Dort, Synod of

, posted by Eric Landstrom

Dort, Synod of

(SYNODUS DORDRACENA), a national synod of the United Provinces, held at Dort (Dordrecht; Lat. Dordracum) in 1618-19.

I. Origin of the Synod. — The opposition of James Arminius to the Augustinian and Calvinistic doctrines on predestination gave rise to a bitter controversy, for an account of which. After the death of Arminius (t 1609), the strife increased, and with added bitterness. The clergy and laity of Holland were arrayed in two hostile armies —Gomarists and Arminians, the former being the most numerous, but the latter including the leading scholars and statesmen. In 1610 the Arminians presented a petition to the States of Holland and West Friesland, which was called a “Remonstrance” (Remonstrantia, libellus supplex adhibitus Hollandie et West Frisice ordinibus). They were named Remonstrants (q.v.) in consequence; and, as the Calvinists presented a “Counter-Remonstrance,” they were called ContraRemonstrants. The “Remonstrance” sets forth the Arminian theory over against the Calvinistic in five articles. Attempts were made by the authorities to reconcile the two contending parties by a conference between them at the Hague in 1611, a discussion at Delft in 1613, and also by an edict in 1614, enjoining peace. The Remonstrants desired a provincial synod for the province of Holland, where the two parties were nearly equal in numbers and influence; or else a general synod of all Protestant Christendom, to which Lutherans as well as Reformed should be summoned. Grotius, especially (1617), argued in favor of a general Protestant council.

Unfortunately, political interests aided to increase the difficulty. The great patriots and statesmen, Grotius and Barneveldt, were advocates of toleration for all opinions, and the former was also one of the literary pillars of the Remonstrant party. The stadt-holder, Maurice of Nassau, was a great soldier, but a narrow and ambitious politician. The pensionary Barneveldt succeeded, against the wishes of Maurice in obtaining, in 1609, a twelve years’ truce with Spain, and for years held Maurice in check in his attempts to secure for himself and his family a hereditary sovereignty over the States. Maurice, though himself said to have been an Arminian in sentiment, placed himself at the head of the Gomarists, who constituted the majority of the clergy and people; while the leading statesmen and patriots, as has been said, were on the other side. One of his measures was to change the municipalities of the cities wherever the Arminians were in power, and to substitute Calvinistic burgomasters and governors. Another was to imbue the popular mind with the belief that Barneveldt, Grotius, and the Arminians were secretly aiming to deliver the country up to Spain. By means of the changes thus effected, the States-General came finally to be strongly in favor of Maurice, and willing to carry out all his measures, whether political or religious.

James I of England was greatly interested, on political grounds, in the peace and prosperity of the United Provinces. Moreover, his pride and pedantry were involved in securing the condemnation of Vorstius, who had been elected to fill the chair of Arminius, and who was charged with Socinianism. In 1613 (March 6) he wrote an autograph letter to the States-General, urging that the difficult question of predestination should be kept out of the pulpit, and that there should be “mutual tolerance,” especially as the “opinions of neither party were inconsistent with Christian truth and with the salvation of souls” (Epist. Praest. et Erudit. virorum, Amst. 1660, page 393). But on the 20th of March, 1616, he wrote again to the States-General, urging that the “false and pestilent opinions” should be put down until a national synod could be summoned to decide and settle the question (see the letter in Epist. Praest. Virorum, page 480. See also the reply of the [Arminian] State of Holland to king James, in the same collection of letters, page 492).

The States of Zealand, Friesland, Groningen, and Guelderland demanded a national synod. The States of Utrecht, Holland, and Overyssel were opposed to it, although some of their chief cities (e.g. Amsterdam) favored it. The States, under the guidance of Maurice, resolved, November 11, 1617, to convoke a national synod, to be held May 1 the following year. All opposition to the convocation was at last forcibly put down by the arrest and imprisonment of the great leaders of the Arminians–Barneveldt, Grotius, and Hogerbeets (Gieseler, Eccl. History, ed. by Smith, volume 4, § 43)–who maintained, in advance of their times, the doctrine that the State had no right to interfere in questions of religious doctrine, and therefore had no right to order a national synod whose decisions should be authoritative. Opposition in various quarters caused a further decree of the States that the national synod should be summoned for November 1, 1618, for the time, and at Dordrecht for the place. Letters of the StatesGeneral, dated June 25, 1618, invited the Reformed churches of England, France, the Palatinate, Hesse, Switzerland, Bremen, Embden, Brandenburg, Geneva, and Nassau to send as delegates some of their theologians to aid the deputies of the Belgic churches in “settling the controversies.” The Reformed Church of Anhalt was not invited, nor were the Lutheran churches. The aim of the States-General was to constitute a body holding Calvinistic views on the points in dispute. The British deputies were George Carlton, bishop of Llandaff; John Davenant, professor of theology at Cambridge; Samuel Ward, of Sidney College, Cambridge; and Joseph Hall, afterwards bishop of Norwich. These took their seats at the beginning of the synod; but Dr. Hall returned to England on account of sickness, and was replaced by Thomas Good, of St. Paul’s, London. Walter Balcanqual, a Scotch presbyter, was also deputed by king James to represent the Scottish Church. He wrote minutes which are published with Hales’s Letters, mentioned below. John Hales, of Eton, “the ever-memorable,” was then chaplain to Sir Guy Carlton, English ambassador at the Hague, and in that capacity attended many of the sessions, taking minutes, which he regularly transmitted to the ambassador. These minutes are to be found in Hales’s Golden Remains.

II. Organization of the Synod. — The States-General ordered the delegates to the synod to be chosen as follows. Each province was to call a provincial synod, from which six persons, of whom three or four should be pastors, were to be chosen as delegates to the synod. Holland and Utrecht, in which the Arminians were numerous, were excepted from this provision. It was ordered that the provincial synod of Holland should be made up of four ordinary delegates from each Classis in which no separation on account of the dispute had taken place; while each Classis in which such separation had taken place should send two Calvinists and two Arminians. The provincial synod, thus constituted, was to select its delegates to the national synod. In Utrecht and South Holland several Arminian divines (among them Uitenbogaert) were deposed from the ministry before the selection of delegates was al. lowed. Nevertheless, three of the delegates from Utrecht were Arminians, and “they were the only Arminians who had seats in the synod.” They were allowed to sit on condition “that while the affairs of the Remonstrants were under discussion they should not disturb the proceedings of the synod by unseasonable interruptions, and not acquaint their party with anything done or said in the synod which concerned their cause.” These three, moreover, did not remain long in the synod.

The synod, when organized, consisted, first, of the deputies from the States, who properly constituted the national synod, viz. 39 ministers, 5 professors, and 18 ruling elders; and, secondly, of 24 foreign divines. The States-General were represented by lay commissioners, of whom Daniel Heinsius was secretary. The only Protestant kingdom in Europe that sent deputies to the synod was Great Britain. Besides these, and the divines of the United Provinces, there were delegates from Switzerland, the Palatinate, Hesse, Wetterau, Emden, and Bremen. The Lutheran churches were not represented. No delegates from France were present, as Louis XIII forbade Rivet and Dumoulin, who were chosen as deputies by the French Protestants, to attend.

This synod was, therefore, not a council of the Protestant churches of Europe, nor even of the Reformed Church of Europe, but a Dutch national synod, to which Reformed theologians were invited from various parts of Europe. “Whosoever casts his eye over the list of the foreign divines that composed this last of Protestant councils will find scarcely one man who had not distinguished himself by his decided opposition to the doctrine of conditional predestination, and who was not consequently disqualified from acting the part of an impartial judge of the existing religious differences, or that of a peace-maker.”

III. Acts of the Synod. — The synod was opened November 13, 1618, with public worship in the church of Dort. At the second session, John Bogermann, a pastor in Friesland, was chosen president, with Jacobus Rolandus, of Amsterdam, and Herman Fankelius, of Middleburg, as assistants, or vice-presidents. Sebastian Dammann, of Zutphen, and Festus Hommius, of Leyden, were appointed secretaries. We cannot go into detail as to the course of procedure; the sources of information are announced at the end of this article. ,A summary account, from the Calvinistic point of view, may be found in Dr. Miller’s Introductory Essay to Scott’s Synod of Dort (Presbyt. Board of Publication); and another, from the Arminian point of view, in Watson, Theological Dictionary, s.v. Dort (chiefly taken from Nichols, Protestantism and Arminianism). The following short statement is partly from the sources just named, and partly translated from Heppe, in Herzog’s Real-Encyklopädie, 3:486 sq.

At the third session the credentials of the deputies were received. In the fourth it was ordered that Episcopius and twelve other Remonstrants should be cited to appear in a fortnight to state and defend their views. “In the mean time the Remonstrants, without knowing the resolution of the synod, had deputed three of their body from Leyden, to obtain leave for their appearance at the synod, in a competent number and under safe conduct, to defend their cause. On making their request known to the lay commissioners, they were informed of the resolution which had passed the synod only the preceding day. To which they replied that it was unreasonable to cite those to justify themselves who were both ready and willing to come of their own accord; and that, if they persisted in proceeding with their plan of citation, they would by that act furnish just cause, not only to them, but to all good men, to entertain strange notions and suspicions of the synodical proceedings. Not being permitted to choose those men from their own body whom they deemed the best qualified to state and defend their cause, they accounted it an additional hardship that their enemies should assume that unlawful authority to themselves. But neither at that time nor afterward, when they wished to add two of the most accomplished of the brethren to their number, were their representations successful.”

During this fortnight the synod considered various matters apart from the Remonstrant question, ordered the preparation of a new version of the Bible, ordained rules for catechization, and prepared instructions for the Dutch missionaries in the East Indies, etc.

At the twenty-second session the Remonstrants appeared, with Episcopius at their head. After some delay, Episcopius defended the Arminian doctrine in a discourse which produced a profound impression. Disputes arose in subsequent sessions as to the topics to be treated, and the order in which they should be taken up. In the session of December 10 the Remonstrants gave great offense by reading a document from the pen of Episcopius, in which it was declared that “the Remonstrants did not own the members of the synod for lawful judges, because the great majority of them, with the exception of the foreign divines, were their professed enemies; and that most of the inland divines then assembled, as well as those whose representatives they were, had been guilty of the unhappy schism which was made in the churches of Holland. The second part contained the twelve qualifications of which the Remonstrants thought a well-constituted synod should consist. The observance of the stipulations proposed in it they would gladly have obtained from the synod, averring that they were exceedingly equitable, and that the Protestants had offered similar conditions for the guidance of the Papists, and the Calvinists for the direction of the Lutherans.” On January 14 the Remonstrants were dismissed from the synod. Their views, as gathered from their own writings, were subsequently passed upon and condemned.

The doctrinal discussion in the synod showed that its members were not so fully at one in their positive views of doctrine as in their opposition to Arminianism. The question whether, according to Ephesians 1:4, Christ is the ground of election (fundamentum electionis), gave rise to strong debates, the Anglicans and the Germans taking the affirmative, while other deputies, in view of the divine decree, maintained the negative; the Melancthonian element was obviously not yet uprooted. It was found difficult at last to harmonize the various views of election in one formula. The deputies from Hesse, Bremen, Nassau, and England seemed to favor a doctrine on the extent of the atonement similar to Baxter’s so-called Universalism. The Canones Synodici (sess. 136, April 23, 1616) set forth clearly the doctrine of predestination, but not in the supralapsarian sense.

After the condemnation of the Arminian tenets, it remained to punish those who upheld them. The Hessians and Anglicans opposed the infliction of personal penalties. Nevertheless, the synod; “deposed the Arminian ministers, excluded them and their followers from the communion of the Church, suppressed their religious assemblies, and, by the aid of the civil government, which confirmed all their acts, sent a number of the clergy of that party, and of those who adhered to them, into banishment” (Miller, Introductory Essay to Scott’s Synod of Dort, page 29).

In the later sessions the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession were adopted as orthodox statements of doctrine, in full harmony with the Word of God. In the 144th session the synod read before a large concourse, in the great church of Dort, the Canons on the five articles, and the Censura Ecclesiastica passed against the Remonstrants. The 154th and last session was held on May 9. Five days after (May 14) the great Barneveldt was beheaded at the Hague.

Fabricius, Bibliotheca Graeca, 11:723 (Hamb. 1705, 14 volumes), gives an account of the Synod of Dort, from which we extract the following statement (translated by Nichols) as to the publication of its Acta (Journals). “For the publication of the Acts, the divines chosen out of various districts of the United Provinces were John Polyander, Anthony Walaeus, Anthony Thysius, Daniel Heinsius, Festus Hommius, Daniel Colonius, and John Laets. But Dr. Wm. Bates informs us, in his Life of A. Walceus, that the chief merit of the publication is due to Festus Hommius, who was a ready and elegant writer, and, as secretary to the synod, had noted with greater diligence than the others the matters that had been transacted.’ These Acts were published at Dort in the year 1620, in folio, in the neat types of Elzevirs at Leyden, and were soon afterwards executed with greater correctness, in the same year, at Hanover, in quarto, with the addition of a copious index. Prefixed to the Acts stand the epistle of their high mightinesses the States-General, addressed to the monarchs and kings, to the princes, courts, cities, and magistrates (of the Christian world), and vouching for the fidelity and authority of these Acts; and likewise the ample preface of Daniel Heinsius, addressed to the Reformed churches of Christ, concerning the origin and increase of the Dutch controversies, for the purpose of appeasing which the synod had been convened. The Acts themselves consist of three parts:

(1.) The rules for holding the synod; the form of the synodical oath; decrees and judgments concerning the translation of the Bible, catechizing candidates for, the sacred ministry, and concerning the removal of the abuses of printing; the canons against the five points of the Remonstrants; the Confession of the Dutch churches; the approbation of the Palatine Catechism; the judgment passed on the doctrine of Conrad Vorstius; a writing of the Remonstrants respecting the conditions on which the synod ought to be held; the theses of the Remonstrants on the five points, and the various exceptions and protestations against the synod; a writing by Simon Episcopius, in which he defends himself; the confession of the two brothers Geisteeren; and, lastly, the orations of those very celebrated men, Balthasar Lydius, Martin Gregory, Joseph Hall, John Polyander, John Acronius, and of the memorable Episcopius.

(2.) The judgments of the foreign divines on the five points of the Remonstrants.

(3.) The judgments of the Dutch divines on the same points.” The Canons of Doctrine are given under five heads: I. Of predestination, 18 articles.

II. Of the death of Christ, and of the redemption of men thereby, 9 articles.

III and IV. Of man’s corruption, and of his conversion, 17 articles.

V. Of the perseverance of the saints, 15 articles. They may be found, in English, in Scott’s Synod of Dort, and in the Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church (Philadel. 1840, Appendix, page 72 sq.).

They were officially received by Holland, France, the Palatinate, and Switzerland, but were merely countenanced by England and Brandenburg. The English Church afterwards “rejected the decisions of the synod, and a royal mandate of James I, who favored Arminianism as strongly in his later years as he had favored Calvinism before, in 1622, forbade the preaching of the doctrine of predestination” (Shedd, History of Doctrine, 2:477; Neal, History of the Puritans, Harpers’ ed., 1:272). The Reformed churches of other countries did not consider them as binding. They received legal authority in no other country but France. The divines of Bremen were very moderate at the synod, and afterwards, headed by Martinius, they rejected its decisions. Martinius wrote: “O Dort, Dort, would to God I had never seen thee.” Hales, of Eton, was converted from Calvinism to Arminianism at the synod. (See HALES).

IV. No Church council has given rise to more bitter controversy than the Synod of Dort. Arminian writers have denounced it in the strongest language as unworthy the name of a Christian synod, while, on the other hand, Calvinistic writers have extolled its fairness and impartiality. All depends upon the point of view, and upon the notion of the true purpose of the synod which is adopted. If this celebrated assembly is conceived as a deliberative body, designed for the discussion of the five points of theology in question, then all that the Arminians have said of it would be well deserved. If, on the other hand, it be conceived as a body of divines holding Calvinistic views, believing those views to be true, and called for the purpose of condemning and prohibiting the contrary opinions in the Belgic churches, the course of the synod was consistent throughout. And this we believe to be the true view. It was not a free assembly for the discussion of controverted points in theology, but a national ecclesiastical court for the trial of alleged heretics. The judgment of Moses Stuart will probably be generally acquiesced in: “That the Synod of Dort should have been highly celebrated by those contemporaries who sympathized with it in feeling and in doctrine, was natural. Hence we find that, on the one hand, it has been eulogized as the most perfect of ecclesiastical councils that have ever been held; but, as one might also expect, on the other hand, its opponents have been more loud, if possible, in their complaints than its friends in their praises. A deep sense of injury and persecution of course remained infixed in the minds of the Remonstrants, and of all who sympathized with them; and this feeling was greatly aggravated by the appeal made to the civil power to carry into execution the decrees of the synod, by banishment, by imprisonment, and by fine. Both the parties undoubtedly went too far in their praise and their blame. The Expositio of the synod in question is an able paper; yet I cannot see that, compared with other declarations of the like nature, it calls for any very extravagant eulogy. Certainly the Westminster Confession is superior, as a whole. Men of great talent, much learning, warm piety, and well-meaning intentions belonged, no doubt, to the Council of Dort, and perhaps an unusual number of such men; but no one of them has ever been so distinguished as a theologian and a writer as many other men who can be easily named among the Reformed churches. That the measures of force which the spirit of dispute and of the day urged them to take were misjudged, of hurtful tendency, and against the true spirit of prudence and Protestantism, I suppose no one in our time and in our country will venture to call in question. But, at the same time, their opponents were more concerned in the blame of these measures than they were willing to allow. They were violent, heated, sarcastic, contemptuous. They felt a deep sense of injury, and they gave vent to it in no very measured terms. They had reason to complain that the principles of religious liberty were violated in respect to them; but their opponents might well complain also that the principle of Christian moderation, and lenity of manner, and respect for differing sentiments, had not unfrequently been violated on the part of the Remonstrants. Nor can there be any room to doubt that if the latter had been the dominant party they would have taken as effectual measures to carry their points as the Gomarists did, although, perhaps, not in the same way” (American Biblical Repository, 1:258).

Literature. — The official Acts — Acta Synodi Nationalis Dordrechti habitae (1620, 4to); soon transl. into Dutch; also into French, Les Actes de la Synode de Dort (Leyden, 1624, 4to); Judicium Synodi Nationalis Reform. Ecclesiastes Belg. habit. Dordrechti (Dort, 1619, 4to; transl. into English by Bill, 1619); Remonstrant collection of minutes — Actae et Scripta Synodalia Dordracena Ministrorum Remonstrantium (Hardervici. 1620, 4to); Hales, of Eton, Letters, in his Golden Remains (Lond. 1673, 4to); translated into Latin, with notes and additions, by Mosheim, Historia Concilii Dordraceni (Hamb. 1724); Balcanqual’s Letters; the account in Epistole Praestant. ac Erudit. Virorum (Amst. 1660, page 512 sq.), and many letters in that collection; Hales’s and Balcanqual’s Letters, in German, by D. Hartnack (Zeitz, 1672, 12mo); G. Brandt (Remonstrant), Historie der Reformatie (Amsterd. and Rotterd. 1663-1704, 4 volumes; transl. into English by Chamberlayne, Lond. 1720-23, 4 volumes, fol.; also abridged, 1725, 2 volumes, 8vo); Leydekker (Calvinist), Eere van de Nationale Synode van Dordregt (2 parts, Amst. 1705-1707, 4to), a reply to G. Brandt; to which reply his son, Job. Brandt, replied in Verantwoording van de historie van G. Brandt (Amst. 1705); Letters of the Hessian Delegates (Literae Deleg. Hassiacorum), ed. by Heppe, in Zeitschrift fur historische Theologie, 23:226 sq.; Neal, History of the Puritans, part 2, chapter 2; Collier, Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain (Lond. 1841, 7:404 sq.;); Nichols, Calvinism and Arminianism (Lond. 1824, 2 volumes, 8vo), 1:143, and 2:576 sq.; Mosheim, Ecclesiastical History, cent. 17, section 2, part 2, chapter 3; Gieseler, Ch. Hist. ed. Smith, 4, § 43; Schrockh, Kirchengeschichte seit d. Reformation, 5:246 sq.; Scott, Articles of the Synod of Dort, transi. with notes (Phila. Presb. Board: severely reviewed in Nichols, Calvinism and Arminianism, volume 1; favorably reviewed in Christian Observer, 18:794, and in Spirit of the Pilgrims, 4:256). The Canons of Doctrine, in Latin, are given in the Sylloge Confessionum (Oxon. 1804, page 364 sq.); in Niemeyer, Collectio Confessionum (1840, page 690); in Augusti, Corpus Librorum Symbolicorum (Elberfeld, 1827, pages 198-240); in English, in Scott’s Synod of Dort, cited above; also in the Appendix to the Constitution of the Reformed Dutch Church (Phila. 1840, 18mo); and in Hall, Harmony of the Protestant Confessions (Lond. 1842, page 539 sq.). See also Gass, Geschichte der protestantischen Dogmatik, 1, book 2 and 3; Cunningham, Reformers and Theology of the Reformation, Essay 7; Cunningham, Historical Theology, chapter 25, § 1, 2; and the articles SEE ARMINIANISM; SEE EPISCOPIUS; SEE GROTIUS; SEE VORSTIUS; SEE REMONSTRANTS.

Published in the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature as public domain; first published by Harper and Brothers, 1867-1887; reprint Baker Book House, 1981, Volume 2, pp. 870-873