Quadricentenary of the Synod of Dordrecht spurs Christians to revisit essential gospel truths

by Peter Benyola

Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him!
For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm.
The LORD brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.
The counsel of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.
Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage!
The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man;
from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.
~ Psalm 33:8-15, ESV

Inspired by the 17th-century Synod of Dordrecht, the acrostic TULIP since the early 20th century has represented the Reformed systematic understanding of salvation. A blooming field of tulips in Lisse, Netherlands, superintended by the life-giving Sun seems a fitting image. photo: public domain

Contents

Introduction
Segment 1 | Historical overview
Segment 2 | The Five Articles of Remonstrance
Segment 3 | The Canons of Dort
Segment 4 | The philosophical antecedents of Arminianism and Calvinism
Segment 5 | Scriptural proofs for the TULIP
Total Depravity
Unconditional Election
Limited Atonement
Irresistible Grace
Perseverance of the Saints
Conclusion
Further study

Introduction

Four hundred years ago this year, Reformed scholars and pastors convened in a National Synod in Dordrecht, Netherlands, to settle the controversy brought by the Arminian Remonstrance, a movement which grew out of the Reformation and which held that, essentially, God is most glorified in human beings’ free choice in accepting salvation, rather than God’s own sovereign choice. That synod, which commenced November 13, 1618, with 154 sessions that convened over seven months and adjourned May 9, 1619, with much ecclesiastical deliberation produced the Canons of Dort, which became a touchstone confession of the Reformed tradition.

In 2018, the view that human beings, the objects of salvation, also choose their own salvation, seems to be the majority report in Evangelical Christianity. Yet, we know that truth isn’t decided by popular vote: truth is that which corresponds to reality, not as perceived by man but by God. After this passage of time, we’re intrigued by the question of why there is such a widespread allergy to the biblical doctrine of God’s sovereignty in salvation. We find the timing is right for an apodictic word in reiterating the biblical view that God is glorified in His sovereign choice over human beings’ salvation.

“I work my whole life, I don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused to be a fool dancing on the strings held by all those big shots. I don’t apologize for that, that’s my life,” Vito said to his son, Michael, in his old age, ruminating on a lifetime of running an organized crime syndicate. “But I thought that, well, when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator Corleone, Governor Corleone, something.” (The Godfather, 1972)

Starting life as Vito Andolini, an orphaned Sicilian immigrant, Don Corleone in the early 20th century built an American Mafia empire he bequeathed to his son. A powerful man for many years, he became blinded by his own power, ultimately disillusioned that he was unable to orchestrate all things exactly as he conceived in his mind’s eye. Though his business was shady and unscrupulous, and his methods were brutal and ruthless, the Godfather had a sense of honor and traditionalism to love, care and provide for his family and closest friends.

What kind of flower was Corleone’s boutonniere? Quite conspicuously, even The Don knew deep down and had to don the truth of Calvinism. photo: Paramount Pictures

This paternalistic predilection for conquest is ancient, for Augustine from his own academic studies described Catiline, the Roman Senator and failed revolutionary thwarted by Cicero in the first century B.C., “No one would commit murder without a motive, merely because he took pleasure in killing. Who would believe that? It was said of one brutal and cruel man [Catiline] that he was evil and savage without reason. Yet the preceding passage gave the motive: ‘lest disuse might make his hand or mind slow to react’ — Why did he wish for that? Why so? His objective was to capture the city by violent crimes to obtain honours, government, and wealth; to live without fear of the laws and without the difficulty of attaining his ambitions because of the poverty of his family estate and his known criminal record. No, not even Catiline himself loved his crimes; something else motivated him to commit them.” (Confessions, St. Augustine, trans. Chadwick, 2.5.11)

Like Catiline, like everyone, Don Corleone had plans to rise above others’ control. Because he had more power than most people, he thought he “held the strings.” Yet, his autonomy was illusory. The Don is not alone in this. Naturally, every human being thinks he or she is master or mistress over their own little world. But we aren’t really the pezzonovanti (big shots) that we think we are. We clutch onto our sense of control as if it’s all we have, yet any power we ostensibly have is dwarfed by the One who actually “holds the strings,” the Creator and Sustainer of all things, completely sovereign, infinitely wise, and perfect in love. He is the only God, Father who can make an offer no one can refuse.

Four hundred years after Dort, why does anthropocentric soteriology still pollute the mainstream of Christendom?

Four centuries since the Canons of Dort is something of a milestone. It’s sure that hotels and conference centers nationwide are not being flooded in a deluge of requests for reservations so that fervent Calvinists may reenact the Synod of Dort in 17th-century Dutch cosplay and feast on catered delicacies. As much as the hotels probably would enjoy such a surge in business to celebrate anything, let’s be real: people aren’t exactly stampeding down the door to commemorate watershed episodes in Reformed theology. This never should surprise us, of course, since no one naturally likes being reminded how desperately depraved we really are, and our abject condition needing God’s mercy.

So, why do we care about the 400th anniversary of the Canons of Dort? Why, in 2017, did we care about the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation? It’s not just because we like to point out nice, round numbers. For Christians, especially Protestants, anniversaries such as these are opportunities to draw attention to things we believe are true and which should be restated as often as we have occasion. For non-Christians, perhaps these events are worth studying for, if nothing else, the sociohistorical background.

The five points of doctrine established in the 1618-19 Canons of Dort eventually were reformulated, the earliest reference which we have as 1913, into the well-known acrostic TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Profoundly influenced by the towering Protestant Reformer, John Calvin, there is much more to Calvinism than these “five points,” yet the TULIP became emblematic of Calvinism as a result of the 17th-century Arminian-Calvinist controversy.

The Canons of Dort might not be discussed much anymore, at least not outside Dutch Reformed circles, although the TULIP is discussed all the time. Anytime TULIP — or “the Doctrines of Grace” as it is sometimes referred to — surface in theological conversation, whether we agree with them or not, we’re alluding to the Canons of Dort. In this way, the subject is quite influential and relevant to Christians today.

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church history, epistemology, Reformation, soteriology

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