The Canons Of Dort (1): Introduction And Background

Few of our Reformed confessional documents are as valuable and yet as neglected as the Canons of Dort. Today most who know about them think of them as the so-called and quite misleading “Five Points of Calvinism” or TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Strangely, for many, especially those in the self-described Young, Restless, and Reformed movement, the “Five Points” have become the be all and end all of “Reformed theology.” The truth is that there is much more to Reformed theology than the five points. Indeed, it is anachronistic and reductionist to call them the “Five Points of Calvinism.” It is anachronistic because Calvin had been dead for 54 years when the Synod of Dort convened in the Netherlands. It is reductionist because the Canons were never intended to be anything like a complete statement of the Reformed faith. They were the product of ecclesiastical deliberation on the attempt by some within the Reformed church in the Netherlands fundamentally to revise our doctrine of salvation. The Canons do not speak to many other topics in Reformed theology, piety, and practice. Further, what the churches were defending was the Word of God as confessed by the churches, not the formulations of a single pastor, however significant and influential, in Geneva. “Calvinism” was a nickname given to Reformed theology by its Lutheran critics. The Reformed churches and theologians described themselves as Reformed. The widespread use of “Calvinist” is a modern phenomenon.

Indeed, as Richard Muller has noted for years, even the acrostic TULIP is misleading. It does not accurately reflect the order of the doctrines addressed in the Canons, which would be: ULTIP. In The “Five Points” are not five distinct points because of the Third and Fourth Heads of Doctrine form one point, as it were.

The only reason the Synod issued five points is because Remonstrants (i.e., the Protesters) published their Remonstrance in five points, in 1610, about a year after the death of Jacob Harmenzoon (Latin, Arminius), the leader of the movement, in 1609. The Reformed five points were only and ever intended to be a specific, point-by-point response to the five points formulated by the Remonstrants (i.e., the Arminians).

A canon is a rule. So, the Canons of the Synod of Dort are the rulings of the Synod in response to the Arminian objections. The issues, however, did not arise in 1609, with the death of Arminius. Indeed, there were precursors to Arminius in the British Isles but it was a minister in the Reformed churches, Arminius, who began to formulate revisions to Reformed theology. There was little about young Jacob that would have signaled his dissatisfaction with the Protestant Reformation. As a theological student in Geneva, he studied under Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Born in 1560, in Utrecht, he grew up in the Reformed church. His mother was martyred by the papists when Arminius was 15. He was a student in the famous university of Leiden, where the theology faculty was Reformed.1 From there he studied in Geneva with Beza, who gave him a letter of recommendation when he finished. There has been speculation that he disagreed with Beza over philosophical and logical method. Arminius was committed to Ramism and Beza was more traditional but one of Beza’s friends and students, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87), was also a Ramist in method as were a number of orthodox Reformed theologians in the period. Arminius’ student disputation gives us no evidence of any dissatisfaction with the Reformed confession. He used Geneva as home base from which he made study trips to a variety of famous schools to study with scholars from a variety of backgrounds. It is possible that these trips combined with some of his contacts while he was in Leiden, e.g., Caspar Koolhaas (1536–1615) may have helped to facilitate his desire to revise Reformed theology. The latter was Reformed minister in Leiden who was later disciplined by the Reformed churches for refusing to subscribe the Belgic Confession. Whether he was influenced by Romanist theologians during his tour of Italy has been disputed but there is some evidence for it in the texts that he assigned when he began teaching in the theology faculty in Leiden and in his writings.

After his studies, he returned to Amsterdam, was called to a pastorate there and married into an influential family. Almost immediately he found himself embroiled in controversy. His sermons in Romans were especially controversial. On Romans 7 he theorized that Paul could not have been speaking about himself as a Christian. Rather, he argued, Paul was describing his pre-Christian experience. On Romans 9 he postured as a defender of justification by grace alone, through faith alone but set up a system in which God elects on the basis of foreseen faith (fides praevisa). These sermons provoked a strong reaction in the church led by the father of Reformed missions, Petrus Plancius (1522–1622), but he was not disciplined by his consistory (the congregational ministers and elders) or the Amsterdam Classis (the regional ministers and elders) most likely because of protection of influential supporters. Many of the civil magistrates in the Netherlands had been influenced by sub-Protestant ideas. They wanted Christians to love Jesus but they tended to be doctrinally indifferent and strongly opposed to religious conflict. They tended to support the Erastian theory of government wherein the visible church is said to be a creature of the state. The Reformed churches, by contrast, tended to support the liberty of the church over against the state.

There were practical reasons for the magistrates’ opposition to religious conflict. In 1555, Philip II (1527–98), who was devoutly Romanist, became “Lord of the Netherlands” and the next year, King of Spain. In the years following, he conducted a vicious and expensive campaign in the Netherlands in his attempt to exterminate the Protestants, especially the Reformed. He was so devoted to this cause that he bankrupted Spain 3 times in its prosecution. The Spanish martyred about 12,000 Reformed Christians in this period. From 1568 the provinces of the Netherlands revolted against Spanish control. The Dutch magistrates wanted to downplay religious differences and to foster a united front against the Spanish.

The Crisis
Despite the controversy attached to Arminius’ teaching he was called, in 1603, from the pastorate to a position in the theology faculty in the University of Leiden. This fact and the fact that Arminius would be given a high-ranking position in the University before his death, argues against the Arminian narrative that Jacob was a victim of mean-spirited Calvinists. Indeed, his appointment was controversial and the governors of the university—by modern American standards a small college—twice commissioned a faculty member, Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641), to investigate Arminius’ views. He suspected Arminius of heterodoxy but he was never able to prove it.

Arminius was a winsome and persuasive teacher and, over the years, accumulated a following among students, who became pastors and spread his teaching in the church. He died in 1609 and his supporters sought to replace him with an even more controversial theologian, Conrad Vorstius (1569–1622), who had studied in Heidelberg, Herborn, and Geneva among other places. He was suspected, however, of harboring Socinian sympathies. Gomarus was so upset by the appointment that he left the University. Ultimately, however, Vorstius never took up his position in the University.

Into this boiling cauldron of controversy, mutual suspicion, and recrimination came the Five Points of the Remonstrants, crystallizing the issues. For all the doubt surrounding what Arminius was saying it became clear what the Arminians were teaching. It seems unlikely that the movement came to such clarity so quickly and entirely independently of Arminius’ influence.

  1. The first article of the Remonstrance confessed that God elects on the basis of foreseen faith and perseverance. They said, “God…has 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.”
  2. Second, they confessed that Christ died “for all men and for every man, so that he ha s obtained for them all…redemption, and the forgiveness of sins; yet that no one actually enjoys this forgiveness of sins, except the believer.”
  3. Third, “it is necessary that he be born again of God in Christ, through his Holy Spirit, and renewed in understanding, inclination, or will, and all his powers…”. The controversy here was what the Remonstrants did not say, that human depravity is such and true faith is such that it is only the gift of God.
  4. Fourth, the Remonstrants confessed grace “is not irresistible,” confirming the Reformed conviction that the Remonstrants made human cooperation of the essence of justification and salvation.
  5. Fifth, they said the “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ assists them through his Spirit in all temptations” and “extends to them his hand” to those who are “ready for the conflict…”. Here they made grace conditional upon our cooperation. They concluded, somewhat disingenuously, by raising a question about perseverance. They suggested that it might be possible that true believers might be

    capable, through negligence, of forsaking again the first beginnings of their life in Christ, of again returning to this present evil world, of turning away from the holy doctrine which was delivered them, of losing a good conscience, of becoming devoid of grace, that must be more particularly determined out of the Holy Scriptures before we ourselves can teach it with the full persuasion of our minds.”2

Their fifth point constituted a serious departure from the Reformation doctrine of assurance. It found support among some of the Lutheran orthodox, who themselves had departed from Luther on this point. It constituted a direct assault on the basis for assurance as it put the believer back on a works footing (via cooperation with grace) for his assurance. It confirmed that the intent and result of the Remonstrance was to overturn the Reformation doctrine of salvation (justification, sanctification, and glorification) sola gratia, sola fide.

Here is the entire series so far on the Canons of Dort

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1. One of his professors at Leiden was Lambert Daneau (c. 1535–c.90), who is known for his advocacy of the old physics and a heliocentric astronomy in the face of the physics and astronomy. One wonders if, rather than the humanist Beza, it was the reactionary Daneau who contributed to Arminius’ reaction to Reformed theology?

2. Compare the Remonstrant statement on perseverance with the “Federal Vision Profession” (2007) on apostasy:

We affirm that apostasy is a terrifying reality for many baptized Christians. All who are baptized into the triune Name are united with Christ in His covenantal life, and so those who fall from that position of grace are indeed falling from grace. The branches that are cut away from Christ are genuinely cut away from someone, cut out of a living covenant body. The connection that an apostate had to Christ was not merely external.
We deny that any person who is chosen by God for final salvation before the foundation of the world can fall away and be finally lost. The decretally elect cannot apostatize.


  1. W. Robert Godfrey, “Who Was Arminius?”
  2. Resources on the Canons of Dort
  3. The Latin text.
  4. Richard Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius: Sources and Directions of Scholastic Protestantism in the Era of Early Orthodoxy
  5. Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford, 2012).
  6. P. Y. DeJong, ed. Crisis in the Reformed Churches (Granville, MI: Reformed Fellowship, 2008).

R. Scott Clark