What You Need to Know about the Synod of Dordt

A synod is an assembly of church officials. In 1574, the Het Hof, an Augustinian monastery in Dordrecht (or Dordt, Dort, pictured in part below), the Netherlands, hosts the first Reformed synod following the Spanish Revolt, under the headship of William of Orange. Four years later the first national synod is held in Dordt at St Jorisdoelen (not pictured), near the Het Hof. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg note that, following the Synod of The Hague, in 1586, "no further national synods were allowed by the States General, except one: the Synod of Dordrecht in 1618-1619."1 What prompts this synod, who are the objects of those gathered, and its conclusion is an important discussion that needs to be held today between Calvinists and Arminians.

Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) is a brilliant Reformed professor at Leiden, having been mentored by John Calvin's supralapsarian successor Theodore Beza (1519-1605), and having gleaned from the philosophy and methodology of Petrus Ramus (1515-1572).2 While Arminius is maintaining his pastoral duties, at the Old Reformed Church, he encounters his first controversy in 1591 when he is asked to defend his mentor's theology in light of a pamphlet being circulated arguing against Calvin and Beza's commentaries on Romans 9. Noted Arminius biographer Carl Bangs writes:
This Arminius was pleased to do, says Bertius, and he set himself to a thorough study in preparation for the task. The Delft writers had attempted to defend the doctrine of predestination by modifying Beza's supralapsarianism to a sublapsarian position. Arminius' task, then, was to defend supralapsarianism against sublapsarianism. In the process, according to Bertius, his mind went through two transitions.3
Arminius' first transition is a conversion to the very arguments he is asked to refute; the second being not fully concluding that those arguments are entirely scriptural, after all. Instead, Arminius takes a mediating position that resembles that of Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Luther's successor.4 But Arminius is by far not the first to depart from the theology of Calvin, Beza, and those who advance their theology.

In 1531, radical Lutheran minister Franck (1499-1542) opposes aspects of Calvin's thought, which, in turn, influences Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert (1522-1590), who is one of the authors of the theological pamphlet Arminius is called upon to refute, in defense of his mentor, Beza. Gerrit Voogt writes: "It is mainly through Coornhert that Arminius and his followers would become informed of Franck's ideas."5 Enter Sabastian Castellio (1515-1563). To call Castellio an anti-Calvinist is quite the understatement. Again, Voogt notes: "Coornhert was the main conduit for the transmission of Castellio's thoughts to the circle around Arminius." This is significant for the following reason:
In one of his polemical writings against the Reformed minister [Reinier] Donteclock [1545-1614], Coornhert makes the well-known statement: "I gladly admit that, in one short page in Castellio's writings, I find more truth, more piety, and more that is elevating, than in all the books of Calvin and Beza."6
In other words, long before Arminius is ushered onto the Dutch Reformed stage, unrest against Calvinism is already well underway. The Reformation began by Luther is evolving, its premise including the three-fold notion of the priesthood of the believer, sola scriptura taking precedence over Dutch or Genevan confessions and catechisms, and freedom of conscience -- all of which is making the Dutch Calvinists very uneasy.

HET HOF (THE COURT OR TOWN HALL): MEETING PLACE OF THE SYNOD OF DORDT

Arminius' failure to defend his mentor's supralapsarianism brings into question his orthodoxy among some ministers and theologians at Leiden. Arminius' sermons on Romans 9, as well as the publication of his dissertation on Romans 7, further complicate his position in the Reformed church. Unfortunately, intentional misrepresentations and overt lies begin to spread about some of Arminius' beliefs. He spends an inordinate amount of time defending himself and his beliefs from Calvinist detractors, Franciscus Gomarus (1563-1641) chief among them. Two charges against Arminius' doctrines are especially grievous: one of advocating Pelagianism, and another of being a secret Roman Catholic sympathizer,7 neither of which are true.

Keep in mind that, for Arminius, "Because He [God] is the highest good, His first action towards any object must be the communication of good. (How easy, he interjected, to lapse into Manicheism, when anyone is incautiously avoiding Pelagianism.)"8 Avoiding Pelagianism, even semi-Pelagianism, is a primary concern for Arminius' Reformed views. His negative anthropology,9 coupled with his doctrines of the absolute necessity of grace,10 refute all calumnies against Arminius advocating Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.

Arminius disagrees with the novel Calvinistic theory of unconditional election and the manner in which his mentor, Beza, outlines and defines reprobation. Peter White writes:
Beza and his followers referred reprobation to the divine good pleasure (εὐδοκία). Arminius objected that every good pleasure of God towards man is in Jesus Christ. Scripture teaches that it is the "good pleasure" of God that everyone who sees the Son, and believes on Him, should have eternal life. Even worse, Beza had suggested that the reprobate are admonished in order to render them inexcusable, because God has determined by the divine decree not to grant them penitence and faith, and also because that is in the intention of the divine admonition, and God is never frustrated in His end. Arminius rejected both explanations.11
Additionally, Arminius rejects the methodology of many Calvinists regarding God's decrees of election and reprobation. White continues, noting that for Arminius, the "explanation makes God guilty of hypocrisy by exhorting to repentance and faith those on whom He has decreed not to bestow either. The fact that preachers do not know who is elect and who [is] reprobate made no difference to the argument."12 Does God not, then, command the alleged non-elect to believe a lie? Such an idea undermines the integrity of God.

REFORMED CHURCH, GROOTE KERK, AT DORDRECHT (DORDT)

The truth, for Arminius and Arminians, is that God grants that
the redemption is not effectual for all. That is because sin is not actually remitted except to those who believe in Christ. Any other conclusion makes the command to believe and the promise of remission of sins, as applied to the reprobate, a command to believe a lie, for refusal to obey which they are then convicted on the grounds of their unbelief and stubbornness.13
This notion is unbecoming of our God of holiness, righteousness, and justice.

Arminius desires to convene a synod in order to discuss these issues, asking whether certain words or phrases from the Dutch creeds the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism can be amended. During his work toward this goal he contracts tuberculosis and dies 19 October 1609. Theological controversy over such is already heated and many within the Dutch Reformed community, notably the Calvinist party, seek to put an end to the strife. With Arminius deceased the Calvinists intend to halt his theology from spreading further than it already has, which is extensive, and threatens the survival of Calvinism.

Arminius having deceased, the Remonstrants (lit. Arminian Protesters) seek to carry on their leader's cause. In 1610, they construct a Remonstrance outlining three points with which they disagree regarding Calvinism, namely, the novel theories of unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace, maintaining their doctrine of total depravity, yet drawing no solid conclusion regarding perseverance. By 1618, however, after much study of the scriptures, they conclude that forfeiting salvation is a possibility for a genuine believer and they construct their Opinions of the Remonstrants.

The Contra-Remonstrants, i.e., Calvinists, launch a counterstrike in the form of what has become known as TULIP, a defense of a soteriological outline of Calvinism (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, Perseverance of the saints). The Remonstrants petition the States-General for protection while they seek for their theology to be tolerated among the Reformed churches, given that many of the Arminians are being attacked by Calvinist mobs, as riots are increasing over these and other issues.14 This is granted to them for a while, that is, until Prince Maurice (Maurits van Oranje, 1567-1625) involves himself in the matter.

THE INFAMOUS ARMINIAN DUNG CART

Angry with Arminian supporter Johan van Oldenbarnevelt (1547-1619), a Dutch statesman and hero of the people, over the issue of the East-West Indies trade controversy, the truce with Catholic Spain, and foreign policy,15 Prince Maurice becomes hell-bent in bringing about the ruination of the Remonstrants in general and Oldenbarnevelt in particular by means of this infamous Synod.

Calvinist scholar Donald Sinnema claims that, when ordered to appear before the Synod of Dordt, the Remonstrants "did not fully cooperate,"16 and that, even later, during the proceedings, with "the Remonstrants still not cooperating,"17 their perceived refusal to "fully" cooperate ultimately led to their condemnation. Neither Sinnema nor myself are entirely objective on this issue.

Calvinist scholar Dr. Mark A. Ellis correctly notes, "The common criticism of Dortian Calvinists, that the Remonstrants were 'uncooperative,' sounds like censuring someone for not lying still at their own crucifixion."18 The truth of the matter regarding the Synod of Dordt is summed up quite adequately by Dr. Ellis: The Calvinists "engineered a synod guaranteed to fulfill their purposes."19 This truth is even highlighted in a quote granted by Dr. Sinnema himself:
On 11 November 1617, the States General approved a list of articles to convene the national synod. Its ninth article spelled out the Synod's basic agenda:

IX. In the assembly the well-known Five Articles [of the Remonstrants] in controversy and the difficulties that have arisen from them shall first and foremost be treated, in order earnestly to see how these may be removed from the churches with the least trouble and in the most proper manner, so that the peace of the church (but especially the purity of doctrine) may be preserved.20 (emphasis added)
The agenda of the Dutch Calvinists is obvious: they convene not to genuinely discuss the issues in question, not to allow the Remonstrants to defend their theology in order to weigh its biblical foundation -- the point is moot because the Calvinists of Dordt would have never permitted the theology of the Arminian to be considered "biblical" -- but to condemn the Arminians. Moreover, Dutch historian Pieter Geyl supports this conclusion against the bias of Dr. Sinnema:
The Synod was composed exclusively of orthodox Calvinists. . . . Episcopius appeared as [the Remonstrants'] chief spokesman. Not that there was ever any discussion of the points at issue. For six weeks Episcopius and his friends put up a dogged resistance to the efforts of Bogerman [the Overseer] and the "politicians" (the delegates from the States-General) to threaten or cajole them into acquiescence in a form of procedure which would have drastically limited their freedom of speech. At last, on 14 January 1619, they [the Remonstrants] were driven contumely out of the assembly, so that the Synod might examine and condemn their errors in their absence.21
The Synod of Dordt is not a legitimate assembly to debate or discuss theological tensions in the Dutch churches but is merely a place for the lynching of the Remonstrants. The Calvinists "demanded absolute subjection from the Remonstrants, limited their participation to the presentation of their views and prohibited criticisms of [Calvinistic] positions, especially reprobation,"22 writes Dr. Ellis. He notes that the Calvinists are "also careful from which regions they invited delegates from outside the United Provinces."23 Yet, at times, even the Calvinists cannot agree among each other -- a fact that threatens "the overarching purposes of the synod, the appearance of a united Reformed front against the Arminians."24 A remarkable demonstration of this is given in the footnote and is quite worth the read.

The Synod of Dordt is a sham. The only reason the Calvinists of Dordt are briefly successful throughout the Netherlands is due to Prince Maurice's active role and intervening political, not theological, agenda.25 At the conclusion of the Synod of Dordt, over 300 Arminian ministers are deposed of their teaching positions and pulpit ministries, and expelled from their Dutch homeland. Brilliant Dutch jurist and founder of International Treaty and Maritime Law Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) is imprisoned (he escaped with the help of his wife); and Dutch hero Johan van Oldenbarnevelt is condemned to death by beheading for the trumped-up charge of "treason." Many note the irony that, as harshly as the Roman Catholics treated the Calvinists, so did the Calvinists return the favor on the Arminians; and, instead of being embarrassed by this kangaroo court, many Calvinists today still laud its proceedings.

The silver lining of the Synod of Dordt begins to appear when the Arminians are allowed, upon the death of Prince Maurice, to enter again into their Dutch homeland. Here Arminian theology begins to flourish. Keith Stanglin and Thomas McCall rightly note: "Interestingly, even some Christians who are committed to Reformed ecclesial bodies [e.g., Dr. Alvin Plantinga] will admit that the theology of Arminius should have been retained as a legitimate theological option and perhaps is theologically superior to the conclusions put forth by Dordt."26 (emphasis added) We agree entirely.

__________

1 Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg, "Introduction," in Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), eds. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg (Leiden: Brill, 2011), x.

2 See Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1986), 56-63. See also Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60-1609), eds. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin, and Marijke Tolsma (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 119-20; 125-56; 267n.

3 Bangs, 138.

4 Ibid., 139.

5 Gerrit Voogt, Constraint on Trial: Dirck Volckertsz Coornhert and Religious Freedom (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2000), 52-53.

6 Ibid., 62. See also Martin van Gelderen, The Political Thought of the Dutch Revolt 1555-1590, eds. Quentin Skinner, Lorraine Daston, Wolf Lepenies, Richard Rorty, and J.B. Schneewind (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 244.

7 Calvinist theologian Dr. Richard A. Muller writes: "Arminius was certainly not a crypto-Catholic or a Jesuit sympathizer." See God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 29.

8 Peter White, Predestination, Policy and Polemic: Conflict and Consensus in the English Church from the Reformation to the Civil War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 27.

9 See Jacob Arminius, "Twenty-Five Public Disputations. Disputation XI. On the Free Will of Man and Its Powers," in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:189-96. See also Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 150-64.

10 Arminius, Works, 2:395-403; 700-01.

11 White, 27.

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid., 28.

14 A.C. Grayling, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius (New York: Walker & Company, 2005), 35-36. See also Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age, eds. R. Po-Chia Hsia and H.F.K. van Nierop (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 36: "a large part of the population of the [Dutch] north was not automatically won over to Calvinism, not even to the Protestant Reformation [i.e., many remained Roman Catholic]. They simply wanted freedom [a freedom denied to them by power-hungry Dutch Calvinists]. . . ."

15 J.L. Price, The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century (New York: St Martin's Press, 1998), 103.

16 Donald Sinnema, "The Canons of Dordt: From Judgment on Arminianism to Confessional Standard," in Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619), 314.

17 Ibid., 317. Dr. W. Stephen Gunter writes: "The Arminians objected that they appeared as ministers accused of heresy, as it was clear that the intention of the synod was to pass judgment on them. In that process they were consistently unwilling to be compliant. Since it was the state intention of the synod to pass judgment of theological positions, the Arminians made the point that they would prefer to start the theological judgments on the topic of eternal reprobation, by which the 'strict Reformed' taught that God had condemned the greater majority of humanity to hell before they were even born. Early in the proceedings, they tried several times to get this onto the agenda. Of course, on procedural grounds, Chairman Bogerman refused to allow the accused to dictate procedure. From this perspective, the refusal to be cooperative cut both ways." See Arminius and His Declaration of Sentiments: An Annotated Translation with Introduction and Theological Commentary (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 192, ftn. 2.

18 Mark A. Ellis, Simon Episcopius' Doctrine of Original Sin (New York: Peter Lang, 2008), 35.

19 Ibid.

20 Sinnema, 314. "The Palatine delegation also suggested that a positive writing be prepared: After the heterodox doctrine has been rejected and condemned in this way, thought should be given to firmly establishing orthodox doctrine." (316)

21 Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the 17th Century Part One: 1609-1648 (New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1966), 70-71.

22 Ellis, 35. He continues: "The Remonstrants defied the orders of the president [of the Synod], denied the synod's legitimacy and demanded the right of free debate." This is denied to them.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid. Tensions are high when supralapsarian Franciscus Gomarus, Arminius' chiefest opponent, challenges infralapsarian Matthias Martinius to a duel over the matter of the extent of the atonement: "ego hanc rem in me recipio [I, in this situation, regain myself, states Gomarus], and therewithal casts his Glove ... and requires the Synod to grant them [him and Martinius] a Duel ... Martinius who goes in aequipace [i.e., is equally endowed] with Gomarus in Learning, a little before him for his Discretion, easily [considers] this affront, and after some few words of course, by the wisdom of the Praeses [Mineral (Wisdom) Stones] matters seemed to be a little pacified, and so according to the custom, the Synod with Prayer concluded. Zeal and Devotion had not so well allayed Gomarus his choler [temper], but immediately after Prayers he renewed his Challenge [to a duel] and required Combat with Martinius again; but they parted for that night without blowes [sic]. See W. Robert Godfrey, "Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dort," in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1619-1619), 243.

25 Stanglin and McCall, 197.

26 Ibid.

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ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.