, an ecclesiastical body. The Canons were not the product of a conference or a para-ecclesiastical gathering but a gathering of ministers and elders (with some political delegates). We cannot properly understand the Canons without remembering the ecclesiastical context. The Dutch Reformed Church met to do business before the external (foreign) delegates arrived from England, the German electorate, and the Swiss Cantons. They met to do business after the external delegates left. The delegates were sent by (state-)churches. This was not a private meeting of Reformed “thought leaders” selected by other “thought leaders” to meet in secret to solve a problem. This was a public assembly to deal with a problem that all the Reformed churches across the Western world (that then was) saw and felt.

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