The Synod of Dort gathered for several reasons but among them two were chief: to defend basic Augustinian anti-Pelagian theology and preserve the Protestant Reformation doctrines of salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide). They Reformed churches from across Europe and the British Isles were responding to the five points of the Remonstrants, which had the effect of making our salvation conditional (and thus essentially legal) rather than unconditional or essentially gracious.
In response the Reformed Churches re-asserted the biblical doctrine of election:
VII. Election is the unchangeable purpose of God, whereby, before the foundation of the world, he hath, out of mere grace, according to the sovereign good pleasure of his own will, chosen, from the whole human race, which had fallen through their own fault, from their primitive state of rectitude, into sin and destruction, a certain number of persons to redemption in Christ, whom he from eternity appointed the Mediator and head of the elect, and the foundation of salvation. (CD 1.7a)
First of all, God elects. This is not only a plainly biblical doctrine but an ancient Christian doctrine held hundreds of years before Augustine and after him. Thomas Aquinas taught unconditional election and even the doctrine of reprobation in his Summa Theologica. It was the shared doctrine of the magisterial Protestant Reformers. It is not an exotic doctrine but a basic doctrine. That so many have come to see it as the unique possession of “the Calvinists” (as though the Reformed invented the doctrine of election) only illustrates how historically and doctrinally impoverished they are.
Further, election is not conditioned upon anything foreseen in us or done by us. This is what it means to say, “out of mere grace.” Here Synod is simply paraphrasing Ephesians 1. We know that it is out of “mere grace” because it is not the righteous whom God elects but the fallen. This implies that there is an order of thought in the way God reveals the doctrine of election. There were in the period two schools among the orthodox Reformed. One group, known as the Supralapsarians, held that God elects some and reprobates others out of what are considered potential creatures. In other words, they are not considered as created and fallen. The other group, the infralapsarians, held that the elect and the reprobate are regarded, in Scripture, as created and fallen and that it is out of the mass of fallen humanity that the elect are called and that the reprobate are permitted to remain in their fallen state.
Through much of the 20th century it became fashionable to dismiss this debate as arcane, as unhelpful, and even as speculative and unduly curious. The Synod, however, did not look at this way and took a position on it. In The History of Christian Doctrines (p, 157) Louis Berkhof summarizes the teaching of this article of the first head of doctrine, “Election is from the fallen race, subject to condemnation on account of the sin of Adam; and reprobation consists in preterition, the passing by of a certain number of the fallen race, leaving them in their ruin, and condemnation on account of their sin.”
In short, the Synod of Dort sided with the infralapsarians. This is a little ironic because the leading opponent of Arminius before the Synod was Franciscus Gormarus, who held the supralapsarian view. Synod did not condemn the supralapsarian position and several orthodox theologians taught it before, during, and after synod. In the modern period, however, the predominant version of supralapsarianism has become something of a caricature of the earlier, more nuanced, versions. Today, there are those who hold and teach this caricature and who absurdly condemn as “Arminian” anyone who holds the infralapsarian view taught by Dort. Anyone who condemns the Synod of Dort as Arminian is not worthy of further attention.
This elect number, though by nature neither better nor more deserving than others, but with them involved in one common misery, God hath decreed to give to Christ to be saved by him, and effectually to call and draw them to his communion by his Word and Spirit; to bestow upon them true faith, justification, and sanctification; and having powerfully preserved them in the fellowship of his Son, finally to glorify them for the demonstration of his mercy, and for the praise of the riches of his glorious grace: as it is written, ‘According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to himself, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of the glory of his grace, wherein he hath made us accepted in the Beloved’ (Eph. 1:4–6). And elsewhere, ‘Whom he did predestinate, them he also called; and whom he called, them he also justified; and whom he justified, them he also glorified’ (Rom. 8:30).
Here synod responded to a caricature of the Reformed view made by the Remonstrants. Election is unconditioned and therefore there was nothing in the elect that caused God to choose them. The elect were chosen out of what Augustine called the “mass of damnation.” He does so through what the Westminster Divines called the “due use of ordinary means,” and what Heidelberg 65 calls as the preaching of the gospel. He bestows upon his elect the benefits of Christ, salvation, i.e., justification and sanctification (and ultimately glorification). This part of the article invokes Ephesians 1 again and also Romans 8.
Synod here is also affirming another doctrine that has fallen into disfavor in the modern period: the order of salvation (ordo salutis). They were driven to it by Scripture (e.g., Rom 8:30) but also by the nature of the case. Just as the Reformation was a debate about the order of order of salvation (are we justified because we are sanctified or sanctified because we are justified?) so the Remonstrant controversy was an argument about the order of salvation. The Remonstrants were proposing a different order of salvation. Synod re-asserted the biblical order: it is the elect who are effectually called, it is those who are effectually called who are given new life, it is those who are given new life who come to faith, it is those who believe, who are justified, united to Christ, and adopted as sons, and it is those who are called who are sanctified and glorified.
Salvation is by grace alone but it is through faith alone and that faith and salvation are nothing but God’s free, unconditional gifts to his elect.
—R. Scott Clark, Escondido