An Arminian View of the Synod of Dort
Calvinists have longed pointed out that at the Synod of Dort, Arminianism was condemned as heretical and Calvinism was affirmed. Robert Lightner, for example, writes, “The views of the Remonstrance were rejected as heretical at a National Synod of Dort 1618-1619. The Synod also set out to present the true Calvinistic teaching in regard to the five matters called into question. They started what we know today as the five points of Calvinism.” The five points of Calvinism that we now have in the acronym TULIP finds its origins at the Synod of Dort in reply to the Remonstrance who brought five charges before the Synod in their seeking of a revision of the Beglic Confession and Heidelberg Confessions of Faith.
I have written before that had Arminius lived, I think he would have offered an excellent defense for his views. Bear in mind that Arminius did not feel that he was working for change outside of Calvinism but within. Arminius, in fact, appealed to both Scripture and to the early Church Fathers for proof that the Calvinistic views of his day were not the teachings of the Church (although modern Calvinists like to think that Paul the Apostle was a Calvinist). Arminius came to his conclusions not out of rebellion to Calvinism but he came to his views from two sources. First, Arminius was asked by Beza and the Calvinists in Geneva to defend their views against the Anabaptists. Arminius came to agree with the Anabaptists on many issues in the process of his studies. Second, Arminius begin to differ with the popular teaching of the day that the man of Romans 7 was a regenerated man. From here (Romans 7), Arminius begin to differ with Calvinism of his day and this led to his exegesis of Romans 9-11 that finally led to the Remonstrances bringing their desires to change the confessions of faith to avoid the teachings of Calvin.
The rest of history about the Synod of Dort is more or less a joke. The Arminians (as they later would be called), never had a chance to either defend their views nor to make any serious discussion over changing the Confessions. Carl Bangs writes, “After the magistracy of the country was purged of its Arminian influence, it proceeded to call the long awaited national synod. It was held at Dordrecht in 1618-19, under the presidency of the Leeuwarden minister Johannes Bogerman.” The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church writes, “The controversy became mixed with political issue; the Remonstrants were supported by the powerful Oldenbarneveldt, but opposed by the stadhounder Maurice of Orange. Deprived of their chief political supporter, the Remonstrants were helpless, and the synod speedily declared their teachings erroneous.”
From the beginning of the Synod of Dort, strict Calvinists were in charge of the of the synod. John Bogerman was elected the President of the Synod. Bogerman was no saint. Bogerman started a crusade against the Anabaptists (whom he hated with a passion). He wrote, “Strike down valiantly these monsters in the guise of men” (from Samuel Fisk’s excellent work Calvinist Paths Retraced). While three Arminians were elected to take seats at the Synod, the Calvinists forced them to be removed and thus no Arminians were allowed to be on the Synod. From here the Remonstrants were summoned as criminals to appear before a court (see Bangs’ Arminius p. 279).
What followed was a joke. The Arminians were condemned from the beginning of the Synod. It was clear that since the Remonstrants were not allowed any delegates to be seated, the synod was clearly one sided. The Synod of Dort was not, as some Calvinists like to picture, believers in a hall examining major passages of Scripture and allowing time to debate those passages of Scripture but was instead a court house with lives in the balance and the Calvinists with an agenda.
The result was more than just the condemnation of Arminianism as heresy. 200 Arminian clergy were arrested and banned from preaching. All Arminian churches were ordered closed and no Arminian churches were allowed to be built. All 13 of the Remonstrants summoned were arrested. Grotius was arrested and ordered to be imprisoned for the remainder of his life. He escaped with the help of his wife in 1621. Van Olden Barneveldt was arrested, condemned, and beheaded on May 14, 1619. Philip Schaff in book The Creeds of Christendom correctly observes, “Some secular historians denounce the Synod of Dort as a Calvinistic tribunal of inquisition” (pp. 514-515).
The crux of the issue for Arminius is a point that is often overlooked. Despite his death in 1609, Arminius wanted there to be a national synod to address one major issue for him: Whether Scripture should be the supreme authority in terms of which Confession and Catechism could be revised, or whether the Confession and Catechism should be determined a priori to be so conformable to Scripture that not even Scripture could judge them. Arminius felt that the Scriptures were the judge of the Confessions and thus they can be changed if proper exegesis showed them to be in error. In other words, Calvinists of his day were taking the Confessions and Catechism and making them the judge of truth and error and Bible study was first to take the Confession and then come to the Scripture. In our day we would say taking TULIP as your confession and then using the Bible to proof-text your faith instead of allowing the Bible to judge your catechism.
Intense persecution by Calvinists toward Arminians would continue to 1630. Political changes and more religious freedom allowed for the Arminians to begin to take root.
What a sad history for Arminianism. From the beginning of our history we have had the stakes against us. Some would say that God is opposed to us. Of course we differ. Jesus said that all men would hate us if we follow Him (Matthew 5:10-12). Paul said that all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer (2 Timothy 3:12). Those who seek to be faithful to Jesus and His Word will suffer. Whether at the hands of religious people (such as the Calvinists at the Synod of Dort) or from the world. A passion for God and His Word always leads to others hating and despising us.
But we can rejoice. Romans 8:18 says that these present sufferings are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us. Van Olden Barneveldt perhaps was the first Arminian martyr for the faith but he received his full reward for his suffering for Jesus. I believe we should pray with Paul in 2 Timothy 4:8 and believe that despite suffering for Jesus, our reward is assured for those who love Jesus and His appearing.
If I could go back in time to the Synod of Dort I would tell the Remonstrants, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you in prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Revelation 2:10).