Canons Of Dort (27): The Reformed Distinguish Law And Gospel

One of the great underlying issues at the Synod was the very nature of the gospel.

The revisions of the Reformation theology, that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) proposed by the Remonstrants were fatal to the good news. They also rested on a hermeneutical foundation. Hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of texts. The study of biblical interpretation is, of course, biblical hermeneutics.

 

When we think of the Synod of Dort and their rulings (canons) against the Remonstrants (Arminians) we tend to think about the doctrine of sin or the doctrines of unconditional grace, election, and the like but there were structural, subterranean issues at stake. One of the great underlying issues at the Synod was the very nature of the gospel. Is the good news that God has elected conditions and made salvation possible for those who do their part? This was the message of the Remonstrants. It was a categorical rejection of the Protestant Reformation. This is how Bob Godfrey explains the Canons of Dort in his new commentary on the Canons of Dort, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort. (Here is an interview with Bob about this wonderful book).

The revisions of the Reformation theology, that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) proposed by the Remonstrants were fatal to the good news. They also rested on a hermeneutical foundation. Hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of texts. The study of biblical interpretation is, of course, biblical hermeneutics. The Reformation had a hermeneutic, i.e., a way of interpreting Scripture. It was in contrast to the medieval approach to Scripture whereby Scripture was understood to be entirely composed of law. The Old Testament was said to be the “old law,” and the New Testament was said to be “the new law.” When medieval theologians spoke of “the gospel,” they meant “the new law.”

By contrast, the Reformation theologians and churches came to understand Scripture to contain two distinct ways of speaking: the law and the gospel. In this way of reading Scripture, the law says: “do this and live.” The gospel says, “Christ has done for you.” This distinction was fundamental to the Reformation. The Remonstrants, however, were dissatisfied with this way of understanding Scripture—even though Arminius himself postured as a defender of the gospel, e.g., in his exposition of Romans 9. I have been arguing all along that the effect of the Remonstrant revisions was to put the Christian back under the covenant of works. They did this for the reason that moralists always do it, in order to produce more sanctity and good works.  History shows, however, that this approach has never worked. The spiritual and moral state of the pre-Reformation church was, according to most observers, deplorable.

Part of the Remonstrant program was to downplay the effects of the fall. We are sinful, they said, but not so sinful that we cannot cooperate with grace unto salvation. As part of that program they played up the potential of the law as revealed in nature and in Scripture. It was a Reformed commonplace that the natural law is substantially the moral law and it was the moral law that was revealed in the garden. That same law was expressed at Sinai and in the consciences of every person (see the resources below).

It is against the Remonstrant revisions of Reformed theology that we must understand Synod’s language about natural law. In the Modern period, there has developed a fairly strong animus against the very idea of natural revelation or natural law especially among those influenced by Karl Barth. The historic Christian doctrine of natural law has also been rejected by those influenced by the Christian Reconstruction movement and by the theonomic ethic.

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