In an odd, little corner of the world that I sometimes inhabit, people are celebrating the four-hundredth anniversary of the close of the Synod of Dort. I don’t believe they’re celebrating that it finally ended.
Actually, I’m late to the party. Dordt College and New Brunswick Seminary both held very interesting events. I wasn’t able to attend, but they looked excellent. The titles of the conferences are telling enough. Dordt’s was “The Prodigal Love of God,” while New Brunswick’s was “400 Years After Dort: Owning It and Letting It Go.”
It is not hard to find fault, or at least be uncomfortable with the Canons of the Synod of Dort–even though it is a doctrinal standard for both the Reformed and Christian Reformed churches. I’ve written on Dort and election before here on The Twelve—here and here.
Dort has been compared to that crazy uncle every family has. Most of the time you ignore him, maybe chuckle behind his back. When you actually have to encounter him, you probably roll your eyes in frustration and embarrassment. Still, once in a while you say, “He is my uncle, afterall. And somewhere there is a good heart beating in him.”
As of late, there’s been a concerted push by reformed theologians, to decouple Dort from the (in)famous TULIP. While TULIP may be memorable, it is a forced and inaccurate depiction of Dort. It’s also said that Dort is a great example of why you should never allow the template or main points of your opponent’s argument to determine your reply. In responding directly to the Remonstrants’ points rather than developing their own structure, the framers of Dort were in a corner before they began–or so it is contended.
One phrase in Dort that always jars me is “election is the source of every saving good.” (I.9). Really? We want to say that about election? I’d be happy to say that about Jesus Christ. God’s love and grace might also fit that description. But election is the source of every saving good? This feels like the sort of blunder one makes in the heat of debate.
Unfortunately this over-acclaim and fascination with election has become the caricature of reformed theology. Election becomes the lens through which we look at everything. This leads to the cold, isolated, and arbitrary god that we reformed folk are so often associated with–as well as the cold, isolated, and elitist people we apparently often are. How instead to have a warm, active, incarnated, bloodied, tenacious, near-at-hand, pulling-with-us God?
Dort seems like the tail (election) is wagging the dog (God’s grace in Jesus Christ). Thankfully in some places Dort does better and Christ does play a prominent role. Still, Christ’s appearances in Dort seem sporadic.
But enough on Dort’s foibles. When I re-read it, I’m struck by the pastoral tone and wisdom that wafts through it. Pastoral and Dort? Yes, I think so. And for me, some of these warm nods make the prickly parts less painful
- Those who are unsure of their faith “ought not be alarmed” or presume they are among the reprobate. Instead, they are to continue to use the means of grace–worship, scripture, sacraments. And those who are unable to make much “progress along the way of godliness” are reminded that a smoldering wick God does not snuff out and bruised reed will not be broken. (I.16)
- Children who die in infancy are presumed elect. Parents should draw comfort in this. (I.17)
- While Dort was overlaid with Dutch nationalism, I appreciate the line “every people, tribe, nation, and language” are among redeemed (II.8)
- When I read “we are to think and speak in the most favorable way about those who outwardly profess their faith and better their lives, for the inner chambers of the heart are unknown to us.” I feel a bit chastened. At least temporarily I am a little slower to dismiss so many celebrity Christians. (III/IV.15)
- Believers can commit “serious, outrageous and monstrous” sins and “sometimes lose the awareness of grace for a time.” (V.4). Seems to have empirical backing.
- Believers “do not always experience this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance” (V.11). A rather honest statement.
- It is incorrect to say that Dort’s teachings presume that “the greatest part of the world” has been damned. (conclusion)
What I hear in many of these statements is a decidedly pre-modern, distrust of individual human experience and external evaluation. Instead, there is a humble, grateful trust in something larger than and prior to the self.
Coming to trust in Jesus, is “not less than or inferior in power to that of creation or raising the dead.” (III/IV.12). Regeneration is God’s greatest work, God’s greatest gift. The new creation begun on the morning of eighth day is no less amazing than creation. The gift of new life is as sublime as life itself. The story we call “the raising of Lazarus” might better be called “the raising of Martha”–Yes, Lord. I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.
Second, “regeneration does not act in people as if they were blocks and stones; nor does it abolish the will and its properties or coerce a reluctant will by force, but spiritually revives, heals, reforms, and–in a manner at once pleasing and powerful–bends it back.” I’m struck by the energetic, even volitional, tone of the verbs Dort uses to describe human activity–both positive and negative human acts. God is powerful but not a steamroller, not a bully. And people are weak, but still active.
It’s probably too late now for the 400th anniversary, but I wish someone would attempt a “What Dort Meant to Say.” Or like Eugene Peterson’s The Message paraphrase of the Bible, maybe there could be something similar for Dort–lighter and user-friendly.
Dort is a crazy uncle. But he’s our uncle. Happy birthday to you!