Essential Christian Classics: The Canons of Dort

 

The Church has produced many great confessions across many of her traditions. One stands out as being valuable presently and for the future of the Reformed tradition, Calvinism, and evangelical discussions on sovereignty.

From 1618-1619 a synod of Dutch Reformed men wrote The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands as a response to the followers of Jacobus Arminius. More commonly called The Canons of Dort; these “five main points” are the first historical refutation of what is presently called Arminianism. Although The Canons of Dort are not formally the foundation for the acronym TULIP (more on this to come), it expresses the major five points of Calvinism early in the history of the Reformation. Making up part of the Three Forms of Unity, The Canons of Dort are essential reading as a historical confession, an early form of TULIP, and a pastoral reflection on infant death.

Historical Confession

The Canons of Dort come at a specific time and place in history. By their very nature, historical documents require us to set aside our current situation and dive into the world of the original writers. Reading this type of literature mitigate what C. S. Lewis called chronological snobbery (“The uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited” Surprised by Joy [Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1966] ch. 13, pp. 207-8). Even so, modern translations of The Canons of Dort have made the text available to everyday readers and the mistake of reading the text without its historical context can be present. The potential for this mistake is especially true while reading the many “Rejections” pronounced by the synod against what was perceived as non-Reformed theology.

Jacobus Arminius was a Reformed theologian who questioned John Calvin’s teaching on sovereignty and election. In spite of this, he remained true to many of the other elements of Reformed teaching (church structure, infant baptism, etc.). It is worth remembering that the first Arminian struggle was an intramural argument among the Dutch Reformed Church. Removing the context of our current debates and discussion, The Canons of Dort can be helpful in providing backstory, intrigue, and theological edification.

Origin of “TULIP”

The synod convened at Dort drafted a response to the followers of Jacobus Arminius. Upon his death Arminius’ followers put forth five point in the Remonstrance. The Canons of Dort responded to these five points. This numerical coincidence has perpetrated the idea that these canons established the basis of TULIP.

TULIP is the acronym that would come to define the Calvinistic expression of God’s sovereignty in salvation (Total Depravity, Unconditional Dlection, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, Preservation of the Saints). Although not used in print until 1963, the acronym has become synonymous with Calvinism over against evangelical Arminianism. It should be obvious that many Arminians today are not true followers of Jacobus Arminius. Nor are all adherents of TULIP strict followers of The Canons of Dort. In reading the canons many valuable points of historical reflection come up. The doctrinal point of double predestination, sometimes put forth as a tenet of hyper-Calvinism in evangelical circles, is not as simple to discern in the canons, “[God] made the following decree: to leave them in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves; not to grant them saving faith and the grace of conversion; but finally to condemn and eternally punish those who have been left in their own ways and under God’s just judgment, not only for their unbelief but also for all their other sins, in order to display his justice. And this is the decree of reprobation, which does not at all make God the author of sin (a blasphemous thought!) but rather its fearful, irreproachable, just judge and avenger.”

In another direct application to representation of TULIP, The Canons of Dort are explicitly clear on the ground of Christian assurance in Point Five, Articles 8 through 11 summarily stating, “assurance does not derive from some private revelation beyond or outside the Word, but from faith in the promises of God which are very plentifully revealed in the Word for our comfort.” Far from encouraging fruit checking, or other pietistic/evangelical methods, the synod responded to assurance in a manner that Lutherans today seem to espouse most faithfully. As should be seen on these subjects, and many others, The Canons of Dort provide theological teaching that can help refine and clarify some of the muddied waters of our current theological conversations. But it is on one specific issue that the men at Dort provide a bright beacon of contrast among other Reformed documents.

Death of Infants

One place of specific pastoral interest is the death of infants. In the First Point, Article 17 the synod stated, “Since we must make judgments about God’s will from his Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature but by virtue of the gracious covenant in which they together with their parents are included, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom God calls out of this life in infancy” (emphasis mine). This warm and encouraging doctrinal statement stands in stark contrast to the systematic, less pastoral, language of the Westminster Confession of Faith which simply states, “Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit” (WCF, X.III).

In the case of the WCF, parents are unable to know the election of their infants. The drafters of The Canons of Dort add practical and pastoral winsomeness while handling this difficult topic. This isn’t the only place where their pastoral heart shines through. The canons conclude with a response to false accusations attributed to the Reformed tradition. Here they echo their pastoral concern rejecting “that many infant children of believers are snatched in their innocence from their mothers’ breasts and cruelly cast into hell so that neither the blood of Christ nor their baptism nor the prayers of the church at their baptism can be of any use to them.” The Canons of Dort pronounce upon infant children benefits to baptism and the prayers of the church alongside the “blood of Christ.” If only pastors today who claim to hold to the Three Forms of Unity would echo this teaching as strongly.

The Canons of Dort are a valuable part of the Church’s vast confessional history. They provide excellent opportunities to understand modern debates from a historical perspective. They will challenge evangelicals who profess TULIP to broaden their understandings of God’s sovereignty.  They also provide deep pastoral insight and concerns. All in all, The Canons of Dort are essential Christian reading.

 

Joshua Torrey is a New Mexico boy in an Austin, TX world. He is husband to Alaina and father to Kenzie, Judah, & Olivia and spends his free time studying for the edification of his household. These studies include the intricacies of hockey, football, curling, beer, and theology. You can follow him @benNuwn and read his theological musings and running commentary of the Scriptures at The Torrey Gazette.