08 November, 2016

Chapter Two

Proceedings at the Synod of Dort

The Dutch Arminians did not arrive at Dort until late November 1618. When they did arrive, their appearance turned into a farce. They were treated from the outset as the accused, a position which they rejected.18 Under the leadership of Simon Episcopius, they resorted to several procedural maneuvers designed to delay the synod in its work. These tactics were employed, possibly in the hope that time would bring a favorable change in the political situation. As it was, their tactics prevented any official judgment being made at Dort until early January 1619, when, because of their attitude toward the synod, they were dismissed.19 Though the Remonstrants were no longer present at the synod, their doctrinal views were extracted from their published writings and dealt with under the five principal points which characterized their doctrine.

Each body of delegates was required to reduce their views to writing, so that they could be presented to the synod in a cogent form. This requirement was also designed to facilitate the collation of a mutually agreeable statement at the conclusion of the synod.

The first issue which came under the synod’s purview was predestination. This matter presented no great difficulties, with general agreement being reached on the unconditional nature of the decrees of election and reprobation.

The second matter which was discussed was the redemption purchased by Jesus Christ, and it proved to be not quite so simple as the issue of predestination.

The Remonstrants, as regards the atonement, rested their contentions on the sharp distinction that they drew between the accomplishment of Christ on the cross and the application of that accomplishment to the lives of men. Their basic notion was that Christ made salvation possible for all men, but that this salvation was actualized in men only by their response of faith. In other words, they propounded a conditional salvation which was dependent upon man for acceptation.

In summary, the position of the Remonstrants was that:

1. The price of the redemption which Christ offered to God the Father is not only in itself and by itself sufficient for the redemption of the whole human race but has also been paid for all men and for every man, according to the decree, will, and grace of God the Father; therefore no one is absolutely excluded from participation in the fruits of Christ’s death by an absolute and antecedent decree of God.

2. Christ has, by the merit of his death, so reconciled God the Father to the whole human race that the Father, on account of that merit, without giving up His righteousness and truth, has been able and has willed to make and confirm a new covenant of grace with sinners and men liable to damnation.

3. Though Christ has merited reconciliation with God and remission of sins for all men and for every man, yet no one, according to the pact of the new and gracious covenant, becomes a true partaker of the benefits obtained by the death of Christ in any other way than by faith; nor are sins forgiven to sinning men before they actually believe in Christ.

4. Only those are obliged to believe that Christ died for them for whom Christ has died. The reprobates, however, as they are called, for whom Christ has not died, are not obligated to such faith, nor can they be justly condemned on account of the contrary refusal to believe this. In fact, if there should be such reprobates, they would be obliged to believe that Christ has not died for them.20

All the members of the synod, including Davenant, agreed that these theses were unacceptable.21 However, the delegates to the synod found that they could not agree so easily on an acceptable orthodox reply to the Remonstrant position. Indeed, the discussions of the Second Article produced tensions and bitterness among the orthodox of the synod.

This issue also occasioned a divergence of views among the English delegation. These divisions grew out of the significant diversity of opinion that existed within the so-called Reformed consensus.

Davenant and Ward took a view of the nature and extent of Christ’s atonement which was not shared by the other members of the English contingent.22 On the question of the nature and extent of the atonement, Davenant and Ward maintained what could probably be called a middle course between the Reformed and Arminian positions. They held to the certainty of the salvation of the elect; but they also held that an offer of pardon was made not only to such as believed and repented, but to all who heard the gospel. They also held that a sufficient measure of grace to convince the impenitent, so as to lay their condemnation on themselves, accompanied the offer of salvation; and they held that the redemption of Christ was universal, and, consequently, that salvation was attainable by all.23 Davenant felt so strongly about this issue that he declared that he would sooner cut off his hand than rescind any word of it.

While the views of Davenant and Ward were opposed by the other English delegates, they all rejected the distinction drawn by the Remonstrants between the accomplishment of reconciliation by Christ’s faith and the application of the benefits of His death. Beyond that fundamental agreement lay many other differences of thought and expression.

The nature of the disputation within the ranks of the English delegation is evident from the following report of Balcanqual to Sir Dudley Carlton. Balcanqual wrote:

the question amongst us is whether the words of the Scripture, which are likewise the words of our confession, (“Christ died for the whole human race, even for the sins of the whole world") are to be understood of all particular men, or only of the elect who consist of all sorts of men. Dr. Davenant and Dr. Ward are of Martinius of Breme his mind, that is to be understood of all particular men. The other three [Balcanqual, George Carleton and Goad] take the other exposition, which is of the writers of the Reformed Churches and namely of my late Lord of Salisbury. Both sides think that they are right, and therefore cannot yield one unto the another with a safe conscience.24

Balcanqual suggested that further discussion of this matter be postponed until the end of the synod and that, in the interim, English church leaders be consulted. This was done. However, for reasons which are not presently important, conflicting advice was received by the English delegates from James I and Archbishop Abbot. In any event, both advices arrived too late to assist the English delegation in the formulation of their written submission or Judicium to the synod regarding the atonement.

In an attempt to avoid controversy within their own ranks and to comply with the king’s initial instructions, the English delegation attempted to omit all controversial references.25 They formulated a response which took into account the divergent views within their own ranks. This is evident from the description of the English Judicium given by Balcanqual:

There was read the judgment of the divines of Great Britain upon the Second Article; they were briefer than upon the First Article, they left the received distinction of sufficientia and efficacia mortis Christi untouched; as likewise they did not touch that received restriction of those places which make Christ’s sufferings general to the world, only ad mundum Electorum.26 

In their final form, the English Judicium comprised six propositions and three rejections of error, all of which were explained and defended.27 The first two positive statements reflected the attitudes of Carleton, Balcanqual, and Goad. These emphasized the Reformed position that Christ died efficaciously for the elect to give them faith and all other gifts necessary for salvation. The four remaining theses were designed to grant significant concessions to the consciences of Davenant and Ward. The remaining theses dealt with the more general love of God toward the whole creation. Avoiding both the Arminian and purportedly Reformed extremes, these theses proposed an expanded view of sufficiency. They referred to a general promise and a conditional covenant. The special intention of God for the elect was supplemented by his general and sufficient intention for all mankind.28 Compromise had raised its multifaceted and ugly head!

The understanding of the English submissions, at least so far as Davenant was concerned, is reflected in the reasons which he prepared in relation to the Second Article. He wrote:

For the universality of the promises of the Gospel, which is the Second Article, the Church of England, doth teach Atric. Relig. 7 de Predestinatione, That we must receive God’s promises, in such wise, as they be generally set forth to us in holy Scripture; where our Church doth signify that the promises of God in the Gospel do appertain to all generally to whom they are published, and according to this we hold, that the reason why the promises of the Gospel are not effectual to all to whom they are published, is not through any defect in Christ’s death, as though he had not truly founded and ratified by his death and passion the Evangelical Covenant or promise to all; or that this promise pertained not to all; or, that God did not thereby seriously invite all, to whom this Evangelical promise is propounded in the Ministry of the word, to repentance, and faith, and so consequently to the participation of the benefits promised therein: but the defect is inherent in man who will not receive that grace, that is truly and seriously offered on God's part.29 [Emphasis MS]

The stand taken by the English divines led subsequently to the allegation that they had deserted the doctrine of the Church of England. To this Davenant replied:

I know that no man can embrace Arminianism in the doctrines of predestination and grace, but he must desert the articles agreed upon by the church of England; nor in the point of perseverance, but he must vary from the received opinions of our best approved doctors in the English church.30

Clearly, Davenant rejected Arminianism but maintained a view of the atonement which held that Christ in some respect had died for all.

The English delegation were in a clear minority on this issue. Most of the other delegations wanted to distinguish between the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s death. They asserted that the atonement of Christ upon the cross was sufficient for all but that it was not efficacious for all, as it was not intended for all. This position was eventually reflected in the Canons which were formulated at the conclusion of the Synod.31 Article 8 of the Second Head of Doctrine states:

For this was the sovereign counsel, and most gracious will and purpose of God the Father, that the quickening and saving efficacy of the most precious death of his Son should extend to all the elect, for bestowing upon them alone the gift of justifying faith, thereby to bring them infallibly to salvation: that is, it was the will of God, that Christ by the blood of the cross, whereby he confirmed the new covenant, should effectually redeem out of every people, tribe, nation and language, all those, and those only, who were from eternity chosen to salvation, and given to him by the Father; that he should confer upon them faith, which together with all the other saving gifts of the Holy Spirit, he purchased for them by his death; should purge them from all sin, both original and actual, whether committed before or after believing; and having faithfully preserved them even to the end, should at last bring them free from every spot and blemish to the enjoyment in his own presence forever.32 [Emphasis MS]

While from one perspective, it can be asserted that the Canons repudiate expressly the views of Davenant and Ward, it is also evident that the Canons were couched in such terms as to be not overly offensive to any of the delegations present at Dort. This view of the Canons is supported by the fact that all of the delegates, including Franciscus Gomarus and Matthias Martinius, signed their names to the Canons, yet those men were not in agreement with the views of other members of the synod on a number of issues.33  It is interesting to observe that the Canons do not contain a specific statement which categorically denies a universal intent, though, as observed above, there are statements which explicitly contend that the work of Christ is a product of God’s everlasting love for the elect and is specifically ordained to save them. It would seem that this lack of a positive rejection that Christ’s death on the cross was for all men was the reason why men such as Davenant and Ward were prepared to append their signatures to the Canons at the close of the synod.

As we shall observe shortly, Davenant acknowledged that there was a special grace whereby Christ’s death was specifically for the elect. However, he also asserted that Christ’s death was also for all men, though not savingly. Rather, Christ’s death was for all men so that they might be saved in the event that they should believe.

Given this distinction, it is possible to appreciate how Davenant could be persuaded to adopt the synod’s statements which indicated that the efficacy of Christ’s death was limited to those only who had been from all eternity elected to salvation.

Following the synod, Davenant returned to England where he, and the other delegates, were graciously welcomed by the king. A job well done, from the king’s perspective-or was it a betrayal of the truth?

18. It is not the purpose of this paper to explore the rights and the wrongs associated with the manner in which the synod proceeded.

19. The synod subsequently condemned them in absentia.

20. Peter Y De Jong, Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. (Reformed Fellowship Inc., Grand Rapids, Michigan), pp. 224, 225. The purpose in detailing the assertions of the Remonstrants is that it assists in discovering the parameters of Davenant’s own views.

21 The English delegation identified their differences with the Remonstrants in a letter which they wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury dated 21 March 1618 where they said:

In our avouching and declaring in this and other Articles, some fruits of Christ’s death, not comprised in the Decree of election, but afforded more generally, yet confined to the Visible Church (as viz. true and spiritual Graces accompanying the Gospel, and conferred upon some non-elect) we gain ground of the Remonstrants, and thereby easily repel, not only their Instances of Apostasie, but also their odious imputation of illusion in the general propounding of the Evangelical Promises, as we are ready more clearly to demonstrate. Nor do we with the Remonstrants leave at large the benefit of our Saviour’s death, as only propounded loosely to all ex aequo, and to be applied by the arbitrary act of man’s will; but we expressly avouch, for the behoof of the Elect, a special intention both in Christ’s offering, and God the Father accepting, and from that intention a particular application of that Sacrifice, by conferring Faith and other Gifts infallibly bringing the Elect to Salvation. And that our care in advancing this Doctrine might be the more remarkable, we in these our Theses have set in the forefront our Propositions concerning God’s special Intention. John Hale’s Golden Remains of the Ever Memorable Mr. John Hales (London: Printed by Tho. Newcomb for Robert Pawlet, 1673), p. 185.

22. Indications of the doctrinal positions of the English delegates can be gleaned from the reports sent from Dort to Sir Dudley Carlton. Carlton was the English special ambassador to the United Provinces. He initially received reports from his chaplain, John Hales, and latterly from Walter Balcanqual.

23. Neal, Op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 467.

24. Ibid., p. 101.

25. Ibid

26. Hales, Op. cit., pp. 130, 131.

27. Godfrey, Op. cit., p. 177.

28. Ibid., p. 178.

29. Hales, Op. cit., p. 188.

30. Neal, Op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 467.

31. It is of interest to note that, despite the wording of the Canons, Ward, because the biblical references to “all men” were not specifically equated with the elect alone, felt able to assert that the Canons had defined “nothing ... which might gainsay the confession of the Church of England.” Usher, Works, xv. 145.

32. Hales, Op. cit., pp. 130-132. 

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