The Synod of Dort (1618-9): Milestone of the Reformation
The Dutch town of Dortrecht (Engl. Dort), may be unfamiliar to many an English-speaking Christian but it was the place where the churches of Holland, Britain, Germany and Switzerland held a great ecumenical conference which resulted in their unanimous agreement concerning the doctrines of grace reflected in the clear teaching of Scripture and the orthodox faith since New Testament times.
From the start, Britain played a major role in this conference due to several factors, the most well-known being the influence of James I on the Continent. James had studied the works of Vorstius, one of the Continent’s Arch-Arminians and was alarmed that he had been chosen to take Jacob Arminius’ place at Leyden University. Supported by Archbishop Abbot, he wrote to the Continental universities, asking them not to place such people as Vorstius on their staff. He also sent representatives to the European nobility and church dignitaries, pressing for an ecumenical synod to define the Reformed Christian faith once and for all. James even threatened to severe contact with the Dutch Provinces and their churches should they introduce Arminianism into their universities and took measures to prevent British students studying at Leyden, the seat of Arminianism. James looked on askance at the States General who, in an effort to appear tolerant of Arminianism, were even persecuting those of the Reformed faith.
James found an ally in Maurice, Prince of Orange, Head of the United Provinces, and soon steps were taken by the States General to call a Synod of the Belgic churches. This idea developed in favour of an international synod of Reformed churches, chiefly through James’ and Maurice’s intervention. Eventually, delegates from the Dutch Principalities and Provinces, England, Scotland, France, the Palatine, Brandenburg, Hessen, Bremen, Emden, Zürich, Berne, Schaffhausen, Geneva and Transylvania were invited. It has recently been argued that the British invitation was sent to James and not Archbishop Abbot, therefore the British delegates did not represent their churches but were mere diplomats of their King. This interpretation would disqualify all the delegates as all invitations were sent out to the rulers of all the participating nations, whether monarchies, dukedoms or republics.
Redressing the historical balance
Knowledge of other important factors has faded in recent years and we must go back to the original documents and the contemporary evidence of historians such as Thomas Fuller in order to gain a balanced overview. Nineteenth Century scholars such as Morris Fuller, Charles Hardwick, Josiah Allport, Thomas Scott and Samuel Miller have done invaluable work in analysing the evidence. However, a modern rediscovery of the ‘real’ Synod of Dort is made difficult by the accounts of Arminian and Amyraldian authors such as Peter Heylin, Daniel Tilenus, Edmund Calamy, Bishop Tomline and John Goodwin, who have played havoc with the facts. These facts have also been distorted recently by fringe groups who unite the two extremes in the Synod and teach Supralapsarianism in an Arminian Grotian (Fullerite) garb. Sadly, the prevailing interpretations of British influence at Dort, be they Anglican, Presbyterian, or Freechurch, are greatly influenced by such anti-Calvinistic writers past and present. This essay is an attempt to redress the balance.
Parallel to the activities of James representing British interests, the Dutch States were shaking off Spanish influence and striving to organise themselves as independent states with independent churches. In doing so, they leaned heavily on the Reformed creeds of neighbouring states, in particular the Belgic Confession and Catechism (originally in French, 1561) and the German Heidelberger Catechism (1563). One of Beza’s pupils, Jacob Arminius, however, began to doubt these principles, chiefly after reading William Perkins’ Aurea Armilla, which he felt destroyed human initiative and responsibility in salvation. He thus countered it with his Examen Praedestinationis Perkinsianae, and devised five points which he felt were more acceptable: 1. God bestowed salvation from eternity on those he foresaw would persevere to the end in their faith; b. Jesus atoned for all mankind but only believers can partake of its benefit; 3. Regeneration and conversion are dependent on the gift of the Holy Spirit; 4. All good works are the product of operations of grace in the believer but this grace can be resisted by the perverse will of the sinner. 5. All such believers can triumph over Satan’s seduction but whether or not such may fall from grace cannot be determined until more insight is gained into the Scriptures by the churches. Modern Arminianism goes much further in their pursuit of free-will, declaring, for instance, that it is certain that a Christian can fall from grace.
When, in 1605, the Classis of Dort decided that a synod should be called to counter these points, Arminius and Francis Gomarus (1563-1641), a Belgian and co-professor with Arminius at Leyden, protested, saying that though there was contention amongst the students, the professors were in agreement on doctrine and would thus strive to mediate between the students. Arminius died in 1609 and his followers immediately became more radical and lax even rejecting Arminius’ ‘moderate Calvinism’ teaching on justification. In 1610, they presented a plea for less stringency in doctrinal matters, strongly remonstrating against the States General. Hereafter, the Arminians were thus nick-named ‘Remonstrants’ and believers in the doctrines of grace ‘Contra-Remonstrants.’ This caused much friction in the United Provinces and agreement regarding a Synod was far from unanimous. Finally in 1618 four of the seven states decided to call a Synod at Dort, a Contra-Remonstrance stronghold. The small majority determined that rather than meet their Arminian fellow-ministers around the conference table and strive for consensus, the Arminians should state their case which would then be judged according to the Reformed Confessions. Meanwhile, Gomarus had radically changed his views, resigned from Leyden, chiefly because Vorstius was elected as Arminius’ successor, and moved to Saumur in 1614 and to Groningen in 1618 before taking part against the Arminians in the Synod of Dort. Leyden called James’ favourite, Peter du Moulin, to the Divinity chair in 1618 to save their reputation but the Frenchman declined.
When James received his invitation, he put the matter into Archbishop Abbot’s hands. Happily, Abbot was a firm believer in the doctrines of grace and, in consultation with the King and bishops, chose five of the leading Reformers in England and Scotland. England was thus represented by George Carlton, Bishop of Landaff; Joseph Hall, Dean of Worcester: John Davenant, a Cambridge Margaret-Professor and Samuel Ward, Master of Sydney College, Cambridge. All these were men of outstanding Christian credentials and learning. Equal to them was the representative for the Church of Scotland, Gualter (Walter) Balcanqual, Fellow of Pembroke College. Hall became ill during the Synod and was replaced by Abbot’s chaplain, Thomas Goad, a man well-known for preaching against Pelagianism. Presbyterian Prof. Miller of Princeton wrote of these British representatives:
“It would have been difficult to select men of more respectable character for talents, learning, piety, and ecclesiastical influence than those who were nominated and commissioned to take their seats in that Synod.”
The policy of the British delegates
Archbishop Abbot briefed the delegates well, which proved of great benefit at Dort as the other churches, because of the splits in their ranks, lacked a common programme and strategy. Abbot advised the British representatives to brush up their Latin as all debates were to be in that language. All points should be discussed amongst the British beforehand and a consensus reached before appearing in public. If new matters arose which they had not considered, they should asked for a postponement for mutual consultation. Doctrines voted on should be self-evident, not open to disputation and suitable for pulpit use. No innovations contrary to the Reformed confessions should be permitted. The British delegates should enter into full church fellowship with their brethren. If they found that the Continental brethren were at sixes and sevens concerning certain matters, the British should strive to mediate. Dr Carleton and his team were advised to keep the honour of their King and country in mind and report weekly to the British Ambassador who was an expert in Dutch affairs. Finally, the delegates were told to use their own initiative when unforeseen matters arose and keep up a good Christian witness.
The Synod gets underway
The Englishmen arrived at Dort on November 3, 1618, (Balcanqual was delayed), and were given a warm welcome. President Bogerman, immediately asked Davenant to help organise the voting and debate procedure and also be his adviser on church history and international law. Indeed, the prestige given the British proved highly embarrassing as the Synod ruled that they should be paid ten pounds sterling a day for their expenses and receive a salary of seventy pounds per week for their assistance in the affairs of the Synod. This was a far higher sum than the other foreign delegates received. The British thus determined to share the money indirectly with their Continental brethren by keeping an open table and inviting all to dine at their expense. Delegates from the Continent numbered thirty-nine pastors and eighteen ruling elders from the Belgic churches, five Professors from the universities of Holland and nineteen Presbyterians from non-Dutch churches. The Gallican Churches voted to send Andrew Rivet and Peter du Moulin but were prevented by their king. This was an act of God’s grace on God’s part as the French Protestants were split on the Cameronite issue at the time which might have led them to compromise with the Arminians. Cameron was ably confronted by John Davenant in his answer on behalf of the Synod to the Gallican pamphlet On the Controversy, among the French Divines of the Reformed Church. Davenant’s rebuttal of Cameron’s Semi-Pelagianism helped procure French agreement to the canons.
At their first public reception, and in the presence of the Prince of Orange, Carleton gave a speech outlining the need to unite pursuit of the truth with peace and harmony. Before the debates began, all present was asked to take the Admission-Oath, and swore together:
“I promise before God, whom I believe and adore, the present Searcher of the heart and reins, that in all this Synodal action, wherein shall be appointed the examination, judgement, and decision, as well of the known five Articles (of Arminius) and difficulties therein arising, as of all other Doctrinals, that I will not make use of any Humane Writing, but only of God’s Word for the certain and undoubted Rule of Faith, and that I shall propound nothing to myself in this whole cause, besides the glory of God, the peace of the Church, and especially the preservation of the purity of Doctrine therein.”
Promoters of peaceful negotiations
The English Reformers soon realised why they had been called upon to act as referees in the Synod. The Arminians refused point blank to discuss their faith and insisted on attacking the doctrine of Reprobation. The great majority saw Reprobation as dependent on the right view of the atonement which should be defined first. However, Gomarus, rose to the bait, lost his temper and declared, “He (God) predestined him (man) to death, so He predestined him to sin, the only way to death.” Carleton and Davenant strove to persuade the delegates to avoid harsh language and over-dogmatic statements, not immediately backed by Scripture. The debate, they argued, must not become philosophical and should be limited to Biblical exposition and historical theology. As a practical solution, they suggested considering how the early church had dealt with Pelagianism. Though sturdy believers in reprobation themselves, they felt that Gomarus was too hot-headed for sincere Christian debate. For his skill in welding the Contra-Remonstrant factions together, Davenant became known as ‘the pillar of the Synod’.
Further major rents avoided
Balcanqual arrived on 16th December and proceedings were adjourned so that his letters of introduction could be read. Bogerman gave a short welcome oration to which Balcanqual replied with equal courtesy. As soon as the Scotsman settled down to the agenda, he protested that some of the delegates were acting outside of their powers and that Contra-Remonstrant resolutions against the Arminians could not possibly be passed by minority groups representing only a third of the party. Gradually. the British were able to maintain harmony in the debates and keep the various factions from quarrelling. This was no easy matter with Mathew Martinus of Buden pleading for Low Sublapsarianism and equally dogmatic Gomarus representing the few High Supralapsarians present. Oddly enough, Gomarus chose to quarrel with George Carleton who was as High Calvinist as they come and had to be constantly warned by the Englishman to keep his temper. When Gomarus was rattled, he even forgot his Calvinism and challenged the wording of Article XVII on Election and Predestination though it was a direct quote from Calvin himself! If Heylin is correct, even Bogerman lost his temper. In their efforts to promote balanced judgement, and keep to the motto of the British Reformation, Unity in Verity, the British were supported by the majority of Germans (i.e. apart from Martinus) and Swiss who looked back on a long history of co-operation and inter-church activities with the British Reformers. Gomarus apologised magnanimously to the Synod because of his outbursts.
Soon, the fellowship amongst the Contra-Remonstrants deepened and we find Hall confessing that it was like being in heaven. The sturdy Reformer was asked to preach a sermon to the assembled body and his fine words on Rom. 9 have been preserved. Understanding the unstable and torn situation of the Belgic churches, Hall exhorted them to:
“continue to adhere to the common faith, and the Confessions of your own and the other churches; which if you do, O happy Holland! O chaste Spouse of Christ! O prosperous republic! This, your afflicted Church, tossed with the billows of differing opinions, will yet reach the harbour, and safely smile at all the storms excited by her cruel adversaries. That this may at length be obtained, let us seek for the things which make for peace. We are brethren; let us also be colleagues! What have we to do with party names? We are Christians; let us also be of the same mind. We are one body; let us also be unanimous. By the tremendous name of the Omnipotent God; by the pious and loving bosom of our common mother: by our own souls; by the holy bowels of Jesus Christ, our Saviour, my brethren, seek peace, pursue peace.”
Hall chose Rom. 9 especially as it was through preaching on this chapter that Arminius had first rent the churches apart. On becoming ill, Hall stayed at the Synod until Archbishop Abbot sent Goad to take his place, so that the British voice would not be weakened. Hall was praised for his fine work in the assembly, given a large commemorative medal and his travelling expenses generously paid.
Difficulties concerning church order, discipline and doctrinal interpretation
One item on the agenda caused the British party some effort in presenting their case. They had no trouble agreeing with the Dutch majority on doctrine but when they were asked to agree to a one-man form of church government, namely the Presbyter, they objected, pointing out that the New Testament clearly displayed a variety of ministries and ministers. Some deputies held that Presbyterianism guaranteed a doctrinally sound church, but the British delegates pointed out that the Synod had been called because of heresy amongst the Presbyterians and that Arminius himself was a Presbyterian. The Presbyterians assured the English that this was no criticism of their church order and that, “they heartily wished that they could establish themselves on the model of the Church of England, but they had no prospect of such a happiness: and since the civil government had made their desires impractical, they hoped God would be merciful to them.” The explanation given was that the Continental Dukes felt they could control churches better if they did not have a complicated system of ministries and that in the Reformation, the main campaigners had been the common people with few bishops joining in. In England, it was the bishops and Archbishops who had spear-headed the Reformation, bringing the common people in their protecting wake. The Presbyterians then kindly kept to Calvinistic doctrine rather than enforcing local politically motivated traditions and ‘retrenched and suppressed’ their views on church order.
Another matter of debate was the Anglican belief in the universal mission of Christ’s death. The Supralapsarians tended to view Christ’s death as having no relevance to the non-elect and to the visible world. Modern Supralapsarians thus accuse the British delegates of teaching hypothetical universalism. Davenant and Ward, however, showed how the atonement was savingly sufficient and efficient for the elect alone but that nature in general, as the inheritance of the elect, also benefited from Christ’s work. Davenant argued clearly that all are redeemed for whom Christ thought fit to die. He rejected the idea of hypothetical universalism in grace, calling and salvation but maintained that salvation was universal in that it was wrought out for the elect everywhere. Indeed, the true ‘Calvinism’ of the Dortian Canons is reflected in Chap. II, Articles 5,6 and 8 which was principally the work of the British delegates. Faced with those who would separate the work of Christ from the decrees of God, Davenant said he would sooner cut off his hand than strike out these passages.
On realising how sound and learned the British were, Carleton, Davenant, Hall and Ward were invited to assist the Dutch in preparing an annotated authorised Bible translation. The ministers agreed and worked at it until its publication in 1637. In 1657 that it was published in English under the title The Dutch Annotations upon the whole Bible: together with the Translation, according to the direction of the Synod of Dort, 1618. In these days of denominational bickering, it is a blessed but sobering thought to know that generations of Dutch and Belgian Presbyterian churches were assisted in their worship by Anglican divines.
The Canons of Dort
The British delegates were pleased to find that when the churches present had settled their disputes, it was by adopting doctrines identical to those of the Thirty-Nine and Lambeth Articles. At times, they thought their Continental brethren had been too speculative in their conclusions, but accepted these as being within the bounds of Christian tolerance. Apart from the Arminians, the clear losers at the Synod were the Supralapsarians, who, admittedly, had often logic on their side but could not translate it into Scriptural exposition. Modern Supralapsarians who claim that Dort sanctioned their teaching because it did not officially denounce it, are stretching that logic too far. The British delegates found themselves almost at all times in a middle and majority position at the Synod. The document, eventually signed unanimously, referred to five heads of doctrine: Of Divine Predestination; Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby; Of the Corruption of Man, His Conversion to God, and the Manner Thereof (The third and fourth heads were placed in the same section) and Of the Perseverance of the Saints. These doctrines are now commonly known as the Five Points of Calvinism, though, as the British delegates argued, they were five points of orthodoxy from New Testament times onwards and represented a light which had never been extinguished. The Synod did not claim that these points reflected the sum total of Christian teaching but merely countered the five points of Arminius. Sadly, many modern Calvinists do not go beyond the Five Points, thereby neglecting sovereign grace teaching on repentance, justification and the new birth as do their Arminian counterparts.
The Synod closed with great solemnity on April 27th, 1619. The British delegates were thanked for the excellent work done and presented with large commemorative medals and £200 for their expenses home. The Synod also conveyed their most heartfelt thanks to King James “through whose godly zeal, fiery sympathy, and truly royal labour God had so often refreshed the Synod in the midst of their toil.” The British deputies were then given a tour of the Dutch Provinces where they were given a warm welcome except in the case of Leyden, the Arminian stronghold.
Arminian and Amyraldian efforts to misrepresent the Canons of Dort
Soon after the British delegates reached home, Arminians, banned from Holland, began to settle down in England, some infiltrating the Anglican Church and some setting up Dissenting congregations. In order to gain prestige, they announced that the British delegates at Dort had been on their side. The British situation became as bad as the Dutch. The confusion was all the greater when Tilenus, Montague and Heylin published ‘versions’ totally contradicting the original canons and making it appear that the delegates were all extreme Supralapsarians and antagonistic to the Church of England. Carleton, Hall, Davenant and Ward had quite a time refuting such allegations. Hall wrote, echoing Davenant’s words in his Ad Fraternam Communionem:
“Blessed be God, there is no difference, in any essential point, between the Church of England and her sister Reformed Churches. We unite in every article of Christian doctrine, without the least variation, as the full and absolute agreement between their public Confessions and ours testifies. The only difference between us consists in our mode of constituting the external ministry; and even with respect to this point we are one mind, because we all profess to believe that it is not an essential of the Church.”
As criticism grew, the British delegates published a long declaration, signed by all, outlining the overwhelming agreement and mutual tolerance exercised amongst the Reformed Churches and especially the high honours paid to the British. This was accompanied by detailed minutes of the Synod’s procedures and a background history of the Synod starting some seventy years before it actually took place. When Arminians and Amyraldians claimed that Davenant had been their man at the Synod and had not supported its findings, Davenant answered, “I had rather a millstone were hanged around my neck and I cast into the sea than that I should hinder a work so acceptable to God, or should not with my whole mind support it.” Since those days, the British delegates have been called Supralapsarians, High Calvinists, Amyraldians and Arminians by extremists on both side of the atonement discussion, which rather suggests that they stood well-balanced in the Scriptures.
Thus the Canons of Dort remain a milestone pointing the way to true evangelical unity. Joel Beeke, in his excellent introduction to the Eerdman reprint appended to the Psalter, says rightly:
“The Canons form a remarkable scriptural and balanced document on the specific doctrines expounded. They are unique in being the sole Form of Unity composed by an ecclesiastical assembly and in representing a consensus of all the Reformed churches of their day.”
This writer agrees with Dr Beeke that they should be read and kept by all Christians as a standard well worth preserving in these days of doctrinal chaos.
George M. Ella is a historian, author and biographer. His writings may be accessed at the online archived, ”Biographia Evangelica”.
George M. Ella, born February 1939 in Yorkshire, England, has lived most of his life on the European Continent. He is a retired Senior Civil Servant formerly employed in teaching, post-graduate teacher-training, chairing examination boards and curricula work. He holds degrees from London, Hull, Uppsala, Essen, Duisburg and Marburg universities with doctorates in English Literature and Theology. Dr. Ella has written regularly since the seventies for a number of magazines and newspapers and published numerous books on Church History, including biographies of William Cowper, William Huntington, James Hervey, John Gill, Augustus Montague Toplady, Isaac McCoy and Henry Bullinger besides works on doctrine and education. He is currently finishing the third volume of his series 'Mountain Movers'; a biography of John Durie; a work on Law and Gospel and further study material for the Martin Bucer Seminar. Dr. Ella is still internationally active as a lecturer and is a Vice-President of the Protestant Reformation Society. He is keenly interested in missionary work and has written on the spread of the Gospel amongst the Same people of Lapland, the people of India and the Native Americans. This present volume follows Dr. Ella's 'The Covenant of Grace and Christian Baptism', also published by the Martin Bucer Seminar. George Ella is married to Erika Ella, nee Fleischman, a former government administrator, and they have two sons Mark (41), Director of a Polytechnic College in Bremerhaven and Robin (39), Leading Senior Physician in a newly-built Geriatric and Psychiatric clinic in Dessau.