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The Canons of Dort

The Canons of Dort

First Head of DoctrineSecond Head of DoctrineThird and Fourth Heads of DoctrineFifth Head of DoctrineConclusion

Ratified in the National Synod of the Reformed Church
Held at Dordrecht in the years 1618 and 1619

The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands is popularly known as the Canons of Dort (or the Five Articles Against the Remonstrants). It consists of statements of doctrine adopted by the great Synod of Dort which met in the city of Dordrecht in 1618-1619. Although this was a national Synod of the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, it had an international character, since it was composed not only of sixty-two Dutch delegates, but also of twenty-seven foreign delegates representing eight countries.

The Synod of Dort was held in order to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), a theological professor at Leiden University, departed from the Reformed faith on a number of important points. After Arminius’s death, forty-three of his ministerial followers drafted and presented their heretical views to the States General of the Netherlands on five of these points in the Remonstrance of 1610. In this document and even more explicitly in later writings, the Arminians, who came to be called “Remonstrants,” taught:

1. Election based on foreseen faith
2. the universal merits of Christ
3. the free will of man due to only partial depravity
4. the resistability of grace, and
5. the possibility of a lapse from grace.

They desired the Reformed church’s doctrinal standards to be revised and their own minority views to be protected by the government. The Arminian-Calvinism conflict became so severe that it led the Netherlands to the brink of civil war. Finally in 1617 the States General voted four to three to call a national Synod to address Arminianism.

The Synod held 154 formal sessions over a period of seven months (November 1618 to May 1619). Thirteen Remonstrant theologians, led by Simon Episcopius, used various tactics to delay the work of Synod and to divide the delegates tactics which proved to be unsuccessful. Under the leadership of Johannes Bogerman, the Remonstrants were dismissed. The Synod then developed the Canons which thoroughly rejected the Remonstrance of 1610 and scripturally set forth the Reformed doctrine on these debated points, now popularly called “the five points of Calvinism”: unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of saints.

Though these points do not embrace the full scope of Calvinism and are better regarded as Calvinism’s five answers to the five errors of Arminianism, they certainly lie at the heart of the Reformed faith, particularly Reformed soteriology, for they flow out of the principle of absolute divine sovereignty. They may be summarized as follows:

1. Unconditional election and faith are sovereign gifts of God.
2. While the death of Christ is abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world, its saving efficacy is limited to the elect.
3,4. All are so totally depraved and corrupted by sin that they cannot effect any part of their salvation; in sovereign grace God irresistibly calls and regenerates the elect to newness of life.
5. Those thus saved God graciously preserves so they persevere until the end, even though they may be troubled by many infirmities as they seek to make their calling and election sure.

Simply stated, we may say that the subject matter of the Canons is: sovereign grace conceived, sovereign grace merited, sovereign grace needed and applied, and sovereign grace preserved.

Although in form the Canons have only four sections, we speak properly of five points or heads of doctrine because the Canons were structured to correspond to the five articles of the 1610 Remonstrance. The third and fourth sections were purposely combined into one since the Dortian divines considered them inseparable, and hence are designated as “Head of Doctrine 3/4.”

The Canons have a special character because of their original purpose as a judicial decision on the doctrinal points in dispute during the Arminian controversy. The original preface called them a “judgment, in which both the true view, agreeing with God’s Word, concerning the aforesaid five points of doctrine is explained, and the false view, disagreeing with God’s Word, is rejected.” The Canons also have a limited character in that they do not cover the whole range of doctrine, but focus on the five points of doctrine in dispute. Each of the main heads consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, the latter a repudiation of corresponding Arminian errors (see shaded parts below). In all, the Canons contain fifty-nine articles of exposition and thirty-four repudiations of error.

The Canons form a remarkably 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. Both Dutch and foreign delegates without exception affixed their signatures to the Canons, whether of supralapsarian or infralapsarian persuasion. A service of thanksgiving was held upon the Canons’ completion to acknowledge the Lord for preserving the doctrine of sovereign grace among the Reformed churches.