The Canons of Dort

In less than a month’s time, many Reformed churches around the world would be commemorating the Great Protestant Reformation which begun in Germany on 31 October, 1517. On that providential day, Martin Luther nailed his famed 95 Theses on the door of the castle church of Wittenberg. In no time, without Luther’s knowledge, this paper was copied, and reproduced in great numbers with the then recently invented printing machine, and distributed throughout Europe. This paper was to be used by our Sovereign Lord to ignite the Reformation, which saw the release of the true Church of Christ from the yoke and bondage of Rome. Four hundred and eighty-three years have gone by since then. Today, there are countless technically Protestant churches (i.e., those which can trace back to the Reformation in terms of historical links) around the world, but there are few which still remember the rich heritage of the Reformers. In fact, a great number of churches which claim to be Protestant have, in fact, gone back to Rome by way of doctrine and practice, and some even make it their business to oppose the Reformers and their heirs.

I am convinced that one of the chief reasons for this state of affair in the Protestant Church is a contemptuous attitude towards past creeds and confessions and the historical battles against heresies. When, for example, there are fundamental defenders of the faith teaching in Bible Colleges, who have not so much as heard of the Canons of Dort or the Synod of Dort, but would lash out at hyper-Calvinism, then you know that something is seriously wrong within the camp. Yet, this is indeed what is happening. Most believers in the pews are not comfortable with theological jargons, not to mention being able to detect the incursion of subtle errors into the church. But when ministers of the Gospel are also unconcerned about what errors have already been dealt with by the Church in the ages of learning in the past, then we know the floodgates of apostasy are being opened; and who knows how far the torrents will carry the Church in the next generation? The attitude of preachers, we must remember, will inevitably rub off on the members of the church, some of whom may become leaders of the church by and by.

It is for this reason, I believe, that we must go back to our past. We must remember the great work of God in and through the Church in the past and seek to learn from the mistakes of our forebears (cf. Deut 2:30; 3:3; Ps 105:5–6). It is especially pertinent for us to do so as we remember the Great Reformation.

Last year, we look at five key Reformers who were greatly used by God to shape His Church. This year, we shall move a hundred years ahead to look instead at the history and doctrine of the Canons of Dort (or Dordrecht). In this article, we shall take a quick look at the events leading up to the Synod of Dort. From next Lord’s Day, we shall examine the doctrine of the Canons in the order of the well-known acronym, T-U-L-I-P, that has developed since then. Since the attitude of disdain for historical theology is already quite entrenched in many of our hearts, it would be needful that the doctrinal articles be derived directly from the Scriptures rather than from the Canons (which we believe to be consistent with Scriptures). But we shall quote the canon where appropriate to show the wisdom, foresight and biblical fidelity of the framers of the Canons.

In Brief

The Canons of Dort was the product of a synod of Reformed churches, which met between the 13 November, 1618 and 6 May, 1619 in Dort, Holland, to examine the teachings of the disciples of Jacobus Arminius, known as the Remonstrants. These had wanted their articles of faith to be adopted by the churches in Holland, and so had petitioned the Dutch Parliament with a Remonstrance containing five points. The parliament called for the Synod, and the result was that the five articles of the Remonstrance were condemned. The Canons of Dort documented the findings of the Synod. The full and revealing title of the document reads:

Judgement of the National Synod of the Reformed Churches of the United Netherlands: held in Dordrecht in the year 1618 and 1619; which was assisted by many excellent theologians of the Reformed Churches of Great Britain, the Electoral Palatinate, Hessia, Switzerland, Wetteraw, Geneva, Bremen, and Emden: Concerning the well-known five heads of doctrine, about which a difference arose in the Reformed Churches of the said United Netherlands.

In all, 81 theologians (56 Dutch and 25 foreign) met for 154 sessions, and at the end of it condemned the five points of the Remonstrance as being contrary to Scripture and heretical. The articles of the Canons were essentially a systematic apology of the doctrine of salvation as taught by John Calvin. Though the Canons themselves were only adopted by the churches of Dutch origin, as part of the three Forms of Unity (which include the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism), the findings of the Synod were and are held in great esteem in Calvinistic churches throughout the world, and the essence of it, as summarised in the five points of Calvinism or TULIP (the national flower of Holland!), is regarded as the yardstick of Calvinistic orthodoxy in most English-speaking churches in the world.

Jacobus Arminius

Jacobus Arminius (c. 1559–1609), also known as Jacob Haemensz, was born in Oudewater, Holland. Although Arminius was, in fact, not the originator of the doctrine of the Remonstrance, and had, furthermore, already died for about 10 years by the time the Synod of Dort was convened, it is not without historical reasons why the doctrine refuted by the Synod is popularly known as Arminianism. Arminius was, after all, the man who made the doctrine espoused by his students popular.

In 1576, at 17 years old, Arminius was enrolled as a theological student in the University of Leiden (or Leyden). Five years later, in 1581, he went to Geneva, and there studied under Theodore Beza, who had succeeded John Calvin as lecturer in theology. It appears, however, that Arminius was never really comfortable with Beza’s doctrine of election and reprobation, though he did not show it.

Not long after his call to a pastorate in Amsterdam in 1587, Arminius was asked to refute a pamphlet, written by a man by the name of Coornhert, criticising Calvin and Beza’s doctrine of predestination. With personal discomfort and unresolved questions in his heart, it was not surprising that instead of being able to refute Coornhert objections, Arminius was won to his side. And soon, his theological biases began to surface in his sermons, such as when he preached that Paul was referring to himself as an unconverted man in Romans 7:14–25. We need only to read the text to know the implication of his view, for it would make Paul able to desire to do good while unregenerated, which would mean that he was not radically deprave in his heart. Soon, Arminius began to be vigorously opposed by Plancius, one his fellow ministers in Amsterdam.

Arminius was a popular man in the pulpit. And he was a brilliant scholar, refined in manners and appearance. Most importantly, he had many powerful friends in the government. At that time the universities were under state rather than church control, and so despite the controversy that was intensifying in Amsterdam as Arminius began preaching from Romans 9, he was appointed to the chair of theology at the Academy of Leyden.

At first, Arminius was opposed strongly by Franciscus Gomarus who was then a professor of theology at Leyden. But Arminius managed to persuade Gomarus of his orthodoxy by subtlety and craft, and Gomarus relented. Later Gomarus was to regret his decision, for as soon as Arminius was in the chair, then he began promoting his heresies to the students. In this way the doctrines of Arminius began to spread abroad, and soon the whole country was in turmoil and several conferences were called to settle the disputes.

Before anything could be settled, however, in October of 1609, Arminius died. His followers, however, continued to pursue their teacher’s purpose. The following year, under the influence of a powerful court preacher, Janus Utyenbogaert, the disciples of Arminius gathered together in the city of Gouda to draw up a document known as the Remonstrance. By this document, the party hoped to have the parliament call for a revision (more like re-writing) of the existing confessions of the Dutch churches.

The Remonstrantia

This document of the Arminians, being designed to subvert the established doctrine of the church, was drafted very craftily so as to give an impression that it is consistent with orthodoxy. In fact, my guess is that most of us who read this document today will have difficulty finding fault with it at all! Of course, in part, this is due to the ulterior care with which it was written, but I suspect, the lack of theological sensitivity that characterises most of us today is to be blamed too.

Those interested to examine the articles may find them in Dutch, Latin and English in Philip Schaff, Creeds of Christendom (Baker, reprinted 1995), 3.545–49. We reproduce just the first two articles, which most clearly show the Remonstrants’ departure from orthodoxy:

Article I. That God, by an eternal, unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his Son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the gospel in John 3:36… and according to other passages of Scripture also.

Article II. That, agreeably thereto, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, died for all men and for every man, so that he has obtained for them all, by his death on the cross, redemption and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins except the believer, according to the word of the Gospel of John 3:16…. And in the First Epistle of John 2:2….

Are you able to detect the heresy? If not, you will find the other three articles even more subtle. In the first article, the doctrine being proposed is that God’s election and reprobation is based upon God’s foreknowledge, i.e., those whom God foresaw will believe were elected, those He foresaw would reject the Gospel were reprobated. The Remonstrants very carefully avoided saying,—that election is therefore conditional, and that salvation is therefore not sovereignly brought about by God though it be by grace,—which is what they were teaching. In the second article, it is essentially teaching that Christ did not die to save. Rather, He died for all without exception to make salvation possible; and whether a person is saved depends on his response to the Gospel.

In a nutshell, the other three articles teach that man has the ability to do good when assisted by the Holy Spirit, but the Holy Spirit’s help may be resisted and a Christian may lose his salvation.

The Great Synod

The Synod was convened in November, 1618; though it did not begin to deal with the Arminians until 6 December. In line with proper ecclesiastical procedures and the principle that accepted verities are to be regarded as truth unless proven otherwise, the Synod was appointed to examine and try the Arminians. Johannes Bogerman, the pastor of Leuwarden, a fiery and capable Contra-Remonstrant, was elected the president of the Synod.

The Arminians were naturally unhappy with this arrangement, and vehemently protested against the fact that their polemical opponents had been set over them as judges. From the onset, therefore, they tried to stall the proceedings. First, they attempted unsuccessfully to get Bogerman replaced. Then, rather than submitting themselves to the examination of the Synod and defending themselves doctrinally, they kept asking for more time to prepare their opinions. Not only that, they also tried to win the sympathy of the foreign delegates by depicting the national delegates as schismatics and persecutors of the innocent and simple.

It should be noted that though the national delegates were almost consistently Calvinistic, some of the foreign delegates were not so. The delegates from Bremen appeared to be totally in agreement with the Arminians. Also among the delegation of five from Great Britain, there were clearly those who leaned either to Arminian or Amyraldian (mid-way between Calvinism and Arminianism) position.

By 14 January, 1619, when the Arminians again refused to submit to the authority of the Synod in the matter of their examination, Bogerman’s patience ran out. He burst out:

The foreign delegates are now of the opinion that you are unworthy to appear before the Synod. You have refused to acknowledge her as your lawful judge and have maintained that she is your counter-party; you have done everything according to your own whim; you have despised the decisions of the Synod and of the Political Commissioners; you have refused to answer; you have unjustly interpreted the indictments. The Synod has treated you mildly; but you have—as one of the foreign delegates expressed it—“begun and ended with lies.” With that eulogy we shall let you go. God shall preserve His Word and shall bless the Synod. In order that she be no longer obstructed, you are sent away! You are dismissed, get out!

With the departure of the Arminians, the Synod could finally get down to work. Though the former could no longer present their arguments personally, they were allowed to submit written defences of their position. This they did, and wrote rather voluminously. A committee was appointed by the Synod to consider these writings and to write a doctrinal consensus of the Synod together with rejection of errors. This was completed in about three months, and was signed by all the delegates.


With the probable exception of the Westminster Assembly, the Synod of Dort was possibly the greatest assembly of notable Reformed scholars to have gathered to deliberate on any doctrinal issue. Some may question the nature of the proceedings in the Synod, that it did not give occasion for irenic debate such as in the case of the Westminster Assembly, but when we examine the Canons of Dort (see Schaff, Creeds, 550–597; Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort [Sprinkle Pub., 1993]; Homer Hoeksema, The Voice of Our Fathers [RFPA, 1980]) and the doctrine it propounds, we see that there is really little to debate about. At stake was the doctrine of the sovereignty of God, as well as, an unbiased and logical interpretation of the Word of God.

We may say that it was by the providence of God that the controversy arose in the first place; for through it the Church was not only enriched with a Creed to serve as a standard for future churches, but also caused to see the logical beauty and self-consistency of the biblical doctrine of salvation as revealed in the Word of God. As we examine the five petals of the TULIP in the next five weeks, I believe this assertion would become clearer to the praise and glory of our Almighty God who has revealed all things for our instruction and enjoyment of Him.

—JJ Lim