Canons of Dordt and the Heidelberg Catechism
Published by Lyle Bierma
The Canons of Dordt (1619) is probably the least well known of the three confessions of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
The Canons of Dordt (1619) is probably the least well known of the three confessions of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Many of us are better acquainted with the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and perhaps also with the Belgic Confession (1561). The most we might have learned about the Canons of Dordt (hereafter CD) is that its structure and content can be summarized with the acronym TULIP. However, not only is the CD less well known than the Heidelberg Catechism (hereafter HC), but some people have the impression that it is very different from the HC. Whereas the HC is usually thought of as warm, personal, pastoral, and practical, the CD is often perceived as just the opposite: cold, abstract, harsh, and largely irrelevant. But is that perception accurate? In this 400th anniversary year of the CD, one way to reacquaint ourselves with the document is to explore whether such a comparison with the HC is fair.
There are indeed differences between the two confessions. The CD was composed almost sixty years after the HC, in the Netherlands rather than Germany, by an international synod rather than a small committee, and under a different set of historical circumstances. Furthermore, the HC was intended primarily as a teaching tool for use in churches and schools, whereas the CD was a set of canons, or standards of doctrine, which sought to mark out certain boundaries between truth and error.
Despite these differences, however, there are also several remarkable similarities. First of all, both confessions tell us something about our theological roots and identity, namely, that we who subscribe to them are children of the Reformation. The teaching of the HC, as many of us have learned, is divided into three main parts, summarized in Q/A 2: “First, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” We sometimes reduce this structure to three words beginning with S: Sin, Salvation, and Service. These are themes that lay at the heart of the Protestant Reformation: the deep-rooted sinfulness of humanity; salvation in Christ alone by grace alone through faith alone; and service through lives of good works, not to earn favor with God but to thank God for the gift of salvation.
One of the things the CD was trying to do a century later was recapture this Reformation message. In the early 1600s, the Reformed pastor and professor Jacob Arminius (1560- 1609) and his followers had set off a theological firestorm in the Netherlands. They did not deny the sinfulness of humanity, but they did place a greater emphasis on the role human beings play in their salvation and less emphasis on the sovereignty of God. The Calvinist party in the debate saw this as a threat to the Reformation doctrine of salvation sola gratia (by grace alone). From the Calvinist point of view, Arminians were slipping back into a Roman Catholic understanding of salvation, something Protestants had repudiated just a hundred years before.
The Synod of Dordt, therefore, responded in the CD with a strong restatement of the Reformation
themes of sin, salvation, and service: the total depravity of humanity (sin); the unconditional election, limited atonement, and irresistible grace of God (salvation); and the perseverance of the saints (service). In so doing, the synod was reemphasizing and expanding upon the doctrines of sin and grace found in the HC and Belgic Confession. As the synod’s Form of Subscription put it, the CD served as an “explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine [in the two earlier confessions].” And from then on, this triad of confessions—what we sometimes call the “Three Forms of Unity”—have helped to identify those who subscribe to them as Christians who are Protestant and Protestants who are Reformed.
A second similarity between the CD and HC may come as a bit of a surprise. The CD tracks not only with the main doctrinal themes of the HC but sometimes with its pastoral and practical approach to doctrine as well. The HC, of course, always seeks to relate doctrine to life and focuses especially on the comfort or assurance that biblical teaching can bring the believer. The CD shows some of these same sensitivities. In its first main point of doctrine (predestination), for example, the authors recognize that divine election and reprobation are not only difficult ideas to understand but can strike terror in the hearts of Christians who wonder whether they are really among the elect and how they can know for sure.
However, as Neal Plantinga once put it, when we reach Article 12 of the CD’s first main point, “suddenly the air warms and the atmosphere brightens. We pass from somewhat chilly and technical material into some articles of genuine pastoral concern” (A Place to Stand, p. 134). Article 16 assures believers who are worried about being one of the reprobate that it is not they who need to be concerned. Rather it is “those who have forgotten God and their Savior Jesus Christ and have abandoned themselves wholly to the cares of this world and the pleasures of the flesh [who] have every reason to stand in fear of this teaching.” Struggling believers can be comforted by the fact that in real life, assurance of election never happens all at once but “in due time . . . by various stages and in differing measures” (Art. 12). Those “not yet able to make such progress along the way of godliness and faith as they would like” can also be comforted that “our merciful God has promised not to snuff out a smoldering wick or break a bruised reed” (Art. 16). And Article 14 cautions the church always to teach election “with a spirit of discretion, in a godly and holy manner, at the appropriate time and place … for the glory of God’s most holy name, and for the lively comfort of God’s people” (italics added).
Similarly, in its treatment of the doctrine of perseverance (fifth main point), the CD recognizes that Christians constantly wrestle with doubts and temptations and thus “do not always experience this full assurance of faith and certainty of perseverance.” Nevertheless, “God, the Father of all comfort, ‘does not let them be tempted beyond what they can bear …’ (1 Cor. 10:13), and by the Holy Spirit revives in them the assurance of their perseverance” (Art.11; italics added).
Finally, the CD, like the HC, displays some awareness, unusual for early modern Protestantism, of the missional responsibility of the church. HC 86 concludes its answer to the question of why we should do good works with a reference to evangelism by deed or example: “so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.” The CD expands this view of the church’s outreach by highlighting the Word ministry of the church, even quoting in the first main point (Art. 3) Paul’s famous “missionary” text:
“In order that people may be brought to faith, God mercifully sends messengers of this very joyful message to the people and at the time he wills. By this ministry people are called to repentance and faith in Christ crucified. For “how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without someone preaching? And how shall they preach unless they have been sent?”
At a time when Protestant attention was still focused largely on the continent of Europe, the CD calls the “messengers of this very joyful message” to conduct this ministry on a global scale: “This promise, together with the command to repent and believe, ought to be announced and declared without differentiation or discrimination to all nations and people, to whom God in his good pleasure sends the gospel” (II, Art. 5; italics added). This is because “it was God’s will that Christ through the blood of the cross … should effectively redeem [persons] from every people, tribe, nation, and language” (II, Art.8). This universal “ministry of the gospel” serves as the means by which God brings his chosen ones to salvation (III/IV, Art. 10).
It is fitting that we are celebrating the 400th anniversary of the CD (2019) so soon after the 450th anniversary of the HC (2013) and the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation (2017). All three are related. The HC summarized the Reformation doctrines of sin and grace, applied them in a personal and practical way, and provided a glimpse of the missional responsibility of the church. A century later the CD did the very same thing, often with greater theological and pastoral depth. Both confessions, therefore, not only point us back to an important part of our Reformed heritage but continue to speak the truths of Scripture into our lives today.
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