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.