The Background of the Canons of Dort
The Canons of Dort is a theological consensus document (or form of unity). The word “canon” here means a rule or a standard. And so the Canons of Dort are basically standards of doctrine.
The Canons were formulated by the members of the Synod of Dort, which was essentially the General Assembly of the Reformed church in the Netherlands. (There were also a good number of international delegates at the Synod as well.) It convened in the city of Dordrecht (often shortened simply to Dort), from which both the Synod and the Canons derive their respective names. This synod lasted from November 1618 to May 1619.
The circumstance which necessitated the calling of this Synod was a theological controversy involving the teachings and influence of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). His teachings on a number of things represented a clear departure from the Reformed faith, especially with regard to the sovereignty of God in salvation. For example, his peculiar teaching on the doctrine of election was such that God was said to have chosen to save sinners on the basis of foreseen faith, rather than simply on the basis of the free grace and good pleasure of God.
Sometime after his death, his followers (sometimes referred to as Arminians or Remonstrants) sought to avoid ecclesiastical discipline for their views from the Reformed Church in the Netherlands, and so they appealed to the civil government (the States General) for help. It is probably hard for many people in the church today to imagine such involvement between the church and state, but this has been much more common throughout the history of the church than it is in many places today.
They presented their views in summary form in a document called the “Five Articles of Remonstrance.” (A “remonstrance” is simply a protest or denunciation of some kind.) These five articles were in many ways the polar opposite of what we often refer to as the 5 points of Calvinism. The Five Heads (or chief points) of Doctrine of the Canons of Dort are the Synod’s response to and refutation of the teachings of the Arminians as articulated in the 5 Articles of Remonstrance. And so in an odd way you could say that we would not have the 5 points of Calvinism (at least not articulated as such) if it were not for the Arminians’ Articles of Remonstrance. As J.I. Packer notes in his Introductory Essay to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ:
” . . .it should be observed that the “five points of Calvinism,” so-called, are simply the Calvinistic answer to a five-point manifesto (the Remonstrance) put out by certain “Belgic semi-Pelagians” [Owen’s words] in the early seventeenth century.” (p.3)
It should be noted that while we may speak of the so-called “5 Points of Calvinism,” those points are not a summary of the teachings of John Calvin, nor did Calvin himself ever articulate them in this way (i.e. as a system of 5 points). They do, of course, accurately represent his teachings concerning divine sovereignty in our salvation.
The Canons of Dort is not a Confession of Faith in the sense that it does not give us a full summary of all of the main points of doctrine inherent in the Christian Faith. For that, you would instead need to look to Reformed consensus documents like the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Instead, what the Canons are is a robust statement and defense of the main points of biblical teaching regarding the sovereign grace of God in the salvation of sinners.
Dr. Cornelis P. Venema writes,
“On the basis of its deliberations, the Synod of Dort judged the five articles of the Remonstrants to be contrary to the Word of God and the confession of the Reformed churches. Against the Arminian teachings of election based on foreseen faith, human depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace, the Canons set forth the Reformed teachings of unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints.” (But for the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort, p.13)
We may find it a bit strange that the Reformed church as a whole would respond in such a robust manner to the rising influence of Arminianism within her ranks, especially given that in many ways Arminianism seems to be the predominant view among American evangelicals today. (Calvinism would certainly seem to be in the minority in evangelicalism these days.) But when you consider what was (and is) at stake, both pastorally (re. the comfort and assurance of believers regarding the security of their salvation from beginning to end) as well as doxologically (i.e. that all of the glory for our salvation goes to God alone), it becomes quickly apparent why the work of this Synod was so vitally important, and remains just as relevant to the peace and purity of the church today, some 400 years after they were first written.
Outline of the Canons of Dort
The Five Heads of Doctrine are as follows:
Of Divine Predestination
Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby
Of the Corruption of Man
Of the Conversion of Man to God, and the Manner Thereof
Of the Perseverance of the Saints
Incidentally, the third and fourth Heads of Doctrine are actually combined or treated together as a unit. You may also notice that these points of doctrine are not in the order commonly associated with the 5 points of Calvinism as expressed in the acronym,TULIP. (TULIP = Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints) That is simply because the Five Heads of Doctrine contained in the Canons correspond point by point, in the same order as the 5 Articles of Remonstrance for which they were written as a response and refutation.
In the Canons each of the 5 Heads of Doctrine is divided further into numerous points or articles which expound the true doctrine at length, followed by various points in which the errors of Arminianism are explicitly rejected and condemned as being outside of the pale of Reformed orthodoxy. In this way there is abundant clarity about what the biblical and reformed teaching on these thing is as well as what it is not.
Lord willing, we hope to go through each Head of Doctrine at length in future posts, examining them in the light of Scriptures.