When I was first introduced to Reformed theology, I encountered “the five points of Calvinism” and “TULIP.” I was told that these came from the Synod of Dort, which essentially decided that Calvinism would be the accepted religion of the Reformed churches in Europe. Calvinism and TULIP were for the most part equivalent.
As I moved from a Reformed Baptist to a Presbyterian, I began to hear pastors mention that Calvinism was more than the five points. I began to learn about “covenant theology,” which served as the basis for baptizing infants. Calvinism now included the TULIP as well as covenant theology and infant baptism. Still later in my studies, I began to learn about the Calvinistic doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. My understanding of Calvinism broadened, but I still had a tendency to think of Dort when I heard the term Calvinist.
Given the central place of Dort in the history of Calvinism, I was surprised when I began to read R. L. Dabney’s Systematic Theology and his book The Five Points of Calvinism. He nearly dismissed the five points saying, “Historically, this title is of little accuracy or worth.” As I continued to read in Dabney, I began to discover there were various schools within Calvinism, some of which disagreed in key places. Amazingly, Dabney, Charles Hodge, and William Shedd all distance themselves from theologians like Francis Turretin on the relationship between the decree of God and the cross of Christ, and even go so far as to explicitly reject key exegesis that underlies the “limited atonement” argument found in John Owen’s The Death of Death. These 19th century Presbyterians were neither Arminians, nor Amyraldians though, but rather they represent what is called, for better or for worse, moderate Calvinism.
How is it, I wondered, that I had never heard of this distinction before? Why have I been taught that the Five Points of Calvinism are the summary of Reformed theology? What is limited atonement? This brought on a bit of theological dizziness, and I was eager to learn more about the true history of Calvinism and the Synod of Dort. What did it teach concerning these matters, and what is its place in the larger Reformed church history?
At this point the reader must be warned. This discussion quickly becomes dangerous territory in the eyes of many contemporary Reformed thinkers. Indeed it is a sort of “read at your own risk” move. There are very few moderate Calvinists today, and the current of high Calvinism has become so strong that deviations will most certainly be condemned as Amyraldianism from the outset. Part of my intent is to alleviate this reaction and to shed some light on the facts of history. I think it will be shown that the actual history of Calvinism was always a variegated one, and the five points represented a heavily contextualized debate within one period of the larger Reformed tradition.
One of the first observations that needs to be made is that the theological dispute that lead up to the Synod of Dort occurred from inside the Reformed theological community. The Remonstrants would eventually argue for a clear departure from this tradition, but at the outset this was not the case. In other words, the debate was initially an intra-Reformed debate, not one between those inside and those outside of the tradition. Furthermore, there had been at least fourteen confessional documents composed prior to Dort, including the Tetrapolitan Confession, the 1st and 2nd Helvetic, the Scots Confession, the Belgic Confession, the 39 Articles, and the Heidelberg Catechism. The English and German delegates were as much concerned with maintaining their pre-existing standards as they were defending the specific writings of the Contra-Remonstrants. In fact the two parties in the Netherlands at that time are sometimes called the Arminians and the Gomarists, illustrating the regional particularity. King James I sent the British delegates to Dort with instructions to uphold the current faith of the Church of England. David Pareus, writing from Heidelberg, also asked that no deviation from the Heidelberg catechism be made. That there was an established and authoritative Reformed theological tradition prior to the Synod of Dort is obvious. Dort was not subscribed to by those outside of the Netherlands, though it was approved as sound doctrine by the various foreign delegates. This explains how it is that the German Reformed Church could continue with only the Heidelberg Catechism as a confessional document well into the 19th century.
This fairly self-evident historical review is necessary today because of subsequent history’s tendency to divide theological groups between “Anglicans,” “Puritans,” “separatists,” “non-conformists,” and still others, and then to simply give the title of “Calvinist” to the more extreme parties. Many within the Church of England also felt no need to apply the title of what they viewed to be a subset of Protestantism to themselves, opting instead to simply refer to the doctrine of the Church. Many conservative and “Reformed” English Churchmen valued the names of Augustine and Prosper as much or more than that of Calvin, and thus they did not refer to themselves as Calvinists. Further complicating maters is the tendency for the moderate Calvinists to criticize “rigid Calvinism.” Such a reference should not be interpreted as a slight against Calvin. “Rigid Calvinist” was the name given to the supralapsarians. It was not uncommon for a moderately Calvinistic Anglican (who never referred to himself as such) to seem antagonistic towards “Calvinism” when in reality it is the supralapsarians (or perhaps some of the Presbyterian-minded Puritans) he specifically had in mind. Sorting some of these matters out can be admittedly difficult, and our lack of familiarity with the pre-Puritan Protestant Church of England further handicaps us. Figures like Archbishop George Abbott, George Carleton, Samuel Ward, and John Davenant are not familiar to modern Presbyterians, but they should not therefore be categorized as simply sub-Reformed.
The controversy in the Netherlands was ignited by the writings of Arminius and his students, but it should also be noted that the phenomena of suprlapsarianism was just as novel. Arminius’s early writings were directed towards William Perkins and Francis Gomarus, and Morris Fuller, writing in 1897, can state that the origins of the controversy really began with the introduction of supralapsarianism into the Dutch academies. Though it is certainly anachronistic to use such a label, the twelfth article of the French confession, the fifth chapter of the Scots Confession, the sixteenth article of the Belgic Confession, and the seventeenth article of the English 39 articles all present an infralapsarian doctrine. This is quite significant given Dort’s stated task of defending the Reformed tradition against destructive innovations.
The followers of Arminius presented their Remonstrance at The Hague in 1610, and the issues gained international notoriety. In England, Robert Abbot and George Carleton began refuting the Arminians. Grotius and Vorstius achieved some audience in England; however, both were eventually deemed heretics. Even King James I was vocal in opposing Arminianism. He called the Arminian preachers “seditious and heretical” and wrote that their doctrine was a “corrupt seed which that Enemy of God had sown.” Some of the English Churchmen were eager to side with the contra-Remonstrants, but others, most notably James Ussher, Lancelot Andrewes, and John Overall argued for a middle course. Overall wrote three significant treatises on the Dutch controversy, and he proved especially influential on John Davenant. Peter White notes, “Davenant had gone to Dort armed with a four-page memorandum headed ‘Dr Overall. De Praedestinatione Divinea, De Morte Christi’.” One of the most distinctive points in Overall’s treatise that reappears in Davenant’s writings at Dort is the combination of a universal and conditional atonement with a particular and efficacious atonement. According to this teaching, one could say that Christ died for all in one sense and that he did not die for all in another sense. This position, which was held in suspicion by the high Calvinists, is essentially the same as David Pareus’s additions to Ursinus’s Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism.
During the proceedings of Dort, certain significant differences among the divines became evident. Most famous perhaps is the dispute between Gomarus and Martinius, but there were quite a few issues that proved controversial, including the place of the Apocrypha, the order of the decree of predestination, the foundation of election, the extent of the atonement, the universality of grace, the free offer of the gospel, and the temporary operations of the Spirit enjoyed by the Reprobate. By the end of the numerous debates and resolutions, Gomarus, who had been heading up the contra-remonstrant cause, would actually find himself in the minority.
The diversity at Dort, of course, is true of both tendencies. The British and Bremen delegates represented the more moderate strands of Calvinism, but there were also several high Calvinists present that tended towards outright hyper-Calvinism. The delegates from Friesland and Gelderland argued against the free offer of the gospel. At the close of the Synod, the delegates from England, Hesse, and Bremen all requested that certain contra-Remonstrant positions be condemned, particularly statements found in the writings of Piscator. Earlier in the proceedings, Gomarus had greatly disturbed the British when he stated, “As He predestinated man to death, so He predestinated him to sin, the only way to death.” Of this John Hales remarked, “And so he mended the question as tinkers mend kettles, and made it worse than before.”
The British delegates at Dort are often portrayed as softer Calvinists. This description needs to be questioned for several reasons. The first is that the Remonstrants were originally invited to Dort. With their presence, the British and Bremen delegates are actually in the middle of the spectrum, with the Gomarists at the other extreme. When we compare the positions of the University of Heidelberg in the previous generation, as well as the broader English theological landscape, the British delegates at Dort can be seen to be well within the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy. They were committed to absolute predestination, and could call upon citations from Calvin, Zanchius, Pareus, and their own James Ussher for support for their views on the atonement. There was even some division among the British delegates on these issues. Carleton, Balcanquall, and Goad were known for teaching a more restricted doctrine of the atonement, while Davenant and Ward were known for teaching a broader doctrine. Initially Carleton and Balcanquall both sympathized with Gomarus, asking Martinius to modify his position, however through the persuasive arguments of Davenant, as well as the intemperate behavior of Gomarus, the British eventually agreed among themselves to support Martinius’s position affirming that election is founded in the person of Christ. The official British position on the canons of Dort can be found in their Collegiat Suffrage, and while it is true that Davenant and Ward were successful in obtaining a majority of their views, Anthony Milton notes, “Some of the points initially desired by Ward and Davenant were excluded from the final Suffrage.”
In considering the place of the British and their views, we should also note the impression that they were able to make upon the final version of the Canons of Dort. The Canons are infralapsarian. In fact, the opposition to supralapsarianism was so strong that at one point, Bishop Carleton requested that supralapsarianism be included among the rejected errors. To avoid this decision, Gomarus appealed to the authority of English theologians like William Perkins and upon their reputation was able to avoid condemnation. The canons of Dort also emphasize the infinite worth of Christ’s sacrifice and the free offer of the gospel. The British were unsuccessful in persuading Dort to ground the gospel offer in the worth of the atonement, however, and thus this point has to be understood as a bit of a compromise. Certain high Calvinists opposed the free offer, and others defended it solely as a Christian duty, not having a necessary implication on the particulars regarding the extent of the atonement.
One of the most striking achievements of the British at Dort is seen in what they were able to keep from being listed among the rejected errors. Initially a proposal had been made to reject as an error the teaching that the reprobate could attain a state of temporary justification. The British protested and were, amazingly, successful in keeping this position from being considered heretical. Their reasons for doing so are worth quoting in full:
We ourselves think that this doctrine is contrary to Holy Scriptures, but whether it is expedient to condemn it in these our canons needs great deliberation. On the contrary, it would appear
1. That Augustine, Prosper and the other Fathers who propounded the doctrine of absolute predestination and who opposed the Pelagians, seem to have conceded that certain of those who are not predestinated can attain the state of regeneration and justification. Indeed, they use this very argument as an illustration of the deep mystery of predestination; which cannot be unknown to those who have even a modest acquaintance with their writings.
2. That we ought not without grave cause to give offence to the Lutheran churches, who in this matter, it is clear, think differently.
3. That (which is of greater significance) in the Reformed churches themselves, many learned and saintly men who are at one with us in defending absolute predestination, nevertheless think that certain of those who are truly regenerated and justified, are able to fall from that state and to perish and that this happens eventually to all those, whom God has not ordained in the decree of election infallibly to eternal life. Finally we cannot deny that there are some places in Scripture which apparently support this opinion, and which have persuaded learned and pious men, not without great probability.
The British were concerned about the interest of the Lutheran churches because James I had explicitly instructed them not to give undue offense towards them. James still hoped for a future union between all Reformation churches. The British delegates even asked that the Lutherans not be excluded from the title “Reformed,” since, they argued, the Lutherans began the Reformation.
This information is fascinating for a number of reasons. It shows the breadth of the Reformed tradition, at least according to the British, as well as their understanding of the function of the Canons of Dort. Obviously if the success of removing a rejection held value, then it was understood that positions which were neither promoted nor condemned were allowable to be held by Reformed ministers. The interest in the Lutheran churches also shows that the British did not desire to use their confessions to mark off the limits of the Christian Church. They instead only wanted to condemn clear error and the precise points under dispute at the time.
Another angle at understanding where the British delegates at Dort fall within the larger Reformed spectrum is by noting the appearance of views similar to theirs in subsequent years. Many of the English Puritans promoted a broad view of the atonement, among them being Ussher, Baxter, Seaman, Arrowsmith, Preston, Marshall, Howe, Scudder, and Polhill. Curt Daniel has stated that one third of the delegates at the Westminster Assembly could be classified among the moderate position. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is the fact that such moderate views nearly obtained the status of the majority view among 19th century American theologians, the most well-known being, as mentioned before, R. L. Dabney, Charles Hodge, and William Shedd. With the larger lens of history, the British delegates at Dort, as well as the Bremenese, are well within the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy.
One other point that should be noted is that the Canons of Dort never held confessional status over the English churches. The British delegates were sent by King James I, not by the Church of England, and thus served as private citizens. They gave their approval to the content of the Canons of Dort, however, their opinions, as found in the Collegiat Suffrage, include many more qualifications, creating a manuscript that is much larger than the Dutch Canons. The British were also asked to grant their approval to the Three Forms of Unity, which they did with certain significant reservations. The British clearly disagreed with the Dutch over polity, as well as the interpretation of Christ’s descent into hell in the Apostles’ Creed. The British also held to a stronger view of baptismal grace than the typical Dutch thinker, and they expressly noted their concern not to require certain formulations of the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness among subscriptional standards. After returning to England, Samuel Ward stringently defended the decisions of Dort, all the while maintaining that the Church of England’s confessional documents had not been departed from and that they remained the rule of England’s faith.
This historical inquiry ought to instruct us now, living in the 21st century, about how to understand the theology of the Synod of Dort and its place in the larger Reformed tradition. I do not at all intent my thoughts as criticisms of Dort. On the contrary, as I study the historical complexity surrounding Dort, I grow in my appreciation of its balance and moderation. Contrary to many a foe, Dort does not represent a cold and excessive Calvinism. One will not find any one particular formulation of limited atonement at Dort. It is deliberately open, only rejecting the Arminian viewpoint. And of course, we will all have to finally admit that the acronym TULIP doesn’t even work in Dutch! The order of Dort does not begin with depravity and move into election and then on to the atonement. Dort’s order is: divine election from the fallen mass of humanity, Christ’s death, effectual calling, and perseverance. One will notice that the third and fourth head of doctrine are combined, leaving four main points. Without trying to insinuate any particular amount of agreement or disagreement, we still should familiarize ourselves with the fact that the Canons of Dort are not the same as the popular TULIP.
Dort is also one specific piece within the larger Reformed tradition. It does not itself dictate the fullest bounds of that tradition. As we have seen, it is often that case that Dort says less, rather than more, leaving many positions open for further dialogue. With this diversity in mind, we must also be careful not to plot certain trajectories and logical implications of the Canons of Dort. It may very well be the case that no single delegate present would have himself articulated the specific theses as they are in the final form. Instead, they worked together to produce a document that each could approve of, with varying amounts of personal qualifications.
In order to grow into mature Reformed thinkers, it ought to be one of our top priorities to become acquainted with this historical information. I have found myself quite surprised at what lies smack in the middle of my own tradition. Famous names, of which I’ve never heard, often sit on library shelves nearby. Entire schools of thought can be forgotten within a few generations, and the majority position of one century can become the minority position of the next. Learning to form our identities in light of the complexities of history is essential for maintaining the stabilities of our religious communities, and an eye towards the future is equally as essential for their well being. The easiest way to begin this process, if I may quote Reading Rainbow, is to take a look; it’s in a book!
 Dabney, The Five Points of Calvinism (Harrisonburg: Sprinkle), 1.
 for instance Dabney, Lectures on Systematic Theology, pg. 521, Hodge, Systematic Theology Vol. 2, pg. 557-558, and Shedd, Dogmatic Theology supplement 6.2.7, pg. 758.
 The terms “high Calvinism” and “moderate Calvinism” are too broad and most certainly less than desirable. No one in the 16th and 17th century applied these terms to themselves, and objections can leveled as to the fairness of the descriptions. Nevertheless, these terms have become the most widely used to describe the two tendencies among absolute predestinarians. While often including many more theological issues, especially the free offer of the gospel, the divide is fundamentally over the way in which the atonement is limited. “High Calvinists” place the limit in the content of the punishment born by Christ at the cross insisting on only the special will of God toward the elect, whereas the “moderate Calvinists” allow for a general will of God toward all men, as well as the special will toward the elect, and typically place the limitation on God’s effectual calling and application of the cross-work of Christ.
 Anthony Milton, The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (Church of England Record Society: Boydell Press), pg. 92
 G. Michael Thomas, The Extend of the Atonement (Carlisle: Paternoster), pg. 136; John Davenant, A Dissertation on the Death of Christ in An Exposition of the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians Vol. II (London: Hamilton, Adams, and Co.), pg. 356.
 Michael Hakkenberg, The Predestinarian Controversy in the Netherlands, 1600-1620 (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1989), pg. 37.
 Morris Fuller, The Life, Letters, and Writings of John Davenant (London: Methuen and Co.) pg. 66-72
 Peter White, Predestination, Policy and Polemic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pg. 159
 ibid pg. 191
 see Sixteenth Lord’s Day, Question 40, Part III. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism trans. G. W. WIlliard (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed), pg. 221-225. Cf. Davenant, A Dissertation on the Death of Christ, pg. 355.
see Robert Letham, The Work of Christ (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press), pg. 55; Hans Boersma, Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), pg. 69; White, Predestination, Policy, and Polemic, pg. 187.
Thomas, pg. 149.
 Milton, pg. 324-325
 Fuller, pg. 83
 Fuller, pg. 85; Milton 200-202
 Fuller, pg. 85-89; Milton, pg. 195; White, pg. 187-188
 The full text can be found in Milton, pg. 226- 293
 Milton, pg. 201
 White, pg. 185
 ibid, pg. pg. 192
 quoted in White, pg. 198.
 Milton, pg. 327.
 Curt Daniel,
, pg. 75.
 see Balanquall’s notes on Session 148 of Dort and the British comments on Belgic Confession Article 23 found in Milton, pg. 328-329; 338.