Introduction to Canons of Dort

The Decision of the Synod of Dort on the Five Main Points of Doctrine in Dispute is popularly known as the Canons of Dort. It consists of statements of doctrine adopted by the great Synod of Dort which met in the city of Dordrecht, Netherlands, in 1618–19. The Synod met in order to settle a serious controversy in the churches initiated by the rise of Arminianism. Jacob Arminius, a theological professor at Leiden University, questioned the teaching of Calvin and the Reformed churches on a number of important points and had advocated a revision of the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism. After Arminius’s death, his followers presented their views on five theological points in the “Remonstrance” of 1610, which taught election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity, resistible grace, and the possibility of a lapse from grace.

Convened by the States-General of the Netherlands on November 13, 1618 as a national synod of the Reformed churches of the Netherlands, it was in fact an international counsel including twenty-seven representatives of foreign churches. With delegates from England, the Palatinate, Hesse, Switzerland, and Bremen, the Synod represented a consensus of all the Reformed Churches of that day. John Bogerman, pastor at Leuuwarden, presided. There were 154 sessions, the last of which was held on May 9, 1619. When the Canons were completed, the delegates affirmed them by their signatures.

In the Canons the Synod set forth the Reformed doctrine on key points of the Gospel—unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of saints. Because the Canons are an answer to the Five Points of the Remonstrance, they set forth only certain aspects of the truth rather than the whole body of the truth, as do our other confessions. This also explains the fact that the Canons are divided into five chapters, hence they have been called the “five points of Calvinism.”

Each of the Canons consists of a positive and a negative part, the former being an exposition of the Reformed doctrine on the subject, and the latter a repudiation of the corresponding Arminian errors. Although in form there are only four Heads of Doctrine, we speak properly of five points, because points 3 and 4 were combined into one. After each Head of Doctrine there is a Rejection of Errors refuting specific teachings of the Arminians.

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