I grew up in a cultural context that believed — mostly in jest, but not entirely so — that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
We had wooden shoes on the fireplace, Delft blue in the kitchen, and Dutch plates hanging on the walls. My mom liked to ask two questions whenever I was interested in a girl: Is she Reformed? And is she Dutch? (I got the important one right.) Looking back, I don’t think there was ever a serious sense that being Dutch was better than being German or Irish or Mexican or Korean, but there was a strong sense of pride in who we were, where we had come from, and the Reformed tradition we inhabited.
The first of my family to emigrate to America was Teunis P. DeJong, who was born in Holland in 1839 and died in Edgerton, Minnesota, in 1925. The earliest ancestor that has been traced in my family tree is Pieter DeJong, who was born in Dordrecht in 1695 and married Neeltje Liesveld of neighboring Zwijndrecht on August 23, 1716. I’ve searched in vain for a record of any DeJongs who helped shape the Canons in 1618–19, but I’d like to think I had a great-great-great-whatever looking in on the action as the Synod of Dort debated and defended the exact nature of God’s free grace.
Because of my ethnic heritage and my Reformed upbringing, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Canons of Dort, even when many Christians — if they’ve even heard of Dort — have considered it an embarrassment of overwrought sovereignty and doctrinal hairsplitting. And yet, the Canons of Dort are not just for Dutch people, and they certainly cannot be reduced to antiquated theological fussiness. The doctrine defined and defended at Dort touches on the most important elements of who we are, how God works, and what Christ accomplished.
Flower Blooms in Holland
The Synod of Dort is a high-water mark of Calvinism, but it would never have taken place were it not for Arminianism.
Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) began his teaching career thoroughly Calvinistic. After studying for a time in Geneva (1582–87), Arminius moved to Amsterdam to pastor a prominent church in the city. As a pastor, he was called upon to defend Calvinistic teaching against a man with one of those amazing Dutch names, Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert. In preparing his defense of traditional Calvinist doctrine against Coornhert, Arminius became convinced of his opponent’s teaching.
In 1603, Arminius was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leiden, where he was strongly opposed by his colleague, Francis Gomarus. Both Arminius and Gomarus believed in predestination, but they differed over the meaning of the word. At the heart of the disagreement was whether predestination was based solely on the will of God (Calvinism) or based on foreseen knowledge of belief (what would later be called Arminianism). Both men thought of themselves as Reformed, as Calvinists, but they were not saying the same thing.
Following Arminius’s death in 1609, the movement continued under the leadership of Janus Uytenbogaert, a court preacher at the Hague. In 1610, the Arminian party issued a document called the Remonstrance, setting forth the “Five Articles of the Arminians.” Gomarus and others formed a Contra-Remonstrance party (Gomarists) to oppose the Arminians.
The Remonstrance of 1610 was issued to Johan van Oldenbarneveldt, advocate general of Holland and Friesland. Oldenbarneveldt, who was working to secure a better relationship with Spain, wanted toleration for the Arminians. The Contra-Remonstrance from Gomarists was submitted to the States of Holland in 1611. Oldenbarneveldt and the States of Holland decided on toleration. But the Gomarists wanted an official theological pronouncement to settle the issue once and for all.
Over the next several years, the conflict went from bad to worse, with prominent theological and political leaders siding with the Arminians. The Gomarists (who we would think of as the Calvinists) feared the Reformed doctrine would soon be lost in the Netherlands. Prince Maurice, the son and heir of William of Orange, eventually took the side of the Gomarists and had Oldenbarneveldt imprisoned. With the nation on the brink of civil war, the estates general finally called for an assembly to end the conflict.
An international synod convened in Dordrecht from 1618–19. Of the approximately one hundred members present, twenty-seven were from Britain, Switzerland, and Germany, while the rest were Dutch. The Dutch contingent was comprised of roughly an equal number of ministers, professors, laymen, and members of the estates general.
In the end, The Remonstrants were soundly defeated at Dort, leading to one of the greatest theological formulations of the Reformation era. On April 22, 1619 — exactly four hundred years ago today — the Synod adopted the Canons and settled, for the Netherlands and for much of the Protestant world in the years to come, what constituted authentic Reformed faith.
The Canons of Dort, in rejecting the five points of Arminianism, outlined five points of their own: the first concerning divine election and reprobation, the second on Christ’s death and human redemption through it, the third and fourth points on human corruption and how we convert to God, and finally the perseverance of the saints.
Centuries later these five heads of doctrine would become the five points of Calvinism known at TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). Although TULIP is an anachronistic summary of the Canons, it can be a handy mnemonic device for important soteriological themes. The Canons do not pretend to explain everything about Reformed theology (or about the Bible for that matter), but rather they set out to declare what was “in agreement with the Word of God and accepted till now in the Reformed churches” concerning “Divine Predestination.”
Champions of Grace
Before the Synod of Dort conducted its business, each member took a solemn oath that “I will only aim at the glory of God, the peace of the Church, and especially the preservation of the purity of doctrine.” They ended with a prayer: “So help me, my Savior, Jesus Christ! I beseech him to assist me by his Holy Spirit.” The delegates at Dort were joyfully serious about promoting and preserving the truth.
Do we care as much about defining and defending grace?
Paul argues that “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (Romans 11:5). He then moves to defend and define this grace, maintaining that “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). Words mattered to Paul. He was never content to casually speak the same vocabulary as his opponents if he knew they were using different dictionaries. He understood that people can champion grace, laud grace, and celebrate grace, while still losing all that makes grace to be grace.
At its very heart, the Canons of Dort are about the nature of grace — supernatural, unilateral, sovereign, effecting, redeeming, resurrecting grace, with all of its angularity, all of its offense to human pride, and all of its comfort for the weary soul. That’s what Dort wanted to settle. That’s what they were jealous to protect. Some words are worth the most careful definitions, just as some truths are too precious not to defend.