Dutch Calvinists against Religious Freedom: Synod of Dort

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Arminius and the Remonstrants fight tenaciously for religious freedom in Dutch society (link), but early seventeenth-century Calvinists are adamantly opposed to any semblance of theological toleration — not to mention freedom — other than their own. This is an uncontested historical fact.1 Granted, Arminius considers Anabaptist ecclesiology, and especially Anabaptist beliefs on believer’s baptism — to be heretical, meaning that he is not willing to tolerate such beliefs in the Reformed churches. But note the stark contrast: while Zwingli and Luther in the sixteenth century were consenting to the drowning of Anabaptists for heresy, Arminius is well known for going into the homes of Anabaptists in an effort to debate with or persuade them to return to the orthodoxy of the Reformed Churches.2 Drowning or killing heretics is not an attitudinal tenet of Arminius or the Remonstrants.

The States of Holland have been protecting the Remonstrants since 1610. By 1614, Remonstrant sympathizer, protector, and civil magistrate Johan Oldenbarneveldt (1547-1619) finds necessary the proclamation of his system “yet more explicitly and impressively.”3 He restricts what is acceptable to be taught in the Reformed churches regarding God’s actions in divine election and reprobation (which is a denial of supralapsarianism, the very doctrine to which many strict or high Calvinists and opponents of the Arminians such as Francis Gomarus hold). However, debating theological issues is left to the universities, albeit tempered. Pieter Geyl comments:

In the seventeenth century, when the Church claimed that the State should uphold [and protect] her doctrine as the one and only verity, such presumption on the part of the State could certainly be explained as a measure of self-defense. Oldenbarneveldt, calling to mind the rise of Protestantism, considered it simply preposterous that anyone should contest the authorities’ right of decision.4

Bewildered and reluctant, the Calvinists accept the ruling. However, the State’s authority in the life and doctrine of the Reformed churches is causing malcontent with the opponents of Arminianism, the Contra-Remonstrants (i.e., Calvinists): “The forbidden doctrine of predestination, declared by authority to be unessential to salvation, was clung to with growing fervor as almost the sole essential, and those who belittled it were held to be atheists and papists.”5 (Not much has changed in four hundred years.) Moreover, given that four provinces in the States of Holland do not approve of Oldenbarneveldt’s resolution (Amsterdam, Enkhuizen, Edam and Purmerend), the Calvinists are becoming more implacable.

Enter Hugo Grotius (1583-1645). He was a well respected Classical scholar, theologian, historian, lawyer (the founder of International Treaty Law), and most notably an Arminian. He appears before the States of Holland imploring the populace to favor Oldenbarneveldt’s resolution of 1614. If the Calvinists are permitted to advance their sectarian cause, religious freedom will be forever crushed. Protestants are free from the tyranny of the Church of Rome, and should not be brought under the new tyranny of the Calvinists.

Still, those in Amsterdam are unwilling to wholly adopt the resolution, since within her city there remains Roman Catholics, Baptists, Arminians and Calvinists. Certainly, so many are thinking, there are already too many strong theological proclivities vying for dominance in Amsterdam. But more than that excuse is the fact that many of the burgomasters (i.e., town leaders) of Amsterdam are whole-hearted supporters of the Calvinists. Thus enter Dutch-political motivations into a theological context.

Shortly after Grotius’s 1616 appeal to the States for religious freedom, by early 1617 Prince Maurice (1567-1625), who has heretofore maintained a distance in these affairs, in a savvy political move, openly sides with the Calvinists (he has no religious or heart-felt theological convictions about Calvinism whatsoever). Maurice’s compliance with the Calvinists involves the West India Company (trade relations and foreign policy), as opposed to the East India Company, and nothing more.6 With Maurice now intervening, and having cast his lot with the Calvinists (solely for political reasons, remember), the Arminians are increasingly becoming nervous about their protection.

By January 1618, Prince Maurice, in another politically strategic move, dismisses the Remonstrant (Arminian) magistracy of Nymegen. Maurice’s intent is to rid the States of Arminian influence — a threat which he views as much political as civil. Step by step, Maurice is positioning the Calvinists to hold a National Synod. On 28 August 1618, Maurice holds a warrant for the arrest of Johan Oldenbarneveldt (who is considered a hero to the Dutch consensus), Hugo Grotius and a few others.7 Maurice then rides from town to town to eject any supporters of the Arminians, replacing governing officials with his own men.

By 13 November 1618, a National Synod — the Synod of Dordrecht (Dordt or Dort) — is called into order. The Arminians are eager to present their Five Points of Remonstrance to be examined by the States in hope of acceptance. Meeting after meeting, the Arminians are not allowed to present or defend their case.8 The Arminians are drawn to this Synod for political reasons — merely to be accused and expelled from the State. By its conclusion, 12 May 1619, Johan Oldenbarneveldt is “sentenced to death. The charge of connivance with the enemy [i.e., considered traitorous], which the court had not dared to mention in the sentence, was nevertheless insinuated in a letter from the States-General to the provinces. Grotius was sentenced to life imprisonment.”9

Honorable statesman that is Oldenbarneveldt, he responds, “Is this the wages of the three-and-thirty years’ service that I have given to the country?”10 Regardless, the scaffold is constructed the day following, and Oldenbarneveldt meets his Lord and Savior by presenting his head for the political-Calvinist cause. Having been placed into prison, Hugo Grotius escapes by the aid of his wife, and they both flee to France. Also, over three hundred Arminian ministers are expelled from the country.

By 1625, however, shortly after the death of Prince Maurice, the Arminians are allowed to return to Holland, under the reign of Frederick Henry (1584-1647), wherein they found their own seminary and Church, both of which exist to this day. Calvinists should forever denounce and bow their head in shame over both the motivation and outcome of the Synod of Dort. Unfortunately, and very telling, I believe, many Calvinists laud the Synod of Dort and its proceedings.


1 An example of Calvinistic intolerance, which is a widespread attitude among Dutch Calvinists, is found in Arminius’s mentor, John Calvin’s successor and son-in-law, Theodore Beza. When opposed by Snecanus, Beza “wrote to a number of his friends in Holland . . . complaining about him and urging that he be silenced. Beza seemed to prefer censorship to dialogue. . . .” See Carl O. Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1998), 194.

Another example of Calvinist intolerance is found in Contra-Remonstrant minister Geselius. He “refused to live amicably with his Remonstrant colleague Grevinckhoven, or to hold his peace about the ‘lofty and mysterious questions'” regarding controversial theological topics such as Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, and Irresistible Grace. Geselius was “first cautioned and then suspended by the magistracy, and when after that . . . he still continued to edify his stalwarts in private devotions, he was banished from the town without form of trial.” He and his followers worship outside the town gates of Rotterdam. See Pieter Geyl, The Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century, Volume One, 1609-1643 (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1961), 49.

2 As Anabaptists maintain “considerable success in drawing off members of the Reformed churches . . . action against them was deemed necessary. The minutes of the consistory show that Arminius remonstrated [i.e., protested against or debated] with individual Anabaptists in their homes, urging them to return to the Reformed Church.” Arminius, on one occasion, publicly debates an Anabaptist: his wife’s youngest brother Jacobus Laurentii. Bangs writes, “The disputation dealt with five topics: the origin of the human nature of Christ, infant baptism, the magistracy, the oath, and divorce. Arminius did not directly attack any particular Mennonite person or writing by name but simply stated his own Reformed position.” See Bangs, Arminius, 167, 387.

3 Geyl, 49.

4 Ibid., 50.

5 Ibid., 51-52.

6 See Bangs, Arminius, 176-85. See also Geyl, The Netherlands, 54-55.

7 Geyl, 61.

8 The Works of Arminius, the London edition, three volumes, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 1:473.

9 Geyl, 62.

10 Ibid., 63.