The Four-Hundred-Year Flower

Arminius, Dort, and the Battle for Grace

Because of my ethnic heritage and my Reformed upbringing, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Canons of Dort, even when many Christians — if they’ve even heard of Dort — have considered it an embarrassment of overwrought sovereignty and doctrinal hairsplitting. And yet, the Canons of Dort are not just for Dutch people, and they certainly cannot be reduced to antiquated theological fussiness.

 

I grew up in a cultural context that believed — mostly in jest, but not entirely so — that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”

We had wooden shoes on the fireplace, Delft blue in the kitchen, and Dutch plates hanging on the walls. My mom liked to ask two questions whenever I was interested in a girl: Is she Reformed? And is she Dutch? (I got the important one right.) Looking back, I don’t think there was ever a serious sense that being Dutch was better than being German or Irish or Mexican or Korean, but there was a strong sense of pride in who we were, where we had come from, and the Reformed tradition we inhabited.

The first of my family to emigrate to America was Teunis P. DeJong, who was born in Holland in 1839 and died in Edgerton, Minnesota, in 1925. The earliest ancestor that has been traced in my family tree is Pieter DeJong, who was born in Dordrecht in 1695 and married Neeltje Liesveld of neighboring Zwijndrecht on August 23, 1716. I’ve searched in vain for a record of any DeJongs who helped shape the Canons in 1618–19, but I’d like to think I had a great-great-great-whatever looking in on the action as the Synod of Dort debated and defended the exact nature of God’s free grace.

Because of my ethnic heritage and my Reformed upbringing, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Canons of Dort, even when many Christians — if they’ve even heard of Dort — have considered it an embarrassment of overwrought sovereignty and doctrinal hairsplitting. And yet, the Canons of Dort are not just for Dutch people, and they certainly cannot be reduced to antiquated theological fussiness. The doctrine defined and defended at Dort touches on the most important elements of who we are, how God works, and what Christ accomplished.

Flower Blooms in Holland

The Synod of Dort is a high-water mark of Calvinism, but it would never have taken place were it not for Arminianism.

Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) began his teaching career thoroughly Calvinistic. After studying for a time in Geneva (1582–87), Arminius moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church in the city. As a pastor, he was called upon to defend Calvinistic teaching against a man with one of those amazing Dutch names, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. In preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine against Coornhert, Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s teaching.

In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Francis Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination, but they differed over the meaning of the word. At the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God (Calvinism) or based on foreseen knowledge of belief (what would later be called Arminianism). Both men thought of themselves as Reformed, as Calvinists, but they were not saying the same thing.

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