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Arminianism (6) The Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-1619

Before we move on to the doctrinal issues involved in the Arminian controversy at the time of the Synod of Dordt, there are several matters about the workings of the Synod itself that we must notice. As we stated in the last article, the Synod, after several delays, began with its first session on November 13, 1618.

The churches of the Netherlands were represented by 56 ministers and elders. The professors Gomarus, Polyander, Thysius, Walaeus, and Lubbertus were also delegated. Because of a controversy where he taught, Lubbertus did not appear until the sixty-second session on January 17, 1619. The final count reveals that the Dutch delegation consisted of 37 ministers, 19 elders, and five professors.

In addition to the Dutch delegation, there were also 25 foreign theologians delegated to the Synod. They came from Great Britain, the Palatinate, Hesse, various republics of Switzerland, the city of Geneva, Bremen, Emden, and Nassau-Wetteravia. Delegates from France and Brandenburg were hindered from coming. These foreign delegates played a very important role at the Synod and were not there in a mere advisory role. They took an active part in exposing the Arminian heresy and the development of the truth as it is set forth in the Canons. The fact that there was a large foreign delegation present at the Synod is significant. Writes Prof. Homer Hoeksema about the presence of the foreign delegation:

…the fact that they aided in the composition of the Canons and the condemnation of Arminians and that they finally affixed their signatures to our Canons means that the latter are undeniably Reformed. They are not merely the expression of one branch of the Reformed churches. They cannot be condemned, surely, as the work of a narrow sect, nor even as the work of a national segment of the church. They are the proper expression of the Reformed truth according to the testimony of the whole Reformed church at that time. This was the last time in history that there was such close intercourse and such thorough agreement among churches of Reformed persuasion. We may safely say, therefore, that our Canons, notwithstanding the contempt of many historians, are the ultimate expression of the Reformed doctrine of sovereign grace and sovereign reprobation. (The Voice of Our Fathers, p. 21)

The official language of the Synod was Latin, the language used by the scholars of that time. Latin was the universal language which made communication among all of the Dutch and foreign theologians possible at the Synod. The Canons themselves were written in Latin and soon after translated into Dutch and other languages.

The Arminians were not present at the Synod when the sessions began. They did not appear until December 6, 1618. Before this time, the leaders of the Arminian party had met in Rotterdam to determine their strategy for the Synod. Hoeksema writes that they formed a two part plan. First of all, “they would cling to the illusion that the Synod was really a conference between the opposing parties, at which the political commissioners, aided by the advice of the foreign theologians, would act as arbiters and make the final decision” (V.O.O.F., p. 26). Secondly, “their strategy was, especially with an eye to the foreign delegates, to depict the national delegates as men who maintained horrible, God-dishonoring opinions, and further, as schismatics and as persecutors of the innocent and simple” (V.O.O.F., p. 26). In reference to the second part of the Arminian strategy Prof. Hoeksema keenly observes,

Characteristic is this strategy of all heretics, and especially of those who assail the truth of God’s sovereign predestination. It is nothing new that heretics refused to abide by proper ecclesiastical procedure. Nor is it an innovation when they attempt to portray those who hold to the truth as terrible men—hard, implacable, and cruel. But notice that in this double strategy the question of the truth is not so much as mentioned. [emphasis added, AJC] There purpose was, if at all possible, to avoid the issue of the truth and as long as possible to obstruct the proceedings of Synod (V.O.O.F., p. 26).

The leader of the Remonstrants at the Synod was Simon Episcopius. He was a “witty debater, a congenial controversialist, and a knowledgeable student of the Scriptures, his theology was unscriptural and uncertain” (Kistemaker 1968, 42). For more than a month the Synod was longsuffering with the Arminians and put up with their evasive and delaying tactics until finally, on January 14, 1619, President Bogerman thunderously dismissed them. The words of his dismissal are worth remembering.

You boast that many foreign divines did not refuse to grant your request. Their moderation arose from a misunderstanding. They now declare that they were deceived by you. They say that you are no longer worthy of being heard by the synod. You may pretend what you please, but the great point of your obstinacy is that you regard the synod as a party in the case. Thus you have long delayed us. You have been treated with all gentleness, friendliness, toleration, patience, and simplicity. Go as you came. You began with lies and you end with them. You are full of fraud and double-dealing. You are not worthy that the synod should treat with you further. Depart! Leave! You began with a lie, with a lie you ended! Go! (Kistemaker 1968, 40).

After the Arminians left, never to return, the Synod could get to the work at hand. While the Arminians were no longer personally represented at the Synod, they could be judged by their writings. The Synod divided itself into several advisory committees, with each committee responsible for giving a written opinion concerning each of the Five Articles of the Remonstrants. The Arminians were allowed by the Commissioners to further defend and explain their views to Synod by way of writing. The Arminians wrote much. “In all, their defense of the first article comprised more than two hundred pages” (V.O.O.F., p. 28).

By March 22, all of the writings and opinions had been heard and considered by the delegates. On April 16, “a committee consisting of the president, the two assessors, three foreign delegates, and three national delegates” presented to Synod “its formulation of the first two Canons, which included in each case a Rejection of Errors” (V.O.O.F., p. 29). On that day the first two chapters were approved by the Synod. On April 18, Canons III, IV, and V were adopted. The Synod continued to meet until May 9 when its work was complete.

The Canons of Dordrecht are the precious fruit of the labors of the Synod. While the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were written in the infancy of the Reformation and with the errors of Rome in view, the third of our Three Forms of Unity was the expression of the mature Reformed church in response to the Arminian heresy which threatened the Reformed church from within (V.O.O.F., p. 35). The Canons more clearly set forth certain truths which had already been confessed in the Catechism and Confession. However, because of the return in disguise of the old Pelagian error, it was necessary for our fathers to more distinctly define the truth and reject the lie with regards to the doctrines of total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. It is the matter of the Canon’s explicit rejection of errors which upsets many so-called Reformed today. Ought we to be ashamed of our confession using sharp language to condemn the lie? Is not a positive explanation of the truth enough for the church? The answer of Prof. Hoeksema to those who raise this objection is to the point.

But we need not attempt to excuse the Synod of Dordrecht on this score. For after all, is not a rejection of errors thoroughly Scriptural? Do not the Scriptures repeatedly and emphatically condemn false teachers and their errors? And is it not highly presumptuous, even contradictory of the Word of God, for any man to say then: “Let us be positive; let us not offend people by calling attention to the lie; we should be tolerant and should love one another in spite of our differences?” Are we wiser than God, Who gave us His Word in which He Himself warns against and condemns both the lie and the liar? Shall we let the sheep of Christ go unprotected in a world that is full of false doctrine, and allow them to be ensnared by the wiles of the devil? There is no more certain way to cause the church to depart from the truth of God’s Word than not to teach that church to be on guard against false doctrine. And underlying all this is the principle that the truth is antithetical in its very nature. To say Yes to the truth implies already our No to the lie. And because the lie is in the world, is real, that No must not only be an implied one, but an expressed one, both on the part of the church and on the part of the individual believer. Not to reject all heresies repugnant to the truth is certainly a dereliction of duty (V.O.O.F., p. 38).

With that answer we end, with the intention in the next articles, Lord willing, to begin examining the doctrinal issues involved in the Arminian controversy.

Endnote

Kistemaker, Simon and Peter Y. De Jong, editor. 1968. Crisis In The Reformed Churches, Essays in Commemoration of the Synod of Dort (1618-’19). Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship, Inc.