Are There Really Five Points of Calvinism?

The end of 2018 through the beginning of 2019 will mark the four hundredth anniversary of the Synod of Dort (held November 13–May 29) and its greatest achievement: the Canons of Dort.1 This synod or ecclesiastical assembly of professors, pastors, and politicians from throughout Reformed regions in Europe gathered in the city of Dort in the Netherlands to debate and deliberate how to respond to the teachings of Jacobus (James) Arminius and his followers. The result was its canons or theological rules.

So often in popular imagination the canons are called “the five points of Calvinism.” Preachers preach series through the so-called five points using the canons as support. Writers constantly produce books on the so-called five points. In this first of five articles on the canons I want to propose the provocative thesis that there’s no such thing as the five points of Calvinism.  Let’s go back to the beginning of the seventeenth century to the major theological and spiritual fight about grace that culminated at the Synod of Dort to understand why.

The Reformation Goes Down to the Netherlands

The strife at Dort was just one episode in a larger drama that hit the scene of Europe in what we know as the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. The Reformation didn’t come out of nowhere but was rooted in a series of lengthy medieval debates.2 For a century and a half “reformation” movements found a home in the Netherlands: the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Brethren of the Common Life. It’s said that on the eve of the Reformation even Frisian fisherman who lived in huts could read, write, and discuss biblical interpretation.3 Then came Martin Luther (1483–1546), whose translation of the Old Testament (1522) and complete Bible (1534) was translated into Dutch and used by Augustinian monks in preaching in the Netherlands. In the 1530s “radical” reformation came in the form of the Anabaptist movement, and soon after, Reformed theology infiltrated the southern Netherlands around the year 1544 while it wasn’t until the 1560s that it spread to the northern provinces.

At the time of the Reformation, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558) ruled the Netherlands. Proving that all politics is local, he was a popular ruler having been raised in the Netherlands while ruling as the count of each of the seventeen territories individually via local men to stand in his place as stahouder  (“steward”). After Charles retired out of public life to a monastery in 1556, his son Phillip II of Spain (1527–1598) took rule. But the apple fell very far from the tree. He was despised by all groups, especially Protestants, for his persecution that forbade reading and possessing forbidden books, worshipping outside the Roman Church, talking or disputing openly or secretly about the Scriptures and especially difficult doctrines. He even had a law conscripting the citizenry into his information apparatus that said if you failed to inform the authorities of someone later found to be a heretic, you would be guilty of treason. Tensions boiled over in 1566 with a revolt over images and statues in the churches called the beeldenstorm,  “the statue storm,” leading to a vicious inquisition.

Resistance coalesced in 1572 under the leadership of William of Orange (1533–1584), the leading noble in The Netherlands. The ten southern provinces united in the Catholic Union of Arras in January 1579 while the seven northernmost provinces formed the Union of Utrecht. Philip besieged Leiden, attempting to divide the seven provinces in two. William’s army wasn’t large enough to end the siege directly, but his plan was the stuff of military legend: he convinced the city officials to put out the fires of war by breaking the dikes and flooding the city so he could fight with his navy! After victory, William offered the city perpetual non-taxation. Instead, they asked for a university.

The new United Provinces rejected Phillip’s rule in 1582 with William as Stadhouder.  When he was assassinated in 1584, his son, Prince Maurice of Nassau (1567–1625), a strong military leader, became Stadhouder  while Johan van Oldenbarneveldt (1547–1619) became its Landsadvocaat  (“land’s advocate”) or the chairman of the republican government.

Every Story Needs a Boogeyman

Decades of struggle within the Dutch Reformed churches ensued and came to a head in the person of Jakob Hermanszoon (1559–1609), Latinized as Jacobus Arminius.4 Arminius became the twelfth student at that upstart University of Leiden (1576–1581).5 After six years of study he took an academic pilgrimage (peregrinatio academica) in Geneva under Theodore Beza (1519–1605), Basel, and Padua. Upon his return, Beza wrote a glowing letter of recommendation for Arminius’s ordination, saying, “God has gifted him with an apt intellect both as respects the apprehension and the discrimination of things” and that “unquestionably, so far as we are able to judge, [is] most worthy of your kindness and liberality.”6 In August 1588 Arminius became one of the pastors of the Reformed church in Amsterdam, signing the Form of Subscription to the Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic Confession.7

Like all good young Reformed preachers, Arminius began with Romans. No doubt a comment on his own angst as a young pastor looking for fruit in his ministry, Arminius said that his hearers “would have been better off if they had remained in the Roman Catholic Church, because then at least they would be doing good works in the hope of eternal reward while now they did none at all.”8 When he came to Romans 5 he said death was inevitable even if Adam had obeyed the Lord’s command.9 By 1591 he said in Romans 7 Paul was speaking of the unregenerate man, meaning, even after the Fall man had free will.10 By 1592 he made it to Romans 9 and got into even more trouble suggesting that “Jacob I loved and Esau I hated” meant not individual but classes of people.11 Arminius joined a larger controversy on the doctrine of predestination within the Reformed churches in England and the Netherlands as well as the Roman Catholic Church. As Richard Muller notes,

the view of grace and election expressed by Arminius was not some new invention brought about by a close analysis of problems in the Reformed doctrine, but a doctrinal perspective similar both to late medieval doctrines of grace and election and to the views of several British writers who protested against the Reformed doctrine of predestination at Cambridge only a decade before Arminus and profoundly akin to the views expressed by Roman Catholic opponents of Michael Baius during the same period.12

In 1602–1603, the plague took the lives of thousands in the Netherlands, including two of the three theological faculty at Leiden: Lucas Trelcatius (1542–1602) and Franciscus Junius the Elder (1545–1602). Only Franciscus Gomarus (1563–1641) survived. Never wanting a good crisis to go to waste, the avantgarde members of the government appointed Arminius to the faculty, which concerned “strict” Calvinist ministers. Gomarus agreed to interview Arminius as a precaution and was satisfied. Within a couple of years, though, questions began to surface about Arminius’s theology. Gomarus became convinced that Arminius was undermining the chief article of the church, the doctrine of justification by faith alone: “I would not dare to appear before God’s throne if I believed what Arminius does.”13

Many ministers in the Netherlands called for a national synod, which had not been held since 1586, in The Hague.14 Yet most of the nobles and politicians were on the side of Arminius. In 1607 the Regional Synod of South Holland dealt with complaints about his theology. The political commissioner conveyed the grievances to Arminius, who agreed to a friendly conference with Gomarus later that year, but nothing was settled. In 1609 a second meeting was held, but again, with no resolution. Then Arminius died.15

The Remonstrants Remonstrate with a Remonstrance

The death of Professor Arminius did not end the strife. On January 14, 1610, forty-six ministers gathered in the city of Gouda and crossed the Rubicon. Led by Johannes Uytenbogaert (1557–1644), the court preacher, with support by van Oldenbarneveldt, they were convinced that their views should be tolerated. They prepared a document to this effect called The Remonstrance  (a public protest), which contained five points. This party of ministers became known as the Remonstrants (protesters).

In their five points they taught that God’s election of sinners was not grounded in his will and love alone but was conditioned by, and based upon, the foreseen faith of sinful men. They taught that Christ died “universally,” that is, for the sins of every man in precisely the same way. They taught that man was sinful yet, by the act of his free will, could resist the grace of the Holy Spirit. And they taught that no man in this life could have the assurance that he was a child of God, because there was always the possibility of losing one’s salvation.16

These theological tensions didn’t exist in an ivory tower, though. While the young republic had just come out of war it was facing inevitable war again. The end of the 1609 Twelve Years’ Truce with Spain was on the horizon. Under this pressure the two theological sides met from March 10–25 and May 11–20, 1611, in The Hague (Collatio Hagiensis ). But again, this was to no avail. By summer 1617, under the influence of Sir Dudley Carleton, English ambassador to the Netherlands, Prince Maurice aligned himself with the orthodox Reformed. In response, van Oldenbarneveldt rallied the provinces of Holland and West Friesland to issue “The Sharp Resolution” (De Scherpe Resolutie ), stating that no national synod would be held and that local magistrates were allowed to raise militias to ensure this. Maurice showed that it was better to speak softly and carry a big stick. Unlike van Oldenbarneveldt, he had a standing army that disarmed these local militias on July 31, 1618, paving the way for the synod. The fledgling republic and fractured Reformed Church was on the verge of civil war; all the while Spain prepared for 1621.

The Synod of Dort

The decision to hold a national synod within the Dutch Reformed Church soon became an opportunity for an international synod at the urging of King James I of England (1566–1625). Invitations were then sent on July 25, 1618, to Reformed principalities across Europe to send their best theologians to help settle the strife. Eventually on April 26, 1619, the canons were presented to the States General. On May 6, 1619, the delegates processed down the street to the Grote Kerk (“Great Church”) of Dordrecht for a public reading of the canons aloud in Dutch. Each signatory’s name was read after which each tipped his hat.17

The Canons, or There is No Such Thing as “the Five Points of Calvinism”

The main thing to keep in mind is that it was the Remonstrants who put forward five points; synod responded with counterpoints. This means that what Reformed churches believe is not summarized in the Canons of Dort or in their modern overly simplified acronym,  TULIP ( Total depravity;  Unconditional election; Limited atonement;  Irresistible grace; Perseverance of the saints).18 This acronym is a product of the early twentieth century19 and reorders the actual points of both the Remonstrants and response in the canons, plus it would have been impossible to come up with since the Dutch word for tulip is tulp.20 According to Muller it’s:

incorrect to identify the five points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. In other words, it would be a major error—both historically and doctrinally—if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism.21

What Reformed churches believe is most fully confessed in the 37 articles of the Belgic Confession and 129 questions and answers of the Heidelberg Catechism.22 Before Dort there was 166-point Calvinism; after Dort added its 93 articles and rejections there is 259-point Calvinism. And we think being a 5-pointer is really flexing some theological muscle! Again, Muller says,

There are, therefore, more than five points and—as far as the confessions and the Reformed dogmaticians from Calvin to Kuyper are concerned—there cannot be such a thing as a “five-point Calvinist” or “five-point Reformed Christian” who owns just those five articles taken from the Canons of Dort and who refuses to accept the other “points” made by genuinely Reformed theology.23 

1. Also spelled Dordt or Dordrecht.

2. See especially the works of Heiko Oberman, The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (1963; rev. ed., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967); Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thoughts Illustrated by Key Documents, translations by Paul L. Nyhus (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966); The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought (1986; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992)

3. Peter Y. De Jong, “The Rise of the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands,” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches: Essays in Commemoration of the Great Synod of Dort (1968; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Fellowship, Inc., 2008), 6.

4. For works on Arminius, see Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985); Richard A. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991); Keith D. Stanglin, Arminius on the Assurance of Salvation: The Context, Roots, and Shape of the Leiden Debate, 1603–1609, Brill’s Series in Church History 27 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Arminius, Arminianism, and Europe: Jacobus Arminius (1559/60–1609), ed. Th. Marius van Leeuwen, Keith D. Stanglin, and Marijke Tolsma, Brill’s Series in Church History 39 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); The Missing Public Disputations of Jacobus Arminius: Introduction, Text, and Notes, ed. Keith D. Stanglin, Brill’s Series in Church History 47 (Leiden: Brill, 2010); William den Boer, God’s Twofold Love: The Theology of Arminius (1559–1609), trans. Albert Gootjes, Reformed Historical Theology 14 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010); Keith D. Stanglin and Thomas H. McCall, Jacob Arminius: Theologian of Grace (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

5. Bangs, Arminius, 47.

6. Casper Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., trans. John Guthrie (London: Ward & Co., 1854), 24.

7. van Lieburg, “Gisbertus Samuels,” 2. Godfrey, Subscription chapter.

8. Louis Praasma, “The Background of the Arminian Controversy (1586–1618),” in Crisis in the Reformed Churches, 27.

9. Peter G. Feenstra, Unspeakable Comfort: A Commentary on the Canons of Dort (Winnipeg: Premier Publishing, 1997), 7; Venema, 11.

10. Muller, “Arminus and Arminianism,” 33; Venema, 11. See his posthumously published “Dissertation on the True and Genuine Sense of the Seventh Chapter of the Epistle to the Romans,” in The Works of James Arminius: Volume 2, trans. James Nichols (1828; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 471–683.

11. van Lieburg, “Gisbertus Samuels,” 7. See his posthumously published “Friendly Conference with Dr. F. Junius,” in The Works of James Arminius, vol. 3, trans. William Nichols (1875; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1999), 1–235.

12. Muller, God, Creation, and Providence in the Thought of Jacob Arminius, 13.

13. Feenstra, Unspeakable Comfort, 8.

14. Church Order, article 44 in P. Biesterveld and H. H. Kuyper, Ecclesiastical Manual, trans. Richard R. De Ridder (Grand Rapids: Calvin Theological Seminary, 1982), 148.

15. On the heart of Arminius’s theology being the justice of God (iustitia Dei), see William den Boer, “Defense or Deviation? A Reexamination of Arminius’ Motives to Deviate from the ‘Mainstream’ Reformed Theology,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort (1618–1619), ed. Aza Goudriaan and Fred van Lieburg, Brill’s Series in Church History 49 (Leiden: Brill, 2011), 23–47.

16. See the Remonstrant Articles at the beginning chapters 1, 3, 5, and 7.

17. Cited in Sinnema, “The Canons of Dordt: From Judgment on Arminianism to Confessional Standard,” in Revisiting the Synod of Dort, 325.

18. de Witt, “The Arminian Conflict and the Synod of Dort,” 22–23.

19. For the documentary evidence, see Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 291–92.

20. See Richard A. Muller, “Was Calvin a Calvinist? Or, Did Calvin (or Anyone Else in the Early Modern Era) Plant the ‘TULIP’?,”–26–09.pdf, accessed April 6, 2018.

21. Richard Muller, “How Many Points?” Calvin Theological Journal 28:2 (November 1993): 426.

22. On the subject of historic Protestant churches being confessional churches, see Daniel R. Hyde, The Good Confession: An Exploration of the Christian Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 7–28; Welcome to a Reformed Church: A Guide for Pilgrims (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2010), 1–34.

23. Muller, “How Many Points?,” 427.

Rev. Daniel R. Hyde is the pastor of Oceanside United Reformed Church in Carlsbad/Oceanside, CA. He is the author of Grace Worth Fighting For: Recapturing the Vision of God’s Grace in the Canons of Dort (Davenant Institute, forthcoming 2019).