THE GREAT SYNOD
The History of the Synod
We may turn now to a brief description of the actual proceedings of this Synod.
We have already noticed that the time between November 13 and December 6 was taken up in other business.
It was on December 6 that the Synod turned its attention to the question of the Arminian heresy that was running rampant in the Churches.
Before the Arminians were actually called to appear on the floor of the Synod to defend themselves, they had met in Rotterdam to determine on a course of action. They had decided to pursue a course of action which clearly showed their evil intent-an intent that was not at all for the welfare of the Church. They decided not to allow themselves to be engaged in any doctrinal discussions of the questions that were at issue, nor to permit the Synod to examine their views in the light of Scripture. They decided instead to detain and obstruct the Synod in every way they possibly could in the hopes that the Synod (especially the foreign delegates) would weary of it at last and go home without having decided anything. They were rather confident that if they could delay the Synod for some time, the ecclesiastical assembly that had been called to try them would dissolve. And, if they were given some more time to propagate their views, they were reasonable certain that they could win the day in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands so that their position would become the official position of the Church.
In order to accomplish this, they decided, on the one hand, to question the legality of the Synod to try their case. They decided to insist that the meeting of the Synod was not a Synod at all that possessed any authority to deal with them, but that rather it was a conference between opposing viewpoints that could, at best, make certain recommendations. On the other hand, they decided to appeal to the foreign delegates in an attempt to gain their sympathy. The appeal was to be made on the basis of the fact that the Dutch theologians maintained (especially in the truth of reprobation) a most cruel, repulsive and God-dishonoring doctrine. They hoped to convince the foreign delegates that this Synod was called merely to condemn serious and pious men who stood in the way of such doctrines. Thus the defense of the heretics was to rest on personal attacks and on a strategy of delay.
The Synod chose a very staunch defender of the truth in their president-Johannes Bogerman, whom the Arminians tried to get out of the chair. As its two clerks upon whom fell the mountain of work of recording the minutes and the speeches, the Synod chose Hommius and Damman.
Almost immediately, upon being summoned to the Synod, the Arminians began their work of destroying the Synod if they could. A very learned, suave, capable and clever man by the name of Episcopius, was their spokesman. No sooner had the Arminians opened their defense and Episcopius arose to pronounce a blessing upon the entire body. But then they proceeded to put into force their tactics which they had decided to use. Every form of deceit, every stratagem of double-dealing, every conceivable argument, every haughty and boastful villainy against the Synod was used in an attempt to prevent the Synod from entering into the doctrinal implications of the issue. The Synod attempted again and again, with tremendous patience, to examine the Arminian position and hold the views of these men up to the light of Scripture. But they were never permitted to do it. And, when the issues became sharply drawn and the heretics had dug out the last of their tricks to delay the Synod, they flatly refused to submit to Synod’s authority.
All this was finally brought to a close on January 14, 1619. President Bogerman arose and addressed the following words to the Arminians: “The foreign delegates are now of the opinion that you are unworthy to appear before the Synod. You have refused to acknowledge her as your lawful judge and have maintained that she is your counter-party; you have done everything according to your own whim; you have despised the decisions of the Synod and of the Political Commissioners; you have refused to answer; you have unjustly interpreted the indictments. The Synod has treated you mildly; but you have-as one of the foreign delegates expressed it-‘begun and ended with lies’. With that eulogy we shall let you go. God shall preserve His Word and shall bless the Synod. In order that she be no longer obstructed, you are sent away! You are dismissed! Get out!”1
1 Quoted from the Standard Bearer, Volume 29, pages 375, 376. In this volume of the Standard Bearer is contained a series of articles written by Prof. H.C. Hoeksema as an introduction to his commentary on the Canons which give many interesting facts of the Synod of Dordt and an evaluation of its work. The interested reader is urged to consult these articles and read them.
The Arminians left; but not before they made many pious pronouncements. “With Christ I shall keep silence about all this. God shall judge between me and this Synod,” Episcopius cried. Some appealed to the judgment day and others left calling the Synod an assembly of the Godless.
As you can well imagine, the Synod was deeply moved by this dramatic moment and stirred by the departure of these men. But, without the lengthy interruptions and delays of the Arminians, Synod could now get down to work.
The Synod was first divided into a number of sub-committees including sub-committees of the foreign delegates which were instructed to meet separately and hand in written opinions of the five articles which the Arminians had composed in Gouda several years before. The Arminians, although put out of the Synod’s assemblies, were still permitted to hand in a written defense of their views-which they did in lengthy documents covering more than 200 pages in the Acts.
By the 22nd of March, all the written opinions were in and read by Synod. After this, another committee of six was appointed to draw up “concept-Canons” which could be presented to the Synod for adoption. On April 16, the committee brought to the Synod the first part of their work-the “concept Canons” I & II. These were adopted by the Synod. The next day after this adoption, a day of prayer and thanksgiving was proclaimed by the State’s representatives, a day which the Arminians bitterly called “Ahab’s prayer day”. On April 18, in its 130th session, the Synod adopted Canons III, IV & V. To this was added a “Conclusion” which is also included in our Canons found in the back of the Psalter.
And so the mighty work of composing our Third Confession was accomplished.
Our Canons are, as we noticed above, divided into five “Heads of Doctrine”. These five heads of doctrine or chapters are what have become known as the “Five Points of Calvinism” which are often memorized under the key-word “TULIP”. To each chapter is added a series of articles in which various errors, particularly of the Arminians and Pelagians, are condemned.
These five chapters are careful statements and thorough expositions of the truth of Scripture over against the five articles of the Arminians which they adopted at their meeting in Gouda.
Although it is outside our intention in this series to discuss these doctrines completely, we do well to notice briefly what they teach.
The first chapter deals with “Divine Predestination”.2 In this chapter the truth is developed that the salvation of God’s people and the damnation of the wicked finds its origin in the eternal decree of God’s predestination. According to this decree, God chose some to everlasting life and “leaves the non-elect in his just judgment to their own wickedness and obduracy”. (Article 6) This predestination is not a decree of God which is based upon what the Arminians called “foreseen faith and unbelief”; it is rather based only on the sovereign good pleasure of God. It is called consequently, “Unconditional Election”.
2 Notice that the order of the five chapters of the Canons does not correspond to the word “TULIP”. This order was changed so that the memory device of “TULIP” could be used.
The second chapter deals with “The Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby”. The particular teaching of this article is that Christ died only for His people so that the cross is a realization of the decree of election. Election and atonement are inseparably united. For the elect Christ died. And all of salvation is merited by Christ in this work of His cross. This we have come to call “Limited Atonement”.
The third chapter is combined with the fourth and is entitled, “Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God and the Manner Thereof”. Two main points are discussed. The first is that the fall of man resulted in his total corruption so that Adam and all his posterity are completely unable to do or will anything good or anything that will aid, abet or assist their salvation. Secondly, it is further emphasized in this article that man’s salvation is the fruit of the irresistible power of God’s grace-that regeneration, faith, conversion and all the blessings of salvation are solely the work of God which He performs sovereignly in the hearts of His rebellious (by nature) people in such a way that God accomplished His own purpose of salvation. We refer to “Total Depravity” and “Irresistible Grace”.
Finally, the Canons, in their Fifth Head of Doctrine, develop the truth of the preservation of the saints. The Arminians had also denied this.3 They taught rather that when God began the work of salvation in the hearts of His people, this was a work which He finished by His own power until the elect were brought to final glory. And this work of preservation was made sure by the decree of election and the work of atonement.
3 See previous articles.
So Arminianism was defeated in the Netherlands.
There are several remarks which we wish to make by way of conclusion of this section of the history of the Church from “Dordt to Today”.
1) The Synod of Dordt also disciplined the Arminian ministers who refused to subscribe to the Canons. Some 200 ministers were deposed from office in the Dutch Churches. The foreign delegates took no part in this disciplinary action since this was purely a national matter of no immediate concern to the Reformed Churches in other countries. Further, in years following, for good or for bad, some of these deposed ministers returned again to the bosom of the Reformed Churches. I say that this could possibly have been bad because it is doubtful whether they returned in all cases in strict honesty. Some held to their Arminianism within their hearts even though outwardly they subscribed to the Canons.
2) The Synod of Dordt, and the Canons which this Synod composed and adopted, was a great victory for the Church of Christ. It is a most remarkable demonstration of the faithfulness of God toward us and the gracious care of Christ for His Church. Indeed, “the gates hell shall not prevail against it”.
3) As is always the case with long and bitter struggles in defense of the truth, this Synod was also instrumental in developing beyond the statements of the Reformation, the Reformed faith. What Luther and Calvin had taught was now carried forward by their spiritual children. But these developments were hammered out on the anvil of ecclesiastical strife. So it always is. The lie is, under God’s sovereign control, a means to develop the truth. Dordt was no exception.
4) Finally, there are many in our day who claim to stand in the spiritual tradition of Dordrecht and the Calvin Reformation, but who deny the very truths our fathers incorporated into the Canons. We will treat this more extensively later, the Lord willing; but let us notice now that the doctrines which have, in the last half century, been developed in the Reformed Churches both in the Netherlands and here in America—the doctrines of a general offer of salvation, a common attitude of favor of God towards all men, man’s native ability to do good in God’s sight, a general and conditional promise, a universal love of God for all men—these are doctrines that have been condemned either directly or by implication in our Canons. Especially those who are busy teaching that God loves the whole human race ought to know that it was precisely against this view that the Canons were written. To condemn such teachings, our fathers convened in Dordrecht more than 300 years ago and fought long and bravely.
Arminianism was condemned. But that must not be interpreted to imply that Arminianism is no longer a force in the Church. It has, especially in these days, returned with a vengeance. And, to the extent that our Canons are forgotten or ignored, it has seeped as a devastatingly powerful poison into the lifeblood of the Reformed Churches that claim the Canons as their Confession.
The obvious implication is that we, children of the Reformation and of our courageous fathers of Dordrecht, study, love, cherish and defend our Canons. Only then shall we be safe from the errors that fly about us.