To The Praise Of His Glory - Outline 1 Outlines On The Canons Of Dort

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Note-The figures 1* etc. in this Outline refer to the questions at end.


I. Doctrinal Standards of the Reformed Churches

A. The solemn statements concerning the Christian faith 1 * which have been acknowledged and accepted by the Reformed Churches can be divided into two groups, namely: 1.) the general or ecumenical, and 2.) the particular or Reformed doctrinal standards; or: 1.) the Creeds, and 2.)the Confessions. The latter are also called --- The Three Forms of Unity---.

1. The general or ecumenical standards are:
the Apostles' Creed 2*.
the Nicene Creed.
the Athancisian Creed.

2. The particular or Reformed standards are:
the Belgic Confession of Faith.
the Heidelberg Catechism.
the Canons of Dort.

The terms -ecumenical- and -Reformed- are not contrasts, but they indicate that the former were already made and accepted by the so-called ecumenical councils of the first centuries of the history of the Christian Church while the Three Forms of Unity originate from shortly after the Great Reformation of the 16th century. The latter are nothing but an enlargement and further interpretation of the first. This may be proved by the fact that the Apostles' Creed is interpreted in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 8-22.

B. The question could be asked : Why does the Church need doctrinal standards ? Is not the Word of God sufficient ?

The answer is that God has given to the Christian Church the right and duty to express the doctrine of the Holy Scriptures in a summary and that way to maintain it against those deviations from the sound doctrine which also make an appeal to the Word of God (read e.g. 1 Tim. 1 : 18, 19; 3 : 15; and 6 : 12). In this way the commonly accepted confession is at the same time the bond which binds together all the local Churches and the believers "in the unity of true faith" (Heid. Cat., No. 54).  

C. We can work this out a bit further by saying that doctrinal standards are necessary:

1.   to give testimony to the world concerning the truth of God. This motive dominates in the Belgic Confession of Faith.

2.   to fix the pure confession in view of the future, and to instruct the Church itself in it. This is why the Heidelberg Catechism was written.

3.   to prevent errors and heresies from entering the Church. This is very clearly the aim of the Canons of Dort, with their -Rejection of Errors".

4.   to maintain the unity of faith and the unity of the the believers. Hence the name "The Three Forms of Unity-, given to all our Reformed doctrinal standards together.

D. The Canons of Dort, which were drafted during the great Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-19, are most likely the least known of these three forms of unity. This is more or less under standard 3* - however, it is also regrettable. They contain treasures of instruction and comfort, because they are a simple and pious confession of the revelation given in the Scriptures concerning a number of important and essential doctrinal points.

II. The Origin of the Canons of Dort

A. Within 50 years of the birth of the two oldest of our Reformed doctrinal standards, the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism, shortly after the year 1560, some serious errors arose in the Church.

These errors regarded several fundamental doctrines of the Church, namely predestination or election, the character and extent of the atonement by Christ's blood, the depth of the fall of man and the manner of faith and conversion, and the perseverance of the believers in faith, once received. There is a close relation between all these points. It can be said that the whole controversy regarded the Scriptural doctrine of the total depravity of man and his being incapable of doing any good, and of God's perfect sovereign grace.  

B. These remonstrant errors, of course, did not appear out of the blue. They were rooted in so-called -Rationalism-, which has attacked the faith of the Christian Church time and again. "Rationalism" is the effort which natural man makes to subject the doctrines of the Holy Scriptures to human intellect or reason (ratio = reason) and make them acceptable to it.

The direct precursors of Remonstrantism were men like Coornhert (1522-1590), who himself was a spiritual child of the humanist Desiderius Ercismus; and further Coolhaas, Herberts, Wiggerts, etc. Coornhert, especially, was of great importance as a precursor of Remonstrantism. He did not actually want any doctrinal standard or confession at all, except perhaps the Apostles' Creed. In this way he wanted to create -Christianity without divisions- 4*.  

C. The father of the Remonstrant party was Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609), professor of Theology at Leyden. Later on Episcopius was also appointed at Leyden. He was the Arminians' most prominent advocate at the Synod of Dordrecht.

After the death of Arminius in 1609 Uitenbogacirt came to the fore as the leader of the party.

The errors of Arminius first became apparent when he lodged some objections against Article 16 of the Belgic Confession of Faith. They were propagated in the Churches because he taught them to his students during his University lectures, and these, as ministers later on, spread them from the pulpit and at catechism class.  

D. in the year 1610 the Arminians issued a statement, a so- called Remonstrance (hence the name "Remonstrants"), in which they officially published their opinions concerning the doctrinal points mentioned under A.  

E. The first and most prominent opponent of Arminius was Franciscus Gomarus, another professor of Theology at Leyden. He combated his colleague's teachings vigorously, and correctly accused him of pelagianism 5* and popism 6*.

In the year 1611 the Calvinists published a counter dissertation against the just mentioned Remonstrance. It was most likely written by Festus Hommius, minister at Leyden.  Accordingly, the Gomarists were called "Counter- Remonstrants ".  

F. The struggles in the Church caused also some sharp political controversies, since the Estates of the Seven Provinces were closely related with Church life in those days (the Reformed Church was the Established Church), and were forced to make their choice.


The Estates of the province of Holland, under the influence of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, a famous statesman, favoured the Remonstrants. This resulted in serious trouble, especially in Rotterdam and The Hague, in which cities the Counter Remonstrants separated themselves as "dissenters" from the Remonstrants.

G. The Counter- Remonstrants wanted the Estates to convene a General Synod, in order that the dispute could be settled. But the Remonstrants did not like this. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt supported the latter ("Sharp Resolution").

Prince Maurice of Orange first hesitated, but later on he publicly chose the side of the Counter- Remonstrants, e.g. by attending the Church services of the "dissenters" in The Hague.

Then the Estates-General decided to convene a General Synod on November 1, 1618 at Dordrecht. The Reformed Churches in other countries were also invited to send delegates. This way the said Synod took on a truly ecumenical character 7*.

H. On November 13, 1618 Synod was opened. The Rev. Johannes Bogerman of Leeuwarden was appointed as chairman. He was an impressive person (he was said to have grown "the nicest beard in Europe").

Troubles arose from the very beginning, since the Remonstrants did not want to acknowledge Synod as having authority to deal with the Remonstrants as the defendants and make decisions concerning them. They wanted to consider Synod as a sort of conference between equal parties. Because the Remonstrants continuously sabotaged the work of the Synod, they were at last, in the beginning of January 1619, dismissed from the meeting of Synod, the chairman addressing them in a punishing way. Synod was compelled from then on to judge the teachings of the Remonstrants from their writings.

I. On March 21, 1619, the final reading of the "Five Articles" took place. In them first of all, an explanation was given of the true doctrine as opposed to the errors of the Remonstrants. But to each chapter a section was added under the heading -Rejection of Errors-, in which a clear exposition was given of the heresies that were rejected by the Synod.

The whole document is preceded by a "Preface" and concluded by an "Epilogue". The term "canon" means : rule, standard, for what is to be taught and preached by the Church.

II  Brief summary of the errors of the Remonstrants

1. The election occurs because of faith that is foreseen by God. It is not a matter of the absolute sovereign act of God's love, by means of which He has elected some to be given faith and led to salvation, but God decided from eternity to save them who would believe.

So the main point is not the sovereign grace of God, but man's faith !

2. The atonement of Christ is for all men. By His death He has opened the way for all people to be saved. It is cl matter of their own free will whether they will enter by this open door or not.

3. The natural man is not wholly incapable to do any good, but by using well the "light of nature-, which has been left to him after the Fall, and with the help of the grace of God, a sinner can come to regeneration and faith.

4. The grace of God is not irresistible, but the sinner can resist it and is consequently able to frustrate in himself the quickening power of God's Spirit.

5. One can lose this grace again. Regeneration can be lost again. Nobody is absolutely certain of his salvation, because the faith, through which we are assured of this, can be lost again.

It is not difficult to see that man's free will to do good is the kernel of the whole matter. It is the old Pelagian leaven ! Natural man refuses to be fully dependent on God's grace only. But he is allured by the ideal of self-redemption ! It is no wonder that in the course of history Remonstantism resulted in Modernism.

VI. Brief summary of the Five Articles against the Remonstrants

Chapter I : Divine Election and Reprobation.

All men lie equally under the curse of God because of their debts. That some respond to the preaching of God's Word and others do not, proceeds from God's eternal decree. This decree means that, according to God's free, irreproachable and unchangeable good pleasure, some people have been chosen unto salvation, while others are left in the common misery into which they have willfully plunged themselves. Faith, then, is not a condition for election but fruit of it. The cause of election is in God Himself, in His sovereign good pleasure.  

Chapter II : The Death of Christ, and the Redemption of man thereby.

Christ's death and the shedding of His blood have satisfied God's justice. Whereas many do not obey the Gospel, this is not because of any defect or insufficiency in Christ's sacrifice, but is wholly to be imputed to the sinners themselves. But those who truly believe are indebted for this benefit solely to God's grace. The quickening efficacy of Christ's death extends to all the elect, and to them exclusively.  

Chapter III/IV: The Corruption of man, his Conversion to God, and the Manner thereof.  

(Since the contents of the Articles III and IV of the - Remonstrance" formed a unity, the Synod of Dort made it into one single Article. However, in order to let the numbering of the Articles correspond, this chapter is called III/IV).  

The total depravity of the sinner cannot be taken away by --- the light of nature- or by the law of the Decalogue. Only the regenerating power of the Spirit of God through the preaching of the Gospel, which is as the quickening of the dead, effectually brings the sinner to life.

Chapter V: The Perseverance of the Saints.

Those who have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit may fall into sin again, but God does not suffer them to proceed so far as to lose His grace. Of this preservation of the elect to salvation, true believers themselves may and do obtain assurance according to the measure of their faith.

Questions :

1. What is the relation between the authority of the doctrinal standards and that of the Word of God ?  

2. Can you prove that the Apostles' Creed is indeed a summary of "all that God has revealed to us in the Gospel" (No. 22 Heid. Cat.).

3. For what reason would the Canons of Dort be the least known of our doctrinal standards ?

4. Has Coornhert any disciples in our own days still? Who are they?

5. What did Pelagius teach ?

6. What do the Roman Catholics and the Arminians have in common? (Remember especially Chapter 111/IV of the Canons).  

7. In our own days we hear about "ecumenical- synods again. What is the difference between them and the Synod of Dort ?  

H. J. Meijerink.

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