The book “The Canons of Dort: God’s Freedom, Justice, and Persistence,” published by the Van Raalte Press at Hope College, not only shares the final work of theologian the Rev. Dr. Eugene Heideman but also serves as a tribute to him.
The Canons of Dort was developed during an international synodical meeting in the early 17th century in response to a theological controversy of the day. It still serves, along with the Belgic Confession (1561) and the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), as an authoritative doctrinal guide for churches in the Dutch Reformed tradition, including the Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church.
Published posthumously as part of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America, Heideman’s book explores the historical context and the theological issues that led to the canons, and makes a case for the canons’ continued relevance. It presents the Canons of Dort in its entirety, and then provides background including the biblical passages that informed the canons and perspective on why the authors chose to emphasize some points and not others.
Heideman had been working on the book for several years, but it was still in progress when he died at age 92 on May 15, 2022. It was prepared for publication by the Rev. Dr. Donald Bruggink, a longtime colleague who was the founding editor of the Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America from 1968 to 2018 and has been a Senior Research Fellow at the college’s Van Raalte Institute since 2004.
“Gene and I were close friends, sharing the same birthday as well as overlapping careers in the RCA, from Central College and into retirement,” wrote Bruggink, who is credited as editor, in the volume’s foreword. Citing Heideman’s “acute theological mind,” Bruggink noted, “Having shepherded several of his books to print, I could not allow the Christian insight of this volume to go unpublished.”
The Canons of Dort presents five main points of doctrine in four sections: divine election and reprobation; Christ’s death and human redemption through it; human corruption, conversion to God and the way it occurs; and the perseverance of the saints. For each, it outlines the church’s perspective, and then provides arguments against some divergent interpretations of Scripture.
The Synod of Dort consisted of 180 sessions that took place in the city of Dordrecht between Nov. 13, 1618, and May 9, 1619. The gathering was organized by the highest ruling assembly of the Low Countries, the Estates General, and included church representatives, theological professors and civil authorities from throughout the Dutch Republic as well as from Great Britain, Switzerland and several regions that have since become part of the united Germany: the Palatinate, Hesse, Bremen, Emden and Nassau.
“The Estates General intended the national synod to be an international Reformed gathering that would be authoritative in doctrine for the whole of Reformed Europe, as well as for the United Provinces in the Dutch Republic,” Heideman explained.
Heideman described the Canons of Dort as underappreciated today, even though it helps define the Reformed perspective on topics such as grace, salvation and predestination.
“There exists a considerable amount of neglect regarding the Canons of Dort,” he wrote. “[A]ccording to a recent study, only 30 percent of the clergy and 38 percent of the laity in the RCA consider the Canons of Dort important. In the CRC, 51 percent of the clergy and 44 percent of the laity said that the Canons of Dort is important.”
“Having served well for over 400 years, the Canons of Dort deserves to be considered again in its biblical context, not only from the time of its origin but also now, in the present,” he wrote. “[I]t is vital to understand the significance of this confession for our faith today, as well as consider where the synod may have gone wrong in the heat of the early 17th-century political, ecclesiastical and religious environment.”
Heideman addressed what he described as some of the common misconceptions regarding the canons, especially the criticism that they emphasize predestination in a way that rejects free will and human responsibility — which, he noted, was a criticism that the church was actually seeking to refute through the canons.
“The canons in several places specifically reject that charge,” he wrote. “The question of freedom of the will is not one of human capability but rather whether or not rebellious human beings have so enmeshed them and entrapped themselves in a web of sin that they are unable and unwilling to extricate themselves.”
Heideman noted that the Canons of Dort is also criticized for being poorly organized and difficult to read, but explained that it’s important to remember that the synod was responding directly to a critique of the Reformed Church written by a group of theologians known as the Arminians, named after the theologian who had inspired them, Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609). In 1610 the Arminians had published a five-point document, called a Remonstrance, disagreeing with what they said the church was teaching. The church, Heideman wrote, not only disagreed with the Arminians, but felt that the Arminians were misrepresenting its perspective.
“The five main points of doctrine [in the Canons of Dort] were written to refute the points made by the Remonstrant party and to provide a positive statement of what the synod held to be the true position taught by the church,” he wrote.
Eugene Heideman served the Reformed Church in America in several capacities following his ordination in 1954. Initially a pastor in Edmonton, Canada; he was an RCA missionary serving in the Church of South India from 1960 to 1970; was chaplain and a professor at Central College from 1970 to 1976; was dean of Western Theological Seminary from 1976 to 1982; and was secretary of the General Program Council of the RCA from 1982 until he retired in 1994. In addition to “The Canons of Dort: God’s Freedom, Justice, and Persistence,” his numerous books include “Our Song of Hope,” a contemporary confessional for the RCA (Eerdmans, 1975); “A People in Mission: The Surprising Harvest (Eerdmans, 1980); “A People in Mission: Their Expanding Dream” (Eerdmans, 1984); “The Reformed Church America Mission to India” (Eerdmans, 2001); “The Practice of Piety: The Theology of the Midwestern Reformed Church in America 1886-1966” (Eerdmans, 2009); and “Hendrik P. Scholte: His Legacy in the Netherlands and in America” (Eerdmans, 2015). He was a graduate of Central College and Western Theological Seminary, and held a Th.D. from The University of Utrecht.
Copies of “The Canons of Dort: God’s Freedom, Justice, and Persistence” are available for $30 and can be purchased at hope.edu/bookstore as well as through Amazon.