The Canons of Dordt (1619) is the third of the three confessions in the Three Forms of Unity. It was formulated at the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) in response to the rise, in the Dutch churches, of doctrines which were heretical and which contradicted the earlier confessions of the church, the Belgic Confession (1561), and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The Synod of Dordt was called to revise the earlier confessions and to deal also with these controversial Arminian doctrines. As a result, we have the Canons of Dordt.
This Synod, held at Dordrecht in the Netherlands, consisted of almost one hundred delegates from almost all of the Reformed churches of Europe. Representatives included men from the Churches of England, Scotland, Switzerland, Geneva, Bremen and Hesse. At this Synod, Satan was at work to destroy the Church through heresies which caused schism, dissension and bitterness in the Church. However, the Lord was in control and again used these disputes for the furtherance of His kingdom and the strengthening of the Reformation truths.
Among the representatives at this Synod was John Davenant. He was chosen by the English king and meddlesome theologian, James I, to represent, along with others, the English Church. Davenant and his colleagues had been instructed by the King to soften the bitter narrowness of the Calvinists. Davenant had set himself to overthrow certain of the distinctives of Calvinism. In fact, when the English divines had presented their paper to the Synod, and had been asked to alter its presentations concerning Christ’s atonement, Davenant declared, “I would rather have my right hand cut off, than to recall or alter anything.” It is clear from this statement that Davenant opposed the true doctrines of Calvinism concerning the limited atonement and particular redemption in Christ to the elect only.
Davenant has been classed as a “moderate Calvinist” by some, an “Arminian,” by others. What should we consider him to be, what exactly were his teachings, and how should we treat these teachings?
John Davenant was born in 1576 in Watling Street, London, where his father was a renowned merchant. He had no interest in his father’s work and business, but chose instead to study the liberal arts. He was educated at Queen’s College in Cambridge, and in 1597 received his bachelor’s degree. In 1609, he graduated with a doctorate in divinity. Not long after, he was appointed Professor of Theology at Lady Margaret’s College in Cambridge, and in 1614 was appointed as master of that college.
Early in life, Davenant was influenced by the heretical teachings of Moyse Amyraut. It was around these teachings that he also formulated his theological works and lectures. He was an inspiring teacher and outstanding lecturer and thus gained great renown throughout England. This renown also reached the King and he was therefore appointed as a delegate to the Synod of Dordt. He was well liked by the King, and the King thus appointed him as Bishop of Salisbury in 1621.
Basically Davenant taught that the atonement purchased by Christ is universal. God entered into a covenant with all mankind, and is obligated to save them from their sinful state and grant them eternal life, if they believe. The death of Christ was sufficient for all mankind, but God only works a saving faith in the hearts of His elect. Thus the redemption purchased by Christ is definite for the elect, and conditional for the reprobate, so that if, perhaps, they should believe, they will be saved.
In this theological explanation of the atonement of Christ, Davenant denied the sovereignty of God and the unity of the Trinity. He denied the sovereignty of God by applying a condition to the salvation of the reprobate, and by putting God under an obligation to save man if he should believe. He further denied the unity of the Trinity by separating the atoning work of Christ from the grace worked in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. He did this when he proposed that salvation is possible for all mankind, but grace is given only to the elect. Davenant was then a follower of Amyraut and the amyrauldian heresy, and also leaned heavily towards Arminian beliefs in his teaching of a conditional salvation.
Against these heresies and the heresies of arminianism, the Synod of Dordt formulated the Canons of Dordt. In this confession the Synod, in opposition to the heresies of the universal atonement of Christ, stated that (second head, article 8):
“It was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father.”
Also to refute the heretical teachings of a conditional salvation, the canons state that (third and fourth head, article 15)
“God is under no obligation to confer this grace upon any; for how can he be indebted to man, who had no previous gifts to bestow, as a foundation for such recompense?”
After the Synod, Davenant returned to England and continued to teach his heretical ideas. However, in 1628, Charles I, the new king in England, forbad ministers to preach against the canons and when Davenant continued to do so he was brought before the king. The king personally instructed him that he henceforth must remain silent concerning these points, and it seems that he did so for the remainder of his life out of a fear of the leadership of the church and a fear of the king. There did, however, arise a school in England which took on his name, the Davenant School, and although Davenant himself was dead this heresy continued to permeate English Theology. The advocates of this heresy, from the Davenant School, were also present at the Westminster Assembly when the Westminster Confession of Faith was drafted. The delegates at this assembly did not, however, leave any room in their Confession for such heresy, but rather stated the following (Chapter III, paragraph 6):
“Neither are any other redeemed by Christ, effectually called, justified, adopted, sanctified, and saved, but the elect only.”
Thus God used the plotting of Satan and the heresies of Satan’s advocates to build the church up in her firm faith, to add truth to her confessions, and to make her more aware of the doctrines of men as opposed to the truth of the Scriptures.
These teachings have and do continue to trouble the churches. The adoption of the three points of common grace by the Christian Reformed Church synod in 1924 shows this in a very close to home sense. According to these points God shows grace to all mankind and mankind possesses some good in himself. This can only lead to Arminian thinking. The Liberated churches also advocate a universal atonement of Christ within the covenant. They teach a general conditional promise within the covenant to all baptized children. These heresies must be fought against and realized as heresies and the first fruits of arminianism and apostasy.
We can however be confident that Christ will preserve His church in truth even till the end of the world. We must put on the whole armor of God and stand ready for the evil day. We must have our loins girt about with truth and that coupled with a true faith, because then, and then only, will we be able to stand and persevere till the end. We must do this by knowing our doctrines and confessions and by carrying them with us wherever we go, and we must do this through a constant prayerful walk with our God throughout our whole life. Then God will preserve His truth in our midst, for He has promised this to His church, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”