On 13 November 1618, the synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands was convened in Dordrecht (in English often shortened to Dort). This did not go in the way we are used to in the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. It was called together by the ‘States’. In those days, the Netherlands officially was a republic of several provinces, which sent delegates to the ‘Staten Generaal’ (literally: the States General), which formed in fact the federal government.
The heresies of the Arminians had caused a lot of unrest in the Netherlands and this unrest was affecting the government of the country as a whole as well as some of the individual provinces, as well as the ability of the Netherlands to fight the war against Spain. Therefore, the States decided that a synod should be convened to deal with these problems and bring them to a conclusion which would bring the peace back in the country.
Church and State
During the time the synod met, many decisions had to be approved by the States, and also the States requested that the synod dealt with certain topics. The Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia is largely based on the Church Order of the Synod of Dort 1618-1619. In our Church Order, it is stated that the synod should be convened by a church, appointed by the previous synod (article 45). Article 30 states that the assemblies shall only deal with ecclesiastical matters and in an ecclesiastical manner. New matters may only be put on the agenda by minor assemblies and only if they could not finish the matter in their assemblies. These articles are based on the original articles 30 and 47 of the Church Order of Dort. Here we see the struggle of the Reformed Churches in those days: on the one hand, they knew how things should be done, on the other hand they had to deal with the authorities and depended on them for several matters related to the life of the churches. There was no separation between Church and State, as we know it now after this idea was enshrined in the American constitution.
When dealing with the Acts of the Synod of Dort 1618-1619, we have to keep this in mind. It is not good to take a decision from the Synod of Dort and use that as a basis for how we have to do things, without first taking note of the context of this decision. The situation in those days was completely different from how the situation is now, and decisions were made in that situation for that time. It is important that we go back to the reason and principles behind those decisions, and use that to determine whether we should take them over or not.
For the good order: the Synod of Dort was a synod of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, and not of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. The decisions of this synod are not settled and binding for our churches, even though it may be wise to consider them in how we do things.
In this article, I will give a summary of the proceedings of the Synod of Dort, and to keep it short, I mainly base this on the Table of Contents of the Acts. The Acts of the part where the foreign delegates were present contains more than 1000 pages, and the Acts of the part after these delegates left, another 46 pages.
Opening: 13 November 1618
After Balthasar Lydius had first led all those present in a prayer, Martinus Gregorij, the leading counsel of the Duchy of Gelre, opened the synod on behalf of the States General. During the first five sessions, the credentials of the delegates from the Dutch (provincial) synods were presented, as well as of the professors, and foreign delegates. The synod regulations, drafted by the States General, were read. The names of the Remonstrants who were cited to appear at synod were read and the letters to be sent to them were approved by synod.
During the 6th to 13th session the synod dealt extensively with the need and the manner of a new Bible translation. The delegates from England informed the synod how the King of England had the Bible translated into English. Decisions were made about the translation of the Apocryphal books and the translation of the name “Jehova” into Dutch. Then the men were appointed who received the task to translate the Bible.
During the 14th and 15th session the synod discussed the question how the youth as well as older members of the churches should be instructed in the Christian doctrine. Advice was asked from the foreign delegates, who submitted their advice in writing. The 16th session was entirely spent on a ‘beautiful speech’ of Josephus Hallus, and in the 17th session the synod made decisions about the catechism teaching. Synod exhorted the churches to take seriously the catechism preaching in the afternoon services. Then also synod gave instructions regarding the catechism teaching, in addition to that which takes place in the second service.
In short the synod decided the following. First of all parents should be exhorted and if needed admonished regarding the instruction in the Christian doctrine at home, by the ministers and the elders. Secondly, the government should be requested to appoint Reformed teachers who subscribed to the confessions, who received the task, in addition to teaching the regular subjects, also to teach the Christian doctrine. They should make use of the Heidelberg Catechism. The youngest students should be taught the important parts of the Christian doctrine (the Apostles’ Creed, the Ten Commandments, Prayer, the sacraments and church discipline, as well as certain central texts from the Bible). This is mainly about the catechism teaching in primary school. Thereafter, it was the task of the ministers to teach those who had advanced in the Christian doctrine (the older youth as well as adults). They should be taught a summary of the Heidelberg Catechism. Finally, those who were on their way to public profession of faith, should be taught the entire Heidelberg Catechism.
In the 18th to 20th session, some related questions were dealt with, like theological students, as well as the question about baptising children born to heathen people, growing up in Christian families.
The Arminians or Remonstrants
The main reason why the synod was convened was to deal with the Arminian controversies. It took a while before the Remonstrants who were cited appeared at the synod. The whole back and forth between the synod and the Remonstrants is being described in the articles about the 21st to 57th session. We read there how the Remonstrants first refused to appear, and had to be cited again even by the States General to come to the synod. And when they appeared they were asked for their opinions, which they refused to give, and asked if they still agreed with the Five Articles of an earlier conference at The Hague. They refused to answer also this question. After that they were sent away and the synod decided and received approval from the States General to glean from their writings what the exact teaching of the Remonstrants is. This is being done in the 58th to 99th session. Then in the sessions 100 – 136, these articles are being discussed and advice is asked and received from foreign delegates as well. In the 136th session the Canons of Dort were read and approved, and the delegates, including foreign delegates, signed every chapter of the Canons. In the sessions 137 and 138, the synod comes to a final judgment about the Remonstrants, and in the following sessions the introduction of the Canons of Dort was formally adopted.
Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism
The synod also determined, after having studied them and received the opinion of all delegates, including the foreign delegates, that the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism are in accordance with the Bible.
Foreign delegates left
A few more practical matters had to be dealt with, and then the foreign delegates left the synod. After they left, the synod continued to deal with several other matters, mainly pertaining to the government of the church. Among these decisions are the adoption of the Church Order of Dort, with the request to the States General to approve this Church Order and give it the status of a Law in the Netherlands. A subscription form for office bearers and school teachers was adopted, as well as several forms to be used in the worship services. Decisions were made regarding ecclesiastical feast days, the Psalms and hymns to be sung in the worship services, the administration of the sacraments, marriage, regarding the schools, especially the school for the theology and training for the ministry. A letter was sent to the States General with several requests. It was also decided that the classis of Dordrecht should be responsible for the convening of the next synod.
The 29th of May in 1619, a thanksgiving worship service was held. After that the delegates came together again to express thankfulness to the magistrates for their hospitality and protection and finally the chairman led in a prayer of thanksgiving.
The full text of the Acts of the Synod, in Dutch, is available here.