The Synod of Dort, or Dordrecht, met on an island in the Meuse River near Rotterdam. It began on November 13, 1618, and concluded May 9, 1619. Its purpose was to give a judgment on the theological formulations of certain pastors and theological professors. These men had been convinced of the correctness of the system developed by James Arminius in his reaction against the doctrine of reprobation. Samuel Miller wrote that the synod was “not merely a meeting of select divines of a single nation, but a convention of the Calvinistic world, to bear testimony against a rising and obtrusive error; to settle a question in which all the Reformed churches of Europe had an immediate and deep interest”[1]

Who was James Arminius?

The Synod met about a decade after the death of James Arminius (October 19, 1609) whose objections to the theological documents of the Dutch Reformed church led to its calling. Arminius, a latinized rendering of “Harmen’s son,” was born in 1560. His father died when he was a young child. A clergyman, Theodore Aemilius, took responsibility for the rearing and education of the child and saw that he was taught the elements of science, and the rudiments of Latin and Greek.

Due to his obvious intellectual and oratorical gifts, the young Arminius was supported through an extensive time of University theological training at Marburg, Leyden, Geneva, Basle, and Padua. He was licensed to preach in 1587 and began his public ministry in Amsterdam. In 1589, Arminius was commissioned to answer a pamphlet by ministers in Delft who had failed adequately to present a theological refutation of an Anabaptist theologian who wrote against Calvinistic theology. Particularly in question was the supralapsarian view of predestination. During his attempts to provide an answer to their reasoning, he found himself convinced by his opponents.

This led to a lifetime of calling into question the distinctive doctrines of the Reformed faith. He was under consistent pressure to defend his views, had to fend off accusations of heresy by contending that his views were fully consistent with Reformation doctrine. Even under such suspicion, and in the midst of opposition from Calvinistic ministers as well as Francis Gomarus (who also was a professor at Leyden), he was elected to the University of Leyden as Professor of Divinity. During his inaugural oration after having been declared Doctor of Divinity, he closed with what surely were earnest sentiments, but filled with the greatest historical irony. He expressed gratitude to Gomarus and the other academicians present. He promised at all times to strive “that you may never have just cause to repent of having conferred this honor upon me.”[2]

In this new position, he found himself unable without reservation to uphold the official theological documents of the church, the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism. He grew weary of these consistent polemical engagements and only in 1608 did he begin to give public declarations of his views and defend them as in accord with Holy Scripture and the common places of Protestant theology.

He did this in his letter to Hippolytus, his “Apology Against Thirty-one articles,” and his “Declaration of Sentiments.” He professed a willingness to appear before “any assembly whatsoever” provided that it be “transacted under the cognizance of our lawful magistrates.” This kind of assembly never occurred during his lifetime. Arminius had begun to feel that depth and consistency of the pressure against him, the comprehensive and consistent suspicion of the entire spectrum of his orthodoxy, and resented the insinuations that he was dangerous: “I am weary of being daily aspersed with the filthy scum of fresh calumnies, and grieved at being burdened with the necessity of clearing myself from them.”[3] He hoped that those with whom he labored in their common profession of Christ, “would at least believe me to have some feelings of conscience toward God.”[4]

The Relationship Between Scripture and Confessions

The points of criticism may be condensed into two major issues. First, Arminius was contentious against the idea that doctrinal standards written by men could have authority over the preaching and belief system of the church. Second, his personal understanding of predestination led him to reject or modify several doctrines connected with the system of thought surrounding the teaching of unconditional election. A body of Christians has a right, even an obligation, to declare what it believes according to the Scripture. Click To Tweet

His objections to the confessional documents were founded on his conviction of the sole authority of Scripture. Since Scripture alone is “the rule of all divine verity, from themselves, in themselves, and through themselves,” it is rash to require interpretations that conform to the “meaning of the confession of the Dutch churches” or to require an explanation “by the interpretation of the Heidelberg Catechism.”

Arminius believed that it was perfectly legitimate to put the confession and the catechism to examination and that, therefore, to reject such examination is a “thoughtless assertion.” “It is tyrannical and popish to bind the consciences of men by human writings,” Arminius wrote, “and to hinder them from being submitted to a legitimate examination.”[5] Resistance to examination showed an undue reverence “respecting some human composition” which is “liable to have error intermixed with its contents.” Such compositions ought never “be considered as indubitable.”[6]

He hoped to discuss his suggested changes at a Synod in which he would point out what he believed were internal contradictions in the documents. He pointed to an attempt on the part of a theologian to demonstrate a doctrine by the juxtaposition of “ten or eleven passages” from the catechism, but stated solemnly, “I do not perceive by what method these several passages can possibly be reconciled with each other.”[7] They indeed represented the views “for which particular divines contend,” but do not represent a unanimous consent. The documents, in Arminius’s viewpoint, contained “far too many particulars, and embrace several that are not necessary to be believed unto salvation.”[8]

Arminius’s Theological Objections

An example of Arminius’s understanding of error in the documents focused on the doctrine of predestination. His objection was not just to the supralapsarian version but to any view that established God’s determination to “save and to endow with faith some particular persons, but to damn others and not endow them with faith.” He described three ways of formulating this view and stated, “I dare not with a safe conscience maintain in the affirmative any of the preceding opinions.” Since predestination to salvation always implied, in some form, the reprobation of others to damnation, Arminus focused on that issue as a negative reflection on both the love and justice of God. Any doctrine that reflects negatively on these attributes of God, must be false—particularly since all attempts at explaining reprobation make God finally the author of sin. If reprobation, therefore, is false, then predestination to life, that is, unconditional election, must also be false.

If the number of the elect is particular, and the death of Christ is an element of the system of grace, then reprobation implies a particularity in the death of Christ. Arminius, therefore, was willing to defend the proposition, “The price of the death of Christ was given for all and for every one.” He wanted those who rejected this view of universality of provision look closely at the language of Scripture that, in immediate wording, affirms the death of Christ for “all,” for “the world,” for “the whole world,” and to explain how some for whom Christ died might be “destroyed” or “bring upon themselves swift destruction.” A straightforward use of biblical phrases cannot be regarded as heresy. “All the controversy,” he concluded, “lies in the interpretation. The words themselves ought to be simply approved, because they are the words of Scripture.”[9]

Predestination also implied irresistible grace in bringing sinners to a point of faith. This violated Scripture, which shows occasions in which the gospel work of the Holy Spirit was resisted (Acts 7:51) or received in vain (2 Corinthians 6:1). It also eliminated the necessary operations of the will. Arminius described how grace infused the will in the entire process of salvation: “[G]race is so attempered and commingled with the nature of man, as not to destroy within him the liberty of his will, but to give it a right direction, to correct its depravity, and to allow man to possess his own proper volitions.” The concept, however, that this grace operates according to a previous decree and invincible power “introduces such a species of grace, as takes away free will and hinders its exercise.”[10]

Though Arminius affirmed the necessity of a continuously co-operating grace, not abandoning man to the corruption of his will in the fallen state, he nevertheless looked to grace to energize something still resident in the will for both the beginning and the sustaining of salvation. Man’s “own proper volitions” helped sustain the work. Arminius’s taxonomy of salvation was a truly synergistic process, not a monergistic bestowal. Grace was not an effectually operating power but one that assisted a residual, or universally restored, power in the human will. As an outworking of this principle, Arminius conceived of justification in terms of the imputation of faith as righteousness. Imputation is not properly of the righteousness of Christ, but properly of faith itself.[11]

As with initial calling, so must the operation be with perseverance. He asked, “whether it is not possible for some individuals through negligence to desert the commencement of their existence in Christ.” They could “cleave again to the present evil world,” decline from the sound doctrine, lose a good conscience, and “cause divine grace to be ineffectual.”[12]

His followers eventually asserted firmly that grace once received could be forfeited. In fact, after his death, some ministers, theologians, and political figures, adopted and formalized Arminius’s doctrine. They crystallized five points from which to work for changes in the church’s confessional documents. Their efforts were rejected by the Synod of Dort.

Lessons from Conflict

These conflicts that had their incipiency in the thought and teaching of James Arminius have definite instructive value for us.

One, the union of church and state is a compromising, harmful, destructive, and unbiblical relationship. It impedes the true flow of theological discussion and puts people in jeopardy of the sword of steel who ought only to be subject to the disciplines of the church. The magistrate ought to have nothing to do with the establishing of the ministry of truth in the church. We see the interconnectedness of the entire system of grace. A compromise of one aspect of it tends toward the alteration of every element. Click To Tweet

Two, we ought to value the place of a confession in the church. The principle of sola scriptura truly is the only authority for the Christian and the church. A confession of faith, however, is a testimony to the confidence that a denomination of Christians has in the clarity, cogency, and coherence of biblical revelation. A body of Christians has a right, even an obligation, to declare what it believes according to Scripture. On that basis, it may, and should, define its parameters of fellowship along the lines of the truth thus confessed. If there is no interference from the secular authorities, a Christian’s religious liberty is not threatened if a group excludes him on the basis of conflicting confessions. It has the solemn duty to state clearly, on the basis of a common consent to biblical authority and derived interpretation, who is and is not in friendly cooperation with the body thus defined.

Third, we see the interconnectedness of the entire system of grace. A compromise of one aspect of it tends toward the alteration of every element. One cannot maintain the true doctrine of perseverance while defending universal and common operations of grace blended with a subtle synergism.

Fourth, we see the necessity of a clarifying deliberation on disputed points. If particular certitude is wanted as a necessary stewardship of truth, it must be formulated carefully with strictly defined concepts. If latitude of expression is to be granted, wording should be expressed in such a manner that gentle disagreements may be maintained without a disruption of fellowship in Christ.

As Christians consider the past and then move forward with a sense of stewardship, we give thanks for a clear word of revelation, for the call to state with clarity that “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints,” and for the grace of God that seals these truths to our hearts.

 


Endnotes

[1] Thomas Scott, The Articles of the Synod of Dort (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1841), 2. Introductory Essay by Rev. Samuel Miller.

[2] James Nichols, The Works of James Arminius, D.D. (Auburn and Buffalo: Derby, Miller and Orton, 1853) 1:50.

[3] Ibid. 2:477

[4] Ibid. 2:475

[5] Ibid. 2:479, 480.

[6] Ibid. 1:269.

[7] Ibid. 1:267.

[8] Ibid. 1:266, 267.

[9] Ibid. 1:316.

[10] Ibid. 1:227, 228.

[11] Ibid. 1:262-264.

[12] Ibid. 1:254.