Eric Landstrom, Political Powerbrokers, Authority, and the Road to Dort

, posted by Eric Landstrom

The Synod of Dort was a regional conference that was primarily motivated by political powerbrokers. Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s direct successor and first systematizer of Calvinism sent Arminius, the brightest bulb in the Calvinist box himself educated by Theodore Beza, to Holland in 1589 to put down the theological arguments of Koornheert, an educated layman, who had been writing and publicly arguing against Beza’s supralapsarian theory of divine decrees. Significant to the context of the period is understanding that as Rome’s grip on the lowland countries eased, Calvinism as a political power gained influence and political power. As such, a challenge to Beza who defined orthodox Calvinism became not only a theological challenge but a political challenge as well. Although forgotten by many, the political context of Dort cannot be understated in the state church system so prevalent at the time.

At the time of Arminius’ sending there was significant lay-dissatisfaction with the hyper-view that Beza had formed where God was viewed as absolutely sovereign and man helpless in sin. Beza had brilliantly formed the argument that if God was absolutely sovereign and man helpless in sin and that men are saved or damned by decree, that it followed that God causes men to sin just as he causes men to be saved.

Although the logic for Beza’s position existed in Augustine and Calvin’s theology it is unlikely that either Augustine or Calvin foresaw Beza’s conclusion or that they would have approved of his conclusions (for the armchair systematicians reading along, I believe that Moyse Amyraut and Amyrauldism is the true theological heir of John Calvin). Nevertheless, Beza’s conclusions were taught as orthodox Calvinism in Geneva University. What followed was a lay-reaction to Beza’s innovation and the tip of the spear was Koornheert.

Koornheert argued that if God causes sin then God is in point of fact the author of sin. Koornheert argued that nowhere in the Bible is God said to be the cause of sin. Koornheert must have been an orator for the local pastors who took up public debate were sent scampering and as a result Koornheert and his position was increasingly becoming popular in the lowlands. As a result Arminius was sent as the ablest defender of orthodox Calvinism.

Arminius was detailed in his own study of Koornheert’s arguments and found supralapsarianism subordinated Christ to eternal decree for in the logic of supralapsarianism, men aren’t saved by Christ but by God’s decree (it is important to remember that at the time the infralapsarian position, itself a Calvinist reaction to supralapsarianism, didn’t exist in any formalized format). Arminius was of the opinion that where revelation is silent we shouldn’t presume to speak. Ultimately Arminius performed a detailed study of Romans and came to the conclusion that Beza was wrong and Koornheert was right. The difference was that Arminius brought the weight of his own sharp mind and giftedness to the debate and exegeted his way through Romans showing that no reputable church father had held Beza’s views, neither had Calvin, and in fact the view was foreign to the mind of the church (preserved to this day in Arminius’ Works). As a result of his studies, Arminius began preaching a series of sermons of exposition on Romans. In his preaching Arminius didn’t attack the views of his sublapsarian colleagues but opened up the meaning of St. Paul’s Epistle to Rome to his audience.

Whenever Arminius was given a chance to publicly defend his exposition of Scripture, his sound scholarship won the argument and it came to pass that nobody wanted to publicly engage Arminius in public debate. This is attested to by the fact that Arminius became the chaired professor of theology at Leyden University with the full knowledge of his theological position. Nobody ever claimed that either Koornheert, Arminius or the Remonstrants mishandled Scripture but only that they they failed to use Scripture to defend a predetermined position.

Arminius insisted that authority rested in the Word of God and not in the opinions of men and that it behooves men to find out what the Word of God says. Ironically nearly all of those opposed to Arminius wanted Arminius to quit preaching the Bible as the final authority for they felt such a message undermined their own authority and they argued that a Calvinistic creed should become the actual and final authority. To settle this, Arminius sought after and desired a synod to publicly debate and settle the theological and political rift that had entered Holland both on authority and predestination but he was denied a synod during his lifetime. Instead, what we know as the Synod of Dort was convened after Arminius’ death and then under conditions all together different than he and his followers expected. The opportunity for free debate was denied and the Remonstrants (those people who generally followed Arminius’ theology) were treated as though they were criminals. The end result of the Synod of Dort was that the leaders of the church of Holland got their Calvinistic creed and with it the assurance of a Calvinist state church—for with the ruling, they had the power of the state to put down dissenters and nonconformists.

Four days after the Synod’s closure, those same leaders beheaded Johan van Oldenbarnevelt for the crime of general perturbation in the state of the nation, both in Church and State (treason) for his support of the Remonstrants. Despite the efforts of Holland’s powerbrokers, Oldenbarnevelt is still considered to be one of the greatest men in the history of the Netherlands.