Sorting by

Skip to main content

The Canons of Dort: God’s Freedom, Justice, and Persistence

Eugene Heideman
Published by Van Raalte Press in 2023

I vividly remember the first time I met Gene Heideman. It was the Fall of 2014, and I had only been on the faculty at Western Theological Seminary for about a month. We were in the audience for a public lecture there, and as soon as it had finished he made his way over to me to ask me a question about the doctrine of election. He knew I had written on the topic, and his question was as engaging to me as it was to him, so we set up a lunch to continue the conversation. That was the first of a number of meetings over the following years, in which we wrestled with the intricacies of election and the Canons of Dort over lunches and cups of tea and coffee. Sadly, his wife’s health and then his own declined to such an extent that he was unable to finish his work before he died in 2022. Many thanks are due to Don Bruggink and Van Raalte Press for bringing his final project to fruition. 

Even though he had planned to include additional engagement with other theologians, most particularly Karl Barth and Jürgen Moltmann, this volume still gives us the heart of what Heideman had in mind. His hope was to provide an accessible guide to the Canons that would help us to see their continuing theological and pastoral value, and that would also open up questions on matters where he wished that the Canons might have said something more, or something different.

A brief Introduction addresses some key misconceptions about the Canons. In the process, Heideman explains why he refused to force his account of the Canons into the mold of the problematic acronym, ‘TULIP.’ Instead he offers an overall structure which follows more closely the movement of the Canons themselves: a Prologue which highlights the themes of God’s justice, love and wrath (First Main Point of Doctrine:1-5) and then three major sections exploring God’s Free Decision (the rest of the First Main Point of Doctrine), the Justice of God (the Second Main Point of Doctrine) and the Persistence of God (the Third/Fourth and Fifth Main Points of Doctrine). He also draws out the Canons’ emphasis on Christology in the section on God’s justice, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the section on God’s persistence. 

Before he begins his exposition, however, Heideman gives us a very helpful overview of the historical and theological background to the Canons and the Synod of Dort more widely (Part One). Far too often the Canons are considered in insolation from their very specific context, and when that happens it radically distorts our interpretation of them. As Heideman repeatedly reminds us, the Canons are a very precise response to a very limited set of issues. He also glances at the history of the reception of the Canons in North America, particularly in the Reformed Church in America, and offers some reflections on the very limited focus of the Canons in relation to debates about the Belhar Confession in the RCA and the Christian Reformed Church.

Part Two begins with the text of the Canons and the Rejection of Errors before launching into an account of their content, following the structure outlined above. Heideman’s exploration of the Articles allows some overarching themes to emerge. First, he stresses the centrality of the sovereign grace of God, holding strongly to the theological core of the Canons against the Remonstrants. Salvation is all of grace, from God’s eternal electing decision to eschatological consummation. This takes place through the work of Christ for us, which truly achieves salvation, not merely the possibility of salvation, and through the personal, efficacious work of the Spirit within us, enabling our free response of faith which is also God’s gift to us. Second, Heideman draws out the importance of assurance (and pastoral reassurance) in the Canons, whether with regard to personal anxieties about election, concerns about infants, or the hope we can have for all, and declare to all. The Canons are all too often thought of as harsh and abstract. Heideman does a splendid job of helping us to hear the pastoral heartbeat within them. 

Throughout, Heideman seeks to engage with the scripture references mentioned in the Canons, and to draw upon other scriptural sources that bear upon the major themes. It is this keenness to probe the scriptures (often in dialogue with an older generation of biblical scholars who were formative for him) that leads to many of Heideman’s questions. He expresses doubts about whether scripture supports an eternal decree of reprobation, for example, wrestling with various interpretations of Romans 9 in particular (and reflecting on the debates within the CRC in response to Harry Boer’s gravamen in 1977). He also regrets what he sees as the Canons’ emphasis on ‘retributive’ rather than ‘restorative’ justice, and on God’s justice in relation to individual sin at the expense of broader scriptural themes, in particular justice for the poor and oppressed. 

As Heideman points out, many of what he considers to be the omissions and imbalances within the Canons are a result of their very limited primary purpose — to refute the five points of the Arminian Remonstrance. Like the Remonstrance, the Canons are almost entirely preoccupied with election in relation to individual salvation. In response, Heideman seeks to draw out a wider range of biblical themes related to election than the Canons can provide. While never denying the importance of individual salvation, Heideman reminds us that election in scripture is also corporate — God elects a people for himself (Israel and the church) — and it entails a role in salvation history as witnesses to and instruments of the saving purposes of God for all people and the whole of creation. He also laments the relative lack of emphasis upon the life of the church for the unfolding of our election and our sense of assurance. Where these wider themes are absent from the Canons he introduces them, and where they are mentioned briefly (as with the role of the church), he amplifies them.

The Epilogue offers a sketch of glorification, which is not addressed directly in the Canons but is the goal and consummation of election. In reflecting briefly on this theme, Heideman seeks to express more of the joy and hope of election — for this life and the next, for us and for all of creation — than the Canons themselves are able to offer.

As is always the case with a book like this there will be disagreements over some of the historical, theological, and exegetical details, but this is a deeply thoughtful account of the Canons, and a Reformed approach to election more broadly. Whether you love the Canons, are deeply suspicious of them, or would rather not have to think about them at all, everyone will gain something from the background that Heideman provides, his explanation of the Articles, and how he questions and expands upon them. This is also a book that reflects and honors Heideman’s career, as someone who was dedicated to bringing his theological, historical, and scriptural acumen to the service of the church and its mission.

Suzanne McDonald

Dr. McDonald is ordained in the Christian Reformed Church and is the author of two books and numerous essays and articles on topics in systematic and historical theology, in particular the work of the 17th century theologian, John Owen. In her spare time, you're likely to find Dr. McDonald watching and photographing birds or curled up with a book. If it isn't a theology book, it's probably British 17th century history, poetry, a novel, or a book about birds. She's also a life-long cricket fan - not an easy sport to follow in the U.S.!


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Thank you for this review. Now I look forward to reading the book.

  • Harvey Kiekover says:

    Thank you for this review of Heideman’s book on the Canons of Dordt. Gene’s is a voice well worth listening to. I always valued his gentle and perceptive reflections in the theological discussions we had in our theological society. He had a healthy respect for history and an uncanny ability to see the value of that history in our currrent discussons.

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr says:

    Thanks for this review. I am a bigger fan of Eugene Hiedeman than the Canons of Dordt but this review makes me want to buy the book to get reacquainted with both and to appreciate the Canons (and their shortcomings) as much as Gene did. He had a great mind, but also a great heart for ministry & missions.

  • Suzanne McDonald says:

    Thank you, Daniel, Harvey and Rowland, for your appreciative comments! I very much hoped that this review would reflect not only the book, but something of Gene himself, and be a tribute to him. I think this project summed up so much about him, and his approach to theology for the sake of the church.

  • Kent Fry says:

    Suzanne, thanks for the review of Eugene Heideman’s book on the Canons of Dordt. I worked my way through his book a chapter a week. It is not fluffy stuff but deep theological food. Going back to ordination, I answered the classis that the Canons of Dordt in historical context faithfully express the scriptures but I had an uneasy conscience about whether I really understood the Canons and what was expressed about elections and grace. In retirement after forty years of ordained service, Heideman’s book helped me to deal with my uneasy conscience. And your review very accurately captures the outlines and essence of his book. And just a further note that Dr. Donald Bruggink’s completion and editing of the book for his friend was quite an accomplishment. Don in his nineties continues to serve the church with a sharp and reflective theological mind and heart. He has been a great gift to the Reformed Church and the Van Raalte Institute.

    • Suzanne McDonald says:

      Thank you, Kent! Knowing your work on Gene, this means a great deal. As I mentioned in my earlier comment, I very much wanted this review to honor him, as well as the book – and I hope the book helps others in exactly the way that it has helped you. That is what he most wanted from this project, I think. And yes! What a task it must have been for Don to pull all of the material together! It’s a testimony to how well he has done it that it reads seamlessly. You would never know, simply reading it through, that Gene’s work was unfinished.