Early Scots-Episcopacy

While reading about the Aberdeen doctors, I discovered that they were all Episcopalians. I thought this was interesting because I usually associate Reformed versions of episcopacy with England rather than Scotland.

John Forbes of Corse was the most famous representative of the Aberdeen doctors, and he was exiled for his views. Indeed, it seems that the only position of which he could be found culpable in the eyes of the Scottish theologians was his refusal to sign the Solemn League and Covenant. The Covenanters deposed him from his teaching position at the university, took his house, exiled him to Holland, and even forbade him a burial alongside his family. Charming fellows they were.

Forbes’ defense of the Scottish system of “Superintendents” is available on google books.

It turns out that Robert Rollock also held to an episcopal form of church government, as he penned a work entitled Episcopal Government instituted by Christ, and confirmed by Scripture and Reason.

In fact, the first Book of Discipline put out by the Scottish Church in 1560 divided Scotland into 10 ecclesiastical districts, each with their own superintendent. This was the official form of government until 1592, when Melville succeeded in acquiring a Presbyterian form of government, though it only lasted for about twenty years. This stage of Prebyterianism never fully took over, as Aberdeen resisted it. Episcopacy was reinstated until the so-called second Reformation where the Covenanters claimed a divine right of presbyterian rule. The Aberdeen doctors made their stand against jure divino on the lawfully established forms of the Scottish Church, and they accused the Covenanters of innovation and rebellion.

Geddes MacGregor explains that this form of Scottish episcopacy, whose bishops went by the name “superintendents,” was an attempt at preserving the continuing Ecclesia Scoticana. MacGregor writes:

The Ecclesia Scoticana they were bent on restoring was in many ways anomalous and paradoxical. In Columban times, for instance, it had had features that would be inconsistent with modern Presbyterian, Anglican, and Roman practice alike. Its primates, presbyters-abbots, had no commission from Rome; its bishops were nullius dioceseos and subject to the authority of presbyters; its presbyters did not exercise Episcopal functions corporately or otherwise, reserving these strictly to the bishops acting as individuals yet under presbyteral direction.

Corpus Christi, 75

About the Scottish Church at the time of the Reformation he adds:

The notion of a separation from the old Church could not well be in the Scottish Reformers’ minds, since in 1560, of the thirteen Roman Sees, four were vacant officially while five others were for practical purposes vacant, so that apart from questions of ecclesiology, which was still everywhere immature if not inchoate, it would have seemed more natural to the Scottish Reformers to view their action as casting off the Kirk’s bonds than of separating from these.

ibid, 71

Thus the Scottish Church naturally adopted a system of government that it saw as basically consistent with the established order. It rarely had to overthrow powerful Roman bishops. Few were to be found.

MacGregor describes the role of these superintendents in stating:

The superintendents had the pastoral and administrative functions of bishops and were placed over regions described as dioceses; in 1572 the Kirk adopted instead the designation ‘bishops’ and ‘archbishops.’

ibid, 70

He also mentions that Knox was offered an episcopate, but declined due to inopportune circumstances. Knox did not protest another taking the see, however, and indeed it was under Knox that the first Book of Discipline was issued.

Obviously episcopal government is not inconsistent with Reformed theology. The Churches in England and in Hungary retained bishops, and now we see that the Scots did as well, though their form was later changed.

We also begin to see, particularly through a study of Rollock along with the Aberdeen doctors, that a true “moderate” (acknowledging the infelicity of this term) Calvinism existed in Scotland, as well as in England and Germany.

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This entry was posted in catholicity, church history by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, FL. He is also a founder and general editor of The Calvinist International. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), a full-time minister, and occasional classical school teacher, Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, and daughter.

2 thoughts on “Early Scots-Episcopacy

  1. I believe the “John Forbes” you mention above who wrote Certaine Records Touching the Estate of the Church is John Forbes of Alford, not his nephew, John Forbes of Corse.

    William Forbes was the 4th Lord of Corse and father of John Forbes of Alford. John was born in 1568 and died in 1634. He was a parish pastor in Alford as a young man, served as a moderator of the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk in 1605, but was later exiled by King James. After time in France and the Netherlands, he eventually returned to Britain as served as an Anglican bishop.

    William Forbes’s eldest son was Patrick, the 5th Lord of Corse, who became the Bishop of Aberdeen in 1598. His son John Forbes of Corse was born 1593 and died in 1648, serving much of his life as Professor of Divinity, King’s College, Aberdeen. John of Corse was trained theologically in part by his uncle John of Alford while living in the Netherlands as a young man, to which he returned late in life, being persecuted by the Covenanters.

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