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Background Theology to the Canons of Dort

The Synod of Dort, 1618-1619, was held in view of the rising influence of Arminianism in the Reformed Church. The heresy known to us as ‘Arminianism’ was, however, not new at all.


HUMAN NATURE: IS IT GOOD, SICK, OR TOTALLY CORRUPT?

In 354 A.D. two men were born, both of whom would make an enormous impact on the Church of Jesus Christ. Their names were Pelagius and Augustine. Their paths crossed in the later years of their lives, due to their widely opposing viewpoints on the following three doctrinal issues:

  1. Human nature
  2. Man’s need for grace
  3. God’s sovereignty

The fundamental difference between the opposing systems of thought of these two men rested on their radically opposing views concerning human nature. The crucial question was, ‘Is man good or not’? How one answers this question determines what one believes concerning man’s need for grace and what one confesses concerning the sovereignty of God. To what extent is God’s grace needed? The moment one disputes man’s total depravity and consequently man’s total dependence on God’s grace one simultaneously disputes God’s sovereignty. If man by his free will is able to take the initiative for his own salvation, deciding for himself whether or not he will be saved, God’s sovereignty is restricted for then God’s role in the salvation of man is limited by the decisions and actions of man.


PELAGIUS

Pelagius believed the following:

  • God created Adam neither good nor bad, but ‘neutral’. Adam was in a position to choose for himself whether he would do good or bad. Adam had a free will; Adam had the capacity to choose between good and evil.
  • Pelagius taught that God made Adam a mortal being; ‘death’ was simply part of being a creature. In other words, Pelagius believed that death was not the wages of sin.
  • Adam chose to sin, to do evil. The consequence of this choice was not that Adam became sinful, depraved, or dead in sin, but rather that Adam became a sinner. However, after the fall into sin Adam retained a free will and so was still able to come back from doing evil and do good (be it that, once he had tasted the forbidden fruit of sin it was harder to refrain from it). Contrary to what Scripture states in Genesis 6:5, namely, "that every intent of the thoughts of his heart (i.e. every thought and every imagination behind all thoughts) was only evil continually" Pelagius taught that Adam did not become depraved in his heart but rather, he could commit isolated sinful acts if he so desired.
  • when Adam chose to sin, he injured himself alone, and not his descendants. Adam’s fall was Adam’s alone; his descendants did not fall with him. So no other human is guilty of original sin, nor did any one become depraved. Adam’s children remained the way Adam was created: neutral. As to why people sin, Pelagius reasoned that children sin because they follow a wrong example, and sinning can become habitual. Consequently, people sin. Yet Pelagius believed that it was possible for children, born innocent, sinless, with neutral minds and hearts, to grow up without knowing sin if they are never exposed to a bad example.
  • As to man’s need for God’s grace, Pelagius believed that man did not need God’s grace in order to be saved, but man could choose for himself whether or not he would be saved.


AUGUSTINE

Augustine believed that the Bible taught the following:

  • God created Adam good. Adam was not neutral, (i.e. neither good nor bad), or in a position to choose between being good or evil but he was good and able to do good. As far as Adam’s free will was concerned, Adam, created good, was able to do either good or evil; i.e. Adam was able to sin. By placing the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden God placed Adam before a test.
  • Adam was not created mortal; he would not die unless he sinned. Death, in other words, is the wages of sin.
  • When Adam fell into sin he changed from being good to being evil. He did not merely become a sinner but he became sinful, dead in sin, depraved. Having made himself depraved, Adam did not have the wherewithal to revert to being good. Having placed himself on the side of Satan, Adam would stay lost forever unless God took him away from Satan back to Himself. In order to go back to God, Adam was totally dependent on God’s grace.
  • With Adam’s fall into sin, all his descendants fell also. The whole human race was present in Adam when he fell into sin and so all are affected by original pollution, i.e, all have lost their goodness and become depraved, dead in sin. More, all are responsible for their own fall into sin, so that each is guilty of original sin.
  • In order to be saved, then, Adam and all people are in need of God’s grace. We all are totally dependent on God for all things. I can contribute absolutely nothing to my salvation.
  • An acknowledgment of total dependence on God for salvation implies an acknowledgment of God’s sovereignty. Only those predestined by God to be saved shall receive salvation. My dependence on God is such that there is no salvation for me unless God chooses to save me and unless God acts upon me.


SEMI-PELAGIANISM

Pelagius propounded his teachings in Rome and on account of these met with opposition from Augustine in 409 AD. In 431 AD the Synod of Ephesus officially condemned Pelagius’ teachings as heretical, and upheld the position of Augustine as Scripturally accurate. Herewith, the Lord’s Church was once again put back on the right path. However, Satan was not content to let matters rest at that. Although people agreed that Pelagius’ teachings were not correct, Augustine’s teachings were perceived to be too extreme. Whereas Pelagius was condemned for being too positive in his views concerning human nature, Augustine was said to be far too negative. Hence a compromise was sought, leading to what is known as ‘Semi-Pelagianism’.

On the three points mentioned earlier, Semi-Pelagianism settled for the following positions: · Human nature is neither good nor bad, but sick. Just as a sick person can’t quite do whatever he’d like to do, so likewise through the fall into sin man’s capacities became restricted. His free will remained, but was weakened by the fall. Man, then, can still decide to request and receive help. · Man’s need for grace: Although Semi-Pelagianism believes in man’s need for God’s grace (for man is too sick to help himself), man by his free will is able to decide whether he wants God’s grace. Whereas Pelagius taught that salvation is totally man’s own doing, and Augustine taught that salvation is totally from God, Semi-Pelagianism teaches that salvation is a combination of the efforts of BOTH man and God. According to Semi-Pelagianism, salvation = God’s grace + man’s acceptance of grace. Man can only be saved if man decides to co-operate with God and accepts the grace God offers him. · God’s sovereignty: Semi-Pelagianism restricts the sovereignty of God in that it is limited by man’s decision to co-operate with God or not. God’s offer of salvation can be refused by man and so return to God empty. Though God may wish to save someone, He can only do so if that person is interested in taking Him up on the offer.

Over the course of time, Semi-Pelagian doctrine became the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, and remains so even today.


THE REFORMATION’S RESPONSE TO SEMI-PELAGIANISM

God in His grace sent reformers to His Church in persons as Martin Luther and John Calvin. These men read the Scriptures of God, studied the writings of the church fathers, and came to the conclusion that the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church about human nature, the grace of God, and God’s sovereignty were incorrect. In their disputes with the position of the Roman Catholic Church concerning matters of doctrine, the reformers were essentially opposing Semi-Pelagianism. In doing so they went back to Augustinianism.

The position of the reformers on these points of disagreement found their way into the Confessions. Possibly the easiest way to draw out the reformers’ thinking on these points is by drawing attention to the Heidelberg Catechism. · Human nature: The Heidelberg Catechism (published in 1563) summarises well the Reformed position on what the Bible teaches concerning human nature. In Lord’s Day 3, Q&A 6 one reads, "God created man good ..." i.e. not neutral, as taught by Pelagius, but good (Augustinian). Further, Q&A 7 reads, "From where then did man’s depraved nature come?" The question admits to general depravity, admits that people as a whole are not good. The answer is this: "From the fall and disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.". Again, this is distinctly Augustinianism as opposed to Pelagianism. According to Pelagius only Adam fell into sin, but Augustinianism and Reformation theology teaches that we all sinned in Adam with the consequence that our nature became corrupt. Q&A 8 elaborates on the extent of our corruption. "But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?" Pelagius would have answered in the negative; man is basically good, and by means of his free will can choose to do good. Semi-Pelagians would answer, ‘man is corrupt but not so corrupt that he is unable to do any good. Man is sick.’ The Catechism however, in agreement with what Augustine taught, answers, "Yes", man is totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil because human nature is totally depraved. In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism says, man is so corrupt that he can do no good unless God work on him through his Holy Spirit. · Man’s need for grace: In LD 23, Q&A 60 the Catechism asks "How are you righteous before God?" Pelagius would have responded, "By my free will I can decide to do the good, and so be righteous." Together with Augustine, the Reformers answered, "Only by true faith in Jesus Christ". Semi-Pelagians would not dispute that man’s righteousness is attained by true faith, but man must first decide if he wants this faith. In other words, it is not only by true faith but also by man’s free will (ie, salvation = God’s grace + man’s acceptance of grace). The Augustinian language here adopted by the reformers is not a language of sickness but of deadness. Man has "grievously sinned against all God’s commandments" and is "still inclined to all evil". Since a dead person can do nothing, let alone will anything, faith cannot be a choice of man. Hence A60 continues, "... yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ." Without me requesting it, God imputed to me what was Christ’s. God took what was Christ’s and attributed it to me; God credited ‘my account’ with Christ’s righteousness. Contrary to what Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism teaches, the Catechism teaches that because I am by nature dead, I am totally dependent on God’s grace. · God’s sovereignty: Lord’s Day 23, Q&A 60, confesses too God’s sovereignty in salvation with these words: "…God…out of mere grace, imputes to me." One can confess this only if one confesses too that man is totally depraved and consequently is totally dependent on God’s grace for salvation. God is God and therefore His work of salvation is not limited by man’s decision to be saved or not. "God imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ." God does not first ask me if I desire these gifts of grace. These doctrines have come to be known by the term Calvinisim.

"... THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN ..." : SOCINIANISM AND ARMINIANISM = PELAGIANISM AND SEMI-PELAGIANISM RETURNED

The preaching of the Reformers about human nature, God’s grace, and God’s sovereignty in working salvation was not appreciated by all. A man by the name of Socinius did not like the return to Augustinianism. He believed that Adam was created neutral (neither good nor bad) and that when Adam sinned he, and he alone, was affected by his sin. All Adam’s descendants are born neutral, he claimed, and can choose between good and evil. This was plainly a return to the Pelagianism rejected by the church some 1000 years earlier. Beside the Calvinism (= Augustinianism) of the Reformers, Socinius placed his Socinianism (= Pelagianism).

But now again, as happened centuries earlier, Socinianism was written off as being too positive about human nature. And Calvinism was seen as too negative, too damning and depressing. The resulting compromise was at heart a return to Semi-Pelagianism. Jacob Arminius in particular was responsible for bring Semi-Pelagianism to life again in the midst of the Reformed Churches.


RELEVANT?

One might well question the relevance of busying ourselves in 1997 with the issues relating to a synod convened some 380 years ago. However, the study of church history proves that heresies do not just arise and die to give way to new heresies, but that heresies surface and resurface. A study of the Canons of Dort and how they were compiled by the Synod of Dort in order to defend Reformed theology over against Arminianism is not just a study of historical interest; it is rather a study which assists us concretely as we strive to live as Christians today. The compromise on human nature known as Semi-Pelagianism is widely embraced on the Christian world of today. Society’s optimistic view of man prompts society to turn up its nose at Augustian thinking (= the Calvinism of our confessions). Countless of the Christians around us have consequently adopted a Semi-Pelagian position about the nature of man. One recent survey in America, for example, reports that 84% of Christians interviewed (they call themselves ‘evangelicals’) agreed that in matters of salvation "God helps those who help themselves" and 77% believed that human beings are basically good. In the face of such pressures from the Christian world around us, a study of the Canons of Dort can only help us to discern between Arminian (Semi-Pelagian) and Reformed Theology.