“There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”[1]

So begins C.S. Lewis’s preface to On the Incarnation by Athanasius of Alexandria. In his essay, Lewis chastises modern readers for their obsession with novelty. He rightly calls for the reading of old books. And in his own, witty way Lewis presents the ancient words of Athanasius as an antidote to modern errors.

The Need for Depth

Though his words introduce Athanasius’s argument for Christ’s deity, I would suggest they could also apply to the Synod of Dort, which corrected the errors of Arminius. In our day, Reformed soteriology — a view of salvation that begins and ends with God’s grace — has been made widely available. With such ubiquity, however, comes the danger of theological superficiality. While Calvinists can tweet truth in 240 characters, our theology must go beyond slogans and hashtags. We need something older, something wiser, something more like the Canons of Dort.

Convened for six months in 1618–19, the Synod of Dort responded to the five points of the Remonstrants released in 1610. As disciples of Jacob Arminius, these “Arminians” argued for (1) conditional election, (2) universal atonement, (3) the corrupted state of sinful man,[2] (4) resistible grace, and (5) eternal insecurity. Historically, the Remonstrants originated the five point debate. The Synod of Dort responded in kind and produced a thorough confession, which after three centuries led to the well-known moniker — TULIP.[3]

Standing for Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints, these five points abbreviate — and obscure — the Canons of Dort. And as a result of this (mis)translation, I wonder how many modern Calvinists and defenders of the TULIP know what the Synod of Dort is or what the Canons of Dort are?

Thankfully, there are denominations and confessional organizations who have faithfully propagated this historical confession. But in our ahistorical world, there are others who argue for the five-points of Calvinism, or four-points or three. The denial of one or more petals on the TULIP indicates by itself how the doctrinal points of Calvinism have been lifted from their historical (not to mention biblical) source. In our day when confessions find less prominence, Calvinism has spread biblical truth, but at what cost?

In this article, I will argue for recovering the Canons of Dort in general and the second head of doctrine (“Of the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men thereby”) in particular. By considering Dort’s response to universal atonement, I will show how the second canon is a reliable and pastoral guide for answering questions about the atonement’s extent, one that is far better than its crude approximation (“Limited Atonement”).[4] Indeed, Dort’s sixteen-point article on the death of Christ is anything but a singular argument for limiting the atonement. It is a biblically-saturated, theologically-balanced, missions-minded manifesto which sets the cross in the doctrine of the Trinity and God’s eternal purposes for salvation. For this reason, we need to learn this ancient confession and see how it may still apply today. Dort’s sixteen-point article on the death of Christ is a biblically-saturated, theologically-balanced, missions-minded manifesto. Click To Tweet

A Fulsome Doctrine of Christ’s Death

When the Synod of Dort presented its view of the atonement, it did so with nine articles of doctrine and seven rejections of error (RE). As Daniel Hyde has organized these statements, seven explicate “common Christian convictions” (Arts. 1–7), seven define the nature and extent of the atonement (Art. 8 and RE 1–5, 7), and two elaborate Christ’s satisfaction for sin (Art. 9; RE 6).[5] Rather than being a narrowly focused statement on the “L”, the second canon presented a fulsome doctrine of the atonement. In keeping with the “general pattern” of each doctrinal head, the second canon began “with positive articles presenting the Reformed theology and concludes with rejections of errors refuting specific Arminian teaching.”[6] Likewise, the second canon established the “commonly accepted” Christian doctrine of the cross before presenting the Reformed view of the cross.[7]

This means, before a reader gets to the question of the atonement’s extent, he has already heard about the character of God, the sufficiency of Christ, the universal proclamation of the gospel, and the necessity of faith. Wisely, Dort introduces the reader to extent of the atonement after the nature of the atonement. Winsomely, it orders the doctrine so that definite atonement is seen as the necessary result of God’s justice and Christ’s sufficient sacrifice, all the while upholding the need to preach the gospel to all people. To see this, we will follow the original order.

Dort opens with a series of beliefs about Christ’s satisfaction for sins. Article 1 addresses God’s justice and mercy. It affirms, “His justice requires (as He has revealed in His Word) that our sins committed against His infinite majesty be punished.” Article 2 follows by denying man’s ability to atone for his sin and affirms the Son of God as the only “surety for our sins.” Together, these articles reflect the logic of Anselm, who argued God the Son had to become man to pay the penalty for sinners.

Article 3 affirms the “infinite value and worth” of the Christ’s atonement, while Article 4 strengthens the sufficiency of Christ’s death, as it highlights the “value and worth” of Christ as the only Savior of the world. Together, these articles reflect the first half of another historic formulation—the death of Christ was sufficient for all, but efficient only for the elect. Though this formula sparked unresolved debate among Dort’s divines, the various parties at Dort all affirmed the sufficiency of Christ’s death to save all people.[8]

Next, Article 5 describes the universal offer of the gospel and the command to preach the good news “indiscriminately to all peoples.” Article 6 reaffirms God’s righteousness in condemning unbelievers. And Article 7 defines the source of faith as the grace of God, given to the elect “in Christ from eternity.”

These seven articles give more than a polemic for “limited atonement.” They present a glorious doctrine of the cross that glorifies the power of God, extols the sufficiency of Christ, and impels Christians to preach Christ crucified to all men without exception. Only after laying this foundation, does Dort identify the ones for whom Christ died. In Article 8, we find the full statement,

It was the most free counsel and most gracious will and intention of God the Father that the living and saving efficacy of the most valuable death of his Son would extend to all the elect. To the elect alone he gives justifying faith and infallibly produces salvation through faith. God willed for Christ efficaciously to redeem through the blood of the cross (by which he confirmed the new covenant)— from every people, tribe, nation, and tongue—all those and only those who were elected to salvation from eternity and were given to him by the Father. God willed that Christ give to the elect the faith which he acquired for them by his death, along with other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit. He also willed for Christ to cleanse them by his blood from all sin, both original and actual, committed before as well as after faith. He willed for Christ to preserve them faithfully even to the end, and finally to bring them, without spot or blemish, glorified into his presence.

This is the article that explains what the doctrine of definite atonement is. And it is worth noting a few things.

Article 8 on the Atonement

First, this article begins with an emphasis on God the Father’s “most free counsel and most gracious will.” In contrast to the Remonstrants who based God’s actions on the (un)belief of mankind, the Synod of Dort grounded their argument in God himself. This God-centered approach then considers the Father’s plan—i.e., to give a people to the Son by means of the Son’s free offer of himself. It’s important to note that Article 8 makes a trinitarian argument for the cross of Christ. Rather than defining salvation in the abstract, the Synod of Dort speaks of the three persons of the Godhead and the personal relations between God and man.

Second, the connection between God’s eternal will and his work in time reflect what is known as the “covenant of redemption.” This agreement between Father, Son, and Spirit is the source of salvation for the elect. As articulated in passages like John 17, the Son promised to redeem the people (from every nation) whom the Father gave him before the foundation of the world. Securing their pardon with his death, the Father and the Son would send the Spirit to complete the work of redemption ordained before creation.

Third, limitation and denial of salvation to the non-elect is not the primary focus. Instead, the second canon is always positive and personal. Speaking analogically, the triune God “agreed” before the foundation of the world to save a people from their sin. These “elect” are the ones chosen by the Father in Christ, saved by the Son for the Father, and sealed by the Spirit who is sent by the Father and the Son. In truth, there is a beautiful harmony at the center of God’s plan of salvation, one that reflects the inseparable operations of the Trinity. And in Article 8, we see God’s power to save is the (theo)logical result of God’s eternal plan. In truth, there is a beautiful harmony at the center of God’s plan of salvation, one that reflects the inseparable operations of the Trinity. Click To Tweet

Adding clarity to this trinitarian view of atonement stand seven rejections of error (RE 1–7). These denials of universal atonement are the place where the synod deals with the biblical text. Making arguments against various falsehoods (each rejection statement included a Remonstrance quotation), Dort argued for definite atonement on the basis of God’s wisdom and knowledge (RE 1), the superiority of the new covenant (RE 2), the power of God (RE 3), justification by grace (RE 4), the ongoing wrath of God against sons of Adam (RE 5), the unity of Christ’s work to accomplish and apply atonement (RE 6), and the necessity of Christ’s death, which some opponents were actually denying (RE 7).

All in all, these seven rejections of error show the biblical commitments of Dort. Whereas the Remonstrants cited two verses to defend universal atonement in their second point, Dort cited at least ten.[9] Moreover, the Remonstrants conclude their five points with a statement citing their need to study the subject further, but Dort shows themselves to be an approved work-group, a synod who has no need to be ashamed, because they have handled the word of truth well (2 Timothy 2:15). Indeed, it is not just that they quote more Bible verses, but they quote them better. By emphasizing the economic roles of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in salvation, they showed how the whole garment of salvation is held together.

For this reason, “Christ will always have a church.”[10] As Article 9 articulates, God’s eternal plan of salvation “has been powerfully fulfilled from the beginning of the world up to the present time.” In this way, Jesus did not die to make salvation possible; he died for a people whom he would indubitably save. This is the doctrine of definite atonement. And anything less maligns the power, wisdom, and glory of God, and results in uncertainty for the believer.

Put Down TULIP and Pick Up the Canons of Dort

Today, when we consider the extent of the atonement, we should remember that the Synod of Dort wrote a biblically-saturated and pastorally-useful statement that stands above anything written in the last four centuries. Rather than stressing what Christ did not accomplish in a limited atonement, the second canon of Dort edifies the believer as it recites the way in which Father, Son, and Spirit work as one to save a particular people in redemptive history.

Therefore, as we celebrate the four-hundredth year anniversary of this Reformed confession, let’s put down the TULIP and pick up the Canons of Dort—especially the second canon which speaks of the death of Christ and definite redemption of God’s elect.


Endnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis, “Preface” in Athanasius, On the Incarnation, Popular Patristic Series 44B (ed. John Behr; Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir Seminary Press), 9.

[2] It has been observed that the third article is true by itself, but in error when read with the other articles. “The synod responded to the third and fourth points of the Remonstrance together because only the Arminian teaching on the resistibility of grace clearly shows that their apparently sound teaching on total depravity was not truly means.” W. Robert Godfrey, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2019), 127.

[3] Daniel Montgomery and Timothy Paul Jones, Proof: Finding Freedom through Intoxicating Joy and Irresistible Grace (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, ), 132–33, 210–11, provide a concise history of the TULIP’s origin. Cleland McAfee, Presbyterian pastor and theological professor, is reported to have originated the term in 1905.

[4] On the pastoral intentions of the Canons of Dort, see Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 81–84. On the form of the Canons, he notes, “Each [canon] is written in a popular rather than a scholastic style” (ibid., 229).

[5] Daniel R. Hyde, Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (Lincoln, NE: Davenant Institute, 2019), 41–42, 144–213.

[6] Godfrey, Saving the Reformation, 229.

[7] Ibid.

[8] On the “Reformed variations” regarding the sufficiency and efficacy of the cross at Dort, see Lee Gatiss, “The Synod of Dort and Definite Atonement,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective. (ed. David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 147–58.

[9] The Scriptures cited in the Rejection of Errors include, John 10:15, 27; Isaiah 53:10 (RE 1); Hebrews 7:22; 9:15, 17 (RE 2); Romans 3:24–25 (RE 4); Ephesians 2:3 (RE 5); Galatians 2:20; Romans 8:33–34; John 10:15; 15:12–13 (RE 7).

[10] Hyde, Grace Worth Fighting For, 42.