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The Historical Background to the Canons of Dort

INTRODUCTION

The Canons of Dort are "statements of doctrine adopted by the great Reformed Synod of Dort in 1618-1619". (Book of Praise, p. 531). This synod, which took place in the Dutch town of Dort, the Netherlands, commenced on November 13, 1618 and lasted for almost one year. Why is it that in 1997, some 380 years later, we, Australians, find ourselves studying Dutch synodical decisions that date back so many years? What is it about their content that we still find relevant today? Wouldn't it be far more beneficial for us to study today's issues, and seek today's answer for today's questions? Is a study on the centuries old and European Canons of Dort not a misplaced endeavour in our post-modern and technological culture?

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:9,10 warned us that "That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, "See this is new"? It has already been in ancient times before us." The very same issues which demand our attention today in the twentieth century turn out to so similar to issues which kept our fathers busy back in the seventeenth century. Hence the answers our fathers arrived at in addressing these issues can certainly benefit us in seeking answers today. More, given that the answers of the fathers of long ago were based on Scripture, it is for to work today with their answers of yesteryear.

The Belgic Confession was completed in 1561, in a context of severe persecution. To be Reformed at that time was not 'cheap', or easy. To choose to be Reformed meant that one was prepared to give up one's life for the sake of one's faith. In 1567, Guido deBres himself was hung because he wanted to be Reformed and refused to renounce his Reformed faith.

The Reformed suffered much at the hands of their Roman Catholic oppressors and Spanish overlords. However, it was not only the Reformed who resisted their Catholic oppressors and attempted to overthrow the Spaniards, but so did the Liberals (or Libertines). The latter believed in freedom, not necessarily in a political sense, but specifically in a spiritual sense. They embraced a concept of the self which considers man as being good. As far as sin is concerned they believed that man is not dead in sin even though man commits sin. Sinful is the way one describes some of man's deeds, but not man's nature. Man was good, and had within himself the wherewithall to choose the good on his own accord.

In 1572 the Netherlands were freed from Spanish oppression and consequently from persecution. This allowed for growth in Reformed Church life. Believers, individually and collectively, could come out of hiding; churches could be established openly. From this time on one notes a development of the Church Order, and the convening of provincial and national Synods. All in all the following years were a prosperous time for the Reformed Church. However to assume that all who embraced the Reformed faith were of one mind in matters of doctrine is a false assumption.

There were, in actual fact, two kinds of Reformed people at the time namely, the Calvinistic Reformed (those who adhered to Calvinism) and the Arminian Reformed (as we understand it today, for at the time Arminius, only a young boy, had not yet influenced people's thinking; the term is used simply to 'tag' the group and give it some colour in our minds). For the second group, the term 'reformed' is hardly a fitting label, for they were at heart not at all 'reformed'.


THE CALVINISTIC REFORMED

The Calvinists understood the Bible to be the inspired Word of God. Therefore, the Bible is to be believed, and it is to be regarded as the final authority in all aspects of life. Out of respect for the Bible as God's Word, this Bible was not to be challenged (said the Calvinists) but was rather to be accepted and obeyed in humility. If we can believe the Bible, we can also echo what the Bible says (confessions). Because these confessions are based on what the Bible says, one can also hold one to the confession. So these Calvinistic Reformed people demanded that office bearers sign a Form of Subscription, by means of which they promise to adhere to the confessions.


THE ARMINIAN REFORMED

The Arminian Reformed on the other hand were not so submissive to the absolute authority of Scripture. The reason for their refusal to grant such a high place to Scripture (and by extension to the confession since it echoed the Scripture) was their positive perception of man. They rightly understood that the position of the Calvinistic Reformed implied the notion that man is depraved and so cannot know the truth for himself, nor can he discover for himself what is right and good. To see the self as dead in sin (in the words of Ephesians 2:1) was anathema to these Arminian Reformed people. To have to make such a confession concerning the self was offensive to the Arminian Reformed because it challenged their belief that the mind and heart of man is not dead. Sacrosanct to these people is the notion that man is not depraved and consequently is able to reason things out for himself and so arrive at the truth. Man is able to decide between doing good or bad, to believe or not. The Bible can be of assistance, and one should busy oneself with it, but what is essential is that one uses one's mind and so comes to understand the truth. Admittedly, with everyone thinking things through for themselves there will be many different conclusions as to what constitutes truth, and only tolerance will accommodate this.

Here we find two radically different lines of thought which, not surprisingly, brought its own tensions to church life in Holland. For with the Arminian Reformed thinking, the very heart had been cut out of the Reformed faith. What the churches together had confessed in Article 15 of the Belgic Confession was denied by the Arminian Reformed:

"We believe that by the disobedience of Adam original sin has spread throughout the whole human race. It is a corruption of the entire nature of man and a hereditary evil which infects even infants in their mother's womb. As a root it produces in man all sorts of sin. It is, therefore, so vile and abominable in the sight of God that it is sufficient to condemn the human race. It is not abolished nor eradicated even by baptism, for sin continually streams forth like water welling up from this woeful source…."

But if people were not totally depraved, salvation did not need to depend entirely on God either. So friction arose also on Article 16 of the Belgic Confession:

"We believe that, when the entire offspring of Adam plunged into perdition and ruin by the transgression of the first man, God manifested Himself to be as He is: merciful and just. Merciful, in rescuing and saving from this perdition those whom in His eternal and unchangeable counsel He has elected in Jesus Christ our Lord by His pure goodness, without any consideration of their works. Just, in leaving the others in the fall and perdition into which they have plunged themselves."

Again, if salvation did not depend entirely on God, if people were not so dead that they could contribute nothing of their own, then the place of Christ's work as confessed in Article 21 was attacked as well:

"…He presented Himself in our place before His Father, appeasing God's wrath by His full satisfaction, offering Himself on the tree of the cross, where He poured out His precious blood to purge away our sins…. He was numbered with the transgressors…. He died as the righteous for the unrighteous.…"

For those who had learned to love the doctrine of salvation by grace alone, freely given by God to the unworthy, the positions held by the Arminian Reformed constituted an attack upon the very heart of the gospel itself. And an attack it was, a Satanic attack to destroy the gains of the Great Reformation. No wonder the two sides clashed.


A CHURCH - POLITICAL STRUGGLE

But the struggle was not only related to the question of what one thought about the nature of man, and hence about whether salvation came fully from God or not. The Arminian Reformed embraced a notion of church that destroyed the confession of Article 27 of the Belgic Confession. The Church, says that confession, is made up of "the true Christian believers", that is, the members. Hence from within the membership officebearers are chosen who govern the congregation in the name of Jesus Christ.

The Arminian Reformed, on the other hand, maintained that the government of the country should control all matters in the country - including the Church. The government should control the Church by means of the ministers, who are its servants and who are also paid by the government. With the government in control it follows that there is then little room for elders and deacons. Hence, during this period of Holland's church history, one could find many churches but few elders and deacons, and those that were there were just lackeys at that, to be of service to ministers who in turn served the government. Consequently such a construction of church government left no room for a synod, and there was no place for a congregational meeting. The Church was not the members, but effectively the Church was the ministers. Where the minister is, there is the Church.

How then were vacant pulpits filled in the churches at the time? The government had the final say regarding which minister was to be appointed to fill a vacancy, in spite of the preferences of the congregation. From the 1590s onward till the 1610s Holland was under the government of a man called Oldenbarnevelt, a Liberal. He too embraced the idea that people are essentially good, have a free will, and so are able to decide between good and evil. It isn't so surprising then that a government with such a tendency worked together with the Arminian Reformed. There existed a kinship between the Arminians and the government who together tried to shut out those who were Calvinistic Reformed. It culminated in a Church political struggle.

The Government of the day, together with the Arminian Reformed, refused to give permission for the churches to convene a synod in order to deal with the doctrinal differences in the churches, for, they claimed, the government was the final authority in all church matters. Hence there were no synods between 1586 and 1618. The Calvinistic Reformed however believed it was unscriptural for the government to interfere in Church matters, and therefore continued to request permission to hold a Synod.

Once a synod was finally convened, therefore, it did not just concern itself with matters of doctrine, but also with matters of Church Polity, i.e. Church government. The Synod or Dort even finalised a Church Order which we still use today: the Church Order of Dort. It firmly fixes responsibility for church matters with the churches themselves.


"IF IT HAD NOT BEEN THE LORD WHO WAS ON OUR SIDE ..."

Psalm 124, used at the time of the Liberation of 1944 to describe the Lord's hand in liberating the churches from hierarchy, is also very applicable as a description of what the Lord did for His Church at this early stage of the history of the Reformed Churches. There we read, "If it had not been the LORD who was on our side, when men rose up against us, then they would have swallowed us alive. . . . Blessed be the LORD, who has not given us as prey to their teeth. Our soul has escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped. Our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth" (Psalm 124:2,3,6-10).

The Reformation had started in Europe in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Church at Wittenberg. Central to the Reformation was the doctrine that man is saved by grace alone; salvation is God's gift and not man's doing (Ephesians 2.) The Reformation had a widespread influence on Holland, and Calvinism was widely embraced. However, the doctrine of salvation by grace alone was not embraced by all, and in the least by Satan. The events that unfolded in the last two decades of the 16th century and the first two decades of the 17th century clearly point up how determined Satan was to undo the work God had begun in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. The Arminian Reformed, affected by humanistic thinking, sought to snuff out the gains of the Reformation in the Netherlands. And close they came to doing so. Humanly speaking, there ought to be no Church in Holland in view of the circumstances during this 40 year period. It truly must be ascribed to a miracle by God's grace that there came a break from oppression. Oldenbarnevelt virtually ruled Holland as a dictator. So opposed was he to the doctrine of man's total depravity that he even organised for those who embraced it to be persecuted. In 1617 the Calvinistic Reformed were persecuted in the same way as in the days of Guido deBres, the only exception being that there was no death penalty. One's faith could cost one's job, one's land, one's comforts. To be truly reformed in 1617 was not cheap. Through the combined forces of the Arminian Reformed and the Liberal government of Oldenbarnevelt, Satan had as it were a stranglehold on the Calvinistic Reformed churches - the churches of Jesus Christ. The Reformed faith certainly came close to being 'swallowed up', snuffed out.


SATAN'S ATTACK THROUGH OLDENBARNEVELT / GOD'S DELIVERANCE THROUGH MAURITZ

Note well though what our God did! His hand provided for the fact that a prince by the name of Mauritz should reign in Holland. Mauritz was not a man given to religious business, but was a man of the military. He was nominally Reformed however, and went to Church. The church he attended in the Hague was served by four ministers, one of whom was Utenbogaart. Utenbogaart was the 'Court preacher' or, as we would say, had the royal family in his ward. He faithfully taught Arminian Reformed thinking, namely, that man is not dead in sin, but has the capacity freely to choose to accept the salvation God kindly offers him.

The Lord used Oldenbarnevelt's heavy hand to move Prince Mauritz initially to sympathise with the Calvinistic Reformed, and later to embrace Calvinistic Reformed thinking. Mauritz considered Oldenbaarnevelt's disposition to the Calvinistic Reformed to be unjust, and at their encouragement, ended up going to Church with the Calvinists. He had sworn an oath that he would defend the Reformed faith, and now made clear what he understood by the word 'reformed'. When Oldenbaarnevelt in turn encouraged the taking up of arms and the hiring of soldiers in a last ditch attempt to free Holland of all Calvinistic Reformed, Mauritz, recognising that Holland was close to being involved in a civil war, took action. He saw to it that Oldenbarnevelt and his followers were imprisoned, and Oldenbarnevelt himself was hung. Herewith the political strength of both the Liberals and the Arminian Reformed was broken, and so the Calvinistic Reformed could breathe a deep sigh of relief. Their persecution came to a sudden end, as Satan's stranglehold on the church of Christ was broken. This was none other than God's gift for the preservation of His Church in the face of Satan's attack on the Church.

Mauritz further saw to it that the Church finally received the Synod it had requested for so long. It commenced on November 13, 1618. We must see this Synod in the light of the Lord's work. If He had not 'stood in the breach', there would be no Church in Holland today. And we, heirs as we may be of God's work in the Netherlands, would not be Calvinistic Reformed. All of 400 years ago already God wanted me to be reformed today, and so guided events to that end.



FURTHER READING:

Faber, J., Meijerink, H.J., Trimp, C. & Zomer, G. (1979). The Bride's Treasure. Launceston, Tasmania: Publication Organisation of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia.

Munneke, J.F. Het Historisch Fundament.