Tag Archives: Synod of Dort 1618-19

Catechism and the Synod of Dort

This year and next we’re celebrating the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort.  The Synod of Dort 1618-19 is remembered most for the Canons of Dort dealing with the Arminian problem.  However, the synod actually discussed and decided on far more matters.  One of the topics discussed was catechetical instruction.

Early on at the synod, there was a significant discussion held on the best way to catechize the youth and others in the Reformed churches in the Netherlands. Advice was requested from the foreign delegates and many of them obliged. It’s interesting that a number of these foreign delegations wrote about the importance of involving parents in catechesis. For instance, the theologians of Hesse wrote, “We reckon and judge that this work of teaching catechism to the youth belongs to the Ministers of the Word of God, the teachers in the school, and finally the parents.” Parents who were nonchalant about that work were to be admonished by the consistory to diligently and faithfully teach the catechism to their children and families. Similarly, the theologians of Bremen advised the synod that they recognized three sorts of catechesis: scholastic (i.e., in the schools), ecclesiastical, and domestic. Parents, especially fathers, bore responsibility for domestic catechesis.

On Friday November 30, 1618 in its morning session, the Synod of Dort issued its decree on the manner of catechesis. Dort followed Bremen’s division of catechetical duties. The work of parents, however, was put up front. According to Dort, it is the work of parents to instruct their children and the whole family with all diligence in the elements of Christian religion. With an eye to each one’s capacity, parents are to seriously and diligently exhort their families in the fear of God and sincere piety. They are to discuss the sermons and especially the teaching of the Catechism. They are to read the Scriptures and explain them. If parents were not faithful in these duties, they were to be admonished by the pastors, and if necessary reprimanded and censured by the consistory.

It’s unfortunate that parental or domestic catechesis has been lost in so many places. It’s regrettable that many Reformed parents today expect the church to do virtually everything when it comes to the catechesis of covenant youth. The first responsibility lies with parents. Dort was right.


What’s Up in 2018

This past year will be remembered for our celebrations of the 500th birthday of the Reformation.  All around the world, believers praised God again for what he did in leading Luther and others to recover the biblical gospel.  What a great time to recall our Father’s mercies to his people!

The year of our Lord 2018 is going to feature more such celebrations.  This year is the beginning of the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dort 1618-19.  This year we’ll begin celebrating how God helped his church to reject the man-centered doctrines of Arminius and his followers.  By God’s mercies, the doctrines of grace were defended and then codified in that faithful summary of Scripture we call the Canons of Dort.

This new year is also notable because it’s a synod year for the Free Reformed Churches of Australia (FRCA).  Synod Bunbury is scheduled to begin on Monday June 18.  Though it’s being convened by the church of Bunbury, the synod will actually be held in the facilities of the Southern River church (in the Perth metro area of Western Australia).  There are a number of big items of interest, but let me just mention two, both pertaining to inter-church relations.

First is our relationship with the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (RCN).  As readers know, the RCN last year opened all the offices of the church to women.  The FRCA has warned the RCN that if they did this, our relationship (which is currently suspended) will be terminated.  It is expected that Synod Bunbury will carry through with this.  If it does, we will be the first sister church to cut ties with the RCN over their unfaithfulness.

Second, there is a proposal to investigate the possibility of ecumenical relationships with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and the Southern Presbyterian Church.  While this proposal originated with FRC Launceston, it has been adopted by Classis North of 20 October 2017.  Moving in this direction will have the greatest impact on the Tasmanian churches, since this is the “heartland” of the EPC and SPC.  Their congregations only exist in the eastern part of Australia.  Here in Tasmania, we already enjoy many contacts with EP and SP brothers and sisters.  Many of their children attend our John Calvin School.  We’re working together to establish a Christian counselling organization.  The EPC and FRC recently jointly hosted a Reformation commemoration.  I just returned from speaking at the EPC biennial youth camp — I taught apologetics to about 60 young people, of whom over a quarter were from our Free Reformed Churches.  We have many good connections already — it remains to be seen if we can draw closer together in a more formal relationship.  Here we’re certainly praying for that!

This new year certainly promises to be interesting.  God willing, I hope to be able to share developments with you here.  Whoever you are and wherever you are, I pray that God will give you a most blessed 2018!

 

 


We Distinguish…(Part 5) — Active/Passive Obedience

Romans-5.19

In this series, we are surveying some of the most important Reformed theological distinctions. These are not irrelevant or minor points of theology. Rather, these are distinctions where, if you get them wrong or ignore them, major theological disaster threatens to ensue. We need to strive for precision in our understanding of the teachings of God’s Word.

On the first of January, 1937, a dying J. Gresham Machen mustered up the strength to send one last telegram to his friend John Murray: “I’m so thankful for active obedience of Christ. No hope without it.” One of the founding fathers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church made a point of stressing Christ’s active obedience in his last hours on this earth. It would be, however, a grave mistake to assume that this doctrine is uniquely Presbyterian. Not only is it found in the Three Forms of Unity, it’s also shared with confessional Lutherans (as I’ve demonstrated here).

We speak of a distinction between Christ’s active and passive obedience. We need to carefully define the terms, because they have sometimes been misunderstood as opposites. In normal English conversation, “active” and “passive” usually are opposites. “Passive” is typically denotes inactivity. However, in the context of Reformed theology, the word “passive” is derived from the Latin passio and it refers to Christ’s suffering – something in which he was definitely not inactive. Passive obedience, therefore, refers to Christ’s obedience in suffering the wrath of God against our sins. Christ’s active obedience speaks of his obeying the law of God perfectly in our place throughout his life – an active, positive righteousness that is imputed or accounted to believers. In Christ’s passive obedience we have the payment demanded so that our sins can be fully forgiven. In his active obedience we have the perfect conformity to God’s law demanded of all human beings. These must be taken together, and when they are, they form the basis of our justification (our being declared right with God as Judge).

This distinction is valuable because it points up how good the good news really is. We are not just promised forgiveness in Christ. In our Saviour, we are promised and given perfect righteousness in the sight of God. As God looks at us in Jesus Christ, he sees people who have been perfectly and consistently obedient to his law. Because of Christ’s active obedience imputed to us, God sees us as flawlessly obeying him not just in the externals, but also 100% from and in the heart.

When it comes to biblical support, there’s really no debating the passive obedience of Christ. The Bible is clear that he suffered in obedience to God’s will so that we can be forgiven all our trespasses (e.g. Hebrews 2:10-18). But what about the active obedience of Christ?   According to Romans 2:13, “doers of the law will be justified.” Galatians 3:10 reminds us that if you do not do everything written in the law, you are under a curse. God demands perfect obedience to his moral law. Romans 5 is one of the clearest places speaking to the fulfillment of this demand in Christ. There Adam and Jesus are contrasted in their disobedience and obedience. Says the Holy Spirit in Rom. 5:19, “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” The “one man’s obedience” there refers to Christ’s work on our behalf, including and especially his obedience to all of God’s law. As 2 Corinthians 5:21 reminds us, all our sins were imputed to Christ, and all his righteousness is imputed to us.

Since it’s found in Scripture, it’s no surprise to find it in the Three Forms of Unity. For example, it’s implied in chapter 2 of the Canons of Dort, in the Rejection of Errors #4. The Arminians taught that God had “revoked the demand of perfect obedience to the law.” The Synod of Dort said that this contradicted the Bible and was part of “a new and strange justification of man before God.” At the bare minimum, the Canons of Dort maintain that God still does demand perfect obedience to his law. However, the Canons do not explicitly say how this demand is to be met.

But that is not to say that the Synod of Dort ignored this issue. Far from it! In fact, the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ was an issue amongst the Reformed churches of that period. As a result, the Synod of Dort edited article 22 of the Belgic Confession on this point to clarify that Christ’s active obedience is essential to Reformed orthodoxy. The revised article 22 reads (the underlined words were added by Dort): [God] “imputes to us all [Christ’s] merits and as many holy works as he has done for us and in our place.” This result brought the Dutch Reformed churches into line with the English and the French – they had also previously ruled that Christ’s active obedience was a non-negotiable point of Reformed doctrine. Later, in 1693, the Walcheren Articles appeared in the Netherlands and these were even more resolute on this question. Denying the imputation of the active obedience of Christ is not an option for Reformed confessors.

Unfortunately, in our day there have been some who have either denied or minimized this point of doctrine. I’m thinking especially of some figures associated with the Federal Vision movement. I’ve briefly addressed their teachings in a booklet (which you can find here). Suffice it to say that attempting to sideline this doctrine: 1) requires a dishonest handling of the Reformed confessions, 2) requires a reconfiguration of the biblical doctrine of justification, and 3) robs Reformed believers of comfort, joy, and strength in Christ.  This is not making a mountain out of a doctrinal molehill.

For those who would like to read more on this important topic, Dr. N. H. Gootjes has an excellent essay entitled “Christ’s Obedience and Covenant Obedience.” It’s in chapter 4 of his book Teaching and Preaching the Word. I also have a copy available online here.

 


Where Was the Location of the Synod of Dort 1618-19?

Synode_van_Dordrecht

Every now and then it happens.  Someone travels to the Netherlands, visits the historic city of Dordrecht, and reports back that they saw the building where the great Synod of Dort was held.  However, this is impossible, I tell them, because that building is no longer there. In the interests of promoting historical accuracy, I thought I would write a little post about this, just providing a couple of sources to prove it.

The Acts of the Synod of Dort are currently being published by Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht in a critical edition.  In the first volume, Herman Selderhuis provides a short historical introduction.  You can find most of this introduction online here.  The relevant page is xxiv.  There Selderhuis relates that the synod was held in a building known as the Kloveniersdoelen.  This was a building where the city militia met and also stored their guns.  No matter what a tour guide may tell you, the synod was not held in a church or cathedral.  It was in a civic building.  True, the Synod was opened and the Canons were publically presented in the Grote Kerk (according to Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg), but the sessions of the Synod (when the Canons were written) took place in the Kloveniersdoelen.

Moreover, if you can read Dutch, check out this Wikipedia article about the Kloveniersdoelen in Dordrecht.  If you can’t read Dutch, I can summarize the important parts for you:  the building is no longer there, it was destroyed in 1857.  Yes, in this case, Wikipedia is accurate — you can confirm it here.  Case closed.

Old photo of the Kloveniersdoelen, taken shortly before its demolition in 1857.

Old photo of the Kloveniersdoelen, taken shortly before its demolition in 1857.