Worthwhile Books and Materials on the Synod of Dordt and Its Canons

Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Worthwhile books in English on the Synod of Dordt and its doctrinal decisions, though rare, are available. All that will be mentioned here are written for the people, and not only for the theologian. Such is the importance of that synod and its doctrinal deliverances (known as "canons") that Reformed men and women should know them well.

Pride of place goes to Homer C. Hoeksema's The Voice of Our Fathers, the only thorough commentary on the Canons in English. The work includes corrections of the English translation of the Canons used by the Protestant Reformed Churches and other Reformed churches, from the original Latin. Examples are the wording of Canons, III, IV/8 and the omission of an important line at the end of Canons, III, IV/2. The book is also valuable for its historical introduction. The author gives an account of the historical occasion of the synod in the Arminian controversy, a brief description of the "great synod" itself, and a reminder concerning the confessional status of the Canons as one of the creeds of Reformed churches. Two important appendixes give the semi-official history of the events leading up to the synod, and the opinions of the Arminian party on the five doctrines that we know as the "Five Points of Calvinism," or the "doctrines of grace." The semi-official history was published on the authority of the States General, the Prince of Orange, and the Synod of Dordt. It demonstrates the unscrupulous, deceptive behavior of Arminius and his party from start to finish. Reading this history, no one will have any difficulty with President Bogerman's righteously angry dismissal finally of the Arminian party, "You are dismissed. You began and ended with lies. Get out!" The only surprising thing is that he had as much patience as he did. This book is published by the Reformed Free Publishing Association, 4949 Ivanrest Ave., Grandville, MI 49418.

A helpful syllabus on the teachings of Dordt by Prof. Homer C. Hoeksema is available from the Protestant Reformed Seminary, 4949 Ivanrest Ave., SW, Grandville, MI 49418. This 182-page, neatly-bound work is entitled, "Questions and Answers on the Canons of Dordrecht." As the title indicates, the syllabus treats the content of the Canons in question-and-answer form. This is useful for study classes.

A fine book (were it not for one grievous flaw) on the synod, the Canons, and the significance of Dordt for the Reformed churches today is the commemorative volume published by Reformed Fellowship, Inc., Grand Rapids, MI, in 1968. The title is Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort, 1618-1619. It is out-of-print, but available (with some effort) used, or in seminary libraries. There are two chapters on the history leading to the synod; a chapter on the leading figures at Dordt; a chapter on the doctrines of Dordt; a chapter on the synod's involvement in translating the Bible; and several chapters on the significance of Dordt for preaching, for pastoral work, and, generally, for today. John Murray compares Calvin, Dordt, and Westminster. The book is valuable for the materials in several appendixes. These include a chronological table; biographical descriptions of all the main men connected with Dordt; the doctrinal position of the Arminians as stated by themselves both in 1610 and in 1618; a list of the delegates to the synod; and more. The grievous flaw is the chapter by Klaas Runia on recent criticisms of the Canons. Runia concedes the criticisms by G. C. Berkouwer and others of the decretal theology of the Canons, that is, the doctrine of eternal predestination, especially reprobation. To concede these criticisms, specifically these criticisms, is to overthrow the Synod of Dordt and give the victory, in the end, to the Arminians. Why did the Reformed Fellowship publish the book with this antagonistic chapter? If someone will be found to defend the Canons against the recent criticisms, the book should be reprinted.

In 1856, Thomas Scott's translation into English of the Canons of Dordt, with some notes, was published in Philadelphia by Presbyterian Board of Publications. This work included the synodically approved "History of Preceding Events" (also included in H. C. Hoeksema's commentary on the Canons, as noted above), as well as a long, incisive introductory essay by the Princeton theologian, Samuel Miller. The title was simply Synod of Dort. Long out-of-print, this book has recently been reprinted by Sprinkle Publications, P. O. Box 1094, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.

The Deeper Faith: An Exposition of the Canons of the Synod of Dort is Gordon H. Girod's exposition of the content of the Canons in six essays. The first five are on the "Five Points" in the order in which they appear in the Canons. The sixth answers the question (and charge), "Is It a Terrible Faith?" At the end, the book gives the text of the Canons as the Canons are held in the Reformed Church in America (RCA), in which denomination Girod was a pastor. This text makes plain that there is a serious, indeed fatal, weakness in the form of the Canons as maintained in the RCA. The deficiency comes perilously close to vitiating the Canons. The deficiency is that the sections of the Canons consisting of "rejection of errors" are elided. In the end, if a church will not reject the errors, it cannot uphold the truths. Girod's treatment of the Canons is solid. It is the virtue of his book that it makes explicit that the Canons are biblical. Published in 1958 by Reformed Publications in Grand Rapids, MI, this book too must be picked up used, or borrowed from the libraries. 

Even though few of our subscribers read Dutch, I cannot refrain from calling attention to, and highly recommending, the splendid volume, De Synode van Dordrecht in 1618 en 1619. Five Reformed ministers and professors in the Netherlands are co-authors. W. van't Spijker has two chapters, one on the history preceding the synod and the other on the synod itself. H. Florijn describes the delegates, as well as the Arminians who were required to appear before the synod. C. C. de Bruin has a chapter on the synod's work with translating the Bible. And A. Moerkerken writes a chapter on the synod's debate and decisions regarding preaching the Heidelberg Catechism and regarding censorship of books. This book of 206 pages is a veritable gold mine of information about the Synod of Dordt, as well as an art gallery of pictures and illustrations of the synod, its trappings, and its people. Photographs of many of the delegates and of the Arminians accompany the biographical sketches, some in vivid color. The magnificently bearded Bogerman is a majestic Frisian. Sibelius is the one convivial delegate, smiling, waving cheerily to posterity, and sporting a suspiciously bulbous nose. The Arminians are a shifty lot. The cartoon of the Synod of Dordt, evidently by some bitter Arminian at the time, is hilarious. The synod is being held in a barn. Bogerman is a huge rooster vehemently crowing, "Vervolging (Persecution)." Van't Spijker's contributions on the history and on the doctrinal controversy are superb. The book is published by Den Hertog of Houten. It was reprinted in 1994. It is worth learning Dutch for. The introduction is correct: "Nimmer is een boek over deze synode op een dergelijke wijze verschenen." I express my appreciation to Albert Meijer of Southwest Protestant Reformed Church (whose wood carvings of the synod are masterpieces) for bringing this book to my attention.