Today, when we consider the extent of the atonement, we should remember that the Synod of Dort wrote a biblically-saturated and pastorally-useful statement that stands above anything written in the last four centuries. Rather than stressing what Christ did not accomplish in a limited atonement, the second canon of Dort edifies the believer as it recites the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit work as one to save a particular people in redemptive history.
“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”
So begins C.S. Lewis’s preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria. In his essay, Lewis chastises modern readers for their obsession with novelty. He rightly calls for the reading of old books. And in his own, witty way Lewis presents the ancient words of Athanasius as an antidote to modern errors.
The Need for Depth
Though his words introduce Athanasius’s argument for Christ’s deity, I would suggest they could also apply to the Synod of Dort, which corrected the errors of Arminius. In our day, Reformed soteriology—a view of salvation that begins and ends with God’s grace—has been made widely available. With such ubiquity, however, comes the danger of theological superficiality. While Calvinists can tweet truth in 240 characters, our theology must go beyond slogans and hashtags. We need something older, something wiser, something more like the Canons of Dort.
Convened for six months in 1618–19, the Synod of Dort responded to the five points of the Remonstrants released in 1610. As disciples of Jacob Arminius, these “Arminians” argued for (1) conditional election, (2) universal atonement, (3) the corrupted state of sinful man, (4) resistible grace, and (5) eternal insecurity. Historically, the Remonstrants originated the five point debate. The Synod of Dort responded in kind and produced a thorough confession, which after three centuries led to the well-known moniker—TULIP.
Standing for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints, these five points abbreviate—and obscure—the Canons of Dort. And as a result of this (mis)translation, I wonder how many modern Calvinists and defenders of the TULIP know what the Synod of Dort is or what the Canons of Dort are?
Thankfully, there are denominations and confessional organizations who have faithfully propagated this historical confession. But in our ahistorical world, there are others who argue for the five-points of Calvinism, or four-points or three. The denial of one or more petals on the TULIP indicates by itself how the doctrinal points of Calvinism have been lifted from their historical (not to mention biblical) source. In our day when confessions find less prominence, Calvinism has spread biblical truth, but at what cost?
In this article, I will argue for recovering the Canons of Dort in general and the second head of doctrine (“Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men thereby”) in particular. By considering Dort’s response to universal atonement, I will show how the second canon is a reliable and pastoral guide for answering questions about the atonement’s extent, one that is far better than its crude approximation (“Limited Atonement”). Indeed, Dort’s sixteen-point article on the death of Christ is anything but a singular argument for limiting the atonement. It is a biblically-saturated, theologically-balanced, missions-minded manifesto which sets the cross in the doctrine of the Trinity and God’s eternal purposes for salvation. For this reason, we need to learn this ancient confession and see how it may still apply today.
A Fulsome Doctrine of Christ’s Death
When the Synod of Dort presented its view of the atonement, it did so with nine articles of doctrine and seven rejections of error (RE). As Daniel Hyde has organized these statements, seven explicate “common Christian convictions” (Arts. 1–7), seven define the nature and extent of the atonement (Art. 8 and RE 1–5, 7), and two elaborate Christ’s satisfaction for sin (Art. 9; RE 6). Rather than being a narrowly focused statement on the “L”, the second canon presented a fulsome doctrine of the atonement. In keeping with the “general pattern” of each doctrinal head, the second canon began “with positive articles presenting the Reformed theology and concludes with rejections of errors refuting specific Arminian teaching.” Likewise, the second canon established the “commonly accepted” Christian doctrine of the cross before presenting the Reformed view of the cross.
This means, before a reader gets to the question of the atonement’s extent, he has already heard about the character of God, the sufficiency of Christ, the universal proclamation of the gospel, and the necessity of faith. Wisely, Dort introduces the reader to extent of the atonement after the nature of the atonement. Winsomely, it orders the doctrine so that definite atonement is seen as the necessary result of God’s justice and Christ’s sufficient sacrifice, all the while upholding the need to preach the gospel to all people. To see this, we will follow the original order.