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Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons of Dordt

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This article first appeared in the May 15, 1982 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.58, #16), and was written by then Rev. David Engelsma.

Recent Reformed Criticisms of the Canons of Dordt

Of the Canons of Dordt, it is true, as of the prophet in Zechariah 13:6, that its wounds are "those with which I was wounded in the house of my friends." In those houses of God where there is such effusive profession of love and esteem for the Canons that all rulers and teachers in the house are made to swear an oath in the Name of the Lord, that they "heartily believe and are persuaded that all the articles and points of doctrine, contained in the Confession and Catechism of the Reformed Churches, together with the explanation of some points of the aforesaid doctrine, made by the National Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-'19, do fully agree with the Word of God"; that they "promise therefore diligently to teach and faithfully to defend the aforesaid doctrine, without either directly or indirectly contradicting the same, by our public preaching or writing"; and that they "declare, moreover, that we not only reject all errors that militate against this doctrine and particularly those which were condemned by the above mentioned Synod, but that we are disposed to refute and contradict these, and to exert ourselves in keeping the Church free from such errors"—there, in the houses of friends, the Canons are wounded today by criticism. 

The wounds inflicted on the Canons are mortal; the criticism denies the fundamental teaching of the Canons. Since the Canons were drawn up by the Reformed Synod of Dordt, as a defense of the Belgic Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism against attack upon these creeds by false brethren unawares brought into the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, and since the doctrine of the Canons is only an explanation of certain points of doctrine found in the Confession and the Catechism; the treacherous assault upon the Canons is, at the same time, an assault upon the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession of Faith. 

The attack upon the Canons is twofold. There is the frontal attack of the theologians who deny the Canons' doctrine of double predestination. They reject as unbiblical and distressing to the souls of saints the teaching of the Canons that God, in His eternal and unchangeable decree, has ordained some persons unto eternal life out of sovereign grace alone (election), and, in the same decree, has passed by other persons in His sovereign good-pleasure, thus appointing them to perdition (reprobation). They object to the teaching of the Canons that God's dealings with men in time, both His merciful gift of faith to some and His just withholding of faith from others, proceed from God's eternal decree, so that He has mercy on whom He wills to have mercy (election) and hardens whom He wills to harden (reprobation). (Rom. 9:18) 

The focus of this attack is the Canons' doctrine of reprobation. The theologians specify Articles 6 and 15 of the First Head of the Canons as objectionable. They profess to accept the Canons' doctrine of election. They claim to hold the teaching of the Canons that the source of faith and salvation is God's election, which election, they acknowledge, is gracious; but they repudiate a Divine rejection of men in accordance with an eternal decree of reprobation. 

In reality, this attack upon the Canons is the wounding, not only on the one hand of the doctrine of reprobation, but also on the other hand of the doctrine of election. It involves the denial that God's eternal election is the choice of. a definite number of particular persons, which can neither be added to nor subtracted from, and that this definite number is not the total number of persons who have ever lived. Now it may be asserted that the Biblical doctrine of election has nothing to do with a definite number of individuals (which is false); but it cannot be asserted that the doctrine of election in the Canons has nothing to do with a definite number. Therefore, although the attack falls upon reprobation, it is, in reality, an attack upon double predestination—election every bit as much as reprobation. 

The Canons define election as the choice of "a certain number of persons" (I, 7); in this same article, the Canons speak of "this elect number." In Article 11 of the First Head, the Canons affirm concerning the elect that their number cannot be diminished. In the Rejection of Errors, I, under the First Head, the Canons confess Scripture to declare "that God will not only save those who will believe, but that He has also from eternity chosen certain particular persons to whom above others He in time will grant both faith in Christ and perseverance." This understanding of election runs through the entire Canons, as something fundamental to all of the teachings. The Son of God died for "all the elect" and for "them alone," according to the sovereign counsel and will of God the Father. It was the will of God that the blood of the cross redeem out of the human race "all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation" (II, 8). The efficacious, saving call of the gospel of some men in distinction from others "must be wholly ascribed to God, Who as He has chosen His own from eternity in Christ, so He confers upon them faith and repentance. . ." (III, IV, 10). That the saints do not and cannot fall away from faith and grace into perdition is due to God's unchangeable counsel (V, 8); "according to His unchangeable purpose of election, (God) does not wholly withdraw the Holy Spirit from His own people. . ." (V, 6). Denial of election as the choice of a definite number overturns, not only the Canons' doctrine of election, but also its teaching concerning the atonement, conversion, and perseverance. 

It is this fact, namely, that the Canons teach election as the choice of a definite number (always keeping in mind that this number is not all fallen men), that refutes the argument of the theological critics of the Canons, that the Canons offer no Biblical proof for reprobation in I, 15. First, it is not true that the Canons offer no explicit proof for reprobation in I, 15. This proof is given in the Rejection of Errors, VIII, under the First Head—which is part of the First Head, and of the 15th article in particular. The proof is clear and powerful: Romans 9:18; Matthew 13:11; and Matthew 11:25, 26. Second, what the critics ignore, and what they must not be permitted to ignore, is that the main assertion of Article 15 is "that not all, but some only are elected." For this, the Canons give abundant, Biblical proof. If Scripture teaches that God has elected a definite number of persons unto salvation, but not all, the non-election of the others, or passing by, is the Divine determination of them that they perish, i.e., reprobation. Every Biblical text that teaches the election of a definite number of specific persons is the Biblical proof of reprobation, unless God has elected all men without exception. 

With rare exception, the theologians who are critical of the Canons' doctrine of double predestination do not express their difficulties and different sentiments to the church by way of exclusive disclosure to Consistory, Classis, and Synod (gravamen), as "The Formula of Subscription" requires; but they publicly (and presumably privately) criticize the Canons and defend their own views in their preaching and writing. When challenged, some justify their violation of the ordination-vow by asserting that the aspect of the Canons which they oppose is not part of the central theme of the Canons, but merely the framework. 

These men display a rare temerity. They dare to set aside the doctrine of the Reformed Church on their own authority; and they presume to judge for the church what is central theme and what is mere framework in the church's Confession. This says nothing about the audacity of the claim that denial of double predestination does not touch a central theme of the historic, creedal Reformed Faith. 

By this effrontery, a yoke is being put upon the Reformed churches—the yoke of the scholars with their superior knowledge. Thus, as Abraham Kuyper wrote, in a similar situation, "the congregation. . . .is delivered again into the power of men . . . ." This yoke, the Reformed churches cannot bear. "If we must bear a yoke, then give us that of Rome ten times rather than that of the scholars; for although Rome puts men between us and the Scripture, they speak at least with one mouth. They all repeat what the Pope, has settled for them, and his authority rests not upon his scholarship, but upon his pretended spiritual illumination. Hence the Roman Catholic priests do not contradict one another. Neither is their teaching the fancy of a defective learning, but the result of a mental development that Rome attained in its most excellent men, and that in connection with the spiritual labor of many centuries" (A. Kuyper, The Work of the Holy Spirit, Eerdmans, pp. 191, 192). 

One Reformed theologian excused his failure to present his difficulties to the church by a gravamen with the remark that there must first be a growing and penetrating consensus in the church of the error of the Canons. To this, M.J. Arntzen replied well: "But this is an erroneous viewpoint. Heresy, apparently, . . .must first consolidate itself securely; then the Confession may be changed" (De Crisis in de Gereformeerde Kerken, Buijten & Schipperheijn, p. 40). 

A second attack upon the Canons in the house of its friends is indirect. There is, in this instance, no criticism of the Canons; indeed, there is no mention of the Canons at all. It would not be surprising that many of those involved in this attack have no knowledge of the Canons. But there is a wounding of the Canons all the same. Very likely, this attack is more serious than that of the theologians, for this attack flourishes among the people; it is popular. The agents are Reformed pastors and missionaries. The enthusiastic supporters are Reformed church members. 

This is the devastating criticism of the Canons—their death-blow really—that consists of proclaiming and witnessing that God loves every human being in Christ; desires the salvation of every person; gave Christ to die for every man; and offers salvation to every man in the gospel. This is presupposed as the very foundation of missions and evangelism; this forms the approach, or method, of missions; this is proclaimed and witnessed as the heart of the gospel-message. 

This belief of and public testimony to universal grace is rampant in Reformed churches, whose official statement of faith is the Canons of Dordt and whose officebearers have been bound by an oath to the doctrine set forth in the Canons. Universal grace is the conviction, not of an isolated theologian, but of the people. It is found, not in a theological journal, but in the pulpit; in the evangelism classes; and on the lips of the church-members. It is expressed every time one reacts to a confession of predestination, or limited atonement, with the (sincere, triumphant) question, "But what about John 3:16, 'For God so loved the world. . .'?" Its prevalence in Reformed churches is evident when Reformed pastors learn about church-growth and evangelism from the advocates of universal grace and when Reformed churches co-operate with evangelists and evangelistic organizations that are committed to "free will." 

If it is true that God loves all men and desires to save them all, the Canons are false. 

If it is true that there can be no lively gospel-preaching, and especially no mission-preaching, without a universal love, redemption, and grace of God, the doctrine of the Canons is false. Here, the criticism of the theologians and the criticism of the people against the doctrine of Dordt come together. The theologians urge their objection against double predestination in the name of a concern for the preaching of the gospel, and particularly, a concern for the serious call of the gospel. The popular objection against particular grace similarly insists that universal grace is necessary for missions and evangelism. "What can you say to people, if you cannot tell them, 'God loves you; Christ died for you; and Jesus wants to save you'?" "How can you preach to all, and how can you seriously call all to Christ, if you believe election and reprobation?" 

The Reformed church that wants to be faithful to Dordt today must deal with the preaching of the gospel. She must explain the preaching of the gospel, particularly the gospel-call. She must do this in the Dordtian manner. Then, she must exert herself in preaching, both within the congregation and without in mission—in the manner prescribed by Dordt!

There are criticisms of the Canons by Reformed men. But there ought not be Reformed churches are bound to this creed. Reformed officebearers have sworn not to criticize it, but to defend it. Wherever criticism appears, it must be silenced by discipline. 

The fact of Reformed criticism of the Canons, which is widespread and entrenched, should remind us and other churches which still hold the doctrine of the Canons as the gospel of God of our calling. 

Our officebearers are bound by the oath of the Formula of Subscription, which means, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, that God will "punish me if I swear falsely" (Q. 102).

Our preachers must instruct the congregation in the doctrine of the Canons, not only by courses in the Canons themselves, but also, and mainly, by preaching the gospel of Holy Scripture in its full scope: the sovereignty of God; the total depravity of fallen man; the definite atonement of Christ; the particular, efficacious call of the gospel; the preservation of the saints. As they do, they must expose and warn against the errors repugnant to this gospel of free, sovereign grace in Christ Jesus: the sovereignty of man in salvation by his choice of free will; the goodness and ability of the natural man; a general atonement that accomplishes precisely nothing; an offer of the gospel that is as powerful as the sinner allows it to be; the lifelong fear of believers that they may yet perish. 

Our people must know the Canons and their doctrine. They must know them with love—the love of the people of God for the truth that glorifies their heavenly Father and that has set them free. The current criticism of the Canons can prevail because of the apathy of the people; and apathy is the lack of love for the truth of the Canons. As the Canons are wounded in the house of their "friends," none rise up in the Canons' defense. 

We are a privileged people: we may bear witness to the truth of the Canons—the historic Reformed Faith. Who knows whether we are come to the kingdom for such a time as this? (Esther 4:14) The times are evil; the issues are grave; the calling is high. Cornelius Van Til was right, when he wrote:

Here then, in the last analysis, lies the significance of Dordt for today. The followers of Dordt, together with their brethren, the followers of Westminster, alone have the wherewithal with which to proclaim the gospel of the sovereign grace of God at all. Today the battle of Armageddon is on. It is up to those who prize their heritage as children of the Reformation and, more specifically, of the Reformed Reformation to lead all the true followers of the self-identifying Christ of Scripture against unbelief without and against unbelief within the church ("The Significance of Dordt for Today," in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, Peter Y. De Jong, editor, Reformed Fellowship, Inc., p. 195).

Engelsma, David J.

Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)

Ordained: September 1963

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008

Website: www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Prof_D._Engelsma

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