Synod of Dort (Part One)

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Did God, in His sovereignty and providence, spare our beloved Arminius from the shenanigans of the Synod of Dort? I would like to think so. However, did God not also care for those who defended Arminius, even at the risk of being dismissed from the ministry, or worse, death?

Few Calvinists today have a genuine respect for James Arminius. Though their reasons are varied, one does find a theologian or two who is unbiased and congenial toward our theological hero. Besides Richard A. Muller, R. C. Sproul seems to be a fair and reasonable Calvinist with respect to the theology as espoused by Arminius.

Sproul wrote, “In the perennial debate between so-called Calvinism and Arminianism, the estranged parties have frequently misrepresented each other. They construct straw men, then brandish the swords of polemics against caricatures . . .

“As a Calvinist I frequently hear criticisms of Calvinistic thought that I would heartily agree with if indeed they represented Calvinism. So, I am sure, the disciples of Arminius suffer the same fate and become equally frustrated. Arminius himself came from a Calvinistic framework and embraced many tenets of historic Calvinism. He frequently complained, in a mild spirit, of the manifold ways in which he was misrepresented. He loved the works of Augustine and in many respects earnestly sought to champion the Augustinian cause.”1

After the death of Arminius many of his closest friends began printing pamphlets containing some of his teachings. It became so widespread that eventually one Puritan remarked, “the whole world begins to flocke after” [Arminius].2 He was, as happens so often, more famous in death than in life.

The Calvinists of the early seventeenth century recognized that Arminianism was spreading like wildfire and made it their goal to demolish it at all cost. Bangs writes, “The Letters of the States General, inviting the Protestant Divines of foreign countries to the National Synod [against Arminians and Arminianism] were issued on the 25th of June, 1618; and the members were summoned to meet together in the city of Dort on the 1st of November in the same year.

“The Letters of Invitation, addressed to the Divines of the United Provinces, were dated the 20th of September. The Synod of Dort was opened on the 13th of November. The Remonstrants [those who followed Arminius—Remonstrants means protest] had wished either to have their Five Points [of doctrine] brought before a Provincial Synod, to prepare matters for a National one [this would secure Arminianism as an orthodox theological position in Protestantism]; or to have them brought at once before a General Council of Protestants for decision.

“But the Calvinists would listen to neither of these equitable proposals—If a Provincial Synod were held, especially in that Province which most needed such a remedy, they knew, from trial, how difficult it would be to combat the strong and popular arguments of the Arminians, when both parties were placed nearly on an equality in one assembly—And if a General Council of Protestants were convened, they were certain, that the principles of Arminius would be recognized as integral parts of scripture verity, and consequently entitled not only to toleration (which was all that the poor Arminians had desired), but to the especial patronage of the civil authorities . . .

“Numerous state papers on these subjects were written by the public functionaries of the different provinces in the year 1617, among which those of the composition of the learned Grotius, who conducted the arguments in favour of a General Council, are very conspicuous for the superior abilities which they display . . .

“A National Synod was . . . the sole remedy which the wisdom, or rather the worldly prudence of the Calvinists, could discover for removing the maladies under which the Church of Christ in Holland was at that time labouring.

“In showing cause for their preference, they were placed in an awkward dilemma: For they perceived that the strongest reasons to be adduced for the adoption of this measure would extend too far and might, in the hands of their able antagonists, be made to apply with greater cogency to the convening of a General Council.

“They tried to ward off these consequences by suggesting that ‘as the design of a National Synod is only to restore the churches of the United Provinces to their former rest and tranquility, all the useful purposes to which we can apply the presence of some Foreign Divines, is, to be instructed by them in the sentiments of their churches in reference to the points in controversy, and to be directed by their advice not only in the establishment of our peace, but also in cultivating a good correspondence with them.’

“The Dutch Calvinists knew that any assembly which did not bear some resemblance to a General Council, by being composed partly of foreigners, would not satisfy even the most moderate of their own persuasion. This is declared, after their own fashion, by the members of the Synod, in the preface to their ACTS; in which they say:

“‘But since the Remonstrants did not appear to hold the judgment of the Belgic Churches in any great estimation [a fabrication!], and since they had always endeavoured to persuade the people that there was no difference between their sentiments and those of the Reformed Churches, it pleased their High Mightiness to invite to this Synod from all the Reformed Churches in the neighbouring Kingdoms, Principalities, and Republics, some divines distinguished by their piety, learning, and prudence, that they might assist with their judgments and counsels the deputies of the Belgic Churches, and that these controversies, having been thus examined and determined . . . as if by the common judgment of all the Reformed Churches, might be composed with so much the greater certainty, happiness, and safety, and to more abundant profit.’

“The whole of this paragraph was most craftily expressed: Those two convenient words, AS IF, are intended to excuse the non-attendance of deputies from the Protestant Churches of Prussia, Poland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, to which no invitation was transmitted; to mention nothing of many of the minor German states, the Protestants in some of the native dominions of the House of Austria, several of the Hanse towns, and the Churches of France, England, and Scotland, which were without ecclesiastical representatives in the Synod.

“To many of the ‘neighbouring’ kingdoms invitations were certainly sent: But it was the ardent wish of the Calvinists only to have the company of those choice spirits of other countries that would readily coalesce with themselves in devising measures to crush Arminianism.

“To obtain the presence of a few thus enlightened and unanimous was the great object at which they aimed; and by this maneuver they endeavoured to impart to their National Synod the dignified and imposing appearance of a General Council. In this object, however, they would have been defeated had not King James of England entered into their views and given that party his overpowering assistance.”3

1 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 125-126.

2 Carl Bangs, “Introduction,” James Arminius, The Works of Arminius, Vol. I, trans. James Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1986), xxi.

3 Ibid., 473-475.