May 29, 2019, marks the 500th anniversary of the final session of the months-long Synod of Dort which was in session from November 13, 1618–May 29, 1619. The Synod of Dort, along with the Westminster Assembly (1643–1648), were the two most important events in Reformed theology in the 17th century and their doctrinal statements continue to guide Reformed churches to this day.
This is the first of a three-part article, “The Synod of Dort and the Extent of the Atonement,” which will post this week on my blog.
These three posts are excerpts (minus most of the footnotes for ease of read and space considerations plus some explanatory remarks in brackets) from my section on the Synod of Dort in The Extent of the Atonement: A Historical and Critical Review (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 149–162.
The popular perception today, especially among the so-called new Calvinists, is that limited atonement was enshrined at Dort. Such is not the case.
The Remonstrants created such a stir that Dutch authorities finally determined to call a national synod held at Dort to address the issues. The Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly in England were the two most significant religious events of the seventeenth century for the Reformed movement.
At first, the Remonstrants were allowed to attend the early meetings of the synod, but then they were systematically excluded from participation and their doctrines were considered without the benefit of their presence for dialogue or cross-examination. Additional evidence that the deck was stacked against the Arminians at Dort was that Ames, a strict high Calvinist who employed the revised Lombardian formula, actually served as the private secretary to the president of the synod. The concluding report of the synod condemned the Remonstrants and their doctrines. [As a result, some two hundred Arminian pastors were deprived of their right to serve the churches, many were forced into exile, and van Oldenbarnevelt was decapitated.]
Godfrey pointed out that the Remonstrants viewed the love of God in a twofold manner: God’s love that was antecedent to salvation and his love for believers subsequent to salvation. This reflected the Arminian understanding of the order of God’s decrees. Without denying election, but defining it differently than orthodox Calvinism and placing the decree of election after the decree to send Christ as redeemer, the logical result was universal atonement.
Furthermore, the Remonstrants argued that unlimited atonement was nothing new in Reformed theology, and they appealed to Calvin, Zanchi, Bullinger, Musculus, and Gwalther, all of whom, as we have seen, affirmed a form of unlimited atonement.
The Contra-Remonstrants denied that Christ died for all, except in the sense that his death was sufficient for all. As we have seen, some within the Reformed camp agreed with the Arminians that Christ’s death satisfied for the sins of all people and thus was extrinsically sufficient. But most understood this sufficiency only in an intrinsic sense. For example, William Ames made use of the Lombardian formula but defined sufficiency to mean only an infinite intrinsic sufficiency [the death of Christ could have satisfied for the sins of all people had go so intended for it to do so, but in fact it only satisfied for the sins of the elect].
The single, most disputed issue among the Reformed delegates at the Synod of Dort concerned the extent of the atonement. Some of the delegates agreed with the Remonstrants that the death of Christ satisfied for the sins of all people and thus rejected the concept that Christ died for the sins of the elect only. [Approximately one-fourth of the delegates at Dort held to an unlimited atonement. Approximately one-third of the delegates at Westminster held to unlimited atonement.]
The history of this debate within the synod is fascinating in itself. It should be noted that the synod did not include all of the Reformed churches (the Reformed Church of Anhalt was not invited), nor were the Lutheran churches invited. The synod was not a council of the Protestant churches of Europe or even of the Reformed Church of Europe but a national Dutch synod to which various Reformed theologians from various parts of Europe were invited.
Final agreement on the Canons of Dort only occurred as a result of the final committee’s deliberate ambiguity in the modification of the language of the Second Canon on the subject of the extent of the atonement. This was done to accommodate those delegates who affirmed strict particularism [a strictly limited atonement such that Christ died for the sins of the elect alone] and those like John Davenant and members of the British and Bremen delegations who rejected strict particularism and who believed Jesus’s death paid the penalty for the sins of all humanity.
As Thomas stated the issue: “Agreement to the final articles was possible by including within them statements that were both disharmonious and unexplained.” Blacketer noted: “The issue of the extent of the atonement was certainly the most difficult and contentious matter the Synod faced. Formulating the final statement on this issue took a great deal of debate and compromise.”
James Richards likewise noted: “Yet, in the Synod of Dort, there were many able advocates for the doctrine that Christ died for all, in the only sense in which it is contended for now, by that part of the Calvinistic school who plead for a general propitiation. The delegates from England, Hesse and Bremen, were explicit in their declaration to this effect. But all were not of the same mind; and, therefore, though they agreed upon a form of words, under which every man might take shelter, still it wears the appearance of a compromise, and is not sufficiently definite to satisfy the rigid inquirer.”
Part 2 coming Wednesday.