BACKGROUND THEOLOGY TO THE CANONS OF DORT
The Synod of Dort, 1618-1619, was held in view of the rising influence of Arminianism in the Reformed Church. The heresy known to us as ĎArminianismí was, however, not new at all.
HUMAN NATURE: IS IT GOOD, SICK, OR TOTALLY CORRUPT?
In 354 A.D. two men were born, both of whom would make an enormous impact on the Church of Jesus Christ. Their names were Pelagius and Augustine. Their paths crossed in the later years of their lives, due to their widely opposing viewpoints on the following three doctrinal issues:
1. Human nature
2. Manís need for grace
3. Godís sovereignty
The fundamental difference between the opposing systems of thought of these two men rested on their radically opposing views concerning human nature. The crucial question was, ĎIs man good or notí? How one answers this question determines what one believes concerning manís need for grace and what one confesses concerning the sovereignty of God. To what extent is Godís grace needed? The moment one disputes manís total depravity and consequently manís total dependence on Godís grace one simultaneously disputes Godís sovereignty. If man by his free will is able to take the initiative for his own salvation, deciding for himself whether or not he will be saved, Godís sovereignty is restricted for then Godís role in the salvation of man is limited by the decisions and actions of man.
Pelagius believed the following:
Pelagius propounded his teachings in Rome and on account of these met with opposition from Augustine in 409 AD. In 431 AD the Synod of Ephesus officially condemned Pelagiusí teachings as heretical, and upheld the position of Augustine as Scripturally accurate. Herewith, the Lordís Church was once again put back on the right path. However, Satan was not content to let matters rest at that. Although people agreed that Pelagiusí teachings were not correct, Augustineís teachings were perceived to be too extreme. Whereas Pelagius was condemned for being too positive in his views concerning human nature, Augustine was said to be far too negative. Hence a compromise was sought, leading to what is known as ĎSemi-Pelagianismí.
On the three points mentioned earlier, Semi-Pelagianism settled for the following positions: · Human nature is neither good nor bad, but sick. Just as a sick person canít quite do whatever heíd like to do, so likewise through the fall into sin manís capacities became restricted. His free will remained, but was weakened by the fall. Man, then, can still decide to request and receive help. · Manís need for grace: Although Semi-Pelagianism believes in manís need for Godís grace (for man is too sick to help himself), man by his free will is able to decide whether he wants Godís grace. Whereas Pelagius taught that salvation is totally manís own doing, and Augustine taught that salvation is totally from God, Semi-Pelagianism teaches that salvation is a combination of the efforts of BOTH man and God. According to Semi-Pelagianism, salvation = Godís grace + manís acceptance of grace. Man can only be saved if man decides to co-operate with God and accepts the grace God offers him. · Godís sovereignty: Semi-Pelagianism restricts the sovereignty of God in that it is limited by manís decision to co-operate with God or not. Godís offer of salvation can be refused by man and so return to God empty. Though God may wish to save someone, He can only do so if that person is interested in taking Him up on the offer.
Over the course of time, Semi-Pelagian doctrine became the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, and remains so even today.
THE REFORMATIONíS RESPONSE TO SEMI-PELAGIANISM
God in His grace sent reformers to His Church in persons as Martin Luther and John Calvin. These men read the Scriptures of God, studied the writings of the church fathers, and came to the conclusion that the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church about human nature, the grace of God, and Godís sovereignty were incorrect. In their disputes with the position of the Roman Catholic Church concerning matters of doctrine, the reformers were essentially opposing Semi-Pelagianism. In doing so they went back to Augustinianism.
The position of the reformers on these points of disagreement found their way into the Confessions. Possibly the easiest way to draw out the reformersí thinking on these points is by drawing attention to the Heidelberg Catechism. · Human nature: The Heidelberg Catechism (published in 1563) summarises well the Reformed position on what the Bible teaches concerning human nature. In Lordís Day 3, Q&A 6 one reads, "God created man good ..." i.e. not neutral, as taught by Pelagius, but good (Augustinian). Further, Q&A 7 reads, "From where then did manís depraved nature come?" The question admits to general depravity, admits that people as a whole are not good. The answer is this: "From the fall and disobedience of our first parents Adam and Eve in Paradise, for there our nature became so corrupt that we are all conceived and born in sin.". Again, this is distinctly Augustinianism as opposed to Pelagianism. According to Pelagius only Adam fell into sin, but Augustinianism and Reformation theology teaches that we all sinned in Adam with the consequence that our nature became corrupt. Q&A 8 elaborates on the extent of our corruption. "But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil?" Pelagius would have answered in the negative; man is basically good, and by means of his free will can choose to do good. Semi-Pelagians would answer, Ďman is corrupt but not so corrupt that he is unable to do any good. Man is sick.í The Catechism however, in agreement with what Augustine taught, answers, "Yes", man is totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil because human nature is totally depraved. In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism says, man is so corrupt that he can do no good unless God work on him through his Holy Spirit. · Manís need for grace: In LD 23, Q&A 60 the Catechism asks "How are you righteous before God?" Pelagius would have responded, "By my free will I can decide to do the good, and so be righteous." Together with Augustine, the Reformers answered, "Only by true faith in Jesus Christ". Semi-Pelagians would not dispute that manís righteousness is attained by true faith, but man must first decide if he wants this faith. In other words, it is not only by true faith but also by manís free will (ie, salvation = Godís grace + manís acceptance of grace). The Augustinian language here adopted by the reformers is not a language of sickness but of deadness. Man has "grievously sinned against all Godís commandments" and is "still inclined to all evil". Since a dead person can do nothing, let alone will anything, faith cannot be a choice of man. Hence A60 continues, "... yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ." Without me requesting it, God imputed to me what was Christís. God took what was Christís and attributed it to me; God credited Ďmy accountí with Christís righteousness. Contrary to what Pelagianism and Semi-Pelagianism teaches, the Catechism teaches that because I am by nature dead, I am totally dependent on Godís grace. · Godís sovereignty: Lordís Day 23, Q&A 60, confesses too Godís sovereignty in salvation with these words: "ÖGodÖout of mere grace, imputes to me." One can confess this only if one confesses too that man is totally depraved and consequently is totally dependent on Godís grace for salvation. God is God and therefore His work of salvation is not limited by manís decision to be saved or not. "God imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ." God does not first ask me if I desire these gifts of grace. These doctrines have come to be known by the term Calvinisim.
"... THERE IS NOTHING NEW UNDER THE SUN ..." : SOCINIANISM AND ARMINIANISM = PELAGIANISM AND SEMI-PELAGIANISM RETURNED
The preaching of the Reformers about human nature, Godís grace, and Godís sovereignty in working salvation was not appreciated by all. A man by the name of Socinius did not like the return to Augustinianism. He believed that Adam was created neutral (neither good nor bad) and that when Adam sinned he, and he alone, was affected by his sin. All Adamís descendants are born neutral, he claimed, and can choose between good and evil. This was plainly a return to the Pelagianism rejected by the church some 1000 years earlier. Beside the Calvinism (= Augustinianism) of the Reformers, Socinius placed his Socinianism (= Pelagianism).
But now again, as happened centuries earlier, Socinianism was written off as being too positive about human nature. And Calvinism was seen as too negative, too damning and depressing. The resulting compromise was at heart a return to Semi-Pelagianism. Jacob Arminius in particular was responsible for bring Semi-Pelagianism to life again in the midst of the Reformed Churches.
One might well question the relevance of busying ourselves in 1997 with the issues relating to a synod convened some 380 years ago. However, the study of church history proves that heresies do not just arise and die to give way to new heresies, but that heresies surface and resurface. A study of the Canons of Dort and how they were compiled by the Synod of Dort in order to defend Reformed theology over against Arminianism is not just a study of historical interest; it is rather a study which assists us concretely as we strive to live as Christians today. The compromise on human nature known as Semi-Pelagianism is widely embraced on the Christian world of today. Societyís optimistic view of man prompts society to turn up its nose at Augustian thinking (= the Calvinism of our confessions). Countless of the Christians around us have consequently adopted a Semi-Pelagian position about the nature of man. One recent survey in America, for example, reports that 84% of Christians interviewed (they call themselves Ďevangelicalsí) agreed that in matters of salvation "God helps those who help themselves" and 77% believed that human beings are basically good. In the face of such pressures from the Christian world around us, a study of the Canons of Dort can only help us to discern between Arminian (Semi-Pelagian) and Reformed Theology.