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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Dutch Landscapes

Jacob van Ruysdael, View of Haarlem, 1665

"Water and windmills, greenness, Islets green;—
Willows whose Trunks beside the shadows stood
Of their own higher half, and willowy swamp:—
Farmhouses that at anchor seem'd—in the inland sky
The fog-transfixing Spires—
Water, wide water, greenness and green banks,
And water seen—"

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Fragment 9: The Netherlands

What lies beneath the greenness, the willowy swamps, the wide waters of the Netherlands, which Coleridge describes in so Romantic a fashion? Is there anything there to disturb this idyllic landscape? Bloody struggles over Theology, maybe? Disputes over Soteriology that would end in a respected seventy-one year old statesman losing his head over it? Does this lie beneath the beautiful landscape, in Holland’s gory history?

As I prepare to fly over to Holland this week, I formulate these interrogatories so as to give myself something to look for as I walk around in Amsterdam, Haarlem, and Leiden. One of these fascinating interrogatories is the following: what went down at the Synod of Dordrecht?

The Synod of Dordrecht, or Dordt, which took place in 1618-1619, was summoned in order to resolve a very disquieting development occurring within the Dutch Reformed Church: the challenge of Arminianism to the foundational theology of Calvinism that informed it. Jacobus Arminius, whose theology was the source of the problem, did not attend the Synod he had repeatedly called for. He had died in 1609. Arminianism was not given much of a hearing, and was eventually roundly condemned. One of the most prominent of the Arminians, or Remonstrants as they came to be known, was Jan van Oldenbarnevelt, who was at the time Holland’s most prominent statesman. He was arrested during the sitting of the Synod, and eventually beheaded in 1619. His followers, among them Hugo Grotius, were persecuted, arrested or exiled.

Synod of Dordt, 1619

If you are interested in what the fuss was all about, read on, and bear in mind that we are all Arminians now.

In contrast to other regions of Europe, the Protestant Reformation in the Netherlands originates in a variety of popular movements. What begins as a struggle for freedom of worship against the Inquisition, evolves into a struggle for political independence from Spain. The monarchy there, is an alien monarchy, foreign to the people. When the crown of the Empire passes from the Flemish Charles V to his son Philip II, who spoke only Spanish, the crown becomes alienated from the people of the Netherlands. In this brooding environment, the Dutch revolt and the subsequent wars of religion that would last for eighty years, fashions the religion of the Dutch as half Calvinism and half struggle for emancipation from the Spanish Habsburg dominion. The background of the Dutch faith is an unadulterated version of Calvinism, as expounded by Calvin’s successor, Theodore Beza. Beza was left the burden of clarifying and defending Calvinism.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

"God pre-ordained . . . a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation." John Calvin (1509-1564).

Calvinism was affirmed in the Dutch Reformed Church by the Synod of Dordt (1618-1619). Its principles are often summarized as 'The Five Points of Calvinism,' and taught by way of the acrostic “TULIP,” which is used as a mnemonic devise, in the following manner:

T: is used to stand for “Total depravity:” Due to the Fall of Man, sin pervades all aspects of man’s life, including his thought, his emotions and his will. Accordingly, humans are helpless, and God must intercede in the form of the Holy Spirit for their salvation.
Romans 5:12: "Wherefore, as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned."
Mark 4:11: "And he said unto them, ‘Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom of God: but unto them that are without, all these things are done in parables’."

U: is used to denote the concept of “Unconditional Election.” God divided humanity into two groups, the “elect” whom God has chosen to save by making Himself known to them, and those who shall remain ignorant of God, and who are damned without hope or extenuation. God made this selection before the universe was created. Neither faith nor good works on the part of the individual will help overcome predestination. The true Calvinist believes that the individual has no responsibility for his or her own salvation, as the matter is entirely up to God.
Romans 9:15: "For he saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."
Romans 9:21: "Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?"

L: is used to stand for the notion of “Limited Atonement,” to wit, the belief that Jesus did not die to save all humans, but only for the sake of specific sins of those sinners who are already pre-determined to be saved.
Matthew 26:28: "For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins."
Ephesians 5:25: "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it."

I: stands for the notion of “Irresistible Grace,” or the belief that every human being whom God has elected for salvation will inevitably come to knowledge of God’s grace, which the elect cannot resist.
John 6:44: "No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him: and I will raise him up at the last day."
Romans 8:14: "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God."
1 Peter 5:10: "But the God of all grace, who hath called us unto his eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after that ye have suffered a while, make you perfect, establish, strengthen, settle you."

P: stands for the notion of the “Perseverance of the Saints,” the belief that one saved is always saved, for no one that has been saved can become otherwise. It is impossible for the elect to lose their salvation.
Philippians 1:6: "That ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere and without offence till the day of Christ."
Romans 8:28-39: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified....Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
John 6:39: "And this is the Father's will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day."


Jacobus Arminius was born at Oudewater, in the province of Utrecht, where he was brought up as an orphan. His mother died a violent death during the Spanish massacre at Oudewater in 1575, a victim of the wars of religion. Meanwhile Arminius studied Theology at the University of Leiden, where he lived until 1582. Steeped in Calvinism, he began to develop a theology that would eventually compete with it, soften it, perhaps moderate it. In 1582, he began studying under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva, and in 1588 was ordained pastor at Amsterdam. He died in 1609 and was buried in Leiden.

Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609)

Arminius preached a theology of salvation that was meant to moderate the determinism of Calvin. Whereas, for Calvin, only the elect were saved, and faith was a sign of election, Arminius preached a theology where the individual could act towards his own salvation, and faith in God was its precondition. According to Arminius, man is not spiritually helpless, but has free will and may choose to be saved. Insofar as God has made an election, it is based on His foreknowledge of who will respond and be saved, a foreknowledge of faith. Where the Calvinists preached that the Incarnation served only to benefit those who would in any event be saved, the Arminians preached that Jesus had died so that everyone had a chance to be saved, and not only the elect. But man must choose to accept God’s grace, and therefore his or her own salvation. Man has free will, and can thus accept God’s grace and be saved in faith, or else resist the call of God and be damned.

Today Arminianism is very much a part of the broad Protestant consensus. It is difficult therefore to put oneself back in the days of the seventeenth century, when the harshness of Calvinism characterized the faith that men fought for to the death in the battlefields and in the narrow towns of northern Europe, amidst that lovely landscape of tulips and the watery canals of Holland.

Aelbert Cuyp, View of Dordrecht


  1. St. Thomas Aquinas maintained a doctrine of predestination, according to which “invincible ignorance”-- that ignorance in which some reside in which it is impossible for them to come to a belief in the Catholic Faith -- is an adequate means to contribute to the accomplishment of the purpose of the universe, which is the manifestation of the goodness of God.

    The accomplishment of the Universe pre - exists in the Divine Mind, which is the cause of the universe, as the divine providence

  2. So, in Catholicism, everyone is saved. Provided they follow the sacramental rules. The fascinating thing about Calvinism is the notion that there are some, perhaps most, who cannot be saved, regardless of what they do or think in this world. Behind it is the notion of the "chosen people."