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Does Calvinism have five points? Is that a silly question? No. It is a good question. And the answer may surprise. The answer is yes and no!
Yes, Calvinism has five points—obviously. We have books on the five points. Tabletalk has had articles on the five points. We even talk about TULIP as a way of remembering the five points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.
And yet we can say, “No, Calvinism does not have five points.” The five points are not a summary of Calvinism. If you want a summary of Calvinism, you must turn to one of its great confessional documents such as the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession of Faith. Those confessions cover many more subjects than those covered in the five points. Calvinism has many more points than five.
So, where did the “five points of Calvinism” come from? It is particularly appropriate to ask that question now, because 2018–19 marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the five points of Calvinism. (If you are missing the celebrations of the five-hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, this will give you something to go on celebrating.) The five points actually originate as a Calvinist response to the Arminians in the Netherlands after the death of Jacobus Arminius, a response that culminated in the Synod of Dort (1618–19).
The Reformed Church in the Netherlands had emerged in the midst of great struggles. The first preachers of Calvinism there were French speaking, coming from Geneva in Calvin’s time and from France. Initially, the early Reformed churches there experienced significant persecution. Because of this persecution as well as other tyrannical actions, a revolt began against King Philip of Spain, who also ruled over the Netherlands. Both the Dutch state and the Dutch Reformed church were born at about the same time in the midst of great conflict. The state of the Low Countries was ultimately split in two, roughly corresponding to modern Belgium in the south (remaining Roman Catholic) and the Netherlands in the north (predominately Reformed). That northern country became a republic known as the United Provinces.
The Reformed church attracted a strong popular following, but not a majority of the population. Its dominant position came in part from state support in the United Provinces, which favored the Reformed church and outlawed the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformed church very much followed the teachings of Calvin and the emerging Calvinist orthodoxy. It also followed Calvin in wanting a measure of self-government for the church, independent of too much state interference. Many within the state government, however, wanted to keep strong limits on church independence, because Calvinists sometimes became too strict and too demanding.
While the church as a whole was quite orthodox and disciplined, there were those who dissented. Some were publicly disciplined, but others seem to have dissented quietly or privately. The most famous of these quiet dissenters was Jacobus Arminius.
Arminius was a brilliant student, studying for a time in Geneva in the days of Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor as the most prominent minister there. Arminius returned from Geneva to serve as a Reformed minister in the church of Amsterdam from 1588 to 1603. In 1603, he was appointed to be a professor of theology at the most distinguished Dutch university at Leiden. He served there just six years until his death in 1609. Throughout his career as a pastor and professor, he wrote several works critical of aspects of Calvinist theology, but he did not publish any of them in his lifetime.
Although he did not publish, Arminius did influence fellow ministers and students by his teaching. After his death, in 1610, some forty-two ministers signed a petition to the state asking for toleration and protection for their views. They knew that their views would be disciplined in the churches and so appealed for the state to protect them from ecclesiastical discipline.
These Arminians in their petition, or “Remonstrance,” summarized their theological deviations from Calvinism, for which they sought toleration, in five points. The original five points were the five points of Arminianism: conditional election, unlimited atonement, serious depravity, resistible grace, and uncertainty about perseverance.
When word leaked out about this Remonstrance, the Calvinists reacted sharply and angrily. They began to insist on the calling of a national synod to evaluate and judge the five points of the Arminians—the last thing the Arminians or many leaders of the state wanted. For eight years, these issues were debated, and the churches were increasingly stressed and troubled.
Finally, after a coup d’etat in the state, the national synod was called to meet in the city of Dordrecht in November 1618. The Arminians complained that they could not receive a fair trial at such a synod, so the Dutch invited representatives from Reformed churches throughout Europe to come as delegates. The great Synod of Dort became a truly international synod. Delegates came from Great Britain, various parts of Germany, German-speaking Switzerland, and Geneva. The synod was a very distinguished gathering of many of the best Reformed minds in Europe. The synod had about ninety ecclesiastical delegates and met for nearly six months.
The great result of the work of the synod is known as the Canons of Dort. Canon is from a Greek word for a rule. The Canons of Dort are the rules of the Synod of Dordrecht, giving the Reformed answer to the five points of Arminianism.
The Canons of Dort are divided into “Heads of Doctrine,” answering the Arminian points. Each of the heads is divided into several articles, positively developing the Reformed teaching on that point. And at the end of each head is a section called the “Rejection of Errors,” answering specific Arminian errors.
Following the order of the Arminian five points, the Synod’s first head of doctrine was on election. The canons answered the Arminian teaching of conditional election. Conditional election means that God elects a category of people to life if they meet His chosen qualification. The Arminians stressed that faith is the foreseen qualification in order to be numbered among the elect. In this theology, faith is turned into the one good work required of man.
In contrast, the canons teach that election depends only on the good pleasure of God. Faith is the gift of God given to those who are elect, not the foundation of election. God is sovereign in every part of salvation according to His eternal purpose.
The second head of doctrine was on the extent of Christ’s saving work on the cross. The Arminians insisted that Christ had died for all of the sins of all people. They wanted to be able to say to everyone, “Christ died for all your sins.” The question that must be asked is, If Christ died for all the sins of all persons, are all saved? No, the Arminians say, because you have to believe in Christ to share in the benefits of His death. But, as John Owen showed so brilliantly in The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, if unbelief is a sin, then Christ died for it, and if unbelief is not a sin, then you cannot be condemned for it. But the Arminian error is more than teaching a theology that does not make sense. The greatest error is that it makes Christ a potential Savior rather than a complete one.
The position of the canons on the death of Christ has often been characterized as teaching a limited atonement. The canons were not primarily on the limited nature of Christ’s death but on the effectiveness of it. Christ did not die to make salvation possible but to make it actual. As the Belgic Confession put it, Christ is not half a Savior. While the value of the death of Christ is inherently infinite and so sufficient to save the whole world, His intention in dying was to pay for all the sins of the elect alone. The death of Christ will certainly save the elect.
The synod combined the third and fourth heads of doctrine because the Arminians’ third point seemed to teach total depravity, which is to say, the complete helplessness of mankind lost in sin. Only in combination with their fourth point does it become clear that their teaching of the resistibility of grace actually undermines their contention of total depravity.
The canons in response stress the complete lostness and helplessness of sinners and so the absolute necessity of irresistible grace to renew and enliven the hearts of the elect dead in sin. Taken together, the third and fourth heads of doctrine examine carefully the fallen human condition and the ways in which grace works in the hearts and lives of God’s people.
The fifth head of doctrine responds to Arminian uncertainty as to whether those enlivened or regenerated by grace will certainly persevere in grace or may fall away from grace and life. The canons strongly teach that God preserves His elect in grace so that they will persevere in grace and faith to the end. All of these teachings of the canons are intended to comfort and reassure Christians “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6).
For many Christians today, the teachings of the Canons of Dort seem narrow and irrelevant. In a world where many reject Christ altogether and where Christian cooperation in missions and cultural endeavors seems so important, some Christians think that we can ignore or at least marginalize such theological concerns. Such a position appeals to many. But is it right? The Canons of Dort proclaim a God-centered, Christ-centered religion that is more needed today than in the seventeenth century. God’s sovereignty and Christ’s perfect atonement are our only hope and confidence. Truly, the Synod of Dort preserved the Reformation. Luther had said that he would rather have his salvation in God’s hands than in his own. Dort reiterated and clarified that truth. Christ alone and grace alone indeed. Here is something truly to celebrate.