LESSON 3: THE SYNOD OF DORT
BIBLE READING: Ephesians 1
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In 1571 there was already a Reformed church synod convening in the Netherlands. Many were to follow. The most famous synod was the great Synod of Dort 1618-1619. This was an international reformed synod, such as has never been held before that time and never since.
THE ARMINIAN HERESY
The main reason for the convening of this Synod of Dort was that the young Reformed churches had to be protected from heresies that were creeping in. This concerned especially the Arminian heresies.
“Arminians” are the followers of a man called Jacob Arminius. His actual name was Jacob Harmenszoon, but, as the fashion of those days was to change names into Latin, his name became Jacobus Arminius. He lived from 1560 till 1609. He was first a minister in the Reformed church but became later on a professor in theology. He denied the Biblical doctrine of election and maintained the free will of man.
Many people followed the teachings of Arminius. In 1609 Arminius died. His followers continued to propagate his ideas and in 1610 they published a “remonstrance”, which is a declaration of their beliefs.
The five teachings of Arminianism are as follows:
- Conditional Election. Election is based upon the foreknowledge of God concerning our faith and good works. God knew who would believe and who would do good: They are the elected ones. Election in their opinion, is actually based upon what man chooses and what man does.
- Universal atonement. God intends the atonement to be for the whole of mankind. That is His plan and His decree. Those who actually believe shall be partakers of this atonement.
- Free will. By means of natural strength, man after the fall is capable by his free will of exercising saving faith in Christ.
- Resistible grace. Saving grace can be resisted by man in spite of God’s power.
- Falling away of saints. It is possible that the saints do not persevere, but fall back into the state of unbelief and perish.
AN INTERNATIONAL SYNOD
These doctrines caused confusion within the Reformed churches. A controversy arose which had its influence throughout the international reformed community. There were problems within the Reformed churches. Eventually a synod was convened by the Dutch national parliament, to be held in the Dutch city of Dordrecht in the year 1618. Delegates came from the Netherlands but also from various German countries as well as England, Scotland and Switzerland. The synod also received letters from the French Reformed churches. The delegates from France could not be there because the French king refused to give them passports to be able to leave the country. Various professors of theology were also among the delegates. The language spoken at the synod was Latin. The Dutch parliament paid all the expenses.
All the delegates had to vow that they would teach only that which is in agreement to the Word of God. The Arminians were also present but not as delegates. They were the accused party. The Arminians had to defend their remonstrance and present the objections they had against the Heidelberg Catechism, which they refused to do. The Arminians did not want to be present at the synod as an accused party. They just wanted to discuss matters and then let every one go home again. As the Arminians kept on arguing about the procedures the moderator of the Synod, John Bogerman declared to them: “You started with lies and now again you have come with lies. You are dismissed, leave, leave.”
In this way the Arminians were expelled from the synodical meetings. Then the delegates could finally get down to study the official documents of the Arminians and to show from the Word of God why and how they were unbiblical. The outcome is what we now know as the Canons of Dort.
THE CANONS OF DORT
The word “canon” means a rule of doctrine. The Canons of Dort are the official church doctrine opposing the false teachings of Arminianism. The biblical teachings of the Canons of Dort can be summarized in five points. It is beneficial to know the contents of these “Five Points of Calvinism”. They convey to us the true biblical teaching concerning:
- Total depravity of man
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
The first letters of these points form the word “TULIP”. This word “tulip” is the acrostic commonly used to designate these five teachings of Calvinism.
What was at stake at the Synod of Dort: Nothing less than the salvation of man, the comfort of the Gospel, the joy and the assurance of faith and above all the honour of God. That is something the fathers at Dort clearly saw. That is why the Synod of Dort did not give in one inch to the ideas of Arminianism.
At the heart of this controversy was the doctrine of total depravity. This doctrine of the total depravity of man is still denied by Arminians and also by many liberal-minded churches. The Arminians view man as still able to cooperate with God. But the Canons see man as totally lost, cleaving to sin and unwilling to break with sin. Man is on his way to hell, yet there is salvation only through God. The Canons of Dort underline the full and total depravity of man and then open up a way of salvation in the one sided work of the Triune God.
For the Arminians, election is a horror but for the Reformed, election is a great comfort. The offer of salvation and life comes to all. What a comfort that a poor and lost sinner, who can do nothing, may be told that there is a God Who can save and Who is willing to save and that the sinner, who cannot save himself, does not have to save himself, for there is One Who works a full salvation!
This call to salvation comes to all who are gathered in church. The Lord tells you, while you are still unconverted and cannot save yourself, that there is salvation outside of yourself in the full and finished work of Christ on the cross and in the perfect and fully applying and saving work of the Holy Spirit. We are urged to seek Him and we shall live.
After the great Synod of Dort, those ministers in the churches of the Reformation, who adhered to Arminianism were called to deny these teachings or else they would be dismissed from their offices. Thus the protestant church became established as reformed in her doctrines.
OTHER DECISIONS OF DORT
An additional reason for organizing the great Synod of Dort 1618-1619 was that the young Reformed Church had to be further organized and firmly established in its formal life.
Therefore certain decisions were made:
- The liturgy for worship services, as we still conduct them was adopted: Votum, Salutation, Reading of the Law, (in the afternoons the Apostle’s Creed), singing of Psalms, the use of Liturgical Forms, etc.
- A better Bible translation was called for, which was published in 1637 as the official Dutch State translation (“Staten Vertaling”).
- The three creeds of the Reformed churches were officially adopted: These were the Heidelberg Catechism, the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession of Faith. Every Sunday afternoon the ministers had to preach from the Heidelberg Catechism. School children had to learn the questions and answers by heart.
REFORMED PILGRIMS IN AMERICA
Now the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands were firmly established. The Reformed faith became the official religion in the Netherlands. Many protestants throughout the whole of Europe fled to the Netherlands. Many book printers in the Netherlands printed numerous good theological books in Dutch, French, Hungarian, Latin and English. Many books were exported to other countries. English Puritans fled to Holland to escape persecution, but from there many also emigrated to North America where they founded the New England states of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey etc.
From the 1620’s and onward many Dutch people emigrated to the North American colonies which we now know as New Jersey and New York. They started the denomination which today is still known as the Reformed Church of America. The city of New York used to be called New Amsterdam. Many names in New York City still remind us of the Dutch background of early immigrants, eg. the name Harlem is the name of a large Dutch city. Wall Street is actually a reference to a “wall,” that means a sort of dike. Staten Island refers to the Dutch government which was called the “Staten.”
- What is election?
- Why do churches generally tend to reject election?
- Explain the relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility.
- Why is God’s election a rich comfort?
* This Bible Study was produced by the Youth & Education Committee of the Free Reformed Churches,1997, under the title, “Church History.” It is aimed at a Senior Young Peoples level.
Click on the tag “Bible Study: Free Reformed Church History” below for more lessons in this study