Amsterdam during its Golden Age was a paradox in many ways. At the same time that luxuries from around the globe were pouring in through its harbor, the people of the city tried to outdo each other in appearing modest instead being showy with their wealth. While Jews around Europe were suffering under Inquisitions or being crowded into ghettos, Amsterdam’s Jews were free to prosper — but Catholics had to worship in secret. An entire war was fought with Spain largely because the Dutch wanted the right to form their own Reformed Church, and the predicants who led that church wanted to wield a stranglehold on the fledgling country. But at the same time, the Netherlands was emerging as a center of the Age of Enlightenment, where great advancements were being made in optics, biology and philosophy.
How can you make sense of these paradoxes? By understanding that the Netherlands was a place where great forces were battling to see their view of the world hold sway. The Dutch Reformed Church with its predicant preachers, strict and orthodox, wanted to have the final world over the standards — both legal and social — being set in the new nation. They were opposed by the Remonstrants, their more liberal-minded rivals who were required to meet in private homes instead of public churches. And perhaps most powerful of all was the merchant class, whose vast wealth kept the heart of Amsterdam beating throughout the Dutch Golden Age.
Who the Dutch Reformed are is an easy riddle to solve. The Dutch Reformed Church, Calvinist by theology, is still very much alive, both in the Netherlands and in the communities where the Dutch emigrated. In West Michigan, their influence is particularly strong, and there’s a saying among them: If you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much. Maybe that’s bluster, but possibly, it’s sincere.
To any extent it’s sincere, it likely have something to do with the Dutch Reform’s deeply held belief in predestination. According to that tennent, God has already determined who is destined to be saved and who is destined to be damned, and nothing man can do — neither through good deeds or through faith — can change it. Free will, according to the Dutch Reform Church, does not exist, at least as far as the eternal condition of one’s soul.
The main points of Calvinism are:
- “Total depravity”, also called “total inability”, asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person is enslaved to sin.
- “Unconditional election” asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy alone.
- “Limited atonement”, also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement.” Calvinists do not believe that the atonement is limited in its value or power, but rather that the atonement is limited in the sense that it is intended for some and not all.
- “Irresistible grace”, also called “efficacious grace”, asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith. This means that when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved.
- “Perseverance of the saints” (the word “saints” is used to refer to all who are set apart by God, and not of those who are exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven) asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else. Those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with.
Naturally, this has led more than a few adherents to assume that since they are members of the church that came up with that belief, they are among the ones destined for salvation.
The main domestic reaction against the Dutch Reformed predicants came from a group known as the Remonstrants. The group based themselves on the beliefs of Jacobus Arminius, which is why they are also sometimes known as Arminians. But as Arminius himself was a lightning rod of a figure, and his brand of theology was hotly contested and deeply confrontational to established power. Partly for that reason, his followers chose to call themselves Remonstrants for the five points, or Remonstrance, of their faith, rather than to go by their founder’s name.
The points of their belief are:
- That the divine decree of predestination is conditional, not absolute;
- That the Atonement is in intention universal;
- That man cannot of himself exercise a saving faith;
- That though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort, it does not act irresistibly in man; and
- That believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.
To modern eyes, the differences between the Calvinsts and the Remonstrants – or more properly, the Remonstrants and the Counter-Remonstrants – may seem superficial. Or, at least, not big enough to be worth fighting over. In fact, however, it was worth dying over.
The council of the States-General, the governing body of the Dutch provinces, initially decreed that both the Remonstants and Counter-Remonstrants would be tolerated in the Netherlands. But that arrangement wasn’t suitable to the more zealous among the Counter-Remonstrant faction.
The conflict came to a head at the Synod of Dort (or Dordrecht) in 1618, which was convened to consider the Arminius’ theology. Leading the charge against it was Franciscus Gomarus, a predicant and professor of Hebrew who, even though he taught the language of the Jews, argued that they should be limited in their freedoms. He wanted to see a Netherlands where the Dutch Reformed Church reigned supreme.
Defending Arminius was … not Arminius. He died in 1609. Instead, they were lead by Simon Episcopus, who also ran a college in Amsterdam that represented the Remonstrant viewpoint.
Some say the entire contest was rigged, and that the outcome was set even before it began. In any case, the result was decisive: a win for the Counter-Remonstrants.
The losing faction was ordered to refrain from acting as ministers, including administering sacraments or visiting the sick. Episicopus especially was told to refrain from writing books or anything else promoting the Remonstrant point of view. The Remonstrants agreed that they would not preach in state-run churches, but said they wouldn’t hold back in private spaces.
The entire Remonstrant delegation was hauled before the States-General, where they were asked to sign a document promising to adhere to the limitations imposed on them. When they wouldn’t, they were declared disturbers of the peace and banished from the Dutch provinces.
They got the best of it. The Remonstrants’ largest political supporter, the statesman Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, was put on trial and executed on what was likely trumped-up charges that he was part of a plot against the Dutch nation. In reality, it was little more than a breakdown in the relationship between Van Oldenbarnevelt and Prince Maurice of Orange that was rooted partly in religion and partly in ego.
However, when Maurice died in 1625, the leaders of the Remonstrants started filtering back into the Dutch provinces. They congregated in certain places, such as Leiden and Amsterdam.
You don’t hear much about the Remonstrants these days, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t important or didn’t leave their mark on history.
In Amsterdam, the Remonstrants and their followers could be found among the movers and shakers of their day. Since they were banned from having their own churches, they met in each others’ homes. These home meetings became the forerunners of the Parisian salons, where ideas were exchanged and the latest advances in science and art and philosophy were discussed along with the news of the day.
Those who met in these groups, known as Collegiants, would include Baruch Spinoza as well as his Latin teacher, Franciscus van den Enden.
On a much broader scale, the theology of the Remonstrants went on to influence other religious movements, too. The general principles of the Remonstrants formed the basis of the Methodist church, which now numbers some 80 million adherents worldwide.