King Fergus, Mor’du, and Robert Baron (c.1596-1639) on Necessity and Contingency

In what was a slight strategic error, I launched this blog immediately prior to a family trip to the Scottish highlands. Happily, the man I had hoped to kick off this blog with happens to have been a Scot. In fact, he was professor of divinity at Marischal College, Aberdeen, for fifteen years, a post he held after other academic and ministerial stints at St. Andrew’s and Keith, in Banffshire. It may be the increasing occurrence of his name in my research that brought him to my attention… or the Brave soundtrack may still be working its magic, after a week on those windy, narrow roads. Either way, I’m pleased to give a brief snapshot of one of the great ‘Aberdeen doctors,’ Robert Baron (c.1596-1639), with one or two reflections on his lasting impact on the Protestant scholastic metaphysics of seventeenth-century Britain.

Other than a helpful page in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, precious little has been written on Baron, notwithstanding some recent comments by Sarah Hutton and a chapter by Aaron Clay Denlinger.[1] The lack of work on Baron is striking for two reasons, one biographical and another, theological.

Baron and the National Covenant

The 1630’s were especially tumultuous years for a royalist episcopalian in Scotland. In 1637, in an attempt to more closely align the Churches of England and Scotland, Charles I and his archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, replaced John Knox’s Book of Discipline with a new Book of Canons, and introduced a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer into Scotland. It was not a unilaterally ‘English’ invasion of the Scottish church; the prayer book was the product of Scottish bishops, though the bishops themselves resonated with Laud’s views.[2]

The title page of the 1637 BCP, also known as ‘Laud’s liturgy.’ The special collections folks at St Andrew’s have a fascinating blurb concerning it on their site, Echoes from the Vault.

Predictably, the result was a host of angry Scots. When the dean of the High Kirk of St. Giles in Edinburgh read from the new prayer book on 23 July 1637, one Jenny Geddes lobbed a prayer stool at his head. (Thankfully, this particular stool consisted of wood.) A riot ensued, in which a mob attempted to stone the bishop of Edinburgh. Similar demonstrations followed. Over the following year, five committees tasked the clergyman Alexander Henderson and the lawyer, Archibald Johnston of Wariston (the uncle of the future bishop of Salisbury, Gilbert Burnet), with drawing up a document to clarify the Scots’ unwillingness to countenance any drift toward Rome — even if compelled by the King, and especially if coerced to do so in the form of participation in Laudian ‘innovations.’

A map of the Old and New Towns of Aberdeen, by James Gordon of Rothiemay (late 17th century). By the time Scotland faced union with England in 1706-7, Aberdeen was already well-versed in compromise: it had two long-established burroughs, and two university colleges, King’s and Marischal’s, which can be seen above.

The resulting document, the National Covenant, was signed by February 1638, and met with majority support everywhere except for the western highlands, and two counties: Banff, and Aberdeen. George Gordon, the marquis of Huntly and a former student at King’s College, Aberdeen, led the royalist cause until succumbing to debt incurred during the Bishop’s Wars of 1638-9. Eventually, he signed both the National Covenant and, later, the Solemn League and Covenant. It is probably no coincidence that Gordon’s student years fell within Baron’s tenure as divinity professor at Marischal. Under the leadership of John Forbes, Baron became one of the six ‘Aberdeen doctors’ (so called because of their affiliation with Marischal College, Aberdeen). Episcopalians all, Forbes, Baron, and company were critical advocates of the royalist policies of James I and Charles I, and equally critical opponents of the national covenant.

Baron classed himself as a Reformed theologian, and addressed all manner of theological problems within the bounds of the Reformed resources available to him. Nevertheless, Baron’s reputation has since suffered – whether truthfully or out of spite, I haven’t yet read enough to pose an opinion – from a sticky charge of Arminianism. His enduring feud with a much-loved Puritan icon, Samuel Rutherford, has probably not helped much on that charge — even though the grounds of his disputes with Rutherford concerned royalist politics and the legality of the covenant, and not (for example) grace or predestination.

A portrait of Baron. (Apologies if you’re not familiar with Rob Roy.)

In 1638, Baron was nominated bishop of Orkney, but never consecrated, and he died the following year. A year later –  in what would make a smashing Liam Neeson / Tim Roth / Jessica Lange film – covenanters compelled Baron’s wife, Jean Gibson, to make the journey from her family home in Strathisla to Aberdeen, so that they could scrutinize Baron’s unpublished papers for evidence that Baron had conspired with Laud and subscribed to Arminian notions. Unsurprisingly, they found what they were looking for. If Baron hadn’t died, he would have been deposed from his university post along with Forbes and the other Aberdeen doctors.

Baron on necessary Being

Biographically, then, there is much to commend a study of Baron. But there are theological reasons, too, for why Baron deserves attention. Aaron Denlinger, for instance, has written a fascinating article on Baron’s doctrine of predestination and of Christ’s satisfaction for sin. Along the way, he challenges the arguments of numerous older works that claimed Baron for team ‘Calvinist’ or team ‘Arminian.’ I am interested, however, less in Baron’s soteriology than in his metaphysics, because it was the discipline of metaphysics that Baron considered his vocational stomping grounds, and it was Baron’s work as a metaphysician that cast such a long shadow over the remainder of the seventeenth-century (and even early eighteenth-century) British theology.

Baron was at one with other Reformed scholastics in asserting the primacy of revelation over reason, as well as what Richard Muller has called the ‘ancillary status’ of philosophy. Baron’s Philosophia theologiae ancillans (Oxford, 1641 – N.B. the version available through Post-Reformation Digital Library is a scan of T.F. Torrance’s copy) approaches the doctrine of God in the usual manner of the scholastic tradition: by drawing on Thomas Aquinas’ distinction between being and essence. For Baron, Being can be divided into that which is finite or infinite, into that which is created, and that which is uncreated. “Beings,” Baron says, “are those things which exist: one through essence, another through participation… one being is necessary, another contingent.”[3] Created beings, Baron goes on to say, do not have real existence; we are not like God, whose “existence is of his essence” (existentia Dei est de ejus essentia). 

Here, then, is the tiny point I wish to draw out from Baron: God, uncreated Being, exists necessarily. You and I, on the other hand, exist contingently. Our existence hinges on the fact that God exists; not the other way around.

In the Aristotelian thinking about being that undergird Protestant scholastic terminology, ‘being’ (ens) indicated the most simple truth one could predicate of a thing. It represented the intersection of the act of existing (actus essendi) with the ‘whatness’ of a thing (its essentia). Of course, nothing in the essence of a creature suggests that it must be… in fact, quite the opposite! You and I might not-be. Only of God can it be said that the act of being is necessary: God cannot not be. In the case of God, and of God only, do the act of existing and the ‘whatness’ or essence of God, perfectly coincide.

Baron insisted that “the glorious God is infinite Being, not having his existence from any other; moreover, he is Being through essence, and the uttermost necessity.” Baron pointed out that God could not deprive himself of the act of his existence. Neither could anyone else do so to him. Why? Because he depends on no one; he is simply not a contingent being. Creatures, on the other hand, are contingent beings. Baron goes on: “Creatures are surely contingent beings; that is, they exist contingently: for they hang freely on the preserving force of the acting cause; that is, of God, who, after he gave them being, could cease to do so; and after he gave it, can yet take it away.”[4] In other words, God must exist because it belongs to his nature to do so, while creatures – like you and I – depend entirely on him for our being.

You and I might not-be. Only of God can it be said that the act of being is necessary: God cannot not be.

Baron caps his discussion of necessary being there. He chastises metaphysicians (apparently, with Fransisco Suarez in mind) who attribute necessity (the quality of a thing that must-be, that we just discussed) to concepts like separate substances, heavenly bodies, first matter, the nature of universals, or necessary propositions. For Baron, those ‘thorny questions’ made philosophers liable to distraction and even destruction. Nevertheless, it was Baron, along with his fellow Scotsman Gilbert Jack, who most served as the conduits through which the Aristotelian metaphysics of the Roman Catholic Suarez passed into the hands of Britain’s divinity students.

Despite my homage to Mr. Neeson, I didn’t have much luck finding any portraits of Baron. This is Gilbert Jack, who slightly predated Baron, and was a professor both at Marischal College, Aberdeen, and at the University of Leiden.

Baron’s Philosophia theologiae ancillans remained an extremely popular book, seeing publication in St Andrews, Amsterdam, and Oxford, which suggests usage in the university curricula in each of those cities. But one of Baron’s posthumous publications remained the critical metaphysical plank in the traditional British theological curriculum, and that was his Metaphysica generalis, an apparently unfinished yet quite massive work, which was published at various time in Cambridge, Oxford, London, Leiden, and Dublin. Baron’s Metaphysica continued to be used as the core metaphysics text at Trinity College Dublin as late as 1700, despite the prevalence of Ramism there (which usually meant little time for the study of metaphysics). Even in the comparatively racy Cambridge, Richard Holdsworth, the Reformed mentor of the future archbishop of Canterbury, William Sancroft, commended the reading of Aristotle as the best means for improving one’s Greek — a comment which suggests more of an inclination to the eclectic employment of Aristotelian thinking characteristic of the Reformed orthodoxy to which we know Holdsworth subscribed, than many advocates of the new learning in Cambridge would have smiled upon.

Getting back to Brave…

As I mentioned, the Brave soundtrack provided the anthem to our highlands trip. Those winding drives along the lochs were periodically punctuated by the film’s sprawling fight song (sung by a gruff-throated Billy Connolly), in which Merida’s father, King Fergus, schemes about how best to avenge himself against the demonic bear who devoured one of his legs:

Mor’du, Mor’du / Mor’du, Mor’du!
You’re ancient as the highlands / And as unforgivin’ too
Mor’du, Mor’du / Mor’du, Mor’du!
Now the time has come for all of us tae slaughter you!

The song’s a right good stromp. But it’s also quite macabre. It captures the human plight. Contingency cuts through every created thing. Sure, no creature must, by definition, exist. Neither is any creature entitled to an unlimited and hassle-free eternity of shaking the tree of divine blessing. Kings are liable to have their legs bitten off. Even you might fall under a bus tomorrow. To say that you and I are contingent beings is to say very much indeed about what could, and likely will, happen to us.

I suppose that could be quite depressing — if, that is, we trivialized the God whose unique nature it is to exist, by reckoning him to be on par with other contingent beings, the way Fergus called Mor’du, ‘ancient as the highlands.’ If, in other words, we lost the distinction between us creatures, and God, the only necessary Being, in whom we live, move, and have our being.

Wonderfully, however, Christianity says something distinctly different: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” (Psalm 90:2) Christianity says that there is one more ancient than the highlands, and a good deal more forgiving, too.


[1] Ian M. Thompson in ODNB s.v. ‘Robert Baron’; Aaron Clay Denlinger, ‘Scottish Hypothetical Universalism: Robert Baron (c.1596-1639) on God’s Love and Christ’s Death for All,’ in Aaron Clay Denlinger (ed.), Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland: Essays on Scottish Theology, 1560-1775 (Bloomsbury: T&T Clark, 2015); Sarah Hutton, British Philosophy in the Seventeenth Century (Oxford: OUP, 2015); Donald Macmillan, The Aberdeen Doctors: A Notable Group of Scottish Theologians of the First Episcopal Period, 1610-1638, and the Bearing of their Teaching on Some Questions of the Present Time (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1909).

[2] For a taste of contemporary perceptions of popery and superstition, see ‘The Lord of Loudoun’s Speech to the Privy Council, 21st of December 1637,’ in The Letters and Journals of Robert Baillie, 1637-1662, vol.1 (Edinburgh, 1841), pp.455-8.

[3] Robert Baron, Philosophia Theologiae Ancillans (Oxford, 1641), p.1.

[4] Ibid, p.2. See the entry for ‘ens’ in Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995), p.103.

[5] Ibid.

The plan for Enchiridion

Hello, and welcome to Enchiridion. My name is Sam, and I’ll be your host. I’m a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, working on post-Reformation Protestant theology in the Church of England. I’m also a part-time curate at All Saints Little Shelford. Both roles inflect each other, as they’ll both, quite obviously, inflect this blog.

The word enchiridion means ‘handbook,’ or ‘manual.’ I’ve adopted it because of two titles, which together encompass my interests.

The first was St. Augustine of Hippo’s Enchiridion: On Faith, Hope, and Love.  The second was a book called Praecipuorum Theologiae Capitum Enchiridion Didacticum, written by the principal of St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, Thomas Tully (1620-1676), in 1665. Let’s face it: this blog won’t be anything remotely so grand as a ‘handbook.’ But it may provide a commonplace diary for those of us who believe that doctrine, devotion, and discipleship belong together. Fides quaerens intellectum, in Anselm’s words.

With that in mind, let me give you a quick overview of the purpose of this blog.

The main goal is actually quite selfish: I want an excuse to write about stuff I can’t fit into my thesis, for any number of reasons. Most posts will involve insights drawn from orthodox and/or scholastic theologians in the Reformed tradition, particularly those who were conforming divines in the Church of England. I intend to focus on those who have been buried and need excavating. However, in addition to these, there may pop up the occasional patristic, medieval or (gasp!) modern theologian. (Or writer, or singer-writer.)

The second goal is simply to write more frequently under less pressure of time or scrutiny. (Yep – settin’ mighty high goals for my readership.) In that sense, the blog is a commonplace book written in the second-person.

The third  goal is where you come in.

I am keen to find out what questions folks have for the authors I’m excavating. They may be questions of Christian dogmatics (who or what is God? what is the definition of theology? is God identical with his attributes, or not? what, if anything, makes the human person unique?), questions of discipleship and ministry (what does such theology have to do with enemy-love? how do I pray to the Holy Trinity? how do I read the Scriptures with another person? if my minister is a schmuck, does that mean that the sacraments are null when he or she celebrates them? if there’s a priesthood of all believers, why does the minister absolve me in the second-person?), or questions of biblical interpretation (does the law/Gospel distinction still hold water? what about justification? the Trinity?). In short, if you’ve got questions about theology, discipleship, or Scripture, I would like to present those questions to some godly men and women whose minds were disciplined by the Gospel.

In all this, I am attempting to encourage alertness to where the Church has been. ‘Tradition isn’t a dead hand,’ the late John Webster remarked, “but the presence of people and things through whom we can be present to the Gospel.” I hope the blog will be interesting enough for you (and for me) to help us become more present to the Gospel.