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Final Reflections on the Canons of Dort

All too often in life we complete one task and then almost immediately move on to the next task without even pausing to celebrate what we have done or reflect on how we were affected by what we have done. So rather than just moving on to what is next after completing this half year journey through the Canons of Dort, it seems right for me to pause and reflect on what I have seen and discovered in this time of reading, thinking, and seeking to explain the Canons of Dort. As I reflect on the Canons and my experience, there are a few lessons and thoughts I want to pass along.

Remember to Reach Your Own Conclusions and Only After Trying Something

People often reject an idea or say they don’t like something without even really considering or trying it themselves (kids do this with food all the time!). In the same way, some people say they don’t like the teachings of the Canons of Dort but have never actually read them. In order to understand or make a judgment about something, you need to know firsthand what you are talking about. A singular reading might not be sufficient, but a thorough, careful reading will give you the basis on which to draw a conclusion. If you have problems with the Canons of Dort, don’t run from it, but instead seek to study it to see what it teaches. Perhaps your problems are a result of how people have explained it rather than from the ideas themselves.

Remember the Context

When you read and try to understand documents, it is important to remember when and why documents were written. For example, it is important to know the Canons of Dort were written in response to questions of the time and to settle disputes. If you don’t pay attention to the context, you can easily overlook key points or heighten things that were not intended to be controversial or important. In addition, knowing that the Canons of Dort were a response to the writings of the Remonstrants shows that these teachings were not singled out by Reformed thinkers as the most important doctrines, but were controversial and needed clarification. At the risk of saying, “They started it”, we need to remember that the summary of Reformed thought is found in the Belgic Confession, with the Canons of Dort clarifying questions that arise from that document.

Remember the Mystery

While the Canons of Dort do clarify some ideas, they do not answer every question people might ask and how God is sovereign over all things (including salvation) and humans are still responsible remains a mystery. God is the author of salvation, but not the author of sin; God saves those whom He chooses and those who are not saved are condemned because of their own choices. Theology involves mystery as we are dealing with realms beyond our finite comprehension, so we are to discover what is revealed but should not go further, letting God be God and mystery remain.  

Remember That Affirmations Leads to Denials

The structure of each article of the Canons is to affirm things and then to reject certain errors. We need to recognize that when we say yes to one thing, we say no to another. That does not mean that we are “against” something per se, but rather that what we are “for” has implications.

Remember Unity

People have debated the Canons of Dort since their writing (and they were written because of disputes!), and the reason for the document was to bring unity to the church. It was to clarify what the church of the Netherlands believed. The Canons, along with the Belgic Confession and  Heidelberg Catechism, have been known as the “Three Forms of Unity”. By laying forth these doctrines, the Canons provide a unified foundation for churches in different places. They basically say that if a minister is out of accord with them, there is no place for him to be a teacher in this particular church fellowship. This document therefore seeks to eliminate some of these arguments; if someone disagrees (as one is free to do), they can establish another institution or branch with its own explanation of doctrine. Rather than confuse people in a church with shifting teachings from one pastor to another, this document provides a basis for unity and peace and can thus allow a church to focus on mission rather than debating things internally. I think that is very helpful.

Remember the Grace of God

The Canons of Dort seek to emphasize underline the grace of God and explain how the Bible teaches that God is able to save sinners who are utterly lost in sin, who are dead in their sins and transgressions. It should lead to thankfulness, humility, worship, and a passion to share this grace with others, not for the sake of knowledge, but so they can experience this grace for themselves. The Canons of Dort do not discourage evangelism but speak about a true offer of the gospel to sinners. Let us not lose track of that pastoral heart.

What’s Next?

Now that we have concluded our study on  the Canons of Dort and have paused to reflect on this, it is time to move on.  If you have any ideas for another series or topic, please send your suggestions my way.

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