When we think of the Synod of Dort and their rulings (canons) against the Remonstrants (Arminians) we tend to think about the doctrine of sin or the doctrines of unconditional grace, election, and the like but there were structural, subterranean issues at stake. One of the great underlying issues at the Synod was the very nature of the gospel. Is the good news that God has elected conditions and made salvation possible for those who do their part? This was the message of the Remonstrants. It was a categorical rejection of the Protestant Reformation. This is how Bob Godfrey explains the Canons of Dort in his new commentary on the Canons of Dort, Saving the Reformation: The Pastoral Theology of the Canons of Dort. (Here is an interview with Bob about this wonderful book).
The revisions of the Reformation theology, that salvation is by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide) proposed by the Remonstrants were fatal to the good news. They also rested on a hermeneutical foundation. Hermeneutics is the study of the interpretation of texts. The study of biblical interpretation is, of course, biblical hermeneutics. The Reformation had a hermeneutic, i.e., a way of interpreting Scripture. It was in contrast to the medieval approach to Scripture whereby Scripture was understood to be entirely composed of law. The Old Testament was said to be the “old law,” and the New Testament was said to be “the new law.” When medieval theologians spoke of “the gospel,” they meant “the new law.”
By contrast, the Reformation theologians and churches came to understand Scripture to contain two distinct ways of speaking: the law and the gospel. In this way of reading Scripture, the law says: “do this and live.” The gospel says, “Christ has done for you.” This distinction was fundamental to the Reformation. The Remonstrants, however, were dissatisfied with this way of understanding Scripture—even though Arminius himself postured as a defender of the gospel, e.g., in his exposition of Romans 9. I have been arguing all along that the effect of the Remonstrant revisions was to put the Christian back under the covenant of works. They did this for the reason that moralists always do it, in order to produce more sanctity and good works. History shows, however, that this approach has never worked. The spiritual and moral state of the pre-Reformation church was, according to most observers, deplorable.
Part of the Remonstrant program was to downplay the effects of the fall. We are sinful, they said, but not so sinful that we cannot cooperate with grace unto salvation. As part of that program they played up the potential of the law as revealed in nature and in Scripture. It was a Reformed commonplace that the natural law is substantially the moral law and it was the moral law that was revealed in the garden. That same law was expressed at Sinai and in the consciences of every person (see the resources below).
It is against the Remonstrant revisions of Reformed theology that we must understand Synod’s language about natural law. In the Modern period, there has developed a fairly strong animus against the very idea of natural revelation or natural law especially among those influenced by Karl Barth. The historic Christian doctrine of natural law has also been rejected by those influenced by the Christian Reconstruction movement and by the theonomic ethic.
There is, to be sure, a certain light of nature remaining in man after the fall, by virtue of which he retains some notions about God, natural things, and the difference between what is moral and immoral, and demonstrates a certain eagerness for virtue and for good outward behavior. But this light of nature is far from enabling man to come to a saving knowledge of God and conversion to him—so far, in fact, that man does not use it rightly even in matters of nature and society. Instead, in various ways he completely distorts this light, whatever its precise character, and suppresses it in unrighteousness. In doing so he renders himself without excuse before God (Canons of Dort, 3/4.4).
First, we should note that Synod affirms the existence and use of natural revelation and natural law. Fundamentally, natural law deprives the unbeliever of any excuse before God. Every human is made in the image of God and every human knows what God requires, what he required of Adam in the garden: that we love God with all our faculty and our neighbor as ourselves.
The natural law does what law does: it convicts us of our sin. It also norms our behavior. it is the measure of sin—sin is lawlessness, i.e., the transgression of or lack of conformity to the law (Westminster Shorter Catechism 14).
There are things, however, as Synod says, that law cannot do. Here we see the Protestant distinction between law and gospel. Against the Remonstrants, the law does not enable us to come to a saving knowledge of God. Remember, some Remonstrants taught that very thing.
Synod implicitly affirmed the role of natural law (also known as general equity) had a vital role in civil life but that law in civil life did not lead to salvation. Any such teaching would be Pelagian and the Synod was nothing if not anti-Pelagian.
In this respect, what is true of the light of nature is true also of the Ten Commandments given by God through Moses specifically to the Jews. For man cannot obtain saving grace through the Decalogue, because, although it does expose the magnitude of his sin and increasingly convict him of his guilt, yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery, and, indeed, weakened as it is by the flesh, leaves the offender under the curse (Canons of Dort, 3/4.5).
Again, the law only does what the law does: it convicts sinners of sin, norms civil life (the state enforces the second table, i.e., do not murder, do not steal etc), and it norms the Christian life but the law (“do this and live”) does not give new life. It is not good news for sinners. It is bad news. Synod’s language here is as strong as Luther’s: “yet it does not offer a remedy or enable him to escape from his misery…”.
What, therefore, neither the light of nature nor the law can do, God accomplishes by the power of the Holy Spirit, through the Word or the ministry of reconciliation. This is the gospel about the Messiah, through which it has pleased God to save believers, in both the Old and the New Testament (Canons of Dort, 3/4.6).
The gospel is a different kind of word. The Spirit uses the good news to accomplish what the law could never do: give new life and true faith. Here Synod was simply re-affirming the doctrine of Heidelberg Catechism 65: “The Holy Spirit works faith in our hearts by the preaching of the Holy Gospel, and confirms it by the use of the Holy Sacraments.”
The gospel is not new. It is found throughout Scripture. God promised it to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15 and repeated it to Noah (Gen 6:18–7:3), to Abraham (e.g., Gen 15:6), to Moses, to David, and through the prophets (e.g., Isa 52:13–53:12). Our Lord himself taught his disciples (Luke 24) that all the Scriptures proclaim him. Stephen testified to this understanding before his martyrdom (Acts 7).
So, the distinction between law and gospel, in this sense, is not a distinction between the Old and New Testaments but a distinction between two kinds of words in Scripture. Synod re-asserted it because the Remonstrants denied it just as they had denied the biblical, Augustinian doctrine of sin and grace. These doctrines, that of natural law and the distinction between law and gospel are traditional Reformed doctrines that were strangely obscured in the 20th century but they are plainly important truths that we need to affirm in order to understand our faith and the teaching of Scripture.
- On the Distinction Between Law and Gospel.
- Natural Law and Light in the Reformed Confessions.
- Do the Canons of Dort Reject Natural Law?
- The Abiding Validity Of Creational Law in Exhaustive Detail
- Is Natural Law Theocratic?
- Calvin and the Lex Naturalis
- David VanDrunen, Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms: A Study in the Development in Reformed Social Thought.
- More Resources on Natural Law
- Resources on Theonomy
The Canons of Dort as translated and published by the United Reformed Churches in North America, 2018.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido.