RPM, Volume 16, Number 17, April 20 to April 26, 2014

The Reformed and Post-Reformation Creeds and Councils

By Charles R. Biggs

Many Thanks to William Barker, Daryl Hart, and Clair Davis for their lectures in Church History. Also to John Gerstner, Philip Schaff, and Williston Walker who have taught me from their writings

Table of Contents

Class I: The Council of Trent: Sola Scriptura - material taken from the series Important Creeds and Councils of the Christian Church (Class XI) by C.R. Biggs.

Class II: The Council of Trent: Sola Fide- The Ecclesiastical Fall of Rome

Class III: The Reformers and the Lutheran and Reformed Creeds: Martin Luther

Class IV: Martin Luther and the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Class V: An Historical Overview of the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly

An Historical Overview of the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly

THE SYNOD OF DORT (1618-1619)

The Synod of Dort (1618-19) was called as an attempt by Maurice of Nassau, governor of the Netherlands, and the Reformed Churches of the Netherlands, to bring some confessional brethren to account for theological issues that they had once affirmed, but had recently denied as being unbiblical.

James Arminius (d. 1609) had studied and been greatly influenced by Theodore Beza. Arminius was asked to support Calvin's doctrine of predestination and election as being biblical, against a Roman Catholic teacher named Dirk Coornheart. Upon reflecting upon his own theology and what he believed the Scriptures taught concerning this, Arminius realized he did not agree with Calvin's doctrine.

Arminius died in 1609 but those who he had influenced, those such as Episcopius and Ugtenbogaert, formed a group known as the Remonstrants, named after the document whereby they taught Arminius' view rather than Calvin's view of predestination and election. Essentially Arminius' doctrine of election was that God had elected based on the faith of man that was foreseen by God in eternity past, which Calvinism denied.

This synod was called nationally by Maurice of Nassau to clear up this theological issue on a national level with an aim at unity in the Reformed churches. The synod attempted to call the Remonstrants back to the confessional and theological stance to which they had originally subscribed. Politically, the Netherlands had just won independence from Spain's Catholic leadership in 1609, and they needed theological unity as well as political unity if the Reformation was going to "take hold" against pockets of Catholicism that yet remained.

The synod consisting of some 80 members, both clergyman and politicians, paved the way for Reformation, and built a Reformed consensus in the Netherlands prior to the Westminster Assembly in England. The treatment of the Remonstrants may seem harsh to many today, but these were important theological as well as political matters that jeopardized the unity of the country as well as whether the Reformation would spread against ingrained Roman Catholicism.

The synod had some men executed, and imprisoned Grotius for unbiblical teachings. The synod was able to articulate against "Arminianism" the Five Points of Calvinism. These "five points" were developed to answer each objection of the Remonstrants. These "five points" have been memorized by the acrostic TULIP, but below I have listed it as ULTIP. The "five points" were as follows:

  1. Unconditional Election -God sovereignly elects not based on anything good or evil in a person.

  2. Limited, or Definite Atonement -Christ's death is efficacious and truly saves the elect.

  3. Total, or Radical Depravity -Man cannot choose the good, although he freely chooses, because his will is in bondage to sin.

  4. Irresistible Grace -God's Spirit effectively and sovereignly calls and regenerates sinners dead in trespasses and sins.

  5. Preservation, or perseverance of the Saints -God works in his people to persevere by his grace and he will lose none who he has saved.

These "five points" turned the Netherlands back to the historical and creedal positions to which they had once subscribed. Particularly to the creedal confessions of the Belgic Confession of 1561 and the Heidelberg Confession of 1563. Both of these were already accepted as standards for the Netherlands.

THE WESTMINSTER ASSEMBLY (1643-1649)

In England, at the Westminster Assembly, 121 divines and others, a total of 151 men were called together by the Bill of 1643 to reform the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Over the next five years, six months, and twenty-two days, in the midst of the English Civil War, Erastians, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Presbyterians met to formulate a unifying confession, a polity, and a worship for the Church of England.

After 1643, with the signing of the Solemn League and Covenant with the Scots, they began the assembly afresh in a new direction. The commissioners of the assembly decided that rather than reforming the Thirty-nine Articles, they would write a new confession altogether. There was now Scottish Presbyterians who now attended the assembly who would influence the decisions and wording of the new confession.

Their work was the most significant and consummate confessional and theological work in the history of the church. Building on the Synod of Dort's efforts, but expanding tremendously, they worked in August 1644 to write a reform on polity; in December 1644 they began a 'Directory for Publick Worship'. In 1645 through 1646, they wrote and developed the Confession with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Scripture verses were added finally in 1647 and Parliament approved the assembly's work in 1648. Their work was magnificent in that they developed and articulated a significant creed and confession for the reform of the English Church.

The Confession itself is much more in depth and broad in its theological formulation than the Synod of Dort's "five points". Rather than merely answering false teaching, such as Arminius's teaching, the Westminster commissioners wrote a systematic treatment of the doctrine deposited in Scripture. The Confession is made up of thirty-three chapters which are articulated from Scripture because this is the only place where God has revealed everything needed for life and doctrine.

An overview of the Confession will show it's depth as well as it's breadth. The following is an overview of the focus of the chapters in the Confession:

  1. On Scripture
  2. On God, the Holy Trinity
  3. God's Eternal Decree
  4. Creation
  5. God's Providence
  6. Sin and the Fall of Man
  7. Covenant
  8. Mediator/Christ
  9. Freewill
  10. Effectual Calling
  11. Justification
  12. Adoption
  13. Sanctification
  14. Saving Faith
  15. Repentance Unto Life
  16. Good Works
  17. Perseverance of the Saints
  18. Assurance of Grace and Salvation
  19. The Law of God
  20. Christian Liberty and Liberty of Conscience
  21. Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day
  22. Lawful Oaths and Vows
  23. Civil Magistrate
  24. Marriage and Divorce
  25. The Church
  26. Communion of Saints
  27. The Sacraments
  28. Baptism
  29. The Lord's Supper
  30. Church Censures
  31. Synods and Councils
  32. State of Men after Death, and of the Resurrection of the Dead
  33. The Last Judgment

One can see that the Confession is built on Scripture alone as developed in the first chapter of the Confession. The Confession articulates the Biblical teaching of God the Holy Trinity as well as God's electing grace in Christ. Chapters 2-5 present a biblically accurate understanding of God the Father; chapters 6-7 present a doctrine of man and his relationship to God; chapter 8 presents a doctrine of Christ the Mediator; chapters 9-18 focus our attention on the Work of the Holy Spirit in the believers life implicitly founded on the union of believers with Christ. In chapter 19, the Law of God and its implications is developed. Chapters 20-24 lay out the biblical doctrine of the Christian life; chapters 25-31 develops a biblical ecclesiology; and chapters 32-33 speak of "last things" and the final judgment. In the Confession we find a comprehensive development of mature Reformed, Biblical teaching.

Both of these historical contexts, the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619 and the Westminster Assembly from 1643-1648, were tumultuous times in different ways. Ultimately, the Reformation doctrines of the 16th century were still being preserved, but they were also being established against the threats of Roman Catholicism, Arminianism, and Anglicanism. In both lands, the Netherlands and England, they had inherited a Reformed tradition that had to be firmly established at this time in history

Although the Netherlands had recently won their independence from a Catholic king, the English were still trying to purify the church according to the Reformation in polity and worship, with hopes to achieve a unity with Scotland and Ireland. Although Charles I did not call the Parliament who called the Westminster Assembly, it was effective for solidifying the Reformed doctrines throughout the world (particularly in America).

In both historical circumstances of political and theological independence and civil war, God's purposes were achieved by faithful men who were fighting the good fight, arguing and articulating the truth contained in Holy Scripture. In spite of Arminius, the Remonstrants, the Roman Catholics, as well as Charles I and II, God established his creeds and confessions for his Church that are still studied and memorized to this day in Reformed and Presbyterian Churches.

Both events happened under the leadership of politicians and kings, and both events changed the history of the church forever. It is not hyperbolic to say that these two confessional and theological events were the most significant work of the Holy Spirit in the Church since the days of the Apostles. To this day, the Netherlands are not unified by the teachings of the Synod of Dort, nor in the Anglican Church do they use the Westminster Confession of Faith, yet Reformed Churches throughout the world still use the foundational theological formulations of these two events, and it is these truths that were articulated that bring unity to Christ's Reformed Churches today.

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