The View of the English Delegates at Dort Regarding Apostasy and the Loss of Justification

Peter White’s book Predestination, Policy and Polemic includes a chapter on the English delegation sent to the Synod of Dort. He examines many of their writings, including the Collegiat Suffrage which the English presented as their position on the heads listed at Dort. Much of this can also be found in Anthony Milton’s edition of The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort, including the full version of the Collegiat Suffrage. One of the valuable gains from consulting these sources is that the reader will discover the disposition and Calvinistic self-identity of the English Churchmen. The English are not at all afraid to disagree with portions of Dort and even argue that “The Reformed Churches” already have certain positions that ought not to be discarded. White’s book has one source that is not included in Milton, and it is to that which I will now turn.

White examines Samuel Ward’s A Theologis Ecclesiae Anglicanaae de canonibus formandis aliisque in Synodo Dordacena proposita and points out one very important portion where the English succeed in having one of the rejectio errorum removed from the Canons of Dort. The “error” which the English argued ought not to be listed as an error was under the head concerning the Perseverance of the Saints, and the rejected proposition would have been the statement which said that “true believers and regenerate” (vere credentes et regenitos) were able to fall from the faith of justification. The English argued that this ought not to be listed among the rejected errors, and they gave three reasons for this. White quotes from the original A Theologis Ecclesiae Anglicanaae de canonibus formandis alliisque in Synodo Dordacena proposita on pg. 198, and I will reproduce the original source here. It reads:

We ourselves think that this doctrine is contrary to Holy Scriptures, but whether it is expedient to condemn it in these our canons needs great deliberation. On the contrary, it would appear

1. That Augustine, Prosper and the other Fathers who propounded the doctrine of absolute predestination and who opposed the Pelagians, seem to have conceded that certain of those who are not predestinated can attain the state of regeneration and justification. Indeed, they use this very argument as an illustration of the deep mystery of predestination; which cannot be unknown to those who have even a modest acquaintance with their writings.

2. That we ought not without grave cause to give offence to the Lutheran churches, who in this matter, it is clear, think differently.

3. That (which is of greater significance) in the Reformed churches themselves, many learned and saintly men who are at one with us in defending absolute predestination, nevertheless think that certain of those who are truly regenerated and justified, are able to fall from that state and to perish and that this happens eventually to all those, whom God has not ordained in the decree of election infallibly to eternal life. Finally we cannot deny that there are some places in Scripture which apparently support this opinion, and which have persuaded learned and pious men, not without great probability.

This request was successful, as the proposition was not listed among the rejected errors in the Canons of Dort. White also points out that the English requested that the 7th rejected error touching the Perseverance of the Saints be removed. This error was the proposition that affirmed that temporary faith differed from persevering faith only in duration. The Synod of Dort did not, however, grant this request by the English.

I have brought this up for discussion for a few reasons. It first illustrates the nature of Confessional Statements in the Reformed Churches historically. The Reformed Churches are not committed to only say what the Confessions affirm and no more. They are rather to not say anything which the Confessions reject. If something is left in silence, the assumption is that it is a matter upon which there may be disagreement.

Another significant point which this source brings out is that there were indeed many “learned and saintly men” within the Reformed tradition who taught that the Reprobate could attain a state of justification for a season. Though I know it is hotly disputed, I would suggest that Calvin’s system of thought lends itself to this opinion, seeing as how justification is one aspect of Union with Christ, of which he will allow temporary partaking.

A final observation would be the English delegates’ concern not to alienate themselves from the larger Church and the catholic tradition. They list Augustine and Prosper precisely because of their weighty influence. Anyone who’s read much English Puritan literature understands that the debate over Calvinism was a debate over Augustinianism. All of the English Puritans affirmed that they were continuing Augustinians. They acknowledged that Calvin was of the same position and that he had much to offer, but none of them posited a significant disagreement between Calvin and Augustine on key matters. To dismiss the early church was not an option that any of the better Churchmen in England were willing to take. Similarly they did not want to anathematize the Lutherans. Though there were significant disagreements, enough to bar fellowship, these were not such that constituted a difference in religion or salvation. The English all longed for a day when union could be achieved between the Reformed and the Lutherans.

And so, having this understanding before us, I submit that whether or not the opinion that the reprobate can attain a state of justification for a time is accepted by the leadership in Reformed Churches today, it cannot be said that holding such a position disqualifies one from being within the Reformed tradition, much less can it be said that holding such a position disqualifies one from being a faithful Protestant Christian.

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8 thoughts on “The View of the English Delegates at Dort Regarding Apostasy and the Loss of Justification

  1. Pingback: The View of the English Delegates to the Synod of Dort on Apostasy « Anastasis Life

  2. I should give a bit of comment on why I included the “fv” tag for this post. It is not the case that anyone associated with the Federal Vision actually teaches this version of “loss of justification.” Dort’s questions were driven from their interest in God’s decrees, and thus they were concerned about maintaining the important distinction between God’s elect and the reprobate. The Federal Vision is more interested in attaining a Christocentric view of the Church. I think all the FV guys would wish to seek to reframe their categories from eternal and timeless to a historical sort of communicatio idiomatum through the lens of Union with Christ.

    Essentially the point of the FV is to get away from asking questions about one’s internal goings-on at any given moment in time and instead move to the question of “How are you understanding yourself?” If you are understanding yourself as one who is in Christ, which is what the Church tells you through word and sacrament, then you ought to also be understanding yourself as one who is justified. If you are doing this, then that is faith.

    Having said all of that, I think this piece from history gives us a better understanding of the allowed diversity among the Reformed churches historically. This shows us some of the actual Reformed tradition and not that stuff everyone keeps telling us existed.

  3. “I think all the FV guys would wish to seek to reframe their categories from eternal and timeless to a historical sort of communicatio idiomatum through the lens of Union with Christ.”

    It seems (per the two major FV blogs which link to this post) that temporary justification is not an FV distinctive. However, I think it is consistent with the underlying FV issues of baptismal efficacy and temporary faith. How can one have true faith (assuming one equates temporary with true faith) and not be justified? How can one be united to Christ in baptism and not receive everything that is his (including the decree “righteous”)? How can one be a covenant member and not be righteous? How can one be righteous and not declared righteous (i.e. justified)? Ad infinitum.

  4. Part of the question is whether one takes categories such as “faith,” “sanctification,” “adoption,” etc. as univocal or analogical.

    So, the question isn’t simply “Can someone have faith, etc., and then lose it, yes or no?” but also “Can someone have faith, etc., in some sense and then lose it?”

    Traditionally, even the most Dort-configured Reformed theology allows for a temporary faith that is not univocal with true (saving, persevering) faith and also for various senses of adoption, sanctification, remission, regeneration (conditional, sacramental, external, etc.) that are not univocal with how those soteric realities are enjoyed by those who persevere.

  5. Pingback: Is N T Wright a Threat to Classical Protestantism? | The Calvinist International

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