Today marks the 500th anniversary of the final meeting of the months-long Synod of Dort. This post is the second of a three-part post taken from my book The Extent of the Atonement.
Dort’s “Second Head of Doctrine—the Death of Christ, and the Redemption of Men Thereby” stated the following in Articles 3, 5, 6, and 8, and these are the key points relative to our discussion:
Article 3. The death of the Son of God is the only and most perfect sacrifice and satisfaction for sin; and is of infinite worth and value, abundantly sufficient to expiate the sins of the whole world.
Article 5. Moreover, the promise of the gospel is, that whosoever believeth in Christ crucified, shall not perish, but have everlasting life. This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be declared and published to all nations, and to all persons promiscuously and without distinction, to whom God out of his good pleasure sends the gospel.
Article 6. And, whereas many who are called by the gospel, do not repent, nor believe in Christ, but perish in unbelief; this is not owing to any defect or insufficiency in the sacrifice offered by Christ upon the cross, but is wholly to be imputed to themselves.
Article 8. For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confess upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment of glory in his own presence forever.
These articles were further explained by an immediately following “statement of errors,” which the synod rejected. The vital denials are found in statements 1, 3, and 6:
The true doctrine having been explained, the Synod rejects the errors of those: 1. Who teach: That God the Father has ordained his Son to the death of the cross without a certain and definite decree to save any, so that the necessity, profitableness and worth of what Christ merited by his death might have existed, and might remain in all its parts complete, perfect and intact, even if the merited redemption had never in fact been applied to any person. For this doctrine tends to the despising of the wisdom of the Father and of the merits of Jesus Christ, and is contrary to Scripture. For thus says our Saviour: “I lay down my life for the sheep, and I know them,” John 10:15, 27. And the prophet Isaiah says concerning the Saviour: “When thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of Jehovah shall prosper in his hand,” Isa. 53:10.
Finally, this contradicts the article of faith according to which we believe the Catholic Christian Church.
3. Who teach: That Christ by his satisfaction merited neither salvation itself for anyone, nor faith, whereby this satisfaction of Christ unto salvation is effectually appropriated; but that he merited for the Father only the authority or the perfect will to deal again with man, and to prescribe new conditions as he might desire, obedience to which, however, depended on the free will of man, so that it therefore might have come to pass that either none or all should fulfill these conditions. For these adjudge too contemptuously of the death of Christ, do in no wise acknowledge the most important fruit or benefit thereby gained, and bring again out of hell the Pelagian error.
6. Who use the difference between meriting and appropriating, to the end that they may instill into the minds of the imprudent and inexperienced this teaching that God, as far as he is concerned, has been minded of applying to all equally the benefits gained by the death of Christ; but that, while some obtain the pardon of sin and eternal life, and others do not, this difference depends on their own free will, which joins itself to the grace that is offered without exception, and that it is not dependent on the special gift of mercy, which powerfully works in them, that they rather than others should appropriate unto themselves this grace. For these, while they feign that they present this distinction, in a sound sense, seek to instill into the people the destructive poison of the Pelagian errors.
Note carefully what is stated in Article 8 under the Second Head of Doctrine, on the Death of Christ: “That the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect,” and “it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation, and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation.”
Here the canon is saying that Christ’s effectual redemption is designed to be accomplished for the elect only. The canon is not saying that Christ’s redemptive work was accomplished only for the elect. Furthermore, there is nothing in the denials that would undercut this reading. This is how Davenant and the other delegates who affirmed universal atonement could sign the documents in good faith. What is formally affirmed is that the death of Christ is actually effective only for the elect. What is formally denied is the Arminian understanding of the intent of the atonement—that is, that Christ died equally for all (note the use of the word “equally” in denial 6 above). What is not formally denied is that Christ died for the sins of all with respect to extent. Again, one must recognize that the early Reformed made a clear distinction between the intent to apply the atonement and its extent. Later particularists [those who held to limited atonement] conflated the intent to apply with the extent and viewed them as co-extensive. Hypothetical Universalists [those among the Reformed who held to universal atonement] did not view the intent to apply and extent co-extensively.
Although today the denials are rarely listed with the Second Head of Doctrine, on the Death of Christ, in the Canons of Dort, according to Sinnema, the drafting committee of the final documents used the term “Canons” to refer only to the denials. The positive articles, what have come to be known as the “Canons of Dort,” were folded into the final document in order to support the denials.
Thus, it is vital to interpret the Canons of Dort in the light of the denials. When this is done, it becomes even clearer that though the majority of delegates personally were committed to limited atonement, the final canons were written with sufficient ambiguity so as not to enshrine limited atonement as the “official” position of Dort.