The Canons of Dort are one of official standards of the Reformed churches. They were written in the early 1600s, when the young Reformed Church in the Netherlands had to deal with the threat of Arminian theology. But are they relevant for today? Many Reformed people are unfamiliar with the Canons and their content. Some think of them as nitpicky theology, unimportant for everyday Christian living. Others dislike the Canons because their strong focus on topics like election only seems to alienate us from the broader evangelical community.
On the other hand there are zealous Christians who are very focused on the “Five Points of Calvinism,” as they summarize the Canons. Their thinking about God and his salvation is solidly based on TULIP—Total Depravity, Unlimited Atonement, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. For them these five doctrines of grace are as important as the twelve articles of the Apostle’s Creed, or the five “solas” of the Reformation.
In these articles I want to emphasize the importance of the Canons of Dort as a standard for the church today. It not only summarizes important Biblical doctrine about God’s grace, but also outlines how this doctrine must be taught. The Canons are not merely dogma, but deal with questions of evangelism, catechism, and pastoral care. Their concern is much broader than many people realize. At the same time, the Canons of Dort are also much more nuanced than is often thought. Summarizing the Canons in the acronym TULIP easily leads to a distortion of their doctrine, and produces a radical “Calvinism” that the Synod of Dort did not intend.
This first article addresses the nature of the Canons in general. This involves some discussion of what happened at the Synod of Dort. The second and third installments are a survey of the five main sections of the Canons, intended especially to bring out their evangelical, pedagogical, and pastoral character.
Purpose of the Canons
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a canon is “a regulation or dogma decreed by a church council.” Indeed, the Canons of Dort are simply the doctrinal statements decreed by the National Synod of 1618/19, held in the Netherlands in the city of Dordrecht. This historical setting is important for an understanding of the purpose of the Canons.
The Canons of Dort are the churches’ response to a specific controversy. They were never intended as a comprehensive statement of the doctrines of grace, nor as the foundation of a theological system. For this reason it can be misleading to speak of “The Five Points of Grace,” or of “The Five Points of Calvinism.” A much more accurate characterization is found in the Form of Subscription for office bearers, which calls the Canons an “explanation of certain points” of the doctrine. Specifically, they are a response to the five points the Arminian dissenters had brought to the attention of the Synod.
Thus the Canons were written first and foremost to repudiate Arminianism. All delegates at Dort, both national and international, were united in this purpose. That does not mean they agreed on everything; on the contrary, there were strong differences in theological method and conviction. The Arminians even tried to use these differences to divide the Synod against itself. But the delegates stood together; eventually they all signed their names under the Canons, even though some would have preferred to say things a bit differently.
Pedagogy of the Canons
Because the primary purpose of the Synod of Dort was to repudiate Arminianism, it would have been sufficient to list each major heresy with a brief argument why it ought to be rejected. This was common practice; and we find something like it in the “rejection of errors” at the end of each section of the Canons. It is remarkable, then, that the bulk of the text of the Canons goes beyond the call, and presents doctrine in positive statements.
Equally remarkable is the fact that the Canons use rather simple, non-technical language. Theologians typically employed highly specialized language, with precise scholarly distinctions. This “scholastic” style was also used in the deliberations at the Synod of Dort. However, a conscious decision was made to compose the Canons “not scholastically or academically, but ecclesiastically,” in the words of President Bogerman. The Canons should be “succinct rather than subtle,” and aim at “truth rather than victory” over the Arminians.
The main section of the Canons, then, was written “ecclesiastically.” The model for a popular, positive exposition of doctrine appears to have come from the Palatinate delegation. When they presented their criticism on the first point, they included a separate section titled, “The manner of teaching the doctrine of predestination to the people” (Modus docendi populariter de praedestinatione). After a brief introduction, they wrote: “The people must be taught …,” followed by eleven short statements about election and reprobation. Clearly the Palatinate delegates were concerned about pedagogy, about the way in which Christians learn their doctrine. They realized that doctrine only becomes meaningful when it receives its proper place and understanding in the minds and the lives of the church. (The Palatinate church was the expert in this, as is clear from the Heidelberg Catechism, which they composed only half a century earlier.)
This pedagogical approach of the Palatine delegates was adopted by the Synod of Dort for shaping their Canons. We must therefore read the Canons not only as a norm for doctrinal truth, but also as a guide for doctrinal teaching. In subsequent articles I will show how the various sections of the Canons guide the teaching of the church. We will then see that this confession of the church is much more than a collection of doctrinal declarations. The Canons have a strong pastoral concern, to comfort the weak and to admonish the arrogant. They are evangelistic in nature, speaking much about the gospel and how it ought to be presented.
From the beginning of the controversy in the 1600s, the Arminians accused the Reformed churches of unbiblical, harsh teachings. For instance, the Arminians claimed that some preachers taught that “many children of the faithful are torn, guiltless, from their mothers’ breasts, and tyrannically plunged into hell.” They had some occasion for this complaint, because in a fierce debate with Pighius, John Calvin had written something like this. God’s sovereign justice, said Calvin, allows him to predestine to hell all sinners, even infants who die within days after birth. Other “hard sayings” (phrases duriores) that one could find in Reformed writings were that God causes people to sin; that he does not want everyone to be saved; and that the lifestyle of people had no effect on their salvation.
These accusations were often unfair and unbalanced, but the Synod of Dort recognized that they were not entirely without ground. Several delegates asked the Synod to address these “hard sayings,” and even to condemn them as heretical. After two days of deliberation, a “Conclusion” was written to the Canons of Dort.
In this Conclusion, the Reformed distance themselves from various “hard sayings” of which the Arminians accused the churches. The Reformed faith must not be judged “from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers”—this even includes some things written by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin!—“often dishonestly quoted, or corrupted and wrested to a meaning quite foreign to their intention.”
On the other hand, the Conclusion appeals to the preachers to “conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine.” This means, first of all, that in preaching and teaching God’s holiness must be upheld and the afflicted must be comforted. Also, preachers must take care that their thinking and speaking is guided by the Scriptures. Specifically, they are “to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures.”
Not only in the early 1600s but still today there is a strand of Calvinism that should take careful note of this appeal. How easy it is to take Biblical insights—e.g. that God is sovereign in salvation—and develop from it a theological system that goes beyond the teaching of Scripture. How easy it is, when we zealously defend one principle of the Christian faith, to radicalize it at the expense of other principles! The Arminians made this mistake in one direction, but eager Calvinists can fall into the opposite error.
Nothing brings the beauty of Jesus Christ to sinful people, believers and unbelievers alike, as powerfully as God’s own Scriptures. Our theological system and doctrinal statements must not only start with these Scriptures, but conform to them as much as possible. This affects what we say, and how we say it; it must shape and mold the teaching and preaching of the church.
The Canons of Dort show us how to think and speak about the glorious, but not always easy, doctrines of God’s grace and election and sovereign work in us.
It is often said that the Canons of Dort is formulated in an infralapsarian way, but that it does not exclude a supralapsarian view.
In the “infra” view, election and reprobation only function within the reality of sin. Articles I.7 and I.15 clearly take this position when they say that God chose people out of the fallen human race and left others in their misery. The “supra” position thinks of election and reprobation apart from the fall: God first decided to create some people for glory and others for perdition, prior to planning the history of the world (including fall and salvation).
It is true that the Synod of Dort did not explicitly reject the “supra” position, although they chided Maccovius for some typically “supra” harsh sayings. But the Canons are “infra,” and that is very deliberate. The Canons explicitly mention the fall before election; they purposefully speak of election out of the fallen race; they deliberately identify reprobation as non-election, as “a passing by” of already guilty sinners. All of this is typical of an infralapsarian approach.
As a result, it is difficult for a “supra” theologian to subscribe to the Canons of Dort, not just to its basic doctrine but also to its method of teaching. If we are to take the Canons seriously as a guideline for teaching and preaching—as I argue in these articles—then this commitment is practically incompatible with a “supra” conviction.
This has consequences for how we view some modern Calvinists who make TULIP their watchword. They tend to be zealous defenders of “supra,” making God’s sovereign decree the primary point in their presentation of the gospel, claiming it to be a higher and more consistent view. The Canons call us away from this.
Let it be enough for us that in Christ, God calls lost sinners to himself, having chosen them to belong to Christ in the way of faith. Jesus Christ is the heart of the gospel; he is the foundation of the church. In the light of Christ, the knowledge that not we, but God chose to save us out of our misery is true comfort for the church, and a strong motivation to bring the gospel to others as well.
 See D. Sinnema, “The Canons of Dordt: From Judgment on Arminianism to Confessional Standard,” in: Goudriaan & Van Lieburg (eds.) Revisiting the Synod of Dordt.
 See W. R. Godfrey, “Popular and Catholic: The Modus Docendi of the Canons of Dort”, in: Goudriaan & Van Lieburg (eds.) Revisiting the Synod of Dordt.
 This is borne out in the 1905 decisions of Utrecht, adopted by the Christian Reformed Churches in 1908. “It is not permitted to present the supralapsarian view as the doctrine of the Reformed Churches, but neither to molest anyone who personally holds the supralapsarian view,” was the conclusion; and “Synod adds the warning that such profound doctrines, which are far beyond the understanding of the common people, should be discussed as little as possible in the pulpit, and that one should adhere in the preaching of the Word and in catechetical instruction to the presentation offered in our Confessional Standards.”