John Hales And The Synod Of Dort (1618-19): What We Can Learn From The Synod of Dort About The Federal Vision Controversy

A few years back I found an extremely rare copy of John Hales’ Letters From the Synod of Dort (1688). John Hales (1584–1656), often called the Ever-Memorable for his Greek lectures at Oxford, became a well-known clergyman and scholar in the mid-seventeenth century. He served as Chaplain for Sir Dudley Carleton (1573–1632) and was given the responsibility to observe and record the proceedings at the Synod of Dort. These letters are somewhat scarce, and, to my knowledge, have not been reprinted since the seventeenth century. Recently, a friend rebound my volume, and for the past few nights I have read well into the night learning things about the Synod of Dort that I never knew.

What particularly interests me is how difficult it was for the Synod to get to the bottom of the Remonstrant errors. Charges of schism, disunity, incompetence, conscience wounding, heresy-hunting, over-scrupulous dissection of words, misunderstanding et al, were made by the Remonstrants against the Synod of Dort. Further, it was nearly impossible to get the Remonstrants to cooperate and be honest in declaring what they believed on the certain points in question. Since the Remonstrants would not cooperate at the Synod, the matter was finally resolved by going to their many teachings, books, and sermons delivered in public forum to discern what they were actually saying. Some of their brief “statements” set before the Synod were not clear and required further exploration of their views, especially when they refused to be open and honest. All this to say, there is much more agony we are unaware of that went on behind the scenes to finally produce what we enjoy and know today as the Canons of Dort.

We can learn much from our history. Over the next few weeks, I will be posting many of Hales’ letters with some brief annotation to show how heretics and others departing from our confessional Reformed heritage often behave and operate when advancing heterodox views. I hope to show that the current Federal Vision controversy is a microcosm of the same controversy the Synod of Dort had to face. The Federal Vision is nothing but Arminianism done under the tent of covenant theology. As many Reformed ecclesiastical bodies are making judgments concerning the FV, they would do well to learn what their Reformed brothers faced at the Synod Dort in dealing with the Remonstrant errors. The tactics, arguments, double-talk, dishonesty, and rancorous rhetoric exposed in Hales’ letters are the same problems that we face in our current controversy.

Most beneficial will be to learn how our faithful brothers at Dort managed to overcome all the pressures and attacks in their defense of the truth, and produce a faithful confession for the churches about what constitutes a true Reformed understanding of the doctrines of grace.

—Chris Gordon, Escondido

This post first appeared in 2010.