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Synod of Dort

Held in 1618-19 in the Netherlands town of Dort (Dordrecht), the synod produced the Canons of Dort, one of the doctrinal standards of the Dutch Reformed Church. It affirms the orthodox Calvinist position on predestination and related issues, and was directed against the Remonstrants or Arminians, who wanted a statement which allowed some role for the human will. Arminius died in 1609; in 1610 his followers issued the Remonstrance* against the orthodox insistence on unconditioned predestination; in 1611 a Counter-Remonstrance reiterated the orthodox stand; and bitter controversy flared.

Apart from predestination, other issues became involved: the Remonstrants wanted a tolerant church, but one under state supervision, which the Contra-Remonstrants saw as an attack on the independence of the church. Even worse, political issues became entangled with theological passions. After the assassination of William the Silent (1584), two leaders emerged to carry on the fight against Spain: William's son Maurice, the stadhouder and military leader, and Jan van Oldenbarneveldt, the statesman. By 1609 a truce with Spain was arranged, and the two leaders drifted into disagreement. Maurice favored a strong centralized government to carry on the war of liberation; Oldenbarneveldt, controlling the province of Holland, wanted provincial autonomy and peace. Oldenbarneveldt supported the Remonstrants, and Maurice the Contra-Remonstrants. The political struggle escalated, and when Oldenbarneveldt raised a provincial militia under his control, Maurice sent in the army and arrested him (he was later executed for treason). It was in this situation that Dort convened. Maurice's victory meant, among other things, that the churches elected Contra-Remonstrant delegates; the Remonstrants, who had hoped for Oldenbarneveldt's powerful support, faced a synod packed against them.

Called by the Estates-General, the synod included delegates elected by the synods of the various provinces. Also present as advisers were delegates from Calvinist churches in England and Scotland (James I was strongly anti-Remonstrant), and in the German states; French Calvinists were invited, but were forbidden (by Louis XIII) to attend. The Estates-General chose five theological professors and eighteen commissioners, also to give advice. The regular delegates numbered fifty-six. The synod took the position that it was convened to judge whether the Remonstrant position was in accord with the Calvinist confessions, and cited Episcopius and other Remonstrant leaders to appear before it. Despite Remonstrant protests that the issue was whether the confessions should be revised, synod proceeded. Episcopius denounced the synod as unqualified and unrepresentative, and he refused to cooperate.

Judging the Remonstrants by their writings, then, the synod not surprisingly concluded that they were not orthodox. The Canons were written to summarize the orthodox position against the Remonstrants, and affirmed total depravity (i.e., man, after the Fall, cannot choose to serve God), unconditional election (God's choice of the elect is not conditioned on any action by them), limited atonement (Christ died for the elect only, since those He died for are saved), irresistible grace (divine grace cannot be rejected by the elect), and perseverance of the saints (once elect, always elect). The Canons were adopted as one of the standards of the Dutch Reformed Church.

Remonstrant ministers were ousted from their pulpits, and Remonstrant leaders ousted from the country (by the Estates- General, as disturbers of the peace). The synod ended with a banquet (9 May 1619), celebrating the triumph of Calvinist orthodoxy. Oldenbarneveldt was executed shortly afterward.

See D. Nobbs, Theocracy and Toleration: A Study of the Disputes in Dutch Calvinism, 1600-1650 (1938).