What Hath Dort To Do With Moscow? On The Lawfulness Of The Synod Of Dort (1)

What follows is from John Hales’ Letters from the Synod of Dort, which I introduced last time.


On the 10th of December, stylo novo, the deputies met in the morning, where the first thing was to be determined, was the question as yet depending concerning the Remonstrants of Utrecht…

Here Episcopius besought the Synod that he might have leave to speak some things by way of Proeme e’re they came to action.  It was first denied him, but he did so earnestly entreat, that at length he had leave to speak his mind, and so forthwith there was recited e Scripto a long and tedious speech of two hours, at the least, consisting of two general heads.  First of exceptions they had against the Synod Tanquam in judicem incompetentem.  Second, of a conceit of their own, what manner of Synod they thought fit it should be, which was to compose these controversies in hand. There reasons for exceptions were many and manifoldly amplified and confirmed, but amongst them all there were two especially insisted upon. First, it was against all equity and nature that the adverse party should be Judge—the Synod was here the adverse party, and, therefore, they could not be Judges. Second, those who had made an open schism and faction in the Church, and had separated themselves from their Brethren, could not be their judges.  But of this Synod a great part were authors of schism, and the rest favorers and abettors of it—they could not therefore be their judges. In the prosecution of which reason they did not spare very liberally to bestow on the Synod the name of Schismatici & Novatores, and Schismatum fautores, and other goodly titles of the same nature.


The second part of their oration was a meer chimera sultans in vacuo; a strange fancy of such a Synod as never was, nor can be.&nbs I had thought to have taken an abstract of it, but tediousness deterred me. I will give your honor a taste or two of it. There were but two ways of instituting a Synod for the ending of these quarrels.  The first was, by seeking out everywhere certain select men, who all this time of contention had taken part with neither side, but kept themselves unpartial.  Second, if a Synod of such could not be found (as I think it could scarcely be found in the Netherlands, though the Sun itself should seek it) then such a Synod should be framed, as in which should be an equal number of both parties, each with their several praeses and assessors, and they should debate the matter between themselves and if they could not agree, (as is likely they would not) what then, thought I? Shall they part as they came? Not forsooth.  The Civil Magistrate, he must come in, and prescribe the moderamen from which neither party must appeal. Provided always that he labored only for accommodation, and not to determine decisively for one part—and so I awoke. Of the same thread was the whole piece of their speech. When they had well and thoroughly wearied the auditory, they did that which we much desired—they made an end. The Praeses made a brief answer to this effect. For the point of schism, saith he, it is not yet fit time to discuss. But when if should in the Synod be made plain what had been the received doctrine of the church, then it would appear who they were that had made secession from it, and so were guilty of schism.  If you refuse us because we are adversaries, whom would you have deputed as Judges?  Yourselves, or the Papists, of the Anabaptists, or the Libertines, so some other faction in these countries.  Let us be Schismatics, let us be scribes and Pharisees, and worse yet, you may not deny this Synod to be a lawful Synod.  For first it was done by Civil Magistrate, who had the authority to do it.  Second, such as were there were deputed by the consent of the Provinces.  Third, they had all taken their oaths to judge uprightly.  This is enough to make us your judges, and common charity should make you to hope we would judge upright, as least it should make you resolve thus fat, it we should decide truly, you would subscribe unto it, of otherwise you would patiently bear it. If you were in our places, so deputed, so sworn, and we were to be judges by you, we were to do the like.  Here followed some wrangling to no great purpose, and so the session ended.

Your Honours Chaplain, and bounden in all duty, Jo. Hales


The main charge of Episcopious and the Remonstrants against the Synod of Dort is that the whole proceeding was unjust because the Synod of Dort was the adverse party. In other words, how could the ones bringing the charges against the Remonstrants also act as judges in the matter?  Further, according to the Remonstrants, many of those deliberating at the Synod of Dort were the ones causing the schism in the body of Christ against them. How could the authors of schism in the church of Jesus Christ also become their judges? The schismatics were those who had initiated what the Remonstrants believed to be an unlawful assembly against them. So the Remonstrants proposed that only neutral parties should be allowed at the Synod of Dort to render a judgment. If this could not be done, then a select number from each side should be selected to debate the matter among them.  According to Hales, the Remonstrants wearied the assembly with this argument.

The repeated cries of the Federal Visionists have been the same as that of the Remonstrants. The FV has consistently charged that those most schismatic and unloving have been allowed positions of rendering judgments upon them (i.e. stacked study committees, church reports, articles, published books).Charges of schism, breaking the ninth commandment, misunderstanding, mischaracterization, et al, have been made against those questioning FV formulations. Our ecclesiastical courts testify to these charges. The very same debate that occurred at the Synod of Dort, took place on the floor of the PCA GA 2007. It was argued by FV proponents that the study committee was stacked, and there should have been FV proponents on the committee to render a fair judgment. We recall RC Sproul’s momentous statement that such actions would be “akin to putting the accused on the jury”. The outcry by the FV has been the same as the Remonstrants who argued that the “schismatics” have no right to harm their reputations in making a judgment against them. Citing Doug Wilson,

Juries handle the lives and reputations of others. And so of course, you exclude the accused from the jury. You also exclude men who are hostile to the accused, and who are out to get them. You exclude the personal friends of the accused, and—because Almighty God inhabits the highest heaven and considers the ways of men—you also exclude the professional adversaries of the accused. The point of a jury is to find disinterested parties, who will listen to both sides, and make a determination. Instead, what do we have? (Bold Emphasis Mine)

These arguments echo the sentiments of the great Remonstrant Episcopius at more than a few points.

So how did the Synod of Dort answer? “If you refuse us because we are adversaries, whom would you have deputed as Judges? Yourselves, or the Papists, or the Anabaptists, or the Libertines, or some other faction in these countries? Let us be Schismatics, let us be scribes and Pharisees, and worse yet, you may not deny this Synod to be a lawful Synod.”  The Synod praeses also reminded the Remonstrants that they had taken oaths to judge uprightly, and common charity should be enough for them trust that an upright judgment will be rendered in the matter.

The answer is the same to the Federal Visionists.  Who would the FV have to be their judges over their disputed doctrine? Using Hales words, where could such judges scarcely be found in the Reformed world, though the Sun itself should seek it out? Should we turn to the Roman Catholics, or the Baptists, or the Methodists? We have taken oaths of office, and we take these oaths seriously before God. Grant us the necessary charity to render judgments according to our ordination vows and wisdom granted us by the Spirit of God.

As recognized by the Synod of Dort, it is a glaring inconsistency at best for FV proponents to charge us with breaking the ninth commandment and being schismatic when they will not grant us the common charity in accordance with the ninth commandment to render a judgment on the matter in our courts. Like the Synod of Dort, the outcome has been the same and nothing has followed but “wranglings to no great purpose” by those of the FV.

Much more to come…

—Chris Gordon, Escondido (This article first appeared in 2010).