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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 Twelvehere 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.

*****

Finally, probably my two favorite portions of Dort–

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!

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

14 Comments

  • Nancy Ryan says:

    Thanks Steve! This is useful and sheds light on the positive pieces of Dort.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Loved it as usual. Where did you get the Calvinist Romance pictures?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Can’t exactly remember. Found them online somewhere. I wonder if they’re “real”–actual pulp fiction, or more likely just humorous covers. Might be good wall art in a pastor’s study?

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    It’s true that TULIP fails as a summary. But who would ever remember the proper ordering of ULTIP?

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      I believe that the “decoupling” of Dort and TULIP is about more than the Canons are not actually laid out in TULIP order. It is .that TULIP is not really a fair representation of Dort, let alone an accurate portrayal of reformed theology more broadly.

      • RLG says:

        TULIP may not be a fair representation of the Canons, but is likely a fair representation of John Calvin, who most see as a foundational character of the Reformed Biblical view.

    • Tom Eggebeen says:

      Hee hee … for sure …

  • David E Timmer says:

    I attended the Dort conference at Dordt College – very worthwhile, with much emphasis on what might be called the “catholicity” of its doctrine of grace. Dordt president Eric Hoekstra noted that Richard Mouw, one of the conference organizers, wanted to entitle it The PROMISCUOUS Love of God. “I vetoed that,” he joked. But it is interesting to see the doctrine of sovereign grace wielded like a hammer against our parochialisms.

  • James Schaap says:

    Let me just echo David Timmer. While I’m no theologian and thus not deeply engaged by old doctrinal truth (or not), I must say, without prejudice (having been retired from Dordt College–now University–for seven years), that the institution down the road with which I was affiliated did spectacularly well with the “Prodigal Love” conference. Speakers were just plain excellent. Of course, I missed some presentations since (beware the green-eyed monster!) I must admit to having spent most of Friday tearing up Sioux County’s gravel roads with Marilynne Robinson, giving her a tour of some wonderful old stories.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Steve, for enlightening us as to the Canons of Dort or election and its corresponding doctrines. If only the Canons were originally expressed the way you have presented them, there would be much less disagreement over the unsavory aspects of the Canons. Possibly Arminius and his ragtag band of followers would have even been on board with the Synod of Dort. Thing is, since Dort there have been many followers of Dort (like yourself) who have tried to soften the sting of its corresponding doctrines. And there have been those who claim to be Calvinist, but only four point, three point, or two point Calvinists. I think the original authors were trying to paint a picture of God, a picture of God who is both gracious and sovereign, a God who has the right and power to do as he pleases with his kingdom.

    Someone recently asked if Donald Trump is the person, or kind of person, you want to represent you as your president? When considering the Canons, you might ask if the God presented in the Canons is the kind of God you want representing you? Historically, most Christians have said, no. Most have followed Arminius (or a blend). And I think you may be saying the same thing. So let’s look for ways we can manipulate the Canons and the Bible to present a softer idea of God. Obviously, you have not particularly appreciated the historic picture of God as seen through most people’s (including theologians) understanding of Dort. And we are seeing much of the same sentiment in some of these recent conferences. The question might be, can we manipulate Scripture to paint a more pleasant God to represent us and to represent the world? But then what would that say about our infallible Bible or its contradictory nature? Thanks Steve for your picture of God or attempt to explain the Canon’s picture of God.

  • Mark Ennis says:

    I never figure out why people were uncomfortable with Dort. Whenever I have read it, I always found it very comforting. I’m glad that my salvation isn’t dependent on my goodness.

  • RLG says:

    Mark, do you also find it comforting that God, although providing a payment for sin that is sufficient for all of humanity, only chooses some for salvation? And the “some” he chooses for salvation were no better than the rest that he damns for eternity. In fact, if the notion of God’s sovereign grace is correct, we may well see the likes of Adolph Hitler in heaven because God is a gracious and forgiving God, while at the same time seeing people who we consider to be very good being damned to hell for eternity. Comfort indeed, but only if you are uncaring enough to realize that God is not gracious to all, but only to the few (“many are called but few are chosen”).

  • Fred Mueller says:

    That comment was pure Steve M-W: “Seems to have empirical backing.” Well done. Also I have found as I have gotten older that I can swallow hard and accept that God might actually be using those celebrity preachers to reach hearts, much as it fails to have my approval. I have actually seen it in some of my church members. I attended the NBTS celebration. It was five hours well spent. One hour on each point? I think not. The systematics professor from WTS, Suzanne, was a riot! I look forward to more good stuff from her. Her students are fortunate to have her.

  • Tom Eggebeen says:

    Being in the PCUSA, it’s been many a decade (I grew up in the RCA/CRC world) since I considered Dort, so thanks for your comments. If we can take a document historically, discerning, or trying to, the issues they engaged, it’s easier to identify that which endures, and that which needs to be set aside for consideration at another time. The problem with creeds, and such, is that we’ve enshrined them with divine protection – as if they were, in fact, more than a human effort to be faithful, and sometimes a human effort to destroy the “enemy.” Anyway, thanks for a reminder of Dort, and, what with its strife and fury, the value it yet obtains.

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