The year 1618 is one of the historic dates of Calvinism. It was then that in Holland the famous Synod of Dordrecht was convoked to combat the greatest crisis in dogma since the age of the first reformers. From Germany, the United Provinces, Geneva, Switzerland and England the delegates assembled (France, by order of the king, could send no delegates) to deal with the Arminians, or “Remonstrants” as they were often called, who had challenged some of the fundamental orthodox doctrines, threatening to split the Calvinist world in two.7
It was the pious conviction of the Arminians that the insistence of traditional Calvinism upon God’s omnipotence and man’s helplessness (as expressed in the absolute decrees of election and reprobation and other doctrines concerning the nature of grace and the Divine Satisfaction) led immediately and necessarily to the conclusion that God Himself was responsible for man’s sins and was the cause of his damnation.8 To avoid a conclusion so monstrous in itself, and which made them so vulnerable to accusations by their Catholic adversaries, they remonstrated to the orthodox with five points of doctrine carefully phrased to coincide as closely as possible with the usual orthodox formulae, but which in reality–as the orthodox were quick to see–affected the very foundations of the Calvinist theological system. In order to make it clear that it was man, rather than God, who was responsible for his own damnation the Arminians suggested (1) that the decrees of predestination and reprobation were not always absolute, (2) that Christ had proffered remission of sins to all mankind by His death, (3) that Christ had died for each and every person, (4) that a sinner might resist grace, and (5) that the saints did not always persevere in their faith. These points if adopted would have broken the absolute nature of the divine decrees; they would have implied the existence of a kind of universal grace offered to all (as opposed to the traditional “particular” grace offered only to the elect), and they would have meant that man’s will was partially independent–independent enough to refuse the grace offered in Christ’s death, or even to lose it, if in the wickedness of his heart man chose to do so.
Inevitably the orthodox rejected the five points. They were far from admitting that their traditional doctrines led to such impious consequences as the Arminians claimed; they saw no necessity to revise the whole structure of their theology, especially since their traditional doctrines were so “evidently” supported by the authority of the Scripture, and since Arminianism was clearly another revival of the semi-Pelagian heresy, whose dangers were already well known to the true Church. For months they labored, and at last brought forth the famous “Canons” which redefined the essential doctrines of their belief, and rejected the errors of the heretics.9 All the delegates to the Synod signed their names to each of the articles of the Canons, and at the conclusion of the Synod there were tears of rejoicing and prayers of thanksgiving; medals were struck to commemorate the happy issue of the crisis. A considerable number of Arminians were denied the right to exercise their pastoral functions; many also were placed under surveillance or sent into exile; for political reasons the worthy Oldenbarneveldt was decapitated.