The Crowning Meaninglessness of the Synod of Dordt

Nearly a decade after the death of Arminius in 1609, the States General in Holland held a synod (council or assembly), wherein religious and state officials from various regions accused the Arminians of heresy and expelled them from both pulpit ministry and teaching theology. The result of the Synod of Dordt comes to us in the Canons of Dordt -- "canons" referring to a rule of decrees or judgments. Therein are statements of affirmation and denial of Calvinistic and Arminian soteriology respectively. 

Arminius held to both the Belgic Confession (by far one of the most beautiful confessions I have ever read) and the Heidelberg Catechism, though he interpreted certain statements within each in a different manner than did many others among the Reformed Protestants, both at Leiden and in his church. The Canons of Dordt, unlike either aforementioned creeds, are less ambiguous regarding the subject of the sovereignty of God (interpreted as strict determinism) and how people come to faith in Christ for salvation. The Canons affirm God's unconditional election (or unconditional predestination) of only some unto faith and salvation in the following manner:
Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of His will, He chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin ...

And so He decided to give the chosen ones to Christ and to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ's fellowship through His Word and Spirit. In other words, He decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of His son, to glorify them.1
The authors made certain that this view of election is explicitly unconditional in nature and, thus, does not take into consideration "the basis of foreseen faith" or "of the obedience of faith,"2 statements to which Arminius and the Remonstrants explicitly held. The authors of the Canons were striking at the very heart of Arminius' doctrine of salvation -- as well as to that of the early Church fathers prior to St Augustine in the early fifth century -- in both their affirmations and denials. 

They stated their rejection of the "error" of those who taught that "the will of God to save those who would believe and persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith is the whole and entire decision of election to salvation, and that nothing else concerning this decision has been revealed in God's Word."3 Again, this so-called error was affirmed by Arminius, the Remonstrants, and all of the Church fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century. 

In their Arminian Confession of 1621, the Remonstrants stated that, "when God calls sinners to Himself through the gospel and seriously commands faith and obedience either under the promise of eternal life, or to the contrary, under the threat of eternal death, He not only bestows necessary but also sufficient grace for sinners to render faith and obedience."4 (emphases added) Though Arminius and the Remonstrants held to the Reformed position that, primarily through the Word and the Spirit is anyone brought to Christ,5 they understood that the means of grace can be resisted -- a notion which the Calvinists themselves resisted.

Arminius thought Scripture is clear as to whom God has elected to save, for Scripture insists that God saves those who believe (John 3:15, 16, 36; 4:14; 5:24, 40; 6:47; 6:50-58; 20:31; Rom 3:21-30; 4:3-5; 4:9, 11, 13, 16; 4:20-24; 5:1, 2; 9:30-33; 10:4; 10:9-13; 1 Cor 1:21; 15:1-2; Gal 2:15-16; 3:2-9; 3:11; 3:14, 22, 24; 3:26-28; Eph 1:13; 2:8; Phil 3:9; Heb 3:6, 14; 3:18-19; 4:2-3; 6:12; 1 John 2:23-25; 5:10-13, 20). God does not save unbelievers (Mark 1:15; Luke 8:12; John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 1:16-17; 3:22; 6:8; 10:9-10; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 3:22; Eph. 1:19; 1 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 7:25; 11:6; 1 John 5:13). What Scripture does not teach is that God unconditionally elects who will believe and who will remain in unbelief (Rom. 11:22-23).

Regarding God's decree of election Arminius held: "This rests or depends on the [foreknowledge] and foresight of God, by which He foreknew, from all eternity ... what men would, through such [means], believe by the aid of [prevenient, enabling] grace, and would persevere by the aid of subsequent or following grace; and who would not believe and persevere."6 Note he does not use the language of God "looking down the corridors of time" in order to see who would or would not receive Christ, and then elected believers unto salvation. Arminius' view is rooted in the exhaustive knowledge of God, which properly belongs to Him by essence. 

Arminius believed that God knows and has always known all that can be known; God's omniscience is part of His essence as God7 -- he affirms that God "does nothing in time which He has not decreed to do from all eternity."8 All knowledge to God is a reality correspondent with His essence. In other words, God does not learn any new concept, nor does He ever have an idea. The entirety of His knowledge is as eternal as is He Himself. God did not, therefore, look down through the corridors of time to learn who were His elect. God has always known the creatures created in His image in their ultimate state as either believers or non-believers.


This notion, however, was not one with which Calvinists were capable of tolerating. The Calvinistic position of God's meticulous sovereignty, exhaustive decree of all events (what is by necessity to take place in time and history), and unconditional election is the only biblically-viable case for Calvinists; and all other positions are heterodox at best and a denial of the Faith at worst. In over four centuries now, little has changed in that regard. This is why some modern Calvinists point Arminians to the Synod of Dordt, to inform them that Arminianism was condemned as heresy. 

The embarrassing and ridiculous nature of this claim, however, speaks more to the Calvinist's ignorance of Church history than one realizes. For no fact is more clearly established in the history of the Church than that the early fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century were, anachronistically taken, Arminian in their theology and soteriology.9 The Augustinian-Calvinistic positions of God's meticulous sovereignty, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace are the novel and heterodox theories introduced into the Church, not Arminianism.

What makes the Synod of Dort most embarrassing for Calvinists, however, is not merely its inevitable exposure as being antithetical to early Church orthodoxy but the overt political nature of that kangaroo court. Many Calvinistic claims -- i.e., sovereignty tantamount to hard or even soft determinism, regeneration preceding faith, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints -- are, from an historical perspective, heterodox: they have not been "that which has been believed everywhere, always, by all," as St Vincent of Lerins (d. 445) declared. 

Prince Maurice's involvement in the Synod of Dordt against the Remonstrants, which included even divergent ideas regarding East and West Indies trading, demonstrates the political, just as much as the theological, nature of this gathering.10 The Remonstrants were denied a proper hearing and defense at this silly Synod, tried, declared heretics, and exiled from their country. Johan Oldenbarnevelt, a Dutch hero, foreign diplomat, and Arminian, was beheaded for "treason." The relentless, fanatical, and tyrannical nature of the Dutch Calvinists is merely historical fact; and the present reality that Calvinists refuse to name Arminians as a branch of the Reformed movement is telling -- being Reformed is not tantamount to being a Calvinist.

While a Calvinist like Alvin Plantinga suggests that Arminius and the Remonstrants were Calvinists, Reformed, and that the Reformed community over-reacted to the theology of the former, not completely understanding their nuanced positions,11 Arminians Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall suggest that such a concept is not necessary for viewing "the important point: it may still be argued that the theological proposals of Arminius seem to be 'winning' the intellectual battle, even within some sectors of Reformed life and thought."12 

While the vast majority of Christians from the east and the west recognize the first seven ecumenical councils of our early Church history, only Calvinists recognize the Synod of Dordt. Had Prince Maurice not sided with the Calvinists, for political reasons, nonetheless, that synod may have have concluded with very different results. Moreover, had the Arminians behaved in the same manner as did the Calvinists, and had garnered the upper hand politically, would Calvinists today recognize the Arminian Synod of Dordt, which would have declared Calvinism as heresy? Hence the meaninglessness of the Synod of Dordt for all followers of Christ today and until His return.

__________

1 Quoted from the Canons of Dordt.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 2165.

4 The Arminian Confession of 1621, ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 106.

5 For example, Arminius writes, "We define Vocation [i.e., 'calling'] as a gracious act of God in Christ by which, through His word and Spirit, He calls forth sinful men, who are liable to condemnation and placed under the dominion of sin, from the condition of the [natural, unregenerate] life, and from the pollutions and corruptions of this world." See Jacob Arminius, "Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:231-32. 

6 Ibid., 2:719.

7 He affirms that God "knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible ... The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves." In the same Disputation he states, "God knows all things, neither by intelligible ... representations, nor by similitude, but by His own and sole essence; with the exception of evil things, which He knows indirectly." (2:341)

8 Ibid., 2:227, 235.

9 Dr. Ken Keathley comments, "What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy." See Kenneth D. Keathley, "The Work of God: Salvation," in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.

10 Jan J. Poelhekke, writing for the Encyclopædia Britannica, explains: "Seen in retrospect, the climax [of the events leading up to the Synod of Dordt] announced itself when in July 1617 Prince Maurice sided openly and defiantly with the Counter-Remonstrants [i.e., Calvinists]. This veiled declaration of war on [Johan Oldenbarnevelt, a Dutch hero, foreign diplomat, and Arminian] and the Holland regents' party was answered by the so-called Sharp Resolution voted by the States of Holland on Aug. 4, 1617, which, among other things, encouraged the various towns in the province to recruit armed units of their own, not integrated in the federal army and not even subject to Maurice's command as the province's captain general. The states remained within their rights in taking such measures. It is understandable that a man like Maurice considered such actions an intolerable violation of the union statute. Slow-moving tactician that he was, the prince spent no less than a whole year in reinforcing his position throughout the union, until suddenly, on Aug. 29, 1618, he took Oldenbarnevelt prisoner, together with some of his closest [Arminian] collaborators, chief among whom was his informal 'crown prince,' Hugo Grotius, then pensionary of Rotterdam." (link) As mentioned in the post: the Remonstrants were tried at the Synod, declared heretics, and exiled from their country. Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded for "treason." The relentless, fanatical, and tyrannical nature of many Calvinists is merely historical fact. 

11 Alvin Plantinga, "The Philosophy of Religion," in God's Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Dialogue, ed. Rupert Shortt (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 53.

12 Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 198.