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Both Unity and Purity: The Example of the Conclusion to the Canons of Dort

14 May, 2008

In the comments on my last post, Phil and I exchanged briefly concerning both the importance of recognizing and cultivating the unity of the church of Christ, and at the same time proclaiming and defending without compromise what we believe to be the truth of scripture. In the last post I quoted John Murray (a Westminster Standards man) on ecumenical ties and unity in the body, and I think in this post it is fitting to quote the Synod of Dort on upholding and pursuing Christian unity and charity together with purity of faith and practice.

In the conclusion of the Canons of Dort (the Synod’s response to certain Arminian claims) the ministers also addressed the caricatures of the traditional Reformed understanding of salvation — especially predestination — that were floating around among those sympathetic with Arminian theology. These are all too familiar today as they were 400 years ago: Calvinism leads to antinomianism, God damns the reprobate against their will, this is Stoicism or Islam, not Christianity, and so on. What I want to look at is the way the ministers called for a balance of both purity and humility, zeal and charity, in response. Here’s an excerpt:

Wherefore, this Synod of Dordt, in the name of the Lord, conjures as many as piously call upon the name of our Savior Jesus Christ to judge of the faith of the Reformed Churches, not from the calumnies which on every side are heaped upon it, nor from the private expressions of a few among ancient and modern teachers, often dishonestly quoted, or corrupted and wrested to a meaning quite foreign to their intention; but from the public confessions of the Churches themselves, and from this declaration of the orthodox doctrine, confirmed by the unanimous consent of all and each of the members of the whole Synod. Moreover, the Synod warns calumniators themselves to consider the terrible judgment of God which awaits them, for bearing false witness against the confessions of so many Churches; for distressing the consciences of the weak; and for laboring to render suspected the society of the truly faithful.

Finally, this Synod exhorts all their brethren in the gospel of Christ to conduct themselves piously and religiously in handling this doctrine, both in the universities and churches; to direct it, as well in discourse as in writing, to the glory of the Divine name, to holiness of life, and to the consolation of afflicted souls; to regulate, by the Scripture, according to the analogy of faith, not only their sentiments, but also their language, and to abstain from all those phrases which exceed the limits necessary to be observed in ascertaining the genuine sense of the Holy Scriptures, and may furnish insolent sophists with a just pretext for violently assailing, or even vilifying, the doctrine of the Reformed Churches.

May Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who, seated at the Father’s right hand, gives gifts to men, sanctify us in the truth; bring to the truth those who err; shut the mouths of the calumniators of sound doctrine, and endue the faithful ministers of his Word with the spirit of wisdom and discretion, that all their discourses may tend to the glory of God, and the edification of those who hear them. Amen.

On one hand, we need to make sure we don’t ‘disguise’ or adulterate biblical doctrine to try to make it more palatable; we shouldn’t ‘love’ our neighbors, within or without the church, by failing to confront their sin and error (I’m preaching to myself here), and other such things that pursue peace and unity at the expense of the true peace and unity of the truth of the scriptures.

But on the other hand, do we spout off to others (such as Arminians) about how much clearer the Reformed presentation of the gospel is, while not living out of the gospel and showing the same grace? Do we matter-of-factly expound the doctrine of reprobation, while failing to demonstrate the kind of deep and self-sacrificial love of sinners that Christ has shown to us? Do we talk about how unworthy we are but show how worthy we think we are? This sort of approach clearly shows that doctrinal purity can be pursued at the expense of the unity of humble love in the body of Christ.

I think the Synod’s conclusion is one great example for us in our approach to these things. They didn’t shrink back from telling it like it is, but at the same time called themselves and each other to examine how they could best conduct themselves for the advancement of sound theology and the building up of the body, and ultimately the honour of the head, Christ.

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5 Comments
  1. 14 May, 2008 8:40 pm

    whatever course we choose should not include the furnishing of insolent sophists…

  2. 15 May, 2008 1:38 am

    I was listening to a recording of Mark Driscoll the other day, where he answered someone’s question about predestination, something to the effect of ‘How is God good if he condemns me for being like I am?’ — you know, the same guy Paul was talking to in Rom 9. Driscoll’s response was basically that the questioner needed to stop running from the living God by hiding behind fig leaves patched together out of Philosophy 101 — to stop being an insolent sophist, basically.

    ~B

  3. 15 May, 2008 9:41 am

    yes but does driscoll’s phrases exceed the necessary limits?

    chaos likes driscoll. (he could use some help with his ecclesiology…maybe…can i say that?).

  4. 15 May, 2008 1:23 pm

    In a sense, there was no unity and purity. It seems to me that the Synod of Dort with singular passionate purpose protected the purity of the doctrine by destroying the unity of the Calvinists with the Arminians whom they adjudged to be heretics and outside the Church.

    Jesus said: “Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division; for from now on five members in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” Luke 12: 51-53.

  5. 16 May, 2008 4:41 am

    Bill~

    The Synod drew a sharp distinction between the teachings of Arminianism, and those who were under its sway. As you can see from the Conclusion, we are to pray that those who err are to be brought back to the truth (or to it for the first time). It’s important the Synod affirmed ‘error’ and not ‘heresy’. There’s an important difference.

    It’s just as important that the Synod reserved its harsh language for the leaders and promulgators of erroneous teachings, and esp. those who attempted to advance themselves and their own position by speaking sinfully and falsely against the truth and their Christian brethren. The teachings themselves, and such action from those who teach, are what the Synod is condemning. And I won’t get into it, but the teachings of the Remonstrants back then, in many cases, would make today’s Arminian and Wesleyan evangelicals look like conservative Calvinists in comparison.

    It’s as important for us now as it was back then to recognize that we’re living and working in a ‘pilgrim’ context; the black-and-white, fully righteous versus fully unrighteous reality of the last day is nowhere near so clear to us as we currently see through a glass darkly. What we DO see is that the dividing line between the two is Christ. We can’t plumb the depths of the hearts of those who profess Christ, to see if they’re faith is really-real or not. What we can do is go by their profession, and in gracious love call one another out on things that are inconsistent with that profession (such as having an Arminian soteriology). If we get to know someone well enough to know they aren’t trusting in Christ as all their righteousness and life, or if they don’t profess one God in three persons, and so on, at that point we may be able to say their profession isn’t credible.

    I think we would all agree that right doctrine doesn’t save, but Christ saves. And who of us are completely consistent in our doctrine, and I’m not even going to ASK about our practice!! I mean, how many Arminians have prayed like Calvinists and how many Calvinists have thought like Arminians? Yet no matter how weak or even erroneous our faith is, IF ITS TRUE FAITH, the object it grasps is more than strong enough to save. None of the Reformers ever said there weren’t many believers in the Roman Catholic church, for instance — but that didn’t keep them from denouncing Roman CatholicISM as unbiblical and false, and calling them to repent from their waywardness and confess the truth of the Bible. See what I’m getting at? Broadly, I think something like what I’m saying here is where the Synod was coming from as well.

    Finally, there’s something else going on here: the Synod was working within the context of a state church, right in the middle of a pan-church theological conflict, which is completely different from a contemporary American (and functionally a UK) context. Among many other things, this means that the amount of interest about and knowledge of the theological controversies, and what was at stake, was much different than today. Again, I don’t want to get into all this here, but we can talk about it some other time if you want.

    ~B

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