The Canons of Dordrecht are often combined with two other Protestant Christian documents, the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith, in forming the basis of Faith for many Churches, especially Reformed Churches. Among these three documents, the Canons of Dort are unique in being the only one of the three confessions which was actually composed by an ecclesiastical assembly, the Great Synod of 1618-1619.
Internal controversy in the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands which was occasioned by the rise of the Arminian heresy, caused the assembly of the synod. The Canons are the expression of the Synod's judgment concerning the Five Points of the Remonstrance. This also explains the fact that the Canons are divided into five chapters, maintaining the truths of sovereign predestination, particular atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of saints.
Because the Canons are an answer to the Five Points of the Remonstrance, they set forth only certain aspects of the truth rather than the whole body of the truth, as do the other two confessions. For this reason also the Canons are referred to in a Formula of Subscription as "the explanation of some points" of the doctrine contained in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith.
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The Synod of Dort was an international church assembly called by the States General of the Netherlands to settle certain ecclesiastical and doctrinal matters that had been troubling the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. It consisted of thirty-five pastors and a number of elders from the Dutch churches, five theological professors from the Netherlands, eighteen deputies from the States General, and twenty-seven foreign delegates.
The problems that faced the synod were complex. First, it had to deal with the ancient problem of Erastianism, the control of the church by the state. The Dutch church was by confession Calvinistic. It was Calvin's conviction that the church should be independent of the state while cooperating with it. By 1554 he had won that battle in Geneva, but until the time of Dort, and later, the Dutch church had in it a strong element, including such leaders as Oldenbarneveldt, Grotius, and Coolhaas, which favored state control over the church. Thus even the Prince of Orange in 1575 gave an order that consistories were to be appointed by local magistrates, a view which had wide support.
A second problem with which Dort had to wrestle was an anticonfessional humanism that was more hellenistic than biblical in spirit. Erasmus and Coornheert were its heroes. Although these men lived well before the meeting of the synod, their rejection of the doctrine of human depravity and adulation of free will was accepted by the Arminian party, named after James Arminius, a professor of theology at the University of Leiden. A major issue before the synod was the status of the creeds. The Arminian party, while having to admit that the church had a confession, disliked confessional confinement and sought to have the creeds revised.
The third problem with which Dort had to wrestle was one of fundamental Christian doctrine. Predestination was the doctrine most attacked, especially that part of it known as reprobation. The Arminian party was helped in its attack by extreme positions of some of its opponents. Furthermore, in their Remonstrance of 1610 and afterward the Arminian party, whose proponents then came to be called "Remonstrants," was unwilling to say that man is totally unable to save himself; it held rather that, while human nature has been impaired by sin, the will is still free and able to respond to the grace of God. It claimed that God determined to save all who believe, and it refused to accept the teaching that election is unto faith. It held that Christ died for all even though only believers benefit from his death; that grace is not irresistible; and that faith may be lost. Besides publicy challenging the doctrines of predestination, sin, grace, and the perseverance of the saints, the Remonstrants indicated that they were unsure of other doctrine as well; original sin, justification by faith, the atonement, and even the deity of Christ were called into question. That they doubted Christ's deity is not a well-known historical fact, but it contributed to the seriousness and bitterness of the controversy. It was not until after the death of Arminius in 1609 that the drift toward Socinianism, a version of Unitarianism, became noticeable. The appointment of Conrad Vorstius to the chair of theology at Leiden vacated by Arminius aroused suspicions; in 1622 he made his espousal of Socinianism public.
As a result of all this a strong party spirit developed throughout the country which threatened to split the church and provinces of the Netherlands. Arminian leaders got civil authorities to decree that no contested doctrines might be preached, and in some instances succeeded in getting pulpits closed against ministers. Reformed classes retaliated, and where the contra-Remonstrants, or orthodox, could not get a majority they sometimes worshiped in houses or barns, only to be punished by civil authorities. The situation deteriorated until it appeared in 1617 that there might be civil war. On November 11 of that year the States General decreed that a synod should be called to settle the questions troubling the country and bring it to peace. There had been numerous earlier calls for a national synod by classes, by the Remonstrants when they thought they might have a majority if the States General would select delegates, and by provincial synods and civil authorities.
When the Synod of Dort met in 1618, the Remonstrants expected that they would be recognized as equals and that the synod would be a conference to discuss disputed questions. Instead, the synod summoned the Remonstrants to appear before it as defendants, and in due time their doctrines were condemned. The Canons of Dort set forth: (1) Unconditional election and faith are a gift of God. (2) While the death of Christ is abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world, its saving efficacy is limited to the elect. (3,4) All are so corrupted by sin that they cannot effect their salvation; in sovereign grace God calls and regenerates them to newness of life. (5) Those thus saved he preserves until the end; hence there is assurance of salvation even while believers are troubled by many infirmities.
Dort thus preserved the Augustinian, biblical doctrines of sin and grace against the claim that fallen mankind has free will, that the human condition in sin is not as desperate as the orthodox party said it is, and that election is only God's response to man's decision to believe. It was such a prestigious gathering that it served as an example for the Westminister Assembly, which was held in Britain a generation later, and it set the course which the Dutch church was to follow for centuries.
M E Osterhaven
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)
M.G. Hansen, The Reformed Church in the Netherlands; P.Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, I, III; J. Hale, Golden Remains; P.Y. DeJong, Crisis in the Reformed Churches; L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination; H. E. Dosker, "Barneveldt, Martyr or Traitor," PRR 9:289-323, 438-71, 637-58; W. Cunningham, Historical Theology, II, 371-86; A. A. Hoekema, "A New English Translation of the Canons of Dort," CTJ 3:133-61.
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