How did the Canons of Dort come to be?
The Canons of Dort were written in the midst of a political and theological conflict in the Netherlands that threatened to become a civil war. Factions were fighting over the topic of election—in particular, whether people had free will to accept or reject salvation, or whether salvation was pure grace.
The Synod of Dort settled it. Through the winter of 1618 and into the spring of 1619, delegates from the Netherlands and from Reformed churches in other countries met and, among other things, clarified the Reformed teaching of salvation and the working of God’s grace. They expressed the belief that humans don’t have the capacity to even want salvation without the Holy Spirit first implanting that desire in us as an act of grace.
What was the original purpose of the Canons of Dort?
The Canons of Dort, or more formally The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands, are not an abstract theological treatise. Not only were the canons written in response to the day’s hot-button issue, but they also were designed to be used by pastors in the local church. They include suggestions for teaching a congregation about election and reassurances for parents whose infant children have died.
The canons aren’t intended to be a summation of all Reformed doctrine. More like a footnote to the Belgic Confession, they serve as further explanation to some of its points. Perhaps better known as the five points of Calvinism, or TULIP, those points are total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and preservation of the saints, though they are organized differently in the document.
A few notes about the Canons of Dort as they appear here:
- You’ll see four sections, but the canons actually respond to the five articles of the 1610 Remonstrance, which spells out the opposing view. The writers combined their response to the third and fourth articles, calling it “the Third and Fourth Main Points of Doctrine.”
- Each of the main points consists of two parts: an explanation of the Reformed doctrine on the subject and a rejection of the opposing view. The RCA doesn’t give confessional status to the Rejection of Errors, but because they help interpret the canons, the text is included.
- The biblical quotations are translations from the original Latin and don’t correspond to current versions of the Bible.
- Though not in the original text, subheadings have been added to the articles and to the conclusion to make it more readable.
How do the Canons of Dort apply to us today?
At 400 years old, the Canons of Dort might seem like ancient history. Thankfully, they’re anything but.
Written in the midst of a conflict that threatened to tear the Netherlands apart, they insisted that salvation was pure grace. That’s a truth we still need to hear.
Canons of Dort Devotions
- Part 4: Our security in God