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.

As the unanimous signatures to the articles attest, the Canons of the Synod are an expression of unity and certainty: all were willing to agree that Arminianism was to be rejected. Yet at the same time the Canons represent a compromise among the individual delegations. Over certain issues there was even a sort of tug of war going on behind the scenes, and in these cases the Canons represented an effort not to offend either side. One such problem was whether the eternal and absolute decrees of election and reprobation should be considered as being put into effect before Adam’s lapse (supralapsarianism), or after the Fall has been assumed (infralapsarianism). The dispute was theoretical in that (as everyone recognized) it is not possible to speak literally of “before” or “after” in respect to the Deity, since God’s will is immutable and eternal. Yet as a way of conceiving the implementation of the decrees, it had important implications for their theology: the supralapsarians considered Adam’s Fall to be the means God had chosen to arrive at His goal, and their interpretation brought them perilously close to making God responsible for Adam’s sin and the damnation of part of mankind. Generally speaking only the most conservative followers of Beza and St. Augustine were willing to run this risk at the Synod. Most of the delegates preferred the milder infralapsarian explanation which maintained that God decreed that some should be saved and others left to their sins (and hence to their damnation) only after He had foreseen that Adam, in his wickedness, would sin. Thus the absolute decree of reprobation is more clearly conceived as a justified punishment for a crime for which God is not responsible. The Canons did not attempt to decide the question: although by implication they seem to favor the milder infralapsarians, the formulae are ambiguous enough to leave room for the supralapsarians also.10

Another issue among the delegates, even subtler to evaluate, concerned the purpose of Christ’s mission. The heretical Arminians had suggested that Christ had brought to all mankind, universally, the real possibility of salvation: all were in fact granted grace and reconciliation with God through Christ, and would indeed be saved if they did not choose to reject it. The orthodox delegates were unanimously agreed that this doctrine was heretical. However they gave many different kinds of answers to it: On the far right, the ultraconservative delegates from Geneva these errors by setting forth the purest orthodox truth in all its horrendous severity. They simply made it clear beyond any doubt that, on the contrary, Christ had been sent for the benefit of the elect alone and that His infinitely precious death had been offered solely for them; they also affirmed that the elect owed everything pertaining to salvation to the Divine Satisfaction of Christ. As for the “universal propositions” appearing in the Scripture (i.e., the statements that Christ died for all, that all who believed would be saved, etc.), the correct interpretation is that they designate the elect. Grudgingly they admitted that God’s granting (of the promise of salvation) might be distinguished from its application, insofar as one could conceive that God had decided to show His benevolence to the elect before He actually did so; however they rejected any implication that God had intended to reconcile all humanity to Himself in Christ’s death, or that He had given man any possibility of salvation other than what had been eternally decreed. Thus the Genevans refused even to debate the major objections of the Arminians; they hardly bothered to distinguish what was admissible in the Arminian doctrines from what was heretical. There are no explanations, there are simply the “truths” accompanied by a battery of scriptural quotations. And if the Arminians thought that the Calvinists made God responsible for man’s sins, so much the worse for them.11

Rigid conservatism is often considered typical of the Synod of Dordrecht, yet in reality such extreme inflexibility as this was somewhat exceptional. Most of the delegations, in the separate opinions appended to the Canons, were at least willing to debate and disprove the objections of the Arminians, and many conceded that there were areas of agreement as well as points of disagreement between the two sides. Two of the delegations went even to another extreme, setting forth the doctrine in a manner that would give the appearance of possessing all the advantages claimed by the Arminians, while at the same time being rigorously orthodox. These were the liberal delegates from England and Bremen.

These liberal orthodox delegates spoke of God’s purpose in sending Christ in a way quite different from that of the Genevan conservatives: they stated, or implied, that God sent Christ out of love for human kind in general. Thus, in one sense, Christ’s coming represented God’s desire to restore fallen humanity.12 Secondly, they placed great stress upon the infinite “sufficient” value of Christ’s death, emphasizing to a greater degree than many of the conservatives the fact that (as all agreed) Christ’s death was sufficient in value to save all of mankind (if God so chose).13 Finally they pointed out that the Gospel, while proclaiming the infinite sufficient value of Christ’s death, had exhorted all mankind to believe and promised that all who did so would be saved.14 The exhortation and the promise were in no way feigned, they said; on the contrary, they were seriously intended for all men.15 One delegate went so far as to suggest that in a sense God might be said to have expressed a sort of desire (the ground here is very slippery) that all men should have faith and therefore gain salvation;16 the delegates from England spoke of the promises of the Gospel in terms of a kind of “grace” offered to everyone,17 and all these liberal delegates forcefully demonstrated that God did absolutely nothing which prevented man from being saved. On the contrary, it was clear that God had exhorted everyone to have faith and that the value and merit of Christ’s death were theoretically sufficient for all to have done so.18 If man disobeyed God’s command it was surely not because Christ’s Satisfaction was in any way defective, or because God was malevolent, it was simply man’s own depravity. How then could the Arminians accuse the Calvinists of making God responsible for the sins of man?

The doctrine thus far might seem almost as “universalist” as that of the Arminians; but there was a “catch” to it, of course. All the foregoing statements are qualified by the restriction “in one sense,” and that sense was, in the last analysis, hypothetical. The critical point is the doctrine that all had been promised salvation if they believed. Certainly; but all mankind would not and could not believe, because true faith was inaccessible to any of Adam’s sinful posterity unless God granted a special, particular grace which was bestowed according to God’s pleasure, not man’s.19 Once this basic assumption is revealed, the plausible, universalist-seeming argument collapses: though Christ could be said to have died “sufficiently” for all, in a much more real “disguised Arminianism,” or represented a kind of “Arminian tendency” in Calvinism. Yet I think such an interpretation misses the true significance of this development: it would be more accurate to call it “disguised orthodoxy,” or “predestination made palatable,” or, as the Arminians did when they rejected it, orthodox particularism “varnished over.”20 For liberal theology in essence was a hypothetical breaking up of the doctrine into separate units which were only temporarily and theoretically conceived as distinct from one another. Whereas the conservative Genevans were content to say that God decided once and for all to save only the elect, and that was what He did, and although the liberals were willing to agree that this was essentially true, the delegates from Bremen and England also distinguished a–so to speak–separate decision to restore fallen humanity, another to offer all salvation if they would believe, and another to grant faith only to the elect. The reality of particularism was always present, by implication at least, in each of the stages (in God’s incomprehensible justice, in the concept of belief depending on grace), but the awesome truth that God throughout all eternity had decided to leave part of humanity to its sins, and therefore to its damnation, was momentarily pushed to the background while they waxed eloquent over God’s love for mankind, Christ’s merciful promise to all who would believe, and the infinite sufficient value of His death which (so to speak) might have enabled all to do so, were man not so sinful–arguments which in the opinion of these pious liberals ought to have silenced forever their Arminian adversaries, but which at the same time affected in no way the harsh underlying realities of the Calvinist theological system.

The contrast in emphasis between the liberals and conservatives such as the Genevans is considerable, and there seems to have been some sort of controversy over this matter at the Synod: two of the liberal delegates from Bremen hinted that there had been,21 and probably certain phrases used by a few of the conservatives were consciously designed to oppose this liberal theology. However, the lines were far from firmly drawn at this time: some of the nominally ultraconservative delegates took a stand astonishingly close to the liberals on this point.22 From France, the conservative Pierre Du Moulin sent a letter of encouragement to the Synod in which he affirmed that Christ died sufficiently for all; Christ died efficiently for the elect, a formula he might well have avoided had he realized at that time the possible ramifications of the distinction.23 Most significant, the Canons struck a compromise on the issue:24 though rigorously particularist, at the same time they placed great stress upon the infinite sufficient value of Christ’s death and avoided any formula which could not be interpreted in the liberal sense if one so chose. That is undoubtedly why the forthright delegates from Bremen were willing to sign them. 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. Yet if one studies the Canons in connection with the separate opinions of the delegations, 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. Above all the Calvinism at Dordrecht allowed for both conservatism and for a certain liberalism: the Canons decidedly did not rule out the liberal theology of the delegates from England and Bremen.

This latter point has not generally been recognized. It became somewhat obscured just a few decades after Dordrecht, when in France “liberalism” began to emerge as a serious problem. It was then that the conservatives “realized” that the Synod of Dordrecht had been a resounding victory for their own conservative theology, and tried to convince other Calvinists that liberal theology was a heresy, directly contrary to the Canons, and their attempt met with a measure of success. Yet all the while the French conservatives were denouncing these heresies in the name of Dordrecht, the liberals were replying that they would readily sign every article of the Canons, and pointing to the delegates from Bremen and England to prove that their opinions had, on the contrary, been considered most orthodox. Certainly the liberals had a strong case, for their contention is indeed borne out by the acts of the Synod. Moreover, there was another fact which they could cite to support their claim that liberalism at the time of Dordrecht had been tolerated by the orthodox: the same year in which the Synod of Dordrecht was convoked liberalism had been implanted in France, in full view of the conservatives, with scarcely a word of protest from them. The year i6i8is also the date of the installation of John Cameron as professor of theology at the Academie de Saumur.25

Walter Rex, Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy (The Hague: Martinus Nijoff, 1965), 81-88. [Some reformatting; footnote values and content original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: One thing needs to be corrected. Regarding the assertion that Davenant and Martinius,  et al, represented a sort of disguised orthodoxy is misleading. Rex clearly was unaware of the Reformers teaching regarding the extent of Christ’s satisfaction. It seems that he has fallen into the same trap into which Jonanthan Moore, and others, fell into: namely, the idea that limited satisfaction had always been actual Reformation orthodoxy. It is a mischaracterization to imagine that Davenant and company were in fact the ones who had deviated from this so-called received orthodoxy. What is the case, is that Davenant, Martinius, and others, represented the more dominant and original trajectory within Reformation and, therefore by extension, Reformed theology.]


7The deliberations of the Synod were recorded in the Acta Synodi Nationalis . . . Dordrechti Habitiæ, 2 vols. (Hanoviae, 1620), translated by Richard Jean de Neree (reference supra, Chapt. I I , n. 67) as Actes du Synode national . . . The Canons of the Synod were verified and approved by two French national synods (Ales, 1620 and Charenton, 1623) and consequently are printed in translation in Jean Aymon, Tous les Synodes nationaux des Eglises Reformees de France . . . , 2 vols. (La Haye, 1710), I I , pp. 298-322. in the ensuing analysis I have mainly used the French translation by Nerée, having compared all passages with the original Latin. A judicious bibliography of the most important works written about this Synod w i l l be found in E.G. Leonard, Histoire generate du protestantisme, 3 vols. (Paris: Presses universitaires, 1961–), II, p. 214. O n the doctrines debated at Dordrecht, the best discussions are in Schweizer, Die Protestantischen Centraldogmen, II , pp. 25-231; Francois Laplanche, “L’ Enseignement de Moyse Amyraut, Professeur a L’ Académie protestante de Saumur (1626-1664), sur la grace et la predestination. Son retentissement dans les eglises reformees,” These, Faculte de Theologie d’Angers [unpublished; 1955], PP- 2 5 – 3 6 (Copy in the library of the Societe de I’histoire du protestantisme francais, Paris); Hans Emil Weber, Reformation, Orthodoxie und Rationalismus, II, “Der Geist der Orthodoxie” (Giitersloh, 1951), pp. 103-128.

8A n impassioned statement of the Arminian criticisms will be found in Acta, II, pp. 191-192.

9Acta, I, pp. 340-381.

10Laplanche, op, cit., p. 3 2 ; p . 417, n. 2 9 .

11Acta, I, p. 635 – 639 ; Actes, I, pp. 141-144.

12“Dieu, ayant eu compassion du genre humain (generis humani miseratus), a envoye son Fils, qui s’est donne se meme en rancon pour les peches de tout le monde.” [Actes I p. no.]

13Henricus Iselburg (Bremen): ” I . L a dignité et l a vertu de l a passion, de l a mort et du m&rte de Christ est telle et si grande qúelle suffit de soi et de sa sa nature pour expier et ôter tous les péchés de tous les hommes, et pour impetrer et conferer entierement à tous et a un chacun, la reconciliation avec Dieu, la grace, la justice et l a vie 6ternelle. [Actes, I, p. 150.]

14“Et partant notre Seigneur Jesus Christ, qui est l a Panaceé et la médecine a l’encontre du péché et de la mort, n’est pas tant seulement offert et proposé par la prédication de I’Evangile, à quelques certaines personnes, ou à crux-là seulement qui doivent etre sauyés, mais Pest indifféremment aux élus et aux réprouvés, et sont tous sans distinction invités à la participation ou jouissance d’icelui, et pour impétrer le salut éternel par lui , et est sérieusement et à bon escient commandé a tous et à hacun de croire en Christ, vivre à lui et de yenir à la connaissance de vérité. Et ceux qui ne croient pas au nom du Fils de Dieu, sont justement condamnes”. [Idem, loc. cit.]

15English delegates: ” . . . il n’y homme qui ne puisse étre vraiment et sérieusement appelé par les Ministres de 1’évangile, à la participation de l a Emission des péchés, et de la vie éternelle, par cette mort de Christ. Act. 13. 38. 39. Sachez que la rémission des péchés par Christ vous est annonceé etc. Jean 3 . 1 7 . Celui qui ne croit pas, est condamne, pour ce qu’U n’a pas cru au Fils de Dieu. Or il n’y a rien de faux ou de feint en I’Evangile, ains tout ce qui est offert ou promis aux hommes en iceluy par les ministres de Dieu, leur est en l a même manière offert et promis par celui qui est auteur de I’Evangile.” [Actes, I, p. 110.]

16Matthias Martinius (Bremen): “I . Il y a en Dieu quelque certaine affection génerale (Est communis quaedam Dei philanthropia) à l’endroit des hommes, par laquelle il a aimé tout le genre humain tombé, et a voulu sérieusement le salut de tous hommes.” [Actes, I, p. 144.]

17” V . En l’Eglise en laquelle le salut est offert et présenté a tous, suivant cette promesse Evangélique sus mentionnée, est administrée un[e] grâce telle, qu’elle suffit et est bastante pour convaincre et rendre inexcusables tous ceux, qui ne se repentent pas et qui demeurent en leur incrédulité, et leur montrer que par leur propre faute et volonté ils périssent et perdent le bénefice qui leur est offert, ou en négligeant, ou en méprisant I’Evangile.” [Actes, I, p. 113.] The word “Church” in this passage is not taken in the narrow sense to designate the invisible company of the elect, but rather in the broadest sense: anywhere that the Gospel is preached.

18Ludovicus Crocius (Bremen): ” II . C’est le propre, le but et l’intention non seulement de Dieu le Père livrant son Fils a l a mort, mais aussi c’a été celle du Fils subissant la mort d’acquérir, impétrer et mériter par cette mort et passion trés précieuse à tous les hommes et à un chacun d’iceux, de pouvoir etre réconciliés avec Dieu, et de recevoir l a rémission de leurs péchés, s’ils se repentent lorsqu’ils sont capables d’être endoctrinés, et s’ils croyent en Christ.

III . Christ ayant souffert et enduré la mort . . . a suffisamment ménté par sa mort et passion que tous hommes et un chacun d’iceux puissent être reconciliés avec Dieu ou bien restitués en grâce et remis au sein d’icelui, moyennant qu’ils se repentent et qu’ils croyent.” [Actes, I. p. 158.]. One may note in Crocius’s insistence that God intended all men to have the possibility of being saved i f they believed, how close he came to stating that in a sense God would have wanted everyone to take advantage of the divine sacrifice.

19English delegates: “Quant au fruit qui revient de l a mort de Christ en laquelle se trouve comme dans un magasin, un trésor immense et infini de mérités et de bénedictions spirituelles, i l redonde et revient actuellement aux hommes en telle manière, telle mesure et par tels moyens qu’il plait a Dieu même. Or est-il qu’il a p lu a Dieu, même après avoir accepté ce sacrifice, et cette offrande, ne pardonner autrement les péchés, ni actuellement conferér la vie éternelle à quiconque que ce fût, sinon par la f o i et en croyant en ce même redempteur: et c’est en cet endroit que se decouvre et se manifeste le Décret éternel et secret de l’Election, lorsque ce prix et cette rancon qui a été payée pour tous hommes, et qui servira certainement pour avoir l a vie éternelle, à tous ceux qui croyent, ne sert ni ne profite pas cependant a tous, d’autant q u ‘ i l n’est elargi n i donne a tous, d’accomplir cette condition requise et portée en l’alliance de grace: ainsi done Christ est mort pour tous en sorte que, moyennant la foi, tous et un chacun d’iceux puissent en vertu de cette rancon, obtenir et avoir remission de leurs peches et vie éternelle. II est mort pour les élus en sorte que par le mérité de l a mort qui leur est specialement destiné selon le bon plaisir éternel de Dieu, qu’ils obtiennent infailliblement l a foi et l a vie eternelle.” [Actes, I, p. 112.] A l l the liberal delegates agreed on this point; see also p. 146, p. 154, p. 158.

20Grotius’s comment was exceedingly perspicacious: “Testard and Amyraut [two French liberals of the second generation] do nothing more than varnish over bad doctrines with fair words; and they take away with the one hand whatever they have been compelled by the light of the Scripture to deliver with the other.” Quoted in James Nichols, Calvinism and Arminianism compared in their Principles and Tendency (London, 1824), I, p. 231.

21Actes, I, p. 149; p. 158. For a different interpretation ofthe theologians from Bremen and some useful information concerning their activities at Dordrecht, v. Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus, III, “Orthodoxie und Synkretismus in der altprotestantischen Theologie. Fortsetzung: Die reformierte Theologie des 16. un des 17 Jahrhunderts in ihrer Entstehung und Entwicklung” (Gottingen, 1926), pp. 396-402.

22The delegation which contained the most famous of all the rigid conservatives at the Synod, Frangois Gomar stated that I. The value and merit of Christ’s death was sufficient to have saved a l l of Adam’s posterity. I I . It was undoubtedly the intention of both God and Christ to pay this great ransom. III. ” E t jamais aucun Orthodoxe n’a nié qu’il ne faille indifféremment annoncer aux Chr6tiens et à quiconque I’Evangile est préché, cette rançon

de Christ, comme telle, et qu’elle doit être offerte au nom de Christ très serieusement et selon le conseil du Pere laissant cependant à Dieu, qui dispense cette grâce, et qui l’applique jusque où et à ceux q u’il veut, ses jugements occultes et secrets.” I V . That, efficiently, Christ died to save the elect. Actes, II, pp. 100-101.] The liberals were supported even more strongly by the delegates from Hesse. [Actes, I, p. 125.]

23Letter in Acta, I, pp. 395-411. Though resolutely particularist, even he momentarily gave the appearance of coming quite close to hypothetical universalism in the following paragraph (p. 4 0 3 ) : “Christum ergo, pro omnibus esse mortuum, hoc sensu verum est, nempe Christi mortem sufficientem esse, ad servandos quoslibet credentes: imo et abunde suffecturam ad servandos omnes homines, si quotquot sunt in toto orbe homines, in eum

crederent. Quod autem omnes non servantur, causam esse non in insufBcientia mortis Christi, sed in hominis pravitate et incredulitate. Deniq; eodem modo potest dici, Christum morte sua reconciliare omnes homines Deo, quo dicimus, solem illustrare oculos omnium hominum, quamvis multi sint caeci, multi dormientes, multi in tenebris abditi. Nempe quia, si omnes et singuli essent oculati, et vigilantes, et positi in media luce, sufBceret lux Solaris,

ad eos illustrandos.”

24Acta, I, pp. 351-353.

25Schweizer, Die Centraldogmen, I I , p. 1235. The main objections to Cameron at this time concerned his following Piscator on the active and passive obedience of Christ, a matter which even the conservative DuMoulin considered indifferent. His appointment at Saumur was approved by the Synod of Ales, which also gave approval to the Canons of Dordrecht. DuMoulin was moderator. (Aymon, Tous les Synodes nationaux, II, p. 2 0 5 ; David Blondel, Actes Authentiques, pp. 15-16.)

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One comment


This is a good line by the English delegates as referenced in footnote #15 above:

“Now there is nothing false or feigned in the Gospel, so anything that is offered or promised to men therein by the ministers of God, they are in the same manner provided and promised by him who is the author of the Gospel.” [The French: Or il n’y a rien de faux ou de feint en I’Evangile, ains tout ce qui est offert ou promis aux hommes en iceluy par les ministres de Dieu, leur est en l a même manière offert et promis par celui qui est auteur de I’Evangile]

November 20th, 2010 at 11:53 am

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