How Calvinism Saved the Reformation

Last weekend, I attended the Westminster Seminary Conference in Escondido, California with my friend Angela, her husband, and another good friend. It was definitely time and money well spent as we learned about the history and theology of the Synod of Dort. In the first and second plenary session, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey spoke about why Dort happened.

Dr. Godfrey is an extremely gifted communicator, and I thoroughly enjoyed and was moved by his presentation. Using history, logic, and humor, he presented his case as if he were a seasoned District Attorney. Why as a District Attorney? Because he presented a case that showed conclusively that the Synod of Dort happened because of one man—Jacob Arminius. Dr. Godfrey also proved that the five points of Calvinism, and really the Canons of Dort, are what saved the central teaching of the Reformation—that we’re saved by grace alone.


Who was Jacob Arminius?

Arminius was born in 1559 in Holland. He went to the University of Leiden and was an exceptional student. Because of this, he was sent to Geneva for pastoral training. With a strong recommendation from Theodore Beza, he was later examined for the ministry in Amsterdam and was a Dutch Reformed preacher for 15 years. He died in 1609 at the age of 50.

Although Arminius is very well known in our day, it’s interesting that he never published anything in his professional life–he knew how controversial his writings would be. He wrote many things, but instead of publishing them he put them in a drawer. They were later published by others.


What was the truth about Arminius?

Arminius’ main commitment was not to defend human free will, but the goodness of God. There’s nothing wrong with that. But he made his interpretations of Scripture conform to this at all times. It appears he was a true and sincere Calvinist while at Geneva, but he changed his views during his 15 years of ministry.

Dr. Godfrey presented smoking gun evidence of the reason why Arminius changed his views: It was discovered that in his private library, Arminius had the writings of Luis Molina. Why is this a big deal? Well, Luis Molina was a Spanish Jesuit priest known as a devoted champion of human free will. He is also known for developing Molinism (middle knowledge). Consequently, it’s very likely Arminius had secretly bought into the teachings of Luis Molina.

As a closet follower of Molina, Arminius knew he couldn’t make his new beliefs known to his fellow Calvinist colleagues. This is why he put his writings in a drawer. This demonstrates Arminius was inclined to be deceitful. He fraudulently subverted his Reformed confession and his oath as a minister. Instead of being straight forward and acknowledging his new beliefs publicly, he secretly taught his newfound beliefs to his young ministry students and to his congregation.


The Remonstrance

You would think and hope the problem would have ended when Arminius died; however, a year after his death, 42 ministers in the Dutch Reformed church also came out as being Arminian. They stated their religious views to the government in hopes of gaining protection from the Calvinists. This was called the Remonstrance of 1610.

The Remonstrants summarized their views in five points. Dr. Godfrey emphasized that Calvinism is not five points saying,

“If you want to know the points of Calvinism read the 37 articles of the Belgic Confession. Read the Westminster Confession. That’s the summary of Calvinism!  Calvinism has five answers to the five errors of Arminianism.”

The five points originated with the Arminians, not the Calvinists! Those five answers of Calvinism, and really the Canons of Dort, are what saved the central teaching of the Reformation—that we’re saved by grace alone.   


The Synod of Dort

The Synod of Dort
The Synod of Dort

The Synod of Dort was convened to answer the Arminian beliefs expressed in the Remonstrance. It was the greatest ecclesiastical assembly in the history of the Reformed churches. Delegates from all the Reformed churches in Europe were invited (although the French were prevented), and it lasted for 6 ½ months.

The Synod wrote the Canons (rules of sound doctrine) of the Synod of Dort in response to the Remonstrants, and with lay men and women in mind, not theologians.


Theology of the Canons of Dort

The Synod proved in the Canons that Reformed theology is catholic theology, meaning it’s not only biblical, but it’s also built on the theology held from the ancient church. Dr. Godfrey pointed out:

“If you look at the first article in each of the heads of doctrine, you’ll see a statement made that every Roman Catholic, every Lutheran, as well as every Calvinist in the early 17th century would have affirmed.”   

Since the theology in the Canons is catholic and biblical, they are spiritually profitable. If you want to learn (or teach) about the doctrine of election, the canons are built to do this. The Canons of Dort begin with the reality of the human condition—mankind fallen in sin. As Calvinists, if we can show people that they are truly dead in sin, then they could more easily understand the necessity of God’s sovereign grace. This is why we “should not think of the 5 Points of Calvinism as the frosting on the cake. They really are the bulwark of saving the Reformation!”   


The Driving Force of Calvinism

Many believe Calvinism is driven by logic and rationalism. Godfrey answers this by saying “It’s not true! It isn’t driven by logic. Calvinism has always been driven by a desire to be faithful to the Bible, whether it’s logical or not. Faithfulness to the Bible is the driving force behind Calvinism.”

The real rationalists in the predestination/freewill discussion are the Arminians because Arminianism has a built-in presupposition to protect a certain conception of the goodness of God. Building doctrines to be logically consistent with this presupposed definition of goodness ends in being driven by logic and rationalism rather than Scripture! Because of this, Arminianism threatens the Reformation doctrines of Sola Scriptura (Bible alone) and Sola Gratia (Grace alone).

If that’s not troublesome enough, Arminianism also threatens the work of Christ. How? Because if his saving work doesn’t completely save us, then as the Belgic Confession says, we have only “half a savior.” We preserve the doctrine of limited atonement because we’re acknowledging and embracing the truth that Christ has done all that needed to be done to save his elect. Calvinism defends the Reformation by saving the gospel it had already re-discovered!


What was the Synod of Dort really all about?

Dr. Godfrey concluded his session by pointing out that the Synod of Dort was about the very heart of the Christian faith: God is sovereign, sin is deadly, Christ is a complete savior, and grace is successful. That’s the heart of our religion. That’s why knowing about the Synod of Dort is so crucial for us.