The Synod of Dort vs. Arminius and the Remonstrants

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Nearly a decade after the death of Arminius, the States General hold a synod (council or assembly), wherein religious and state officials from various regions accuse the Arminians of heresy and expel them from both pulpit ministry and teaching theology in Holland (read “Dutch Calvinists against Religious Freedom: Synod of Dort“). The result of the Synod of Dort comes to us in the Canons of Dort. (“Canons” refer to a Rule of Decrees or Judgments.) Therein are statements of affirmation and denial of various subjects, both theological and soteriological (i.e., doctrine of salvation).

Arminius holds to both the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism, though he interprets certain (ambiguous) statements within each in a different manner than do others among the Reformed Protestants, both at Leiden and in his church. The Canons of Dort, unlike either aforementioned creeds, are less ambiguous regarding the subject of the sovereignty of God and how people come to faith in Christ for salvation. The Canons affirm God’s election of only some unto faith and salvation in the following manner:

Before the foundation of the world, by sheer grace, according to the free good pleasure of His will, He chose in Christ to salvation a definite number of particular people out of the entire human race, which had fallen by its own fault from its original innocence into sin and ruin. . . .

And so He decided to give the chosen ones to Christ and to be saved, and to call and draw them effectively into Christ’s fellowship through His Word and Spirit. In other words, He decided to grant them true faith in Christ, to justify them, to sanctify them, and finally, after powerfully preserving them in the fellowship of His son, to glorify them.1

The authors make certain that this election does not take place on “the basis of foreseen faith” or “of the obedience of faith,”2 which are statements to which Arminius and the Remonstrants explicitly hold. The Canons are striking at the very heart of Arminius’s doctrine of salvation in both their affirmations and denials. They state their rejection of the “error” of those who teach that “the will of God to save those who would believe and persevere in faith and in the obedience of faith is the whole and entire decision of election to salvation, and that nothing else concerning this decision has been revealed in God’s Word.”3 This so-called “error” is affirmed by Arminius and the Remonstrants. The latter state that “when God calls sinners to Himself through the gospel and seriously commands faith and obedience either under the promise of eternal life, or to the contrary, under the threat of eternal death, He not only bestows necessary but also sufficient grace for sinners to render faith and obedience.”4 (emphasis added)

Though Arminius and the Remonstrants hold to the Reformed position that only through the Word and the Spirit is anyone brought to Christ,5 they understand that the means of grace can be resisted, a notion which the Calvinists themselves resist. Arminius thinks Scripture is clear as to who God has elected to save, for Scripture insists that God saves those who believe (1 Cor. 1:21). What Scripture does not teach is that God elects who will believe and who will remain in unbelief (cf. Rom. 11:22-23). Regarding God’s decree of election Arminius holds: “This rests or depends on the [foreknowledge] and foresight of God, by which He foreknew, from all eternity . . . what men would, through such [means], believe by the aid of [prevenient, enabling] grace, and would persevere by the aid of subsequent or following grace; and who would not believe and persevere.”6 Note he does not use the language of God “looking down the corridors of time” in order to see who would or would not receive Christ and then elect them unto salvation. Arminius’s view is much more biblically grounded than that concept.

Arminius believes that God knows and has always known all that can be known; God’s omniscience is part of His essence as God.7 He affirms that God “does nothing in time which He has not decreed to do from all eternity.”8 All knowledge to God is a reality correspondent with His essence. In other words, God does not learn any new concept, nor does He ever have an idea. The entirety of His knowledge is as eternal as is He Himself. God did not, therefore, look through the corridors of time to learn who were His elect. God has always known the creatures created in His image in their ultimate state as either believers or non-believers.

This notion, however, is not one with which Calvinists are capable of tolerating. The Calvinistic position of God’s meticulous sovereignty and unconditional election, for them, is the only biblically viable case, and all other positions are heterodox at best and a denial of the Faith at worst. In over four centuries now, little has changed in that regard. This is why some modern Calvinists point Arminians to the Synod of Dort — to inform them that Arminianism was condemned as heresy.

The ridiculous nature of that claim, however, speaks more to their ignorance of Church history than one realizes. For no fact is more established in the history of the Church than that the early fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century were, anachronistically taken, Arminian in their theology and soteriology.9 The Augustinian-Calvinist positions on God’s meticulous sovereignty, unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace are the novel theories introduced to the Church, not Arminianism.

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1 Quoted from the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, ed. Richard L. Pratt, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 2164.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 2165.

4 The Arminian Confession of 1621, ed. Mark A. Ellis (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2005), 106.

5 For example, Arminius writes, “We define Vocation [i.e., ‘work’] as a gracious act of God in Christ by which, through His word and Spirit, He calls forth sinful men, who are liable to condemnation and placed under the dominion of sin, from the condition of the [natural, unregenerate] life, and from the pollutions and corruptions of this world.” See James Arminius, “Disputation XVI. On the Vocation of Men to Salvation,” in The Works of Arminius, the London edition, trans. James and William Nichols (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 2:231-32.

6 Ibid., 2:719.

7 He affirms that God “knows all possible things in the perfection of their own essence, and therefore all things impossible. . . . The understanding of God is certain and infallible: So that He sees certainly and infallibly even things future and contingent; whether He sees them in their causes, or in themselves.” In the same disputation he states, “God knows all things, neither by intelligible . . . representations, nor by similitude, but by His own and sole essence; with the exception of evil things, which He knows indirectly” (2:341).

8 Ibid., 2:227, 235.

9 Ken Keathley comments, “What is called Arminianism was nearly the universal view of the early church fathers and has always been the position of Greek Orthodoxy.” See Kenneth D. Keathley, “The Work of God: Salvation,” in A Theology for the Church, ed. Daniel L. Akin (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 703.