What’s All the Fuss About?

Have you ever walked into the middle of a heated conversation near its conclusion? Not knowing that the dialogue has been escalating over a number of hours, perhaps even years, all you hear are the dogmatic assertions, lines drawn in the sand, and acidic verbal sparring. Very likely you would think, “What’s all this fuss about?” Similarly, reading the Canons of Dort can feel like walking into the middle of a deeply contested church debate escalating to its conclusion, which might tempt us to grouse, “What’s all this fuss about?”

With the exception of Richard Mouw’s Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, almost everything written about the Canons of Dort from a historically Reformed perspective is either dust-covered or written in Dutch—often both. So what are the Canons of Dort and why are they worth dusting off?

From 1618-1619, the “Great Synod” met in Dordrecht, the Netherlands. In the previous 60 years, the Reformation had gathered momentum through the Netherlands, Switzerland, and portions of modern-day France and Germany. As persecution relented, room for academic nuance and fine distinction expanded. Jacob Arminius, a doctor of theology at the University of Leiden, proposed (in opposition to the Reformation standard, the Belgic Confession) the following: (1) God chooses us for salvation after discerning that we will choose God. (2) Jesus Christ’s death on the cross covers the sin of the whole world, conditional upon our acceptance of it. (3) Even though the Holy Spirit prompts us to faith, we ultimately have the power to refuse God’s grace—even, possibly, after accepting it.

The Synod of Dort haggled and wrangled—as all “Great Synods” must—until they produced the Canons of Dort, a five-point refutation of Arminius’s teaching.

Often the debate between Arminius and the Canons of Dort is framed this way: Is salvation by grace or by faith? The answer is, of course, “yes.” Both Arminians and Canons-of-Dort-ians would say that grace and faith are present in salvation. Perhaps, then, we ought to define the distinction this way: Which comes first, the grace of God or the faith of humans?

The Canons of Dort relentlessly argue that God’s grace is always the primary agent of human salvation. The refutation of Arminius’s claims goes something like this: (1) We are incapable of moving toward God; (2) therefore God has to make the first move toward us. (3) Because we cannot choose God on our own, Jesus Christ’s payment for sin on the cross cannot be conditional upon our acceptance, but neither does Christ universally accept the whole world without their turning to him. Logically, then, Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is for all those whom God has chosen. (4) Again, the grace of God’s movement toward us cannot be thwarted, as though our will to avoid God’s embrace is greater than God’s will to love us. (5) Since salvation does not come by our own power, neither can it be lost by our own power or lack thereof.

Here, then, is a teaching that, by its practical, pastoral, and Christ-centered nature, ought to be dust-proof:

  • When we are saved by grace, we are kept by grace, even when we are tempted and even if we struggle against sin all the days of our lives.
  • Since salvation is by grace, it is available to us well before we are able to cognitively, emotionally, or volitionally respond to it. Imagine this unspeakable comfort to parents who have lost young children.
  • Even though it appears that someone we love has walked away from the faith they once possessed, we trust in a God who is self-constrained to never walk away from us.
  • Because God’s work is well beyond the level of our competence, we may be both rightly wary of the kind of tactical maneuvering that often serves the ego of the preacher (“Look how many people came forward to accept Christ at MY church”) and simultaneously free to share the gospel, trusting God to work out the results.

Recently, the theology of the Canons of Dort—which goes by many names: TULIP, Doctrines of Grace, and Five-Point Calvinism—have enjoyed a popular resurgence within evangelical Christianity. That resurgence, however, tends to ignore the larger context of historical Reformed theology. It’s as though its proponents are entering a heated conversation at its conclusion and joining in with the dogmatic assertions without ever stopping to consider the preceding dialogue that makes the Canons of Dort’s claims both tenable and pastoral. As a result, much of what passes for Reformed theology today is only partially aligned with such key Reformed concepts as covenant (infant baptism) and kingdom (God’s present and future reign).

Christian Reformed believers are, indeed, Canons of Dort-ians, but don’t miss the fact that we are also Belgic Confessors and Only-Comfort-in-Life-and-in-Death-ers. We hold allegiance to creeds that outline the essentials of faith and define the nature of Christ’s divinity and the Trinity—confessions that stand up for salvation by grace through faith without works, and which provide an unshakeable trust in the God who created, sustains, and loves the world. In the context of the many true confessions that have gone before it, the Canons of Dort best serve as the closing argument in a case built throughout history.



FOR DISCUSSION:

  1. Do you agree with the author that the Canons of Dort are worth dusting off? Are they still relevant for today? Why or why not?
  2. What can you offer in defense of Arminius' position? Isn't there some sound scriptural basis for his teachings? What might it be?
  3. So which comes first: the grace of God or the faith of humans? And where does our faith come from? Does any of this make a difference in our daily living?
  4. Which teachings of the Canons of Dort give you the most difficulty? Do you think it has arrived at any final answers?
  5. Do we have to accept the Canons "as the closing argument in a case built throughout history"? Or could we, at some point in the future, "reopen the case" to understand better how God's sovereignty intersects with our human responsibility?

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About the Author

Meg Jenista is pastor at The Washington DC Christian Reformed Church.

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