The Canons Of Dort (2): The Crisis Intensifies

Part 1: Introduction and Background

Because the followers of Arminius have been (mostly) ecclesiastically separated from the Reformed churches for centuries it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the Arminian crisis occurred originally within the doors of the Reformed church. Despite the grave reservations about his theology and teaching expressed by Plancius and other ministers in his Classis (Presbytery), and by his colleagues Gomarus and Trelcatius Jr, Arminius was and remained a minister in good standing in the Reformed church (Hervormde Kerk) in the Netherlands. In a way, that he conducted his minister and died within the church intensified the problem because, in the absence of any unequivocal ecclesiastical pronouncement, that fact made it possible for his apologists to say (as apologists for the Federal Vision to say today about some of their theologians, e.g., Norman Shepherd) that “he is a minister in good standing.” Indeed, the Remonstrants defended their right to teach their revisions of Reformed theology within the bounds of the church. They also actively campaigned, with help sympathetic civil magistrates to revise the Belgic Confession (1561), the church order, and the relationship between church and state (toward Erastianism) so that those sympathetic magistrates might not only defend them but advance their theology, piety, and practice within the Reformed church. Remember too, that while this theological-political contest was occurring, the Netherlands were at war with Spain and that destructive Thirty-Years War (1618–48) was approaching. The tensions inherent in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) were about to be resolved one way or another.

The orthodox responded to the Articles of the Remonstrance at a ten-day conference at The Hague from March 10–20, 1611. Six representatives from each side, the Remonstrant and the Reformed, presented their case. The formal goal was to see if there was a way to reconcile the two sides. It became clear through the Collatio that the differences were fundamental and irreconcilable. When evangelicals, e.g., Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, blithely suggest that the differences between the Reformed and the Remonstrants are insubstantial it is typically because 1) they do not understand the issues; 2) they are unaware of the history of the steps taken to address the issues in the original controversy.1

Here is the text of the Contra Remonstrance of 1611:

1. As in Adam the whole human race, created in the image of God, has with Adam fallen into sin and thus become so corrupt that all men are conceived and born in sin and thus are by nature children of wrath, lying dead in their trespasses so that there is within them no more power to convert themselves truly unto God and to believe in Christ than a corpse has power to raise itself from the dead; so God draws out of this condemnation and delivers a certain number of men who in his eternal and immutable counsel He has chosen out of mere grace, according to the good pleasure of his will, unto salvation in Christ, passing by the others in his just judgment and leaving them in their sins.

2. That not only adults who believe in Christ and accordingly walk worthy of the gospel are to be reckoned as God’s elect children, but also the children of the covenant so long as they do not in their conduct manifest the contrary; and that therefore believing parents, when their children die in infancy, have no reason to doubt the salvation of these their children.

3. That God in his election has not looked to the faith or conversion of his elect, nor to the right use of his gifts, as the grounds of election; but that on the contrary He in his eternal and immutable counsel has purposed and decreed to bestow faith and perseverance in godliness and thus to save those whom He according to his good pleasure has chosen to salvation.

4. That to this end He has first of all presented and given to them his only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, whom He delivered up to the death of the cross in order to save his elect, so that, although the suffering of Christ as that of the only-begotten and unique Son of God is sufficient unto the atonement of the sins of all men, nevertheless the same, according to the counsel and decree of God, has its efficacy unto reconciliation and forgiveness of sins only in the elect and true believer.

5. That furthermore to the same end God the Lord has his holy gospel preached, and that the Holy Spirit externally through the preaching of that same gospel and internally through a special grace works so powerfully in the hearts of God’s elect, that He illumines their minds, transforms and renews their wills, removing the heart of stone and giving them a heart of flesh, in such a manner that by these means they not only receive power to convert themselves and believe but also actually and willingly do repent and believe.

6. That those whom God has decreed to save are not only once so enlightened, regenerated and renewed in order to believe in Christ and convert themselves to God, but that they by the same power of the Holy Spirit by which they were converted to God without any contribution of themselves are in like manner continually supported and preserved; so that, although many weaknesses of the flesh cleave to them as long as they are in this life and are engaged in a continual struggle between flesh and Spirit and also sometimes fall into grievous sins, nevertheless this same Spirit prevails in this struggle, not permitting that God’s elect by the corruption of the flesh should so resist the Spirit of sanctification that this would at any time be extinguished in them, and that in consequence they could completely or finally lose the true faith which was once bestowed on them and the Spirit of adoption as God’s children which they had once received.

7. That nevertheless the true believers find no excuse in this teaching to pursue carelessly the lusts of the flesh, since it is impossible that those who by a true faith are ingrafted into Christ should not produce the fruits of thankfulness; but on the contrary the more they assure themselves and feel that God works in them both to will and to do according to his good pleasure, the more they persist in working their own salvation with fear and trembling, since they know that this is the only means by which it pleases God to keep them standing and to bring them to salvation. For this reason He also employs in his Word all manner of warnings and threatenings, not in order to cause them to despair or doubt their salvation but rather to awaken in them a childlike fear by observing the weakness of their flesh in which they would surely perish, unless the Lord keep them standing in his undeserved grace, which is the sole cause and ground of their perseverance; so that, although He warns them in his Word to watch and pray, they nevertheless do not have this of themselves that they desire God’s help and lack nothing, but only from the same Spirit who by a special grace prepares them for this and thus also powerfully keeps them standing.2

There is much that could be said about this fascinating response but a few comments here must do. First, the Reformed responded by articulating the Pauline/Augustinian/Reformed doctrine of sin. Both the Contra Remonstrance and the Canons begin with a sentence on sin and an affirmation of unconditional election. After years of study, dialogue, and debate, the Dutch Reformed concluded that Arminius and his followers were undermining the doctrines of sin and unconditional grace. These, of course, were fundamental to the Reformation. They were the first two things that Luther began to recover as he lectured through the Psalms, while reading Augustine on the Psalms, in 1513–14.

Remarkably, the second point of the Reformed was to re-assert the Reformed understanding of the covenant of grace, i.e., that God has promised to be a God to believers and to their children. This is not an aspect of the disagreement between the two sides that is often acknowledged. The Reformed understood the Remonstrants/Arminians to be undermining the covenant of grace and therefore the basis of infant baptism, which is not foreseen faith but an unconditional promise. Contra the Federal Visionists, the Reformed do not confess that baptism works ex opere (automatically) but that believers whose children die in infancy ought to trust the unconditional promise of God to be their God and their children’s God. For more on this see this article. The third point makes explicit the connection to unconditional grace (favor) and election.

The fourth point was to re-assert and make explicit what had been implicit in Reformed theology from the beginning: that God the Son, from all eternity, entered history in the incarnation with the intent of laying down his life for all his elect thereby accomplishing their redemption. The Reformed read and heard Arminius and the Remonstrants to teach that Christ died for all (they confessed that very thing) with the intent to make salvation possible for those who do their part. Such a doctrine marked a departure from the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratiasola fide, in Christ alone.

Fifth, again contrary to the way Reformed theology is often presented, the Reformed asserted the free offer of the gospel. According to the Reformed, God is both sovereign in election and he has decreed to use his ordained outward means to accomplish his purpose. This, of course, was the doctrine of Heidelberg Catechism 65, that God the Spirit uses the preaching of the gospel to bring his elect to faith and the holy sacraments to strengthen that faith.

Sixth, in this life sanctification is real but it is always incomplete. The Reformed read and heard Arminius and his followers to teach perfectionism, that believers can reach a state of entire perfection. One of the repeated criticisms of the Reformed by the Remonstrants was that the Reformed doctrine did not produce sufficient piety  (godliness). From the Reformed point of view, the critique was misbegotten from an over-realized eschatology. This life is not heaven.

Seventh, believers persevere in faith and sanctity not by their good works but by the grace of God. It is impossible that those whom the Father gave to the Son, for whom the Son intentionally laid down his life, whom the Holy Spirit has efficaciously brought to new life and true faith, whom the Spirit has united to Christ, whom God has justified and adopted, whom he will finally save by grace alone, through faith alone, should be lost. Salvation belongs to the Lord.

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

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1. As noted on the HB in December, 2013, in Death By Love (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008; p. 170) Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears wrote the following:

James Arminius was John Calvin’s son-in-law and greatly appreciated Calvin. He said that, after the Scriptures, he believed Calvin’s writings to be the most profitable study for God’s people. Therefore, the acrimony that sometimes flares up between Calvinists and Arminians need not be so if the examples of Calvin and Arminius are followed by their followers.

This is historical nonsense. Calvin married the widow Idellete de Bure in 1540. She brought to the marriage two children, a son and a daughter. Jean and Idellette were married for nine years. In that time she bore him a son, Jacques, who, in 1542, died in infancy. Idellete herself died in 1549 leaving Calvin a widower. Even if he had a surviving daughter, she would have been born in the early 1540s. Arminius was born in 1560. Calvin’s hypothetical (biological) daughter would have been about 47 when Arminius married. That’s unlikely and, as it happened, contrary to fact. Arminius married the daughter of a prominent merchant in 1590. See the original post for endnotes.

2. James T. Dennison Jr., ed. Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 46–48.

R. Scott Clark