The Canons Of Dort (1): Introduction And Background

The Canons were never intended to be anything like a complete statement of the Reformed faith.

The Cannons of Dort were the product of ecclesiastical deliberation on the attempt by some within the Reformed church in the Netherlands fundamentally to revise our doctrine of salvation. The Canons do not speak to many other topics in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Further, what the churches were defending was the Word of God as confessed by the churches, not the formulations of a single pastor, however significant and influential, in Geneva.

 

Introduction

Few of our Reformed confessional documents are as valuable and yet as neglected as the Canons of Dort. Today most who know about them think of them as the so-called and quite misleading “Five Points of Calvinism” or TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Strangely, for many, especially those in the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, the “Five Points” have become the be all and end all of “Reformed theology.” The truth is that there is much more to Reformed theology than the five points. Indeed, it is anachronistic and reductionist to call them the “Five Points of Calvinism.” It is anachronistic because Calvin had been dead for 54 years when the Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands. It is reductionist because the Canons were never intended to be anything like a complete statement of the Reformed faith. They were the product of ecclesiastical deliberation on the attempt by some within the Reformed church in the Netherlands fundamentally to revise our doctrine of salvation. The Canons do not speak to many other topics in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Further, what the churches were defending was the Word of God as confessed by the churches, not the formulations of a single pastor, however significant and influential, in Geneva. “Calvinism” was a nickname given to Reformed theology by its Lutheran critics. The Reformed churches and theologians described themselves as Reformed. The widespread use of “Calvinist” is a modern phenomenon.

Indeed, as Richard Muller has noted for years, even the acrostic TULIP is misleading. It does not accurately reflect the order of the doctrines addressed in the Canons, which would be: ULTIP. In The “Five Points” are not five distinct points because of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine form one point, as it were.

The only reason the Synod issued five points is because Remonstrants (i.e., the Protesters) published their Remonstrance in five points, in 1610, about a year after the death of Jacob Harmenzoon (Latin, Arminius), the leader of the movement, in 1609. The Reformed five points were only and ever intended to be a specific, point-by-point response to the five points formulated by the Remonstrants (i.e., the Arminians).

Background

canon is a rule. So, the Canons of the Synod of Dort are the rulings of the Synod in response to the Arminian objections. The issues, however, did not arise in 1609, with the death of Arminius. Indeed, there were precursors to Arminius in the British Isles but it was a minister in the Reformed churches, Arminius, who began to formulate revisions to Reformed theology. There was little about young Jacob that would have signaled his dissatisfaction with the Protestant Reformation. As a theological student in Geneva, he studied under Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Born in 1560, in Utrecht, he grew up in the Reformed church. His mother was martyred by the papists when Arminius was 15. He was a student in the famous university of Leiden, where the theology faculty was Reformed.1 From there he studied in Geneva with Beza, who gave him a letter of recommendation when he finished. There has been speculation that he disagreed with Beza over philosophical and logical method. Arminius was committed to Ramism and Beza was more traditional but one of Beza’s friends and students, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), was also a Ramist in method as were a number of orthodox Reformed theologians in the period. Arminius’ student disputation gives us no evidence of any dissatisfaction with the Reformed confession. He used Geneva as home base from which he made study trips the a variety of famous schools to study with scholars from a variety of backgrounds. It seems likely that these trips combined with some of his contacts while he was in Leiden, e.g., Caspar Koohaas (1536–1615). The latter was Reformed minister in Leiden who was later disciplined by the Reformed churches for refusing to subscribe the Belgic Confession. Whether he was influenced by Romanist theologians during his tour of Italy has been disputed but there is some evidence for it in the texts that he assigned when he began teaching in the theology faculty in Leiden and in his writings.

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