Dort and its Aftermath

In this episode, we move back across the English Channel to see what happened after the death of Jacob Arminius and its effects which ripple into Wesley's time and even into our own.

Episode 10

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast. Today’s episode, Dort and its aftermath.

Last time, we spoke about the various succession crises in England and the sharp transitions from the Catholic Mary to the Protestant Elizabeth to the Scottish James. Mary’s husband, Philip of Spain, soon married again to Elizabeth of Valois, who bore him two daughters before dying in childbirth

Philip’s fourth wife, Anna of Austria, his niece, finally bore him an heir who lived into adulthood, which would guarantee the continuation of Hapsburg rule.

Today’s episode is about a church conference in the Dutch City of Dort, and yet the wives and children of Philip II of Spain are integral to this story. Too often, the history of theology and the history of the church is told without the political context in which it took place. This makes it appear that doctrines are hashed out in an abstract space apart from the daily lives of human beings who eat and sleep and defecate and love and fight and hurt and die. The dogged doctrinal battle between Arminius and the counter-remonstrants took place in this deep conflict around the birth of a new nation. And just to get a few terms straight, the Remonstrants are the followers of Arminius at this time. The Counter-Remonstrants are those whom we would later call Calvinists, but in truth, both sides, at this time, claim Calvin and have authentic reasons in which to do so. Yet, the important thing for them is not Calvin or Luther or any other figure of the reformation, but fidelity to the Word of God in the Bible. Now, back to the story.

The United Provinces, also known as the Netherlands, was in a near constant state of war from the 1560s on in the conflict that would be called the 80 years war. Like much of the warfare of the 16th century, the 80 years war was far more about the development of the modern nation state than a conflict between Catholics and Protestants. When Philip was crowned King of Spain in 1556, he had a number of different states under his authority, each with a unique language, government, history, and economy. He was the King of Spain, King of Portugal, Lord of the Netherlands, Duke of Lothier, Duke of Brabant, Duke of Limburg, Duke of Luxembourg, Margrave of Namur, Count Palatine of Burgundy, Count of Flanders, Count of Hainaut, and Count of Artois.

In 1598, Philip died and was succeeded by his son, Philip III. As King of Portugal, Philip III had a keen interest in trade to India and outside of the conflict in the low countries, the Dutch East India company was cutting into Portuguese dominance of the Indian trade routes, as well as challenging the Empire across the globe. Conversations around a possible peace between the Spanish crown and the United Provinces began in earnest in 1607. The negotiations originally began with hopes of a lasting peace, but conflict over trade and religion were too great that all that could be ratified was a 12 year truce.

With the truce in effect, the Dutch focused on internal issues, especially those within the church and how best to follow in the Reformation tradition. One of the principle issues of contention was who had the authority to appoint professors at the University of Leidon. The successor to Jacob Arminius, Conrad Vorstius, was seen by some as heretical. Vorstius was appointed by one of the leaders of the Remonstrant movement, Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, Grand Pensionary of Holland (basically the Prime Minister), but disagreements about his religious orthodoxy led many inside and outside of the country to shift their allegiance to the more Calvinist Maurice of Orange.

A comparable level of conflict that had existed between the Netherlands and Spain now continued across the country eventually resulting in the dissolution of the government, the execution of Oldenbarnevelt, and, among many other consequences, the Synod of Dordrecht or in English, the Synod of Dort.

Synod is a fancy word for a church council. In the midst of the ecclesial distress of the 1610s, Francis van Aarssens, a prominent noble and diplomat (who had been the ambassador to France under Oldenbarnevelt but had been recalled in 1614) started preliminary talks in 1617 about a national Synod to unify the church of the United Provinces. There were also rumors that the Remonstrants (or Arminians) were secretly in talks with the Spanish and were going to betray the Dutch after the truce ended and so the Synod could be used to reduce the power of those who were seen as insufficiently loyal to the freedom movements.

The Synod began with a delegation of Remonstrants headed by a theologian named Simon Episcopius, but soon they were voted out due to the Counter-Remonstrant majority.

The central importance of the Synod of Dort for people today has little to do with nation-state formation or the 80 years war. In Wesley’s day, when someone described themselves as a Calvinist, it did not mean that they adhered to the words of John Calvin but, in many ways, to the doctrine promoted by the Synod of Dort. Dort reduced Calvinism to five main points. These points are, however, different from the 5 points popularized by David Steele and Curtis Thomas through the Acrostic TULIP: Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints. Some see Five-Point Calvinism emerging from a previous document, the Counter-Remonstrance of 1611, which was written as a response Five Articles of Remonstrance.

What is important to recognize, though, is that the reductionistic clarity of Five-Points Calvinism that one comes across today in many Acts 29 churches and non-denoms does not come from the Synod of Dort or from Calvin and so was not the sort of Reformed thought against which Wesley argued.

The five main points of doctrine articulated at Dort are as follows: 1: The Judgment Concerning Divine Predestination, 2: Christ's Death and Human Redemption Through It, 3& 4: Human Corruption, Conversion to God, and the Way It Occurs, and 5: The Predestination of the Saints.

The immediate result of the Synod was more political than theological. Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, the Grand Pensioner, was arrested and executed. Hugo Grotius and others were arrested, and Prince Maurice of Orange, supporter of Dort, became the most influential leader in the United Provinces. However, Maurice helped foment the Thirty Years War which raged across the whole of Europe by encouraging his nephew, Frederick V, the Elector of Palatine, to accept the crown of Bohemia. It did not go well for Frederick or the Dutch in the Thirty Years War, but at the long and bloody end with the Peace of Münster and the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the country was finally free.

Now, as mentioned before, the debates and discussions which took place at Dort heavily influenced English Calvinists in the time of Wesley. In Wesley’s journal from July 6, 1741, he writes:

Looking for a book in the (Lincoln) College Library, I took down by mistake the works of Episcopius, which opening on an account of the Synod of Dort, I believed it might be useful to read it through. But what a scene is here disclosed: I wonder not at the heavy curse of God, which so soon after fell on our Church and nation. What a pity it is, that the Holy Synod of Trent, and that of Dort, did not sit at the same time; nearly allied as they were, not only as to the purity of doctrine, which each of them established, but also as to the spirit where with they acted; if the latter did not exceed.”

(Journal July 6th, 1941.)

This was the same year that Wesley and George Whitfield had their parting over points of Calvinist doctrine, and Whitfield going so far as to Wesley that

he and I preached two different gospels; and therefore he not only would not join with or give me the right hand of fellowship, but was resolved publicly to preach against me and my brother, wheresoever he preached at all. Mr. Hall (who went with me) put him in mind of the promise he had made but a few days before, that, whatever his private opinion was, he would never publicly preach against us. He said that promise was only an effect of human weakness, and he was now of another mind.”

(Journals March 28, 1941)

The religious and political conflict between what would later be called the Calvinists and Arminians centered on how one reads the Bible. In England, that was a challenging issue. There were a few Bibles in English, but none of them royally authoritative. Because of his continual attempts to avoid conflicts like those that happened in the United Provinces, King James I commissioned a group of scholars to put together a new translation of the Bible. This was not an event without controversy, next time on the History of Methodism.


John Wesley, Journals

The Arminian Magazine

Canons of the Synod of Dort