The Significance of the Canons of Dort for Today: Concluding Observations
Now that we have come to the end of our journey through the Canons of Dort, it is time to draw some conclusions regarding their continued usefulness and importance for the Reformed churches today. This will enable us to tie up some remaining loose threads in the previous articles, and to underscore what has been one of my major theses throughout: Reformed believers need to rediscover and benefit from their rich confessional inheritance in the Canons of Dort. Though often neglected and misunderstood, as we have seen, this confession of faith has much to contribute to the life and ministry of the church.
The first observation concerns the unswervingly Biblical character of this confession of faith.
In the Westminster Confession of Faith, a Reformed confession that comes from a period of history and an ecclesiastical context in many ways different from that which occasioned the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619, there is a beautiful statement of the Reformed view of the supreme authority of the Word of God in determining the truth. Found in the first chapter, Article X, this statement declares that
The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in Scripture.
When the dispute over election arose in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the earliest debate focused upon Article XVI of the Belgic Confession. Does this article truly express the Scriptural teaching of God's sovereign, unconditional election of His people in Christ? Or, is it an un-Scriptural article of faith? When Arminius challenged the confession of election in the Reformed churches, his challenge required the Reformed churches to determine whether their confession was based upon the Word of God. The Reformed churches were confronted with a test case, in other words, as to whether they were willing to live by their own confession of the supreme authority of the Word of God.
It has been the burden of my argument in the preceding articles to demonstrate how, on each contested point of doctrine, the Canons admirably meet this test. Without swerving either to the left or to the right, the Canons consistently adhere to the line of Biblical truth.
Since the Scriptures teach that God elects His people to salvation by grace alone, and not upon the condition of foreseen faith and repentance, the Canons confess this truth. Since the Scriptures teach that some, though not all, are chosen, while others are passed by in God's electing purpose, the Canons affirm particular election as well as non-election. When the Arminians alleged that this would make God the Author of sin and unbelief, or undermine the serious call of the gospel, promising life and salvation to everyone who believes, the authors of the Canons steadfastly refused to draw this conclusion. Why? Because the Scriptures teach both particular election and a universal gospel summons. That the Scriptures teach both was enough; and so both found their echo in the affirmations of the Canons.
Similarly, since the Scriptures teach that Christ's work of atonement was provided on behalf of those whom the Father purposed to save and give to Him, the Canons resist the Arminian view that the universal summons of the gospel requires a universal atonement. And, since the Scriptures teach the preservation of the believer in the way of salvation and the urgent obligation to persevere in the way, the Canons likewise affirm both emphases with equal vigor.
Many more examples of the Scriptural faithfulness and balance of the Canons could be cited. What is remarkable is how the Canons consistently resist the temptation of rationalism. Rationalism, or the reliance upon human reason to competently determine and measure the truth without being submissive to the Scriptures, more than meets its match in this confession. Without attempting to delve into the mystery of God's electing purpose beyond the boundaries of Scriptural revelation, and without attempting to effect an easy resolution of Biblical emphases that may appear to us incapable of harmonization, the Canons follow the Scriptures wherever they lead, while refusing to go further than the Scriptures go. In so doing they are a model of the Reformation's commitment to sola Scriptura; by the standard of the Word of God alone we are to judge and determine what is true.
A One-Sided/Focused Confession?
A second observation regarding the Canons of Dort relates to what might be termed the one-sidedness or specific focus of this confession.
In a previous article, I referred to this feature of the Canons when I observed that they address one particular aspect of Scripture's teaching which was being contested among the Reformed churches of the Netherlands in the post-Reformation period. It was not the purpose of the authors of the Canons to provide a comprehensive statement of Scriptural teaching in the same fashion as a confession like the Belgic Confession or the Heidelberg Catechism. The focus of the dispute in the Netherlands was quite limited; it had to do with the confession of election, particularly whether this election was in any way founded upon the condition of faith in the gospel.
This historical occasion and limited focus of the dispute among the Reformed churches in the Netherlands are often forgotten by critics of the Canons when they charge them with narrowing the scope of the Reformed faith. It is simply unfair to compare the Canons directly with the broader and more wide-ranging confessions of the Reformation period, or to judge that they have inappropriately narrowed the focus of an earlier Reformed or Calvinistic "world and life view" by reducing the compass of the Reformed faith to what are sometimes termed the doctrines of grace. Such criticism neglects to appreciate the deliberate focus and acknowledged limitation of this confession of faith. The Canons were never intended to serve the churches as a substitute for the more full confession of faith provided in the other creeds. They were intended to supplement and clarify the Reformed faith, at precisely that critical point where this faith was being severely tested.
Perhaps this can be illustrated by considering a picture of a landscape scene that encompasses a wide panorama within its range of vision. Such a landscape could be surveyed or viewed in its broadest possible scope. However, it would be possible to fix one's attention or sight upon an object that, upon closer scrutiny, has a central place and prominence in the landscape. If one looks at the landscape comprehensively, this item might escape initial notice. However, if one examines the landscape more carefully, this otherwise unnoticed item comes into bold relief.
Something like this is true of the broad confession of faith, or world and life view that Reformed Christianity or Calvinism represents. Seen comprehensively, it covers a range of vision that cannot be limited to the Biblical teaching concerning election.1 It includes a perspective not only upon the life and ministry of the church, but also upon the vocation or calling of God's people to exercise a responsible stewardship of God's gifts, the civil order and task of the magistrate, the ordering of a just economy, an approach to Christian scholarship in the academy, and the like. The Reformed faith is as broad as the Biblical faith, comprising the whole of God's revelation of Himself in the creation of the world, the redemption of His people and the consummation of His kingdom.
The Canons represent what lies at the heart of the Reformed world and life view, namely, the sovereign initiative and grace of God in the restoration of a people to communion with Himself and to the glorification and service of His great name. But they do not encompass the whole of this world and life view. Consequently, when the Canons are evaluated, they should not be charged with restricting the compass of the Reformed faith too narrowly. They do not claim to set forth the whole of the Reformed faith. Nor do they claim to provide the answer to questions to which they are not addressed. They aim only to confess salvation by grace alone in terms of the Biblical teaching of election. With respect to this aim, they are on target.
A God-Centered Faith
Perhaps the single most important reason the Canons of Dort are not as popularly known or appreciated as they should be, has to do with their God-centeredness. Or, to state the matter negatively, because the Canons of Dort are anti-humanistic through and through, they do not find a congenial home in an age which has inherited an Enlightenment spirit which emphasizes man's autonomy and liberty.
It is not possible to underestimate the extent to which the spirit of the Enlightenment has made its inroads in Western culture and societies, and in the churches as well. This spirit chafes under the Biblical teaching that all men are constituted sinners in Adam, born and conceived in sin, worthy only of condemnation and death. The Biblical teaching that all men are wholly incapable of doing any saving good — spiritually blind to the truth of God's Word, spiritually enslaved to the dominion and principle of sin, spiritually dead in trespasses and sins — is regarded by many as an intolerable assault upon the dignity of man and his place under the sun.
Furthermore, it is regarded as sacrilege that man should not be free to determine his own destiny, to "pull himself up by his own bootstraps," and to forge for himself a future of his own making. If God should have any role to play in all this, it can only be that of a co-laborer or fellow-traveler, not that of the sovereign Creator and Lord of history who administers all things in accordance with His holy will (Ephesians 1:11). If credit is to be assigned, God will receive His due, but only if He is regarded as One who helps us along the way but leaves to us the initiative in beginning as well as finishing the course!
Sadly, this spirit also enjoys a warm reception within many churches. In an age of "consumer religion," which tailors the gospel to the tastes of the religious public, many of the Biblical notes sounded in the Canons of Dort are muted at best, wholly silenced at worst. In an age devoted to "church growth," not so much by the simple preaching of the Biblical gospel, calling sinners to true faith and genuine repentance, but to those methods which will attract a crowd and garner the most traffic, the sober emphases of the Canons do not appear particularly attractive. Won't the preaching of sin and grace be too threatening to many contemporary seekers? Won't the gospel summons to repentance put off more than it attracts? Won't the emphasis upon God's gracious provision for needy sinners through the atoning work of Christ and the working of the Spirit through the gospel tend to displace and diminish the religious desires and interests of many contemporary people?
I raise these questions to illustrate again how different is the emphasis and approach of the Canons to the proclamation of the gospel. According to the Canons, the chief end and fruit of all gospel preaching is the glorification of the living God, the Triune Creator and Redeemer. The first, middle, and last word of this confession of faith addresses the reality of the Triune God's gracious initiative, provision, application and preservation of His people in the way of salvation in Christ. This confession does not speak first of man and his aspirations for God, but of God and His free decision to choose a people whom He gives to Christ, His Son. This is a confession that speaks not of man's initiative and action, but of God's. It is a confession that begins and ends, celebrating the grandeur of God in His sovereign purposes and works, whether in the merciful election of His people or just condemnation of the sinful and unbelieving.
The "God of All Comfort"
In his second letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul blesses God by saying, "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort; who comforts us in all our affliction..." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In this blessing, the apostle describes the God and Father of our Lord Jesus as the "God of all comfort," as the One who encourages and sustains the believer in all circumstances.
A sympathetic reader of the Canons of Dort will notice that this too lies at the heart of this Reformed confession: only the Father who sovereignly elects His people in Christ, His Son, can provide the comfort, the solid joy and lasting treasure which sinners need. Were the believer to find his comfort in his own faith, in his own "choice" for God, in his own ability to continue to run the race with perseverance — what an empty comfort or consolation this would be! Believers who know themselves in the light of the Word of God have no desire to place their hope and prospect for salvation in their own hands. Much better to place their hope in the capable and faithful hands of God the Father who, for the sake of Christ, His Son, will permit nothing to snatch His people from His hands (John 10:28)!
Here it needs to be observed that the Canons' God-centeredness does not diminish their comfort. For the believer's true comfort resides not in himself but in His God! When our salvation is made to depend, even in the slightest measure, upon our own initiative and persistence in the course, it hangs not from the thinnest of threads but from nothing at all! Nothing could more certainly steal from the believer his hope and confidence, whether in this life or the life to come, than to rest upon or place his trust in his own resources, pluck or self-determination. The only solid comfort, by comparison, is to be found in God the Father's gracious election of His people, God the Son's perfect provision and atonement on their behalf and God the Spirit's calling them into and preserving them in fellowship with Christ through the gospel.
The God-centeredness and solid comfort of the Canons, then, are two sides of a single coin. Calvin was correct when he opened his Institutes by remarking that all Christian wisdom is comprised of the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves. The one always influences and shapes the other. What we believe concerning God has everything to do with what we know about ourselves. What we know about ourselves must derive from what we know of God. Consequently, when Reformed believers confess that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has loved His own with a perfect love from all eternity, they seek to live to the praise of His matchless grace, knowing that in Him they have the fullness of joy.
The authors of the Canons understood this correspondence between emphasizing God's sovereign grace and finding solid comfort in the gospel. They remind us of it in the words of their conclusion, a conclusion which is fitting for us as well.
May God's Son Jesus Christ, who sits at the right hand of God and gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth, lead to the truth those who err, silence the mouths of those who lay false accusations against sound teaching, and equip faithful ministers of his Word with a spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all they say may be to the glory of God and the building up of their hearers. Amen.