Canons of Dort: Introduction

The “Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute in the Netherlands” is popularly known as the Canons of Dort. It consists of statements of doctrine adopted by the great Synod of Dort, which met in the city of Dordrecht in 1618–19. Although this was a national synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, it had an international character, since it included twenty-six delegates from eight foreign countries.

The Synod of Dort was held in order to settle a serious controversy in the Dutch churches occasioned by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theology professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of Calvin and his followers on a number of important points. After Arminius’s death, his followers presented their views on five of these points in the Remonstrance, or “protest,” of 1610. In this document and in later, more explicit writings, the Arminians taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace. In the Canons, the Synod of Dort rejected these views and set forth the Reformed doctrine on these points. In terms of strict accuracy, the Canons fit uncomfortably under the slogans: unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. These abbreviated phrases fail to capture the breadth of the Canons’ teachings.

The five “heads” (topics) in the Canons, divided into four parts, treat (1) “Divine Election and Reprobation,” (2) “Christ’s Death and Human Redemption through It,” (3–4) “Human Corruption, Conversion to God, and the Way It Occurs,” and (5) “The Perseverance of the Saints.”

The first topic, in treating unconditional election, begins with the fallen condition of human beings, who are under the penalty of death as sin’s curse. However, God, according to his loving-kindness, saves all who believe in Christ through the preaching of the gospel. Although man has only himself to blame for his sin, salvation is the free gift of God. As a gift, salvation is grounded in God’s gracious election of sinners, which is according to his good pleasure. Being unchangeable and eternal, divine election provides assurance to believers as they experience its fruits in their lives, namely faith in Christ, sorrow over sin, and thirst for righteousness. The Canons briefly touch on the decree of reprobation as a divine passing over, a nonelection, so that God leaves such persons “in the common misery into which, by their own fault, they have plunged themselves.” Divine nonaction, then, leaves them in their unbelief, and divine action condemns them eternally for their sin. Moreover, this topic aims to console godly parents whose children die at a tender age, such that, in view of the covenant of grace, they “ought not to doubt the election and salvation” of such children.

The Canons, in the second topic, accent the efficacious character of Christ’s sacrifice as a full and perfect satisfaction for sin, “of infinite value and worth,” “sufficient to atone for the sins of the whole world.” This sufficiency undergirds the Canons’ teaching that the gospel must be preached to all people. Since sinners cannot satisfy for their own sins for salvation, “God in his boundless mercy has given us as a guarantee, his only begotten Son, who was made to be sin and a curse for us, in our place, on the cross, in order that he might give satisfaction for us.” The fault that some people remain in their unbelief resides in them. Grace is grounded in Christ from eternity, and Christ’s death is efficacious for the elect alone. According to his eternal love, the elect are gathered together as God’s church, “founded on Christ’s blood.”

The next topic, heads three and four together, takes up a subject touched on earlier, namely human corruption. Man has fallen from his original state, and now suffers “blindness, terrible darkness, futility, and distortion of judgment in his mind; perversity, defiance, and hardness in his heart and will; and finally impurity in all his emotions.” This corruption has spread to all of Adam’s progeny. As such, all people are “born children of wrath, unfit for any saving good, inclined to evil, dead in their sins, and slaves to sin”; without the gift of rebirth and renewal, they are neither willing nor able to fellowship with God or reform their brokenness. They cannot even dispose themselves to such reform. God, however, effects healing through the gospel, by the operation of the Holy Spirit. As such, the call of the gospel calls “seriously” all who hear it. The blame and responsibility for failing to heed this call resides with sinners. Conversion, on the other hand, is a divine work, wherein God effectually calls the elect to faith and repentance, and that by means of the “effective operation of the … regenerating Spirit.” Thus, we should pray for the lost, since God is wholly able to bring the dead to life.

The last topic examines the perseverance of the saints. Believers are set free from “the reign and slavery of sin,” but they are not yet entirely free, in this life, from “the flesh” and “from the body of sin.” Although believers still struggle with sin, God does not abandon them, so that they must fend for themselves. Rather, God continues to strengthen and preserve believers in faith, even when they experience periods of straying from his will and fall into monstrous sins. God never forsakes his elect. He never allows them to permanently forfeit grace. He always brings them back to repentance and faith, so that they live according to the gospel. Meanwhile, assurance of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life is also a matter of faith—grounded in God’s promises and strengthened by the believer’s walk of obedience. Such assurance is an incentive to godliness.

The Canons have a special character because they were originally a judicial decision on the doctrinal points in dispute during the Arminian controversy. The original preface called them a “judgment, in which both the true view, agreeing with God’s Word, concerning the aforesaid five points of doctrine is explained, and the false view, disagreeing with God’s Word, is rejected.” The Canons also have a limited character in that they do not cover the whole range of doctrine, but focus on the five points of doctrine in dispute.

Each of the main points consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, and the latter being a repudiation of the corresponding errors. In the text presented here, each of the errors being rejected is shaded in gray.

The translation of the Canons presented here is based on the only extant Latin manuscript among those signed at the Synod of Dort.1 The biblical quotations are translations from the original Latin, and so do not always correspond to current versions. Though not in the original text, subheadings have been added to the positive articles and to the conclusion in order to facilitate study of the Canons.

1The translation, with minor emendations, can be found in Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, edited by Pelikan and Hotchkiss, vol. 2. See De Nederlandsche Belijdenisgeschriften, edited by Bakhuizen van den Brink, pp. 218–273.