For those of us who love the Canons of Dort, the past two years have been a good occasion to reaffirm what we find so attractive in Dortian theology. I have had the privilege of participating in two major conferences commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Synod that met in the Dutch city of Dordrecht during 1618–1619—one of them, sponsored by the city of Dordrecht, focused largely on the Synod as an historic event, while the other, held at the appropriately named Dordt College (now Dordt University), zeroed in on the details of the theology set forth in the Canons.
My own enthusiasm for the Canons is not shared by some of my other Reformed friends. A frequent complaint is that the tone of the Canons is “cold” and “stern.” I disagree. I won’t make my case in detail here, except to point to a marvelously warm passage where believers are told that the assurance of their election “comes not by inquisitive searching into the hidden and deep things of God, but by noticing within themselves, with spiritual joy and holy delight, the unmistakable fruits of election pointed out in God’s Word—such as a true faith in Christ, a childlike fear of God, a godly sorrow for their sins, a hunger and thirst for righteousness, and so on” (First Head of Doctrine, Article 12).
I do want to address another complaint, though: that the Canons were appropriate for their time but do not speak in ways helpful for our own times. Here too I disagree. In fact, I cannot think of more compelling theological declarations for people who struggle with the crises of the 21st century.
Dortian Answers for the Depressed Modern
The overall message of the Canons is set forth in the first two articles. Here are the opening words: “All men have sinned in Adam, lie under the curse, and are obnoxious to eternal death” (First Head, Art. 1). That is—to put it mildly—a discouraging note on which to start. The next article, though, immediately declares words of hope: “But ‘in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only begotten Son into the world’” (First Head, Art. 2).
I cannot think of more compelling theological declarations for people who struggle with the crises of the 21st century.
While I was preparing my Dordrecht address on the Canons, I had a conversation with a non-Christian friend who was in a despondent mood because of a recent report on the environmental crisis. “It just feels hopeless,” she said. “Things have gotten so bad in the world that for the first time in my life I feel like the end is in sight. We will all be wiped out. Nothing left. Just the end of humanity.”
I was not inclined to offer easy words of encouragement to my friend, given her lack of faith in the gospel. Her sense of hopelessness is quite appropriate. Things really are bad. I am actually encouraged to find out that unbelievers like her are sensing what a mess we’re in. In the past, they could find frameworks that could give them signs of hope. Such props are gone today. Enlightenment trust in the power of human rationality is now widely seen as a delusion. The campaign promises of charismatic national leaders can no longer be trusted. Postmodern coping mechanisms don’t show us a way out of the crises afflicting us. The deconstruction of past foundations of hope has been completed for many—and there is no reconstruction possible.
The Canons of Dort clearly endorse this mood of hopelessness. Humanly speaking, there is no escape from the mess we are in. We human beings are incapable of rescuing ourselves. On our own, we are “under the curse,” destined “unto eternal death.“
But there is hope, because “in this the love of God was manifested, that he sent his only begotten Son into the world.” A sovereign God has done for us what we could never do for ourselves. He has sent a Savior. And because Jesus is Lord, he will make all things new.
Warm Calvinism of the Canons
People in Alcoholics Anonymous talk about the need to “hit your bottom” before genuine recovery from addiction can begin to take place. If the addict thinks he or she can do it with “a little bit of help,” the recovery is not likely to happen. The person has to arrive at the point of admitting being “powerless over alcohol.” That is the same kind of thing the Canons tell us about sin. As fallen human beings, we are enslaved to sin. We cannot make things better by acts of our own will. Our wills themselves need to be transformed, which can only happen by God redirecting them toward a desire to love, enjoy, and serve him. The Canons describe how this happens in words that express a “warm” Calvinism. The God of love does not treat us “as senseless stocks and blocks”; instead he “spiritually quickens, heals, [and] corrects” the human will in a way that “ sweetly and powerfully bends it . . . [toward] a ready and sincere spiritual obedience” (Third and Fourth Head, Art. 16).
We do [our unbelieving neighbors] no favors by playing down the hopelessness they are experiencing.
My non-Christian friend represents increasing numbers of unbelievers who have “bottomed out” in their despair over what is happening in the world. We do them no favors by playing down the hopelessness they are experiencing. They are right in acknowledging that, in their unbelief, there is no place to turn for answers that respond to their deepest hopes and fears. The Canons speak profoundly to their situation. Yes, we are under a curse we cannot lift by our own effort. But sovereign grace is available to all who are willing to admit to their powerlessness and look beyond the human horizon for mercy.
As I write this, we are amid another Advent season. As I hear and sing those words—“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight”—my joy will be informed and enriched in new ways by the very contemporary theology of the Canons of Dort.