From Dort to Today (6): The Development of the Reformed Faith-The Great Synod

We are now ready to discuss the Synod of Dordrecht itself.  You recall that, through the overthrow of the government of Oldenbarneveldt in the Netherlands by Prince Mauritz, a government sympathetic to the Reformed cause had come into power.  This government convened the Synod that met in the city of Dordrecht and dealt with the problem of Arminianism.

The Synod began its meetings on November 13, 1618 and met until May 9, 1619.  In all, 154 sessions were held, although the Synod dealt with considerably more than the error of Arminianism.1 The first month of the Synod (until December 6, 1618) was occupied with other business.  It was toward the end of April in 1619 that the Arminian controversy was finally settled by the adoption of our present Canons of Dordt.

1 E.g., they also adopted our present Church Order, as well as our other two creeds—the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism—as the confessions of the Reformed Churches.


The Delegates at the Synod:

The Synod was not, as is sometimes supposed, simply a “Dutch” Synod.  There were delegates present at the Synod from practically all the Calvinistic Churches of the continent of Europe.  It is true that these foreign delegates did not have a deciding vote at the Synod (their vote was more advisory); but the fact remains that they did a tremendous amount of work, entered freely into all the discussions, served on the committees of study, composed their own written opinions about the articles of the Arminians and the Canons themselves, and even signed these Canons when they were finally adopted.

There were, in all, 57 delegates from the Netherlands Churches.  Thirty-four of these were ministers, 18 were elders, and five were professors from the Reformed Universities and Seminaries in the Netherlands.

Among the professors, we ought to take special notice of Gomarus.  He was the man that had opposed Arminius for many years while they were both professors at the University of Leiden.  He had long argued for the convocation of just such a Synod as now was meeting to treat the Arminian heresy.  He had seen from personal contact with Arminius and his followers, the terrible danger of these views.  It was with deep thanksgiving, no doubt, that this venerable defender of the faith now saw the Synod convened which could treat the errors of Arminius and his followers and settle the terrible controversies that were raging in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands.

There were 27 foreign delegates which came to the Synod from all parts of the continent—Great Britain, the Palatinate (where the Heidelberg Catechism had been written). Hessia, Switzerland, Wettersaw, Geneva, Bremen and Emden.  The delegates of France could not attend although they had been invited.  They were refused permission to leave their land by the French government.  Another staunch defender of the faith, Dr. Paraeus, who was professor of theology in the University of Heidelberg, also could not come because of the infirmities of old age.  But he did send to the Synod a written opinion of the five articles of the Arminians which agreed essentially with the position that was finally adopted by the Synod in its Canons.

All of these men were leaders in the Reformed and Calvinistic Reformation.  They were the theologians, the scholars, the brilliant lights of the Post-Reformation period.  They represented Calvinism at its purest and had a hand in developing the great principles of the Genevan Reformer in the Century following the Reformation.  Many of them had studied in the centers of Reformed and Calvinistic thought—the University of Heidelberg in the Palatinate where Ursinus and Olevianus had taught; and in the University of Geneva founded by Calvin and administered later by Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza.

There were also present at the Synod representatives of the government.  This was due to the unique relation between Church and State that existed in the Netherlands, which we have discussed before.  The State could convene a Synod; and all the decisions of the Synod were also approved by these governmental representatives.  The former government of Oldenbarneveldt would never have approved of what the Synod did, for it was always sympathetic towards the Arminians.  But the present government of Mauritz favored the Reformed cause, and the Synod had no trouble in its work from the government’s delegates.

Finally, you may perhaps wonder why the Arminians are not listed above as also being present at the Synod.  The fact of the matter is that they were there.  But, in the first place, they were only there from December 6, 1618 (when they were invited to come) until they were dismissed on January 14, 1619.  When the Synod finally got to work in the formulation of the Canons, the Arminians were gone.  In the second place, the Arminians never had a vote on the Synod.  This was due to the Church Polity then in effect.  They were, prior to the convocation of the Synod, indicted for heresy; and the Synod was called to pass judgment on this indictment.  They could be present to defend their views and state their objections to the Synod’s actions; but they could not vote in their own case and in the proceedings that dealt with their matter.

However, we must not be left with the impression that the Synod simply condemned them without a hearing.  They were given abundant opportunity to defend themselves, to prove, if they could, that their views were in harmony with Scripture, to point out what they considered to be errors in the Synod’s actions.  In fact, they were given so much opportunity to do this that even the foreign delegates, who generally knew very little or nothing about the Arminian controversy, concluded that Synod had exhausted a most remarkable patience in dealing with them.

Not only this, but there were always delegates on the Synod who favored to a greater or a lesser degree the position that the Arminians had taken.  This was especially true of some of the delegates from England and Emden.  Thus, in one way or another, the position of the Arminians was represented on the Synod throughout the entire proceedings.

This is important to emphasize because those who object to the Canons of Dordrecht sometimes make the charge that the Canons are not very important because they were adopted by a “straw Synod” or a “packed Synod” that allowed no other views to be entertained but the views of a minority who were determined to foist their minority position on the Churches.  This is a slanderous charge and does grave injustice to the fathers who composed this important and beautiful confession.

Finally, it ought to be remarked that the foreign delegates did not speak for the Churches they represented.  They were not at the Synod as representatives of the Reformed Churches in their particular countries.  They were merely called in to help the Netherlands Churches and to serve them with advice.  And, even though they latter signed the Canons, they did not do this as official representatives of their Churches in order to make the Canons binding also upon them.  This is also misunderstood.  One Church historian, evidently adopting the position that they served in an official capacity, claims that the Synod was an attempt to unite all the Reformed Churches.  He writes, “An attempt made at a general synod at Dort to unite all the Reformed national churches under one confession failed.”2 This was not the purpose of this Synod, and the attempt was not made.  It was a matter concerning only the Dutch Churches.

2 Kurtz’s Church History, Vol. III, page 50.