W. Robert Godfrey and the Path to Compromise at Dort

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in Diversity at Dort


1) Path to Compromise

This sensitivity [for Protestant unity concerning Reformed relations with Lutheranism] did not move the strict group, however. The strict German and Swiss delegations through bitter experience had already been disillusioned about hopes of concord with Lutherans. The Dutch provincial delegations had other reasons for disregarding an appeal to Lutheranism. They read such an appeal in the context of their own struggles with the Remonstrants and construed the call to Protestant unity as another Remonstrant smoke screen designed to obscure the real issues. This fear seemed to be supported because as early as 1609 defenders of Arminius had claimed that their teachings were no different from what was taught by Lutherans on the matters at hand.44 On January 16, 1619 the Remonstrants wrote to Maurice asking for toleration if they could not support the decrees of the Synod. Brandt summarized this letter: “. . . they humbly pray’d that the same freedom might be allowed to them which the Lutherans had enjoy’d in these Provinces, and who were of the same opinion themselves, in the business of the Five Points, and who moreover differed from the Reformed in other matters.”45

Brandt also noted the appeal of March 19, 1619 that the Remonstrants made to the political delegates at the Synod when they submitted the last of their written defense:

Observe then how inconsistently they act with themselves; they who in Germany call Melanchthon, a most pious Soul, and cry him up for his extraordinary virtues and gifts of all kinds (as Zanchius and all the Palatine Divines are wont to do) yet here in the Low-Countries will not so much as admit, either to the exercise of their Ministry, or to the Table of the Lord, one who practices Melanchthon’s moderate way of preaching, and who, for the sake of peace, is contented to forbear meddling with the doctrines of the Contraremonstrants.46

Although the strict Calvinist group at the Synod was not moved by an appeal to Lutheran feelings, there were three grounds upon which an effective appeal for compromise might succeed with them. In fact, the final compromise was accomplished on the basis of these appeals. The first plea was the need for the decisions of the Synod to be approved unanimously. The second appeal was the form in which final Canons were to be stated, and the third was the need to placate the English delegation that represented the largest Reformed church and was the strongest political ally of the United Provinces. On the basis of these three considerations, the strict group was willing to compromise.

On the matter of unanimity, the Provincial delegations, especially, were sensitive to the charge of vindictiveness and revenge that could easily be raised against them in their judgment of the Remonstrants. To refute this charge the foreign delegations had been invited in the first place. The Provincial delegates were especially eager for a unanimous vote at the Synod to condemn the Remonstrants. They wanted the world to see that Calvinists from all over Europe were united in maintaining the Contra-Remonstrant case. Bogerman verbalized something of that concern when he spoke against Davenant’s request to have the various Judicia read publically. Bogerman reasoned, as Balcanqual reported:

Though the suffrages of all Colledges do agree . . . in the thing itself; yet because there was some disagreement in phrases and forms of speaking, it was to be feared that the Remonstrants and other Jesuits and Dominicans present would make a great matter of these verbal differences, that they would cast abroad among the people strange reports of the dissensions of the Synod.47

Bogerman’s reasoning was supported by a majority vote of the Synod reflecting the great concern on this issue. Samuel Ward further testified to this concern in writing some years later to Archbishop Ussher:

Some of us were held by some half Remonstrants for extending the oblation made to the Father to all, and for holding sundry effects thereof offered serio, and some really communicated to the reprobate. . . . We were careful that nothing should be defined which might gainsay the Confession of the Church of England, which was effected, for that they were desirous to have all things in the Canons defined unanimi consensu.48

The second ground of compromise was the form in which Bogerman, supported by Bishop Carleton, chose to express the Canons. At the same time when the decisions on the form of the Canons were being made, Balcanqual worried that each Contra-Remonstrant minister would want his particular theological insight to be stated explicitly in the Canons.

. . . if your L. care do not now most of all show it self for procuring of good counsel to be sent hither for the constitution of the Canons, we are like to make the Synod a thing to be laughed at in after ages. The President and his provincials have no care of the credit of strangers, nor of that account which we must yield at our return unto all men that shall be pleased to call for it; their Canons they would have them so full charged with catechetical speculations, as they will be ready to burst, and I perceive it plainly, that there is never a contra-Remonstrant minister in the Synod, that hath delivered any doctrine which hath been excepted against by the Remonstrants, but they would have it in by head and shoulders in some Canon, that so they might have something to show for that which they have said.49

Balcanqual’s worries were no doubt justified in relation to the Provincials, but it seems probable that Balcanqual misunderstood Bogerman. Bogerman’s biographer has shown that he was not so fanatical as has sometimes been thought and that he was chosen President because of his familiarity with the issues, his stability, and his friendship with Maurice and Count William Louis.50

Bogerman decided that the Canons were to be formed for the edification of the Dutch church, not to settle subtle academic questions. Bishop Carleton agreed that the style of the Canons should be popular and not scholastic.51 This decision meant that the many of the specific problems and differences could be ignored. The Canons would be framed with these theses stating the orthodox belief followed by the rejection of specific heterodox beliefs. It meant that with a little ambiguity and flexibility a compromise could be reached.

The commission that Bogerman appointed to write the Canons arrived at a compromise without much trouble. Only on the Second Article did a problem arise, and on the Second Article a last minute addition on the absolute necessity of Christ’s death delayed final approval, but even that issue was finally resolved.52

Balcanqual expressed satisfaction with the results of the compromise, and implicitly recognized the influenced wielded by the English at the Synod as Europe’s largest Reformed Church and as the Netherlands’ most powerful ally.

The Deputies appointed by the Synod have taken pains I must needs confess to give our Colledge all satisfaction; besides the second Article, some of our Colledge have been earnest to have this proposition out. (Infideles damnabuntur non solum ob infidelitatem, sed etiam ob omnia alia peccata sua tam originale quam actualia.) Because they say that from thence may be inferred that original sin is not remitted to all who are baptized, which opinion hath been by more than one council condemned as heretical: they have therefore at their request put it out; so I know now of no matter of disagreement among us worthy the speaking of. . . .53

Ambassador Carleton in his letter to the King after the Synod also testified to the significant influence of the English delegation:

This day I presented my lord bishop of Landaff, and the rest of your majesty’s commissioners, who have assisted at the Synod, to the states and the prince of Orange, to take their leaves: by both which I was desired to acknowledge to your majesty the full satisfaction they have had in these reverend persons, and their great obligation for the favour, they sparing not to publish in their open assembly, that this synod (which hath given, as it were, a new soul and life to this state) is your majesty’s work; and thereupon to profess to owe to your majesty the fruits of their best abilities in all occasions for the service of your person and kingdoms: which I do now undertake in their behalf, to be as really meant, as freely tendered. . . .54

While the notion that the Synod was "his majesty’s work" must be discounted to some extent as courtly flattery, it was certainly true that the English had an immense impact on the Synod as a whole and on the Second Article in particular. Davenant emerged as the most articulate spokesman for the moderate position, and Bishop Carleton emerged as the great compromiser. Ambassador Carleton emerged in Balcanqual’s letters as the ready source of political pressure on the Dutch, when it appeared from time to time that the strict and uncompromising group might dominate the Synod.

The final form of the Canons on the Second Article55 indicated the ways in which the tension between unity and division were finally resolved and an acceptable compromise reached. The Second Head of Doctrine was composed of nine theses or canons stating the orthodox position on the death of Christ. These canons were followed by a list of seven errors which were rejected. The theses and rejected errors may be summarized as follows: 1) God’s justice requires the infinite punishment of sin. 2) Christ satisfied for our sins in our place. 3) Christ’s death is of infinite value and sufficient for the sins of the whole world. 4) Christ’s death is of infinite value because Christ was not only perfectly man but also truly God. 5) Whoever believes in Christ will have eternal life, and this promise and the command to repent and believe should be preached to all persons indiscriminately. 6) The reason that some do not believe and therefore are not saved is not due to any deficiency in the death of Christ, but is their own responsibility. 7) Those who do believe owe all their salvation to Christ’s merit and nothing to their own merit. 8) God willed that Christ’s death would effectively redeem only the elect and that only to the elect would he give faith and all other saving gifts. 9) This will of God always has been and always will be accomplished. The Canons rejected seven specific errors: 1) Christ died without a certain decree to save anyone. 2) Christ died only to make a new covenant possible. 3) Christ died so that God could choose new conditions for salvation and those conditions can be fulfilled by the free will of man. (This error is labeled Pelagian.) 4) Salvation is the result of faith itself, not of the applied merits of Christ. (This is labeled Socinian.) 5) By the death of Christ all men are freed from original sin and received into grace. 6) The distinction between application and accomplishment makes salvation dependent on the will of man. (This is labeled Pelagian.) 7) Christ did not die for those whom God loved as elect since they would have no need for such a death.

These Theses were quite different from any of the Theses proposed by the various delegations, although some similarity existed between the final Canons and the Theses proposed by the Dutch professors. Canons Three and Four were similar to Thesis One of the Dutch professors; Canon Five resembled Thesis Three, and Canon Eight reflected Thesis Five. All but two of the errors rejected in the official Canons were mentioned by the Dutch professors in their Theses. Approximately half of the final Canons may have reflected the work of the Dutch professors. The methodology of the Canons was quite different, however, from that of the Dutch professors. Dijk expressed this difference well in his general observations on the First Article: ". . . men niet aprioristisch van het decreet Gods uitging, maar aposteriorisch van de historische feiten. . . ."56 Whereas most of the Theses began with God’s intention in sending Christ to die, the Canons began with man’s need for salvation and the way in which Christ met that need.

This a posteriori approach made compromise possible, and the compromise expressed the concerns of both the strict and the moderate groups at the Synod. Canons Eight and Nine reflected the strict and mediating insistence that God sovereignly applies to the elect the salvation which he accomplished in Christ. Since the vast majority of the Synod was either strict or mediating in their positions on the Second Article, it was hardly surprising that this ringing statement on God’s sovereignty was included. What was surprising was the degree to which the concerns of the moderates were represented in the Canons. Especially Davenant’s concerns reflected in his Dissertation were met by these Canons.

The first sign of Davenant’s impact was the extended treatment of what Davenant called ‘mere sufficiency.’ Far from ignoring sufficiency completely, as Beza seemed to prefer and as the Genevan delegates actually did in their Theses, the final form of Canons Three and Four spoke at length about the infinite value of the death of Christ. The second aspect of Davenant’s influence was reflected in the silence of the Canons on the question of the ‘ordained sufficiency.’ The Canons contained neither an affirmation nor a rejection of this concept. This seemed to be a clear compromise designed so both moderates and strict Reformed could be satisfied on this point. The third mark of Davenant’s thought was the extended statement in Canon Five on the need to communicate he Gospel to all. This statement again reflected the moderate, ‘catholic’ concern so absent in the Genevan Theses. The compromise rested in the fact that while there was a clear declaration of the necessity to preach the Gospel to all, there was no theological connection drawn between universal preaching and the death of Christ. The moderates and the strict were left free to their own opinions about the foundation for the universal offer of the Gospel.

The Canons of the Synod of Dort were accepted by all the delegates and represented a triumph of compromise for the international Reformed community. The evaluation given by Walter Rex on the Synod appropriately emphasized the significance of the compromise.

Dordrecht has come to signify all that was backward and rigid in Calvinism, and the Synod does in fact represent a narrowing of orthodox territory insofar as Arminianism was concerned. If one studies the Canons in connection with the separate opinions of the delegates, one finds far more flexibility than has been commonly supposed. There was still room in orthodoxy for a certain individuality and a limited spirit of compromise.57 W. Robert Godfrey, Tensions within International Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1974), 252-264. [Some minor reformatting, footnote content and values original; and underlining mine.]

2) These delegates to the Synod did not realize that on the question of the extent of the atonement there were dangerous differences of expression and emphasis that would have to be faced and resolved. They did not realize that a wide spectrum of opinions would come to light in the Judicia of the various delegations. This spectrum was grounded in the very history of Reformed theology from the time of Calvin and Beza. This spectrum revealed itself in discussions of the value of the distinction between the sufficiency and the efficiency of the death of Christ. The strictest Calvinists wanted to abandon the distinction, as had Beza, while others felt that a broad definition of the sufficiency of the death of Christ for all was imperative. W. Robert Godfrey, Tensions within International Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1974), 266. [Some minor reformatting and underlining mine.]

3) The history of the Synod when viewed in detail reveals that the Calvinism at Dort was neither irrelevant, monolithic nor uncompromising. The Calvinists at Dort saw that the foundations of Reformed theology and the peace and order of the Dutch Church were at stake in their different theological expressions and methodologies representing very different hopes and fears for the Reformed community. They demonstrated in the final form of the Canons their ability to compromise by defining what was held in common and by remaining silent on what was not. Indeed, the Synod represented the victory of a moderate form of contemporary Calvinism. The moderate infralapsarians, who were a considerable majority at the Synod, triumphed on the First Article. The moderates on the extent of the atonement, who were a considerable minority at the Synod, also triumphed by wresting important concessions from their colleagues. W. Robert Godfrey, Tensions within International Calvinism: The Debate on the Atonement at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619 (Ph.D diss., Stanford University, 1974), 268.

[Some minor reformatting and underlining mine.]

[Ripped from Tony]


44Van Itterzon, op. cit., pp. 159-165.

45Brandt, The History of the Reformation . . . , III, 212.

46Ibid., III, 260. In a letter of June 18, 1619 Carleton indicated that the Remonstrants were still using this appeal for toleration. Carleton expressed concerns very much like those of DuMoulin in charging that the Remonstrants were innovators in the Church and disturbers of the state: "For howsoever the Arminians alledge, that the liberty of this country in matters of religion should be no more straitned unto them than unto the Lutherans and Anabaptists, who have their meetings and preachings by public permission; yet it is not so understood by the state; first, in regard that the Lutherans and Anabaptists are no innovators, but began and continued with the beginning and increase of this state. Next, because they have been always content to live peaceably and under the protection of this state: Whereas the Arminians by a factious conspiracy did aim at the sovereignty. Lastly, because it appears by the new levies of men here in Holland and Utrecht made by the Arminians, and their rigorous proceedings against those, who were well-affected in religion, their end was to breed a mutation both in church and state, which was never attempted either by Lutherans or Anabaptists." Carleton to Nauton, Carleton, op. cit., pp. 372-373.

47Hales, op. cit., Appendix, p. 18, March 9, 1619.

48Fuller, op. cit., p. 90.

49Hales, op. cit., Appendix, p. 35, March 25, 1619.

50H. Edema van der Tuuk, Johannes Bogerman (Gronigen, 1868), pp. 185-186.

51Dijk, op. cit., p. 170 and Van Itterzon, loc. cit., pp. 274-275.

52See Brandt, The History of the Reformation . . ., III, 282. Also, Balcanqual reported the exact nature of the debate on the absolute necessity of the death of Christ in his final report, Hales, op. cit., Appendix, pp. 38-39. He made this summary of the matter: ". . .upon Tuesday in the afternoon we had a Session, in which were read the Canons of the first and second Article, and were approved, except the last of the second Article, which we never heard of till that hour, and the second heterodox in that same Article, what they were Dr. Davenant will inform your L. the last was such as I think no man of understanding would ever assent unto. On Thursday morning we had another Session in which was nothing done, but that it was reasoned whither that last heterodox should be retained; our Colledge in that whole Session maintained dispute against the whole Synod; they condemned the thing itself as a thing most curious, and yet would have it retained only to make the Remonstrants odious, though they find the very contrary of that they would father upon them in their words." Hales, op. cit., Appendix, pp. 35-36, April 9/19, 1619.

53Hales, op. cit., Appendix, p. 34, April 4/14, 1619.

54Carleton, op. cit., p. 366, May 8, 1619.

55The Second Article of the Canons is usually called the Second Head of Doctrine. The Canons of the Synod of Dort are printed in Schaff, op. cit., III, 550ff.

56Dijk, op. cit., p. 172.

57Rex, op. cit., p. 87.

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