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The 400th Anniversary of the Synod of Dordt

Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan

Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan

The 400th Anniversary of the Synod of Dordt

Four hundred years ago this month, on 13 November 1618, delegates from Reformed churches across Europe gathered in the Dutch city of Dordrecht for what would be one of the most significant gatherings of Reformed theologians in the early modern era. The Dutch delegates were joined by nearly thirty theologians from the Swiss cantons, German states and Britain. The Synod was convened in order to resolve the ongoing theological disputes that had arisen at the turn of the seventeenth century through the challenge to the Reformed teaching of grace brought by followers of Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609). The resulting controversy threated to plunge the States of Holland into civil war.

The work of the synod was broad and in 180 sessions it also dealt with such matters as church polity, the nature of confessional subscription, promoting the practice of catechising, and a new Dutch Bible translation. In May the Synod promulgated a series of canons in order to respond to the controversies that had so disrupted the Reformed church in the Netherlands. These were deliberately written in an accessible style and sought to demonstrate the catholicity of Reformed theology. The new translation of the Scriptures from the Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic that had been commissioned by the Synod was eventually published as the Statenvertaling in 1637. This was the standard Dutch translation for the next three hundred years and was something like the Dutch equivalent of the King James Version.    

Johannes Bogerman (1576-1637), President of the Synod and part of the Bible translation team © Protestantse portretten van Museum Catharijneconvent en Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.
Johannes Bogerman (1576-1637), President of the Synod and part of the Bible translation team © Protestantse portretten van Museum Catharijneconvent en Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam.

Here at Union in the Gamble Library we have a number of relevant scholarly resources for the study of the Synod of Dordt. Goudriaan and van Lieburg’s Revisiting the Synod of Dordt (1618–19) (Brill, 2011) includes a variety of contributions on various aspects of the Synod. From an Irish perspective, Jonathan Moore’s chapter examining the influence of James Ussher on the Synod is of particular interest. Anthony Milton’s The British Delegation and the Synod of Dort (1618–1619) (Boydell Press, 2005) provides a fascinating account from the perspective of the British delegates as well as helpful summaries of some of the principal documents produced by ‘one of the most extraordinary religious assemblies of the post–Reformation period’. The four English divines and the single Scot participated in the Synod with a keen awareness of a ‘shared common membership of the community of Reformed churches’.

If you would like to mark the anniversary by delving deeper into the Synod visit website of the Meeter Center at Calvin College which has a great online resource for finding out more about the Synod, its context characters and legacy. There are also videos of the lectures from a recent conference that they hosted on the subject.

One of the British delegation, Joseph Hall (1574-1656), sporting his medal depicting the Synod of Dordt. 1656 engraving © The Trustees of the British Museum
One of the British delegation, Joseph Hall (1574-1656), sporting his medal depicting the Synod of Dordt. 1656 engraving © The Trustees of the British Museum

Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan

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Rev Dr Martyn C Cowan

Martyn Cowan studied philosophy at Queen’s University Belfast (BA and MA) and went on to se…

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