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Reformed Confessions: Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619)

John R. Muether

When Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), a student of Theodore Beza at Geneva, joined the faculty at the University of Leiden, his lectures on predestination became a center of controversy. His supporters (Arminians) sought to revise the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism to accommodate his teaching, while efforts to discipline Arminius failed. A year after his death, his followers published a Remonstrance which summarized his views in five articles.

Facing the prospect of a divided church and perhaps even a civil war, the States-General of the Netherlands called (and funded) a synod to settled the controversy in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands. The synod conducted 180 sessions from November 1618 to May 1619, meeting in Dort (or Dordrecht). Fifty-eight Dutch ministers and elders, five professors of theology, and eighteen civil delegates (who supervised the proceedings and reported to the States-General) were joined by twenty-six representatives from eight foreign churches (including England, the Palatinate, and Switzerland), establishing an international synod. Also summoned to the synod were thirteen prominent Remonstrant theologians, led by Simon Episcopius. Their disruption of meetings led to their eventual dismissal.

The synod proceeded, in the Canons of Dort, to condemn Arminianism and affirm the doctrine of double predestination, while urging care in how the doctrine was preached (see the excerpt below from the conclusion). The affirmations under five heads of doctrine would become popularly summarized as the “five points of Calvinism”: total depravity, unconditional election, limited (or definite) atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. The fifth head of doctrine underscored the assurance that came from the doctrine of predestination: the Holy Spirit preserves God’s people so that they are kept in the body of Christ throughout their earthly pilgrimage.

The Canons of Dort are arguably the least studied and most misunderstood of the Reformed standards today. Far from an extreme expression of rigid Calvinism, the synod reached a remarkable consensus. Different viewpoints on matters such as infra- and supralapsarianism and different formulations on the sufficiency of the atonement did not keep delegates from forging a statement, signed by all delegates, that united international Calvinism. According to Robert Godfrey, the moderation of the Canons succeeded in “drawing Calvinists together around the essentials of the faith and preventing the movement from fragmenting over peripheral issues.”[1] It served to highlight the doctrines of sovereign grace that safeguard the heart of the Reformation, as well as the doctrine of justification by faith alone. In its firm pastoral response to the Arminian challenge, Dort proved to be “the least provincial or national of all of the Reformed doctrinal standards.”[2]

Before adjourning, the synod approved the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession as doctrinal standards for the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, and it established a church order that would shape the churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition, on both sides of the Atlantic, for centuries.

Excerpt (from the conclusion):

[T]his Synod of Dort in the name of the Lord pleads with all who devoutly call on the name of our Savior Jesus Christ to form their judgment about the faith of the Reformed churches, not on the basis of false accusations gathered from here or there, or even on the basis of the personal statements of a number of ancient and modern authorities—statements which are also often either quoted out of context or misquoted and twisted to convey a different meaning—but on the basis of the churches’ own official confessions and of the present explanation of the orthodox teaching which has been endorsed by the unanimous consent of all the members of the whole Synod, one and all.

Moreover, the Synod earnestly warns the false accusers themselves to consider how heavy a judgment of God awaits those who give false testimony against so many churches and their confessions, trouble the consciences of the weak, and seek to prejudice the minds of many against the fellowship of true believers.

Finally, this Synod urges all fellow ministers in the gospel of Christ to deal with this teaching in a godly and reverent manner, in the academic institutions as well as in the churches; to do so, both in their speaking and writing, with a view to the glory of God’s name, holiness of life, and the comfort of anxious souls; to think and also speak with Scripture according to the analogy of faith; and, finally, to refrain from all those ways of speaking which go beyond the bounds set for us by the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures and which could give impertinent sophists a just occasion to scoff at the teaching of the Reformed churches or even to bring false accusations against it.

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.

The Sequence of Confessions

Sixty-Seven Articles of Ulrich Zwingli (1523)
Tetrapolitan Confession (1530)
First Helvetic Confession (1536)
French Confession of Faith (1559)
Scots Confession (1560)
Belgic Confession of Faith (1561)
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Second Helvetic Confession (1566)
Canons of the Synod of Dordt (1619)
Westminster Confession & Catechisms (1643)

Endnotes

[1] W. Robert Godfrey, Reformed Sketches: Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 130.

[2] Ibid., 126.

John R. Muether serves as a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, dean of libraries at Reformed Theological Seminary, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

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