Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

The Reformation in the Netherlands

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
In our previous article we only introduced the topic of the Reformation in England. We will leave it at that since the subsequent history is so rich and varied that we could never deal with it in this series of articles. It is our purpose to give an overview of that part of the ChurchÕs history which most directly affects us. However, this means that the closer we come to our own age, the narrower will be the scope of our review. For further easy reading in the history of the English speaking part of GodÕs church, I recommend especially S. M. HoughtonÕs Sketches from Church History and R. B. KuiperÕs The Church in History. As we now move to the Dutch scene, we again will be very superficial in our treatment of the issues. Serious students will know where to find more information.
Although the Netherlands was a nation of staid people, mainly engaged in farming, fishing and trading, when the religious issues came to a head here, the country exploded. The earlier influences of the Renaissance (Erasmus of Rotterdam!) and of LutherÕs teachings had made some inroads; however, the doctrines taught by John Calvin won the day handily. Holland became a Reformed nation, but never as much as many people think. [It must be remembered that the Netherlands then included also Belgium and, when the issues were finally settled, many of the Roman Catholic adherents settled in these southern provinces. That is why even today the southern provinces of the Netherlands and all of Belgium are strongly Roman Catholic.]

The Struggle for Freedom
Although part of the empire, under Charles V this area had enjoyed a high degree of autonomy under local princes. CharlesÕ son, Philip II (1556-98) was a staunch Catholic who was determined to wipe out this new religion. This also gave him an opportunity to gain stronger political control over this part of his realm. The result of his efforts was to identify Protestantism with the struggle for freedom and independence. In 1566 some extreme factions of the Calvinists in the Netherlands went on various rampages, destroying Romish churches and committing much violence in the name of reform. Philip sent his general, the Duke of Alva, to put down the revolt. Thousands (some say as many as 100,000) were summarily executed and cruelly tortured.

These atrocities served to unite the Protestants, together with some displeased Catholics, under the leadership of William of Orange (1533-84). He tried to unite the Dutch provinces into a nation in which there would be religious freedom. Despite some initial successes, his efforts failed. Belgium chose Catholicism and loyalty to Spain; the Calvinists moved north. The North was able to resist SpainÕs armies, especially through the efforts of the ÒSea Beggars,Ó a rag-tag fleet of sailors who resembled pirates more than a disciplined national navy. The ÒEighty Years WarÓ which resulted was really over in 1609, although the peace treaty was not signed until 1648.

This war in the Netherlands was fuelled by a mixture of religious and political idealism. Both sides confused political ends with the kingdom of God. Philip fought to preserve Òthe true Catholic faith;Ó William viewed the political survival of the Northern Provinces (united into a new nation by the Union of Utrecht, 1579) as needed for the survival of Òthe true Protestant faith.Ó We may see him as an instrument in GodÕs hands for leading the Dutch in this struggle. He was assassinated in 1584. His brother, Maurice, succeeded him and from this time on the House of Orange is closely allied with the Dutch nation (assuming the status of royalty in 1815).

Two Great Creeds
During this frantic period, various great Calvinistic creeds were created. In 1561, Guido de Br‘s wrote the Belgic Confession, a beautiful and rich statement of the Reformed faith. In 1563, Frederick III of the Palatinate (a German state) commissioned the writing of a catechism by Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus which would express the Reformed faith without offending his Lutheran subjects. This Heidelberg Catechism is a warm hearted, mild mannered document, still appealing today. These two creeds, together with the later statement issued by the great synod of Dort, form the ÒThree Forms of UnityÓ to which all Reformed churches adhere.

Arminianism and the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619
However, despite the careful restatement of CalvinÕs teaching in these two documents, a controversy erupted in the early 1600's which shook the Dutch churches of the Reformation and which has had effects until today. It had to do with GodÕs predestination and human freedom.

Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) had been trained by Theodore Beza, CalvinÕs successor at Geneva. In reaction to BezaÕs strict views on predestination, Arminius taught things which soon got him into trouble. After he had pastored a large church in Amsterdam, he was appointed professor of theology at the University of Leyden. Gomarus, a Leyden colleague, was his most outspoken opponent. Arminius died in 1609 but in 1610 his followers published what was said to be his position in a paper which they called A Remonstrance. In brief, they taught the following:

1. God chose to save those whom He knew beforehand would choose to believe on Christ. The individualÕs decision was the basis for GodÕs electing choice.
2. Christ died intending to save all people, but only those who choose for Christ are saved. GodÕs intent is limited by human unbelief. People are able to resist GodÕs grace.
3. Man does not have this saving grace of himself.
4. Without some kind of assisting grace, man cannot make the right choice, but it is not clear how this grace works in man.
5. It is possible to lose your salvation if, through negligence, you fall from grace.

The debate over these issues took on political overtones: Arminians were identified with the party that favoured state control of the church (led by the Òprime ministerÓ); the Contra Remonstrants (i.e. orthodox Calvinists) had the support of Maurice of Orange and favoured a more independent church. During the twelve years of armistice in the war with Spain (1609-1621), the church was involved in a vicious warfare for the truth. Finally, in 1618, through various political manoeuvres, the Dutch parliament (!) called a Synod which was to settle the issue. This synod met from late 1618 to the spring of 1619 in the city of Dordrecht (ÒDortÓ) and was attended by representatives from various countries (England, Scotland, Germany, Poland).

During the political wrangling which went on at the same time, the prime minister, Johan van Oldenbarneveld, was beheaded. The Arminians were condemned by this synod; many were deposed from office and fled the country. Thirty years later they were allowed to return, but Arminianism as an organized movement is dead in the Netherlands (a very small ÒRemonstrant churchÓ exists till today). However, the influence of this movement has spread, via England to America and all of the Western world so that the end result is that most mainline Protestant churches are Arminian (or Òfree willÓ) in theology, although most people have never heard of this controversy.

The Canons of Dort (A ÒcanonÓ is a rule)
In reply to this attack, the synod drafted up an answer which we still have as one of our three creeds, The Canons of Dort. In it, we confess the following:

1. A person believes because God elects him or her. Election is unconditional. Are others then chosen to reprobation? This logical conclusion is not made by the Canons; they speak of others being passed by, leaving them in their sin and to their just reward.
2. ChristÕs death is sufficient to remove the sins of the whole world but the atonement is limited or effective to those who from eternity were chosen to salvation.
3. Man is totally depraved and has no power to do any saving good or to follow Christ. Therefore, divine grace is irresistible.
4. God preserves his elect to the end and, as a result of that, they persevere in grace until they reach glory

These answers are recorded in the Canons in the various chapters; the Arminian 3rd and 4th points are answered together under Head of Doctrine III/IV.

From this, we make the acronym TULIP:

Total depravity; Unconditional election; Limited atonement; Irresistible grace; Preservation and perseverance of the saints.

Every part of salvation is of God; yet God always works through the means of the preaching of the Word, supported by the use of the sacraments.

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