Book Review of The Glory of Grace: The Story of the Canons of Dort, by William Boekestein (Reformation Heritage Books: 2012).
The Bible is meaningless without history. Our children need to know this. We adults need to remember this. Doctrine doesn’t drop from heaven. Jesus didn’t even drop down out of heaven. He came to a specific people, in the fullness of the times, as a result of specific promises that the Triune God made to redeem His covenant people. In other words, the eternal truths that we cherish as Christians have a specific historical context. Jesus came into the world because “He shall save His people from their sins,” the angel told Joseph (Matt. 1:21). For us to understand Jesus’ mission, we must pay attention to the context.
In the same way, all the turning points of history, including those which produced doctrinal statements like our Heidelberg Catechism or the Canons of Dort, have a specific historical context. Studying their “story” helps us appreciate these truths. We see the courage of our forefathers to hold high the glory of grace. We are inspired to follow their example where they were holy, and to avoid their example where they fell into compromise.
An exciting new book—for children and adults—provides the historical context of the documents produced by the Synod of Dort which we lovingly call by the nicknames “TULIP” or the “Doctrines of Grace” or the “Five Points of Calvinism.” The author, Rev. William Boekestein, has a keen awareness of the value of story. His narration does not take liberties with history, though. He is careful to record accurately what happened. Yet he does so in a way that is accessible to children who are early readers, and still captivates the interest of the adult mind too. Boekestein is fast becoming an established author in the Reformed world. He has already chronicled for us the story behind the other two Reformed creeds. (See his recent books published by Reformation Heritage Books, The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism, and another on the author of the Belgic Confession, Faithfulness Under Fire: The Story of Guido de Brés). We welcome this third installment, completing the Three Forms of Unity.
The author does a fine job of weaving into the story of the Synod of Dort the broader historical context. Issues like the Spanish Inquisition, the courage of Prince William of Orange, the relation between church and state are all brought up in a gentle and informative way. Yet we never get bogged down. The story moves on to highlight the conclusions of the Synod of Dort, which produced the Canons of Dort. The five points of Calvinism are summarized in the book at an elementary grade reading level. The five points of Arminianism are not summarized but only briefly listed. I would have liked to see a few more sentences describing these. However, I am thankful that much greater attention is given to the truth in the book rather than focusing on the error.
Boekestein grounds the doctrine in the historical context, which would lead to good discussion points at the dinner table or in a confirmation class or Bible study. Do we appreciate the fact that the five points of Calvinism were drafted in order to restore order and peace to a divided church and country, not to create problems and eternal bickering between those who are Reformed and those who are broadly evangelical? Do we appreciate the fact that the government called the Synod of Dort to convene? Do we further appreciate the fact that before the Synod started, the government declared a national day of prayer and fasting for God’s help?
One question that is answered, though indirectly, is why did we need a third form of unity in the Reformed churches? Weren’t two enough? We in the Reformed churches already had the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism for fifty years. These, especially the Heidelberg Catechism, were very widely used and translated into various languages. The author describes the answer. A third form was needed to resolve a controversy within the Reformed seminaries and churches. That controversy was created by the instigation and false teaching of Jacob Arminius. When we consider this, I wonder if there is a lesson here that we in modern Reformed churches are too hesitant to take to heart. Sometimes the controversies of our time will demand that the Christian Church rise up and respond with the wisdom of God. Such additional forms of unity are not new truth, only new statements of that eternal truth, freshly applied to the false ideas that have crept into our churches today. One would wish that the heirs of the Synod of Dort—we Reformed Christians alive today—would never be reluctant to speak the Word of God to the moral and doctrinal corruptions that abound and surround us in the twenty-first century.
The illustrations in The Glory of Grace are spectacular! Evan Hughes, the artist, has done a remarkable service to the church. When you read this book with your children and grandchildren, you will feel like you are a part of the story. You will see the style of their clothes, the shape of their churches, and the design of their boats. These illustrations on every page greatly increase the value of this book. No other books on the history of the founding creeds and confessions of the Reformed churches are so beautifully illustrated. Yet, these powerful illustrations are still tasteful and supplementary to the text.
Fascinating nuggets of lesser-known history are sprinkled throughout. I think of the intriguing description of the childhood of Jacob Arminius and also his conduct while he was being trained at a Reformed seminary under Theodore Beza (the successor to John Calvin). The details are so interesting that you’ll have to get the book if you don’t know….
One nugget that this reviewer will share is this: each of the more than one hundred delegates to the Synod of Dort swore an oath to conduct their business “using no human writing, but only the Word of God, which is an infallible rule of faith.”
I predict that only the persnickety pastor would find fault with this book, and then only because he would like the brief doctrinal summaries to go deeper. Yet, for a historical overview aimed especially at the youth, Boekestein hits his mark. For example, notice how he simply explains the doctrines of Total Depravity and Irresistible Grace. “Because sinners can do nothing good, they naturally resist the goodness of God. To God’s praise, the grace of salvation is so powerful that it wins over the hardest of chosen sinners.” He provides several more sentences on each of these doctrines, but the simplicity and glory of God’s grace does shine through in Boekestein’s summaries.
The book is not a class on the five points of Calvinism. But anyone teaching such a class would be wise to include this book which tells the story behind the five points. What motivated our Reformed forefathers to lift high the glory of grace in the way that they did? Are these Three Forms of Unity—all three—still worth dying for? Are they worth living for, even in a fast–paced technological age? The Glory of Grace answers these questions with a resounding “yes!” For that, the church owes its gratitude for the simplicity and clarity which its author has so diligently worked to achieve in all three of his books on the stories behind the precious Reformed heritage found in the Three Forms of Unity.
The Glory of Grace gives a solid story which will lead to natural discussion in the confirmation classroom or with your family around the dinner table. Do we really want to be Reformed in our families? Then we will hold high “the glory of grace.” Boekestein provides the following insight on our modern church context:
“Today, the Arminian view has become widely accepted in many churches. At the same time, many churches and believers are rediscovering the Reformed faith. More and more people are coming to agree that this faith most greatly glorifies God and most greatly comforts believers.”
I heartily commend this book. It could serve as a historical supplement in the church or homeschool classroom. It makes an excellent gift to confirmation students, Sunday School students around Christmas or Easter, as well as for adults and kids of all ages on many other occasions.