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Dordt Conference Explores Canons and ‘Prodigal Love of God’

Dordt Conference Explores Canons and ‘Prodigal Love of God’
“A Conversation between Marilynne Robinson and James K.A. Smith,” at The Prodigal Love of God conference.
Steve Holtrop

Dordt College hosted The Prodigal Love of God: Reencountering Dort at 400 and Beyond April 4 to 6. The event commemorated the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort, the 1618-1619 Dutch Reformed synod that produced the Canons of Dort, one of the foundational confessions of the Christian Reformed Church.  The conference was presented by Dordt’s Andreas Center for Reformed Scholarship and Service.

A five-member advisory committee worked on the conference for two-and-a-half years. About 240 people attended the three-day event. Describing the conference’s purpose to The Banner, the committee said, “We want to remind people of the importance of the Canons of Dort, including the capriciousness and wideness of our sovereign God’s mercy.”

Speakers included authors Marilynne Robinson, Richard Mouw, James K.A. Smith and Jemar Tisby as well as pastors and theologians. Topics included “Missional Implications of the Canons,” a discussion moderated by Mouw, and a discussion between Smith and Robinson called “Why Protestantism Still Matters.” Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren gave a talk on doctrinal claims and their use in modern life.

Dordt College president Erik Hoekstra said, “I hope this conference re-energizes the Dordt community about the treasure that the Canons are and the beauty that they expose of God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ. For the broader community, I hope they can better understand both the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ the name “Dordt” fits so well for this school, which takes seriously the sovereignty of God and the authority of Scripture in every activity of this campus and in every area of life.”

Dordt faced questions ahead of the conference, with a group called Sioux County Conservatives relaying concerns over some views of some of the scheduled speakers. The controversy generated a letter to the editor of a local paper and a column from an editorial board. One student with concerns, Tyler Bouma, a member of Bethany CRC in Bellflower, Calif., attended the conference and objected to comments made by Jemar Tisby.

Tisby challenged listeners to question and rethink. “Can Reformed theology become racially inclusive? Because today, not really [sic],” he said. “Are the principles sound or do they need to be completely redone? In other words, is Reformed theology—the Canons of Dort, the Belgic Confession, the Westminister Confession—are those on paper, the principles, still good and sound such that we simply need to apply them differently? Or is there something actually drastically wrong with the way we even framed our theology? I can't answer that question for you, but I submit to you that those are . . . a few of the questions you need to ask.”

Bouma said the goal [of the conference] should be to “uphold Reformed doctrine, not rethink it.”

Erika Buiter, an English student at Dordt and a member of First CRC in Sioux Center, saw the conference differently. “I grew up with the Heidelberg Catechism, the creeds, and the TULIP acronym, but I’d never actually read the Canons of Dort,” she said, “so this conference covered a really interesting aspect of Reformed Christianity that I was unfamiliar with.”

“[The conference] showed me just how seriously people take the doctrines of our denomination. . . . It gave me a new respect for the people who put their effort into writing and debating Christian thought.”

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