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written by A C
In case you missed it, last year marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. It was half a millennium ago when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the Wittenberg church and galvanized the effort to recover the true gospel of Jesus Christ from the clutches of a corrupt Roman Catholic system. There was much excitement and attention, and rightly so, given to remembering one of the most important events in church history.
When asked last year what counsel he would give to someone suffering from Reformation celebration fatigue, one church historian wittily remarked: “It will soon be over, and then you’ll miss it. But the really good news is: [in 2018] we’ll begin to celebrate the writing of the Canons of Dort.”
First drafted at the Synod (think council) of Dort in 1618, this work became the de facto document for reformed soteriology; and this year marks its 400th anniversary. If you’ve heard of the doctrines of grace, the five points of Calvinism, or the mnemonic “TULIP,” then you have been influenced by this document; for these systematized points find their heritage from Dort. If you’re unfamiliar with these terms, they can be briefly sketched out as follows:
- Total depravity – Man’s fallenness as a result of Adam’s sin extends to every aspect of his being (Rom 3:10-12, 1 Cor 2:14)
- Unconditional Election – God predestined the elect to salvation not based on any inherent quality or action in man, but out of His sheer mercy and sovereign choice (Rom 9:11-16, 2 Tim 1:9, Eph 1:4-10)
- Limited Atonement – The death of Christ made particular satisfaction for the sins of the elect (Jn 10:11-15, Ac 20:28)
- Irresistible Grace – God efficaciously gives grace to those whom he elects so they will be saved (Jn 6:37)
- Perseverance of the Saints – Those whom God has intended to save will ultimately be glorified (Jn 10:27-29, Rom 8:28-39, Phil 1:6)
Discussions over these theological points have already caused the oxygen levels on this planet to dramatically decline, so they won’t be dealt with here. Instead, let’s take a step back to ask a bigger question: what do the Canons of Dort as a whole teach us? Simply put, to love the discipline of historical theology.
Historical theology is the study of the development of Christian doctrine over time. Certainly this includes events in church history; but more than just names, dates and places this discipline specifically traces how certain teachings in the Christian church came to be. Here’s what we can learn from Dort:
- Dort demonstrates that the development of doctrine is always occasional. The great creeds and canons in church history were never a recreational byproduct of ivory tower theologians, nor did they occur in a vacuum; and Dort is no exception. Responding to the errors of the teachings of Jacobus Arminius and the Remonstrants (known as “Arminianism”), the Dutch Reformed Church along with several international delegates felt it was necessary to call a synod to address the matter on how God relates to man in salvation. It was through practical, pastoral concern–not rambling theologoumena–that this document was drafted.
- Dort teaches us how to articulate the gospel. What kind of language should we use to speak about God’s provision of salvation through Jesus Christ, or about man’s ability to receive salvation from God? How should we talk about the nature and extent of Jesus Christ’s death? What kind of language shouldn’t we use? These were some of the questions that the Reformed church had to answer 400 years ago; and their response still proves to be quite instructive for us today.
- Dort points us to Scripture, not a theological system. The five major points crafted at Dort were not at all meant to construct a comprehensive theological system. Rather, they were issued as a Scriptural response to five specific objections raised by the Arminians. Had the Arminians divided up their complaints into eight points, we would have “the eight points of Calvinism” today. The point (no pun intended) is that Dort invites us to consider Scripture, not a system–as much as that can be helpful in summarizing Biblical truth.
- Dort shows us the importance of not just being “biblical,” but “biblically accurate.” It is not as if the arguments of Arminius were devoid of Scripture–he quoted the Bible and had his bag of proof texts. The issue comes with how he interprets those Bible verses to construct his theology. The response from Dort highlights the need for proper and accurate Biblical interpretation in every period of church history–and that need is still prevalent today.
- Dort encourages us to appreciate the work of those who came before us. The Christian vernacular we use today is often the result of the ministry of faithful, godly churchmen who came before us. We stand behind a long line of saints who have wrestled with understanding Scripture, and should recognize this and praise God that we can reap the fruit of their labors for our spiritual enrichment and edification.
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