An Introduction to the Canons of Dort
One of the great treasures of the Reformed churches is the confession of faith known as the Canons of Dort. Written in reply to the unbiblical teachings of Jacobus Arminius and the "Remonstrants," this confession beautifully sets forth the teaching of the Word of God that believers are saved by grace alone, from first to last. According to the Canons of Dort, salvation — from its conception in the eternal counsel of God the Father, to its provision in the person and work of God the Son (the Mediator), to its application by God the Holy Spirit through the gospel — is sovereignly authored and accomplished by the Triune God. Following the example of the apostle Paul, the Canons of Dort give praise to God alone for the election of His people unto salvation — "For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen" (Romans 11:36).
Though many Reformed Christians in our day are still familiar with the Canons of Dort, this confession is not nearly as well known as it should be. Even among Reformed believers there are many who are either uninformed or misinformed about the Canons' summary of the Biblical teaching of election. Sadly, though often unread and unstudied, the Canons are frequently caricatured and misrepresented by those unwilling to submit to the Scriptural teaching they summarize. Since so much of contemporary "evangelicalism" in North America subscribes to a basically "Arminian" view of salvation, there are many "Reformed" believers whose understanding of the doctrine of salvation has been compromised or distorted by Arminian views.
Moreover, among the "mainline" Protestant denominations there is open embarrassment over many aspects of Biblical teaching, and especially over the doctrine of predestination. A recent statement, for example, of a theological commission of representatives of five such mainline churches, concluded: "Rather than being divided over the doctrine, both sides seem to be united in an equally lukewarm endorsement of an equal embarrassment over any form of predestinarian teaching as part of their theological commitment." 1This statement well reflects the general approach within mainline Protestantism on the subject of predestination and election: the subject is either unknown or the object of "benign neglect" or even embarrassment.
Consequently, there is a pressing need today for Reformed Christians to reacquaint themselves with the Canons of Dort. I will briefly sketch in this article the background and history that led up to the meeting of the Synod of Dort in 1618-19. Only in this way is it possible to appreciate fully the positive, Biblical affirmations of the Canons and the errors which the Reformed fathers rejected at this Synod.
The Historical Occasion for the Synod of Dort
Though a complete recounting of the history that preceded the calling of a synod of the Reformed churches at Dordtrecht, the Netherlands, in 1618 would require more attention than we can give it here, there are some aspects of the history prior to this synod which are of special importance.
Not long after the Reformed faith took root and prospered in the Netherlands in the middle of the sixteenth century (c. 1544), a serious controversy arose concerning the preaching and teaching of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). Arminius, a brilliant student of Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor in Geneva, Switzerland, initiated the controversy by preaching a series of sermons on Paul's epistle to the Romans. In these sermons Arminius proposed a number of controversial points: that death would have been inevitable, even were Adam to have remained obedient; that Romans 7 is a description of Paul in his unregenerate state; that man retains, even after the Fall, a free will by which to obey or disobey the demands of the gospel; and that the civil government has authority over the church.2
However, the most important aspect of Arminius' position became evident in his attack upon the Reformed doctrine of predestination. Arminius betrayed his position, when he expressed serious reservations concerning Article 16 of the Belgic Confession. This Article, entitled "Eternal Election," briefly summarized the Biblical teaching of unconditional election:
We believe that, all the posterity of Adam being thus fallen into perdition and ruin by the sin of our first parents, God then did manifest Himself such as He is; that is to say, merciful and just: merciful, since He delivers and preserves from this perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel of mere goodness has elected in Christ Jesus our Lord, without any respect to their works; just, in leaving others in the fall and perdition wherein they have involved themselves.
Against this article's insistence upon unconditional election, Arminius argued that election unto salvation is based upon the divine foreknowledge of faith; God elected to save His people, not sovereignly and graciously, but on the condition of foreseen faith.
Arminius' preaching and teaching became the eye of a subsequent storm of controversy which was provoked among the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. During this period the churches were racked with controversy and two "parties" emerged, a party favoring the position of Arminius and a party opposed to his position. Two important events also occurred, preparing the way for the calling of the Synod of Dort in 1618.
After Arminius' death in 1609, the Arminian party in the Dutch Reformed churches prepared a summary statement of their position. On January 14, 1610, more than forty representatives who championed Arminius' views gathered in Gouda. These representatives drew up a "Remonstrance" or petition in which their case was set forth and defended. After complaining that their cause had been misrepresented by their opponents and arguing that the state had authority over the affairs of the church, this "Remonstrance" presented the Arminian position in a series of five articles.3 It was the hope of the Remonstrants that this statement would be presented for approval by the civil authorities, thereby answering the charge that their doctrine was in conflict with Scripture and the Reformed confessions. 4
Shortly after this Remonstrance was prepared, the States of Holland made arrangements for a meeting between representatives of the Arminian or Remonstrant and the anti-Arminian parties. This meeting took place from March 10, 1611, until May 20, 1611, and was the occasion for the preparation of a reply to the Remonstrance of the Arminians. This reply of the Reformed or Calvinist defenders of the faith was termed the Counter Remonstrance of 1611. In this reply the main lines of the later, more expansive statement of the Canons of Dort were anticipated.
Finally, when the debate between Arminian/Remonstrant and anti-Arminian/Counter Remonstrant showed no signs of abating in the Netherlands, the States-General of the Republic of the Netherlands finally called a national synod to settle the dispute. The express purpose of this synod, to be held in 1618 in Dordtrecht, was to judge whether the position of the Remonstrants was in harmony with the Word of God and the Reformed Confessions, particularly Article XVI of the Belgic Confession. Though officially a synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, the synod had in addition twenty-six delegates from eight foreign countries.
On the basis of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five articles of the Remonstrants to be contrary to the Word of God and the confession of the Reformed churches. Against the Arminian teachings of election based on foreseen faith, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace, the Canons set forth the Reformed teachings of unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. In form, the Canons were structured to answer to the five points of the Remonstrance. On each major head of doctrine, the Canons first present a positive statement of the Scriptural teaching, and then conclude with a rejection of the corresponding Arminian error.
The Teaching of Arminius and the Remonstrants
From this brief sketch of the history leading up to the calling of the Synod of Dort in 1618, it becomes apparent that the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, indeed the Reformed churches internationally, faced at this time their greatest crisis since the early days of the Reformation. At stake was the Reformed confession of the sovereign grace of God in salvation.
To appreciate the nature and extent of this crisis, a summary of the distinctives of the Arminian or Remonstrant doctrine of grace is required. In summarizing the Arminian teaching, I will follow the pattern of "five articles" established by the Arminians in 1610.
The First Article: Conditional Election
The first and perhaps most important article of the Arminian/Remonstrant position affirms the teaching of "conditional" election. According to the Arminian position, God elected before the foundation of the world to save those whom He foresaw would respond to the gospel call. Election therefore was determined by or conditioned upon what man would do with the gospel. God does not "give" faith to the elect whom He is pleased to save. Rather, God "foresees" those who will believe and repent of their own free will at the preaching of the gospel and chooses to save them upon the basis of this foreseen faith. Election is, therefore, neither sovereign nor unmerited in the strict sense of these terms. Similarly, those whom God "reprobates" or chooses not to save, He reprobates upon the basis of foreseen unbelief. Hence, sinful man's choice to believe in Christ, not God's choice to give the sinner to Christ, becomes the ultimate cause of the salvation of the believer.
The Second Article: Universal Atonement
In the second article of the Arminian/Remonstrant position, it is said that Christ "died for all men and for every man," although only those who believe in Him as He is presented in the gospel will be saved. The atoning work of Christ made it possible for everyone to be saved, without actually securing the salvation of anyone. By virtue of Christ's atoning work, it becomes possible for God to forgive sinners on the condition that they believe. But Christ's atoning work does not actually "remove" anyone's sins or provide salvation for a particular people, namely, those whom the Father would give to Him or for whom He offered Himself a sacrifice. Christ's work of atonement makes salvation possible and available to all men without distinction, but without the certainty of having atoned for anyone in particular.
Third Article: Partial Depravity
Consistent with the Arminian insistence that election is based upon foreseen faith, and that Christ's atoning work becomes effective only through the free choice of some to believe the gospel, the Arminian/Remonstrant position teaches that sinful man is only partially depraved. While admitting that human nature has been seriously affected by the fall, the Arminian position insists that fallen human nature is not in a state of total spiritual helplessness. There is a general or common gracious working of God in the hearts of sinful men, short of granting salvation, which enables them to repent and believe. This enabling grace permits all men to cooperate or not cooperate with the gospel call to faith and repentance.5 The sinner retains a free will and his eternal destiny depends upon the way he uses it. Though the lost sinner needs the Holy Spirit's assistance, he does not need to be regenerated by the Spirit before he can believe. Indeed, the new birth is preceded by man's act of faith; it is not the source of faith. Faith is man's contribution, his "good work" or accomplishment, which comes before the work of the Spirit in regeneration.
Fourth Article: Resistible Grace
In the fourth article the Arminian party taught that the Holy Spirit calls inwardly all who are called through the gospel. The Holy Spirit does all He is able to bring every sinner to salvation, but this working of the Spirit may be successfully resisted. Because man is free and faith must precede and make possible the new birth, the Spirit cannot regenerate the sinner until he believes. Accordingly, the application by the Spirit of Christ's work to the sinner is limited and defined by the sinner's willingness to cooperate. The Holy Spirit can only draw through the gospel those who allow Him to have His way. God's grace is not irresistible, but resistible; it is not invincible, but vincible.
Fifth Article: Perseverance of the Saints?
The last article of the Arminian party is addressed to the question whether believers are preserved in the state of grace by the Spirit. Here the Arminian/Remonstrant position remained uncertain. Some taught that it was possible for those who believe and are saved to be lost subsequently, should they fail to persevere in faith and obedience. Others taught that believers are eternally secure in Christ, that once a believer was regenerated he could no longer be lost. 6
The Gospel at Stake, Then and Now
The Canons of Dort, though addressed to the particular teachings of Arminius in the historical setting of the debate in the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, continue to express the living faith of Reformed churches to this day. Nothing less than the heart of the gospel was at stake then. Nothing less than the heart of the gospel remains just as much at stake today. In whatever "dress" or "style" it may present itself, the Arminian teaching remains a constant threat and temptation to the churches' confession of salvation by grace alone. Consequently, the Canons of Dort continue to be needed as an answer and protection against this threat.
Two great themes of the gospel were threatened by the Arminian teaching. The first theme is the singular honor and glory of God in the salvation of His people. The Arminian doctrine of salvation always divides between God and the sinner what belongs solely to God! Rather than testifying to and defending the Biblical teaching that our salvation is wholly of grace, the Arminian teaching ascribes to the sinner a part, indeed the decisive part, in saving himself. 7
But this compromising of the sovereign grace of God comes at a very high price. For it effectively undermines a second theme of the gospel, namely, the believers' assurance and security in the invincible grace of God! Because Arminian teaching places salvation in the hands of the lost sinner, it is unable to affirm that God's saving purpose for His own will be infallibly accomplished. If salvation depends upon the free choice of the sinner (and a free choice in which the sinner must himself persevere), if it is not sovereignly designed, graciously secured, and irresistibly applied by God Himself, then the sinner's salvation hangs by the weakest of threads!
The framers of the Canons of Dort understood this. Therefore, they bequeathed to the Reformed churches the treasure of this confession. May Reformed believers today prove to understand it as well, cherishing this confession as a landmark of their inheritance in the faith.