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Canons of the Synod of Dordt

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Review

The Reformation was, first and foremost, a confessional age with an abiding preoccupation with formulating correct doctrine. From the vantage point of our contemporary evangelical synthesis, which brings together believers from a variety of denominations, the Reformers’ concern for doctrine may seem dry and boring—or even pharisaical. But this misconception falls away the moment you plunge into one of their quintessential confessions. These lean, elegant summaries of doctrine may sometimes rub you the wrong way, but their concern for truth and rigor is awe-inspiring. There is a reason so many Christians since then have found in such documents a useful summary of the biblical faith.

The major confessions of the Reformation include the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelburg Catechism (1563), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Westminster Confession (1646) and the London Baptist Confession (1689). By far the most controversial of these today is the Canons of Dort (1619), the source of the so-called “Five Points of Calvinism.”

In 1610, the followers of Jacob Arminius issued a Remonstrance that taught “election on the basis of foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of lapse from grace.” In response, the Reformed church gathered an international body of representatives, considered the questions raised in the Remonstrance, and issued what have come to be known in English as the Canons of Dort: election is not conditional; atonement (which is actual, not hypothetical) is limited to the elect; man’s depravity as a result of sin is total; God’s grace is ultimately irresistible; and God continues his saving work in the life of believers, bringing it to fulfillment.

Although the synod rules against it, the influence of Arminius only grew. Today, most evangelicals straddle the fence between the two perspectives, and the debate is alive and well. Whatever your own position, the Canons of Dort make for fascinating reading. They are a testament to an age when theology held center stage in the minds of men.

by J. Mark Bertrand

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