Question: "What was the Synod of Dort?"
Answer: The Synod of Dort (also called the Synod of Dordt or the Synod of Dordrecht) was a church council that convened in 1618 in Dordrecht, the Netherlands, to settle a dispute between two theological factions in the Dutch Reformed Church. The Synod of Dort has had a lasting impact on theology, as it was this synod that produced the summarized version of John Calvin’s teachings known today as the Five Points of Calvinism.
On one side of the dispute in the Synod of Dort were the Arminians (also known as the Remonstrants) who followed the teachings of Jacobus Arminius. On the other side were the Calvinists (Counter-Remonstrants) who held true to the Reformed teachings of John Calvin. These two theological systems became nationalized, and Holland was split in two. The Synod of Dort was to bring resolution to the conflict. Representatives of the Reformed Church from eight foreign countries were invited to the synod, and church leaders from Great Britain, Germany, and Switzerland attended.
From 1568 to 1648, Holland was in a long struggle with Spain, trying to gain independence from the rule of King Philip II, who was the sovereign of what was then called the Habsburg Netherlands. In 1581, the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands (the Dutch Republic) was formed, a significant step toward Dutch independence. However, there were still decades of conflict ahead between the Dutch and the Spanish. In the middle of this conflict came the rise of Arminianism, a theological system that emphasized man’s free will in salvation and rejected Calvinist doctrines, which emphasized God’s sovereignty in salvation. John Calvin’s teachings were rejected by the followers of Jacobus Arminius in their Five Articles of Remonstrance. The followers of Arminius were called “the Remonstrants” after this document. A pamphlet war began between the Remonstrants (Arminians) and the Counter-Remonstrants (Calvinists) that actually split the country. The Netherlands had no separation of church and state; what you believed politically was connected to what you believed theologically. Naturally, the theological split led also to a political split, and a rumor began that the Arminians were in league with Spain.
A statesman by the name of Johan van Oldenbarnevelt sided with the Remonstrants in the name of religious tolerance. He helped the Arminians propose a national synod to justify their views as valid. The Calvinists refused, saying that it should be only a church synod, without involving the government. The Arminians refused that idea, and things escalated until both sides were militarized. The Dutch Republic backed the Counter-Remonstrants, and the States of Holland, under the leadership of van Oldenbarnevelt, supported the Arminians and formed their own small defense force of 4,000 men called waardgelders (“mercenaries in the pay of the town government”).
Eventually, the Calvinists agreed to the Arminians’ proposal for a national synod, and the Synod of Dort was held in 1618–19. The Arminians presented a list of reasons why Calvinism was wrong, apparently in an effort to gain votes for their side. The Calvinists argued that, since the Remonstrants were departing from the Dutch Reformed Church, they had to justify their beliefs using Scripture. The Arminians did not like this plan and chose to withdraw from the proceedings. The leaders of the Reformed Church examined the five points put forward by the Arminians, compared them to Scripture, and found them lacking. Finding no scriptural support for the position of Arminius, the Synod of Dort unanimously rejected Arminianism.
But the Synod of Dort went further than simply taking a stand against Arminianism; the delegates drafted their own five points to summarize Calvinistic doctrine, and the Canons of Dort published for the first time the Five Points of Calvinism. Other achievements of the Synod of Dort include the writing of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. Also, the synod ordered a new translation of the Dutch Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek.
The Synod of Dort was a decisive victory for orthodox Reformed doctrine, but, given the alliance of church and state and the political turmoil of the time, the aftermath of the Synod of Dort was less than ideal. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt was beheaded as a traitor to the state, and the Arminians were ordered to sign the Act of Cessation, which was an agreement to stop their ministry. They refused to sign it, were labeled “disturbers of the peace,” and ejected from their homeland. Van Oldenbarnevelt’s sons then attempted to assassinate Prince Maurice but failed. In 1625, after the death of Maurice, the Arminians were allowed to return to the Netherlands, and they established churches and schools throughout the country.
The Synod of Dort remains one of the most influential church councils of history. The sad aftermath of the synod is a good warning against having a national or state-sponsored church and a reminder that Jesus’ followers are not to defend Jesus’ doctrine with the sword (see John 18:36).