Segment 1 | Historical overview
The Canons of Dort, originally known as The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands, was the third major Reformed confession of faith, after the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The same synod also authorized the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism as official standards of the Dutch Reformed churches. These documents, which together are known as the Three Forms of Unity, comprise the main doctrinal standard for the Continental Reformed churches of Europe, and many Reformed churches around the world. Unlike the other two Forms of Unity, the Canons of Dort was the only confession composed by not by one or a few authors, but by an ecclesiastical assembly of “divines,” or theologians.
Eventually the Presbyterian part of the Reformed church established the Westminster Confession of Faith, and its Larger and Shorter Catechisms, together known as the Westminster Standards, which were used in the Presbyterian churches in Scotland and England. Along with these Westminster Standards, the Three Forms of Unity have often been used in these churches.
The Christian church’s creeds and confessions formulate its doctrinal standards, as trusted guides for understanding Scripture. Reformed churches hold to sola Scriptura, meaning that the Bible is the church’s only infallible, inerrant and totally trustworthy word of God. So Scripture both shapes and subjects creeds and confessions, as well as the catechisms that are based on them. They aren’t intended to replace Scripture, only to aid Christians to read Scripture well, give us a place where we can easily reference what unites us, and to arm us against the perils of false doctrine by succinctly reaffirming God’s Word. Like its predecessor confessions, these canons have served Reformed congregations with a statement of faith for hundreds of years.
Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) was a pastor who studied under Theodore Beza (1519-1605), who was John Calvin’s (1509-1564) successor as the most prominent minister in Geneva, Switzerland. After Geneva, Arminius went on to be a theological professor at the University of Leiden and wrote many books and treatises on theology, though he never published them. He disputed Reformed theology on numerous important points and had a following of at least a few dozen students and ministers.
Following Arminius’ death, about 42 of these Dutch Protestants, called “Remonstrants,” challenged the Reformed confessional standards, in 1610 formally presenting to the States of Holland and Friesland a remonstrance — literally, an expression of opposition or protest — in five articles that enumerated their points of discord with Calvinism. These Remonstrants endeavored for the states to adopt their articles by revising the church’s doctrinal standards and their minority views to be government-protected. This provoked the Counter-Remonstrance of 1611 by the opposing Calvinists, which also were called Gomarists, led by Franciscus Gomarus, also from the University of Leiden. Eventually, the Synod at Dordrecht summoned 14 Remonstrants, effectively as defendants.
There was more at stake than sound theology. The Netherlands was in the throes of 80 years of war with King Philip of Spain, who had ruled them from afar. So on top of this revolt by the United Provinces, the Arminian-Calvinist controversy had brought stress upon the churches for about eight years, and it so intensified that the Dutch Republic was facing civil war. When the conflict culminated into a coup d’etat in the state in 1617, the States General voted four to three to call a national Synod intending to deal with Arminianism. (Should we be glad, on some level, that if a nation must have infighting, that it would be over biblical fidelity? The Netherlands that we know today has become religiously unrecognizable from the 17th century, but that’s a topic for another essay.)
In the midst of both foreign and domestic threats to the Netherlands, the Synod was as concerned with national security and civil order, as it was concerned with equipping the church to refute false teaching and to foster faithful preaching of the Word. In the emerging Calvinist orthodoxy, the synod sought to build on the orthodox creeds of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Chalcedonian Creed and the Athanasian Creed, as well as what had more recently been taught in the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism.
The Synod of Dort garnered international interest, but the Arminians also complained that in an exclusively Dutch setting, they would not receive a fair trial. So the Synod comprised 62 Dutch delegates and 27 foreign delegates who represented eight countries. It included Dutch ministers, church elders, theologians, delegates of churches outside the Dutch Republic, and Dutch lay politicians. With a few observers who had no voting status, there were 86 voting members.
As incredulous we might be to consider it in this day and age, there actually were times in church history when sound doctrine was considered serious enough throughout Europe that church authorities called on the carpet those who deviated from what was understood as correct and true.