Introduction -- The Canons of Dort
I. Why a series on the Canons of Dort? Too often, people talk about the Canons of Dort, but very often don’t take the time to read and study the Canons. This is unfortunate, because...
- 1. The Canons have an unjustified reputation for unbiblical sterility
- 2. They supposedly present a “cold” and stern God who is capricious and unloving
- 3. This misunderstanding is cleared up by simply going through the document itself
II. It is from the Canons of Dort that we derive the so-called “five points of Calvinism”
- 1. It is important to note that Dort is a polemical response to a particular error (Arminianism), and is not a positive statement of doctrine.
- 2. In the Three Forms of Unity, the Belgic Confession sets out the faith confessed by the Reformed Church
- 3. The Heidelberg Catechism was adopted as the means to instruct children and novices in the basic doctrines of the Christian faith
- 4. The Canons, on the other hand, were written to respond to specific errors that had arisen in the Dutch Reformed church.
- 5. The Canons are particularly relevant today and many of these same errors and the “new teaching” that they were written to refute, are now mainstream evangelical doctrines. This is why the Reformed and American evangelicals will be at odds with one another on these matters
III. The History of the Synod of Dort
1. The Canons were written in 1618-19 by an assembly of mostly Dutch theologians in response to Arminianism, which had grown as a threat to the Reformed churches since the publication of the Remonstrance of 1610.
2, The Remonstrance, written after the death of Jacob Arminius in 1609, championed a universal atonement, conditional election and denied that Christians necessarily persevere to the end. This system of thought, we now know as Arminianism.
3. The Remonstrance reflects the classic semi-Pelagianism, the predominant view of sin and grace through most of the churches’ history.
The Remonstrance: Or What Do Arminians Believe?
Taken from Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, Vol 1 (pp. 516-519).
The Arminian or quinquarticular controversy started with opposition to the doctrine of absolute decrees, and moved in the sphere of anthropology and soteriology. The peculiar tenets are contained in the five points or articles which the Arminians in their `Remonstrance” laid before the estates of Holland in 1610. They relate to predestination, the extent of the atonement, the nature of faith, the resistibility of grace and the perseverance of the saints.
The Remonstrance is first negative, and then positive. It rejects five Calvinistic propositions, and then asserts the five Arminian propositions. The doctrines rejected are thus stated:
1. That God has, before the fall, and even before the creation of man, by an unchangeable decree, foreordained some to eternal life and others to eternal damnation, without any regard to obedience or disobedience, and simply because it so pleased him, in order to show the glory of his righteousness to the one class and his mercy to the other. (This is the supralapsarian view.)
2. That God, in view of the fall, and in just condemnation of our first parents and their posterity, ordained to exempt a part of mankind from the consequences of the fall, and to save them by his free grace, but to leave the rest, without regard to age or moral condition, to their condemnation, for the glory of his righteousness. (The sublapsarian view.)
3. That Christ died, not for all men, but only for the elect.
4. That the Holy Spirit works in the elect by irresistible grace, so that they must be converted and be saved; while the grace necessary and sufficient for conversion, faith, and salvation is withheld from the rest, although they are externally called and invited by the revealed will of God.
5. That those who have received this irresistible grace can never totally and finally lose it, but are guided and preserved by the same grace to the end.
These doctrines, the Remonstrants declare, are not contained in the Word of God nor in the Heidelberg Catechism, and are unedifying, yea dangerous, and should not be preached to Christian people.
Then the Remonstrance sets forth the five positive articles as follows:
Conditional Predestination—God has immutably decreed, from eternity, to save those men who, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, believe in Jesus Christ, and by the same grace persevere in the obedience of faith to the end; and, on the other hand, to condemn the unbelievers and unconverted (John 3:36).
Election and condemnation are thus conditioned by foreknowledge, and made dependent on the foreseen faith or unbelief of men.
Universal Atonement—Christ, the Savior of the World, died for all men and for every man, and his grace is extended to all. His atoning sacrifice is in and of itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole world, and is intended for all by God the Father. But its inherent sufficiency does not necessarily imply its actual efficiency. The grace of God may be resisted and only those who accept it by faith, are actually saved. He who is lost, is lost by his own guilt (John 3:16 ; 1 John 2:2).
The Arminians agree with the orthodox in holding the doctrine of a vicarious or expiatory atonement, in opposition to the Socinians; but they soften it down, and represent its direct effect to be to enable God, consistently with his justice and veracity, to enter into a new covenant with men, under which pardon is conveyed to all men on condition of repentance and faith. The immediate effect of Christ’s death was not the salvation, but only the salvability of sinners by the removal of the legal obstacles, and opening the door for pardon and reconciliation. They reject the doctrine of a limited atonement, which is connected with the supralapsarian view of predestination, but is disowned by moderate Calvinists, who differ from the Arminians in all other points. Calvin himself says that Christ died sufficinter pro omnibus, efficaciter pro electis [”sufficient for all, but efficient for the elect”].
Saving Faith-Man in his fallen state is unable to accomplish any thing really and truly good, and therefore also unable to attain to saving faith, unless he be regenerated and renewed by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit (John xv. 5).
Resistible Grace-Grace is the beginning, continuation, and end of our spiritual life, so that man can neither think nor do any good or resist sin without prevening, co-operating, and assisting grace. But as for the manner of co-operation, this grace is not irresistible, for many resist the Holy Ghost (Acts vii.)
The uncertainty of perseverance-Although grace is sufficient and abundant to preserve the faithful through all trials and temptations for life everlasting, it has not yet been proved from the Scriptures that grace, once given, can never be lost.
On this point the disciples of Arminius went further, and taught the possibility of a total and final fall of believers from grace. They appealed to such passages where believers are warned against this very danger, and to such examples as Solomon and Judas. They moreover denied, with the Roman Catholics, that any body can have a certainty of salvation except by special revelation.
These five points the Remonstrants declare to be in harmony with the Word of God, edifying, and, as far as they go, sufficient for salvation. They protest against the charge of changing the Christian Reformed religion, and claim toleration and legal protection for their doctrine.
The Canons of Dort: A Summary of the Reformed Response to the Arminians
Taken from Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, Vol 1 (pp. 519-523)
FIRST HEAD OF DOCTRINE
Of Divine Predestination—Since all men sinned in Adam and lie under the curse [according to the Augustinian System held by all the Reformers], God would have done no injustice if he had left them to their merited punishment; but in his infinite mercy he provided a salvation through the gospel of Christ, that those who believe in him may not perish, but have eternal life. That some receive the gift of faith from God and not others, proceeds from God’s eternal decree of election and reprobation.
Election is the unchangeable purpose of God whereby, before the foundation of the world, he has, out of mere grace , according to sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen from the whole human race, which has fallen through their own fault from their primitive state of rectitude into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and Head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation. These elect, though neither better nor more deserving than others, God has decreed to give to Christ to be saved by him, and bestow upon them true faith, conversion, justification and sanctification, perseverance to the end, and final glory (Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:30].
Election is absolute and unconditional. It is not founded upon foreseen faith and holiness, as the prerequisite condition on which it depended; on the contrary; it is the fountain of faith, holiness, and eternal life itself. God has chosen us not because we are holy, but to the end that we should be holy (Ephesians 1:4; Romans 9:11-13; Acts 13:38]. As God is unchangeable, so his election is unchangeable, and the elect can neither be cast away nor their number be diminished. The sense and certainty of election is a constant stimulus to humility and gratitude.
The non-elect are simply left to the just condemnation of their own sins. This is the decree of reprobation, which by no means makes God the author of sin (the very thought of which is blasphemy], but declares him to be an awful, irrepressible and righteous judge and avenger.
SECOND HEAD OF DOCTRINE
Of the death of Christ. [Limited Atonement]—According to the sovereign counsel of God, the saving efficacy of the atoning death of Christ extends to all the elect [and them only], so as to bring them infallibly to salvation. But, intrinsically, the sacrifice and satisfaction of Christ is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world. This death derives its infinite value and dignity from these considerations; because the person who submitted to it was not only really man and perfectly holy, but also the only-begotten Son of God, of the same eternal and infinite essence with the Father and Holy Spirit, which qualifications were necessary to constitute him a Savior for us; and because it was attended with a sense of the wrath and curse of God that was due us for sin.
Moreover the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.
And, whereas many who are called by the gospel do not repent nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
THIRD AND FOURTH HEADS OF DOCTRINE.
Of the Corruption of man, his Conversion to God, and the manner thereof—Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole Man was holy; but revolting from God by the instigation of the devil, and abusing the freedom of his own will, he forfeited these excellent gifts, and on the contrary entailed on himself blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgement; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in [all] his affections.
Man after the fall begat children in his own likeness. A corrupt stock produced corrupt offspring. Hence all the posterity of Adam, Christ only excepted, have derived corruption from their original parent, not by imitation, as the Pelagians of old asserted, but by the propagation of a vicious nature, in consequence of a just judgment of God.
Therefore all men are conceived in sin, and are by nature children of wrath, incapable of any saving good, prone to evil, dead in sin, and in bondage thereto; and, without the regenerating grace of the Holy Spirit, they are neither able nor willing to return to God, to reform the depravity of their nature, nor to dispose themselves to reformation.
What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law could do, that God performs by the operation of his Holy Spirit through the word or ministry of reconciliation: which is the glad tidings concerning the Messiah, by means whereof it hath pleased God to save such as believe, as well under the Old as under the New Testament.
As many as are called by the Gospel are unfeignedly called; for God hath most earnestly and truly declared in his Word what will be acceptable to him, namely, that all who are called should comply with the invitation. He, moreover, seriously promises eternal life and rest to as many as shall come to him, and believe on him.
It is not the fault of the gospel, nor of Christ offered therein, nor of God, who calls men by the gospel, and confers upon them various gifts, that those who are called by the ministry of the Word refuse to come and be converted. The fault lies in themselves.
But that others who are called by the gospel obey the call must be wholly ascribed to God, who, as he hath chosen his own from eternity in Christ, so he calls them effectually in time, confers upon them faith and repentance, rescues them from the power of darkness, and translates them into his kingdom of his own dear Son, that they may show forth the praises of him who hath called them out of darkness into his marvelous light; and may glory not in themselves but in the Lord, according to the testimony of the Apostles in various places.
Faith is therefore the gift of God, not on account of its being offered by God to man, to be accepted or rejected at his pleasure, but because it is in reality conferred, breathed, and infused into him; nor even because God bestows the power or ability to believe, and then expects that man should, by the exercise of his own free will, consent to the terms of salvation, and actually believe in Christ; but because he who works in man both to will and to do, and indeed all things in all, produces both the will to believe and the act of believing also.
FIFTH HEAD OF DOCTRINE
Of the Perseverance of the Saints-Whom God calls, according to his purpose, to the communion of his Son our Lord Jesus Christ, and regenerates by the Holy Spirit, he delivers also from the dominion and slavery of sin in this life; though not altogether from the body of sin and from the infirmities of the flesh, so long as they continue in this world.
By reason of these remains of indwelling sin, and the temptations of sin and of the world, those who are converted could not persevere in a state of grace if left to their own strength. But God is faithful, who having conferred grace, mercifully confirms and powerfully preserves them therein, even to the end.
Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, and of their perseverance in the faith, true believers for themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith, whereby they arrive at the certain persuasion that they ever will continue true and living members of the Church; and that they experience forgiveness of sins, and will at last inherit eternal life.
This certainty of perseverance, however, is so far from exciting in believers a spirit of pride, or of rendering them carnally secure, that, on the contrary, it is the real source of humility, filial reverence, true piety, patience in every tribulation, fervent prayers, constancy in suffering and in confessing the truth, and of solid rejoicing in God; so that the consideration of this benefit should serve as an incentive to the serious and constant practice of gratitude and good works, as appears from the testimonies of Scripture and the examples of the saints.