The year 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But there is another upcoming anniversary that is also significant: 2018 and 2019 will mark the 400th anniversary of the Synod of Dordt (1618-19).
Ranking with the Presbyterian Westminster Assembly, the Synod of Dordt is the most significant church assembly in the Reformed tradition, especially for churches of Dutch Reformed heritage. Though it was a Dutch national synod, it had a broad international character, with leading Reformed theologians from eight foreign lands participating with Dutch delegates assembled at the historic Dutch city of Dordrecht.
First of all, the Synod of Dordt addressed a very critical challenge to the Reformed teaching on grace, and related points, from Jacob Arminius and his Arminian followers. The synod responded by formulating the Canons of Dordt, which became, and remains, one of the main doctrinal standards (the “three forms of unity”) of Reformed churches of Dutch heritage.
But the significance of Dordt is much broader. The synod commissioned the States Bible (first published in 1637), which became the standard Dutch Bible translation for more than three centuries, like the King James version became for English readers.
The synod also adopted the Church Order of Dordt, which regulated church life in the Dutch Reformed tradition for two centuries, and longer in some denominations. Even when denominations of Dutch heritage modernized their church orders, the foundation on which revisions were made still remained the Church Order of Dordt. This is clearly the case with the Christian Reformed Church and Reformed Church in America.
The Synod of Dordt also made decisions of lasting significance on a variety of other issues, including catechism teaching, catechism services, Sunday observance, liturgy, theological training and more.
There are a number of initiatives being planned to commemorate the anniversary of Dordt, in North America and in the Netherlands, including the city of Dordrecht. But the largest initiative is the Synod of Dordt project, which aims to publish all the documents of the synod in their original languages (Latin, Dutch, German, French and English) in a series of nine volumes.
The synod had about a hundred delegates and lasted for six and a half months, so it produced a lot of paperwork. Roughly half of the documents of Dordt have never been published and remain scattered in 18 European archives. Much of what has been published only appeared in seventeenth century editions. Even the original acts of the synod were never published until the first volume of this project. What was published in 1620 was a highly edited and politically motivated edition of the acts by the Dutch government.
Several years ago an international team of scholars was assembled to publish this series. Under the general editorship of myself, Christian Moser from Switzerland and Herman Selderhuis from the Netherlands, a team of about 45 European and North American contributing editors is working to transcribe and edit individual documents for publication.
The documents include not only the official documents produced by the synod, but also personal documents, such as letters and a dozen journals kept by several delegates and observers that provide more colourful and detailed reports of the deliberations at the synod than the official acts.
Focus on God’s sovereign grace
One significant part of the collection is more than 100 documents that were part of the process to draft the Canons of Dordt. The actual drafting of the Canons was done by a committee over the course of three weeks, after several months of debate of the issues at the synod. But each of the 19 delegations at the synod also had the opportunity to give their input three times in the drafting process. The result is that the Canons were a very carefully crafted and nuanced document that provides perhaps the best Reformed statement on the issue of how God’s sovereign grace relates to human responsibility in the matter of salvation. Publication of these drafting documents will enable scholars to see the thinking and concerns that went into the drafting process and provide a more historically sensitive interpretation of the Canons.
The first volume of the series, titled Acta et Documenta Synodi Nationalis Dordrechtanae, has already been published. It contains four versions of the acts of the synod, including the original Acta Authentica.
The second volume, which covers preliminaries to the synod and the early sessions, will be published this year. It is hoped that several more volumes will be completed by the time of the 2019 commemoration of the synod. The series is being printed by the German publisher Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht.
With the publication of this whole series, the materials of the Synod of Dordt will be readily accessible, and it is expected that this will stimulate renewed interest in the synod and its major significance for the Reformed tradition. Though not a part of this project, it is also expected that this will inspire English translations of some of the most important documents of Dordt.