Dueling for Christ at Dort?

As everyone in the Reformed world surely knows by now, 2019 marks 400 years since the Synod of Dort wrapped up proceedings and bequeathed to the Protestant Reformed family of churches that glorious statement of Reformed doctrine known as the Canons of Dort. Commemoration and celebration of Dort and her Canons properly began last November, in conjunction with the start date of the Synod. Celebrations will, one presumes, conclude this May, which marks the month the Canons of Dort were officially promulgated by the Synod. Commemoration and celebration are certainly in order, although we must, as ever, take care to keep commemoration from devolving into commercialization, a danger that attends centenary celebrations and threatens, through the process of historical simplification that naturally attends commercialization of historical events, to subvert rather than support critical and constructive engagement with the past.

Regardless, one episode in Dort's proceedings less likely than others to receive attention, but arguably deserving it, is the duel that almost took place between Reformed delegates in January of 1619 during Dort's 65th session. The immediate occasion of conflict was disagreement about how to interpret Paul's declaration in Eph. 1:4 that God "chose us in him [i.e., Christ] before the foundation of the world," disagreement that reflected more fundamental disparity in lapsarian positions (that is, positions on how to relate God's eternal decree of election to his decree to permit the Fall).

Franciscus Gomarus, a Dutch delegate at Dort, expressed, relative to this text, his opinion that Paul's words identified Christ -- the incarnate Son of God -- as the means by which God's decree of election was and is realized, and so as the foundation (fundamentum) of the benefits bestowed in time upon God's elect, but not as the foundation of divine election per se. Gomarus's opinion reflected his supralapsarian perspective. Supralapsarianism situates God's decree of election several logical steps before God's decree of the Son's incarnation, and so names the incarnation (and life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ) as the means by which God's decree of election is realized.

Matthias Martinius, the delegate from Bremen, took exception to Gomarus's reading of Eph. 1:4, believing it failed to do justice to Paul's assertion of our election in Christ. Martinius essentially accused Gomarus of twisting Paul's words to read something like this: "God chose us before the foundation of the world and brought that choice to fruition in him." Gomarus, in other words, reduced Christ to the "effector of our election." Martinius believed Paul's words required recognition of the incarnate Son as "the author and procurer" of election in addition to the means by which election is realized. Martinius's argument theoretically reflected his own infralapsarian position. Infralapsarianism makes God's decree of election logically subsequent to God's decree to permit the Fall (thereby making fallen and culpable, rather than fallible and morally neutral, human beings the objects of election and reprobation), and so places God's decree of election in closer proximity to God's decree of the incarnation. That said, it could be argued that Martinius's lapsarian scheme failed just as much Gomarus's to make adequate sense of Eph. 1:4, since both traditional lapsarian positions place the incarnation -- the event that permits us to name the eternal Son as Jesus Christ -- after the decree of election. Regardless, Martinius's intent was clear; he wished to do justice to Scripture's teaching that God elects believers in Christ (and so, somehow, with a view already towards the incarnation of the Son).

In any case, Gomarus was not impressed with Martinius's words. According to John Hales, an English divine who observed and reported events at Dort to England's ambassador Dudley Carleton, Gomarus stood when Martinius spoke and declared, "Ego hanc rem in me recipio," that is, "I take this thing [i.e., these words] to be against me." Gomarus then, Hales writes, threw his glove upon the floor, "require[d] the Synod to grant them a duel," and expressed his confidence that his reading of Eph. 1:4 could withstand criticism from Martinius. To all appearances, Gomarus judged Martinius his inferior both in swordmanship and exegetical ability, unless, of course, his intention was to be martyred for the supralapsarian cause (and so, perhaps, to further it).

Thankfully, Gomarus's challenge came to nothing, not by virtue of any apparent retraction on his part (in fact, he renewed his challenge at day's end), but rather by virtue of Martinius's more peaceful disposition and the collective moderation of the Synod.

That collective moderation was ultimately reflected as much in the Synod's Canons as it was in Gomarus's failed efforts to secure a duel with/from his peers. The Synod ruled certain theological positions out of bounds, but very intentionally crafted Canons that would preserve the diversity of Reformed views represented at the Synod (regarding both the precise object of election/reprobation and the way in which Christ's efficacious sacrifice for the elect on the cross should be calibrated against the effect, if any, his death had upon the reprobate). To the extent that Gomarus's failure to bring delegates to physical blows reflects a profound truth about the spirit and work of the Synod of Dort more broadly, perhaps that failure is in fact worth celebrating. (Failed-duel day, anyone? Our church calendar is so thin...We need something to tide us over to Reformation day.)

The Reformed world will always have its Gomaruses, i.e., less moderate individuals, who perhaps fail to temper theological conviction with Christian charity and respect for the distinction between fundamental and secondary doctrines. Some present-day Gomarusus in our midst seem determined, somewhat ironically it must be said, to capitalize on Dort's anniversary by denying that much diversity of opinion and/or generosity of spirit actually prevailed there, despite the overwhelming scholarly consensus that such diversity existed and, for that matter, reflected the spirit of Reformed theology and practice from its inception (think Zurich Consensus, and see, on Dort itself, works by John Fesko, Anthony Milton, Robert Godfrey, and Jonathan Moore). Efforts to revise Dort's history in this direction are driven, of course, by contemporary agendas, and they serve (again, somewhat ironically, it must be said) to subvert the tolerance for differing convictions on secondary doctrines and generosity towards peers necessarily entailed in genuine respect for, and subscription to, the historic Reformed confessions in some specific manifestation (say, the Three Forms of Unity). Conviction regarding theological matters is, of course, commendable (relative to Dort, I'm an infralapsarian particularist of the Owen/Turretin variety, if anyone cares). Challenging others within one's confessional camp to duels and/or rewriting history to undermine a Reformed brother's (or sister's) opinions, assuming such opinions genuinely fall within confessional boundaries, is less commendable.

I'm confident, however, that a spirit of moderation will prevail in the confessional Reformed world, and will, indeed, continue to accommodate both the Gomaruses and the Martiniuses among us. Some intentional effort towards that end on our part, aided by some historical awareness, wouldn't hurt things.