Thursday, October 18, 2012
15: William Forbes (1585-1634), Scottish Caroline Divine and first Bishop of Edinburgh
William Forbes (1585-1634) was the first Bishop of Edinburgh and most of his short life was spent in Scotland. He remains one of the least well-known of the Caroline Divines, probably because he was Scottish and because little of his writing has survived.
The Forbes family includes three bishops in the 17th century: Patrick Forbes (1564-1635), Bishop of Aberdeen; Patrick Forbes (ca 1611-1680), Bishop of Caithness; and William Forbes, first Bishop of Edinburgh.
William Forbes was born in Aberdeen in 1585, the son of Thomas Forbes, a burgess of Aberdeen who was descended from the Corsindac branch of the Forbes family, and his wife, Janet, the sister of Dr James Cargill.
He was educated in the Classics and philosophy at Aberdeen Grammar School, before being admitted to the Marishcal College at the University of Aberdeen), where he was admitted AM (Master of Arts) at 16 in 1601. Immediately he was appointed Professor of Logic applied himself to supporting Aristotle’s logic against the Ramists.
He resigned his chair in Aberdeen in 1606 to pursue his studies on continental Europe, the 17th century academic’s equivalent of the Grand Tour. He travelled through Poland, Germany, and Holland, studying at several universities, including Helmstedt, Heidelberg and Leiden, working assiduously in the libraries, meeting Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), Hugo Grotius (1583-1645) and Gerhard Vossius (1577-1649), and pursuing further studies in theology, philosophy, Hebrew, and Patristics.
Ill-health prevented him from travelling on to France and Italy, and he returned to England, where the University of Oxford offered him the position of Professor of Hebrew. However, he pleaded ill-health, declined the post, and on medical advice he returned to Scotland.
When he recovered his health, he was ordained – probably by Bishop Peter Blackburn of Aberdeen – and he became minister successively of two rural Aberdeenshire parishes, Alford and Monymusk.
But the people of Aberdeen invited him to return to the city of his birth, and in November 1616, on the nomination of the general assembly, he was appointed one of the ministers of Aberdeen.
At the Perth assembly in 1618, Forbes was selected to defend the lawfulness of the proposed article on kneeling at the Holy Communion. The Five Articles of Perth was an attempt by King James to integrate the practices of the Church of Scotland with those of the Church of England. The articles provided for
● kneeling during communion
● private baptism
● private communion for the sick or infirm
● confirmation by a bishop
● the observance of Holy Days, which “enjoined the ministers to celebrate the festivals of Christmas and Easter.”
The articles were accepted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at Perth in 1618, although they were not ratified by the Scottish Parliament until 1621.
In a formal dispute that year with Andrew Aidie, Principal of Marischal College since 1615, Forbes maintained the lawfulness of prayers for the dead. Those ideas would not have been tolerated in other parts of Scotland, but were received with favour in Aberdeen.
Forbes was was admitted DD (Doctor of Divinity) when King James restored academic degrees and dignities to the clergy of Scotland, and when Aidie was forced to resign in 1620, Aberdeen’s city council, as patrons of Marischal College, appointed Forbes as the Principal, specifying that he should continue his preaching. He was both Dean of the Faculty of Divinity at Aberdeen, and Rector of Marischal College.
From Aberdeen, Forbes moved to Edinburgh as one of the ministers at the end of 1621, but there he faced opposition to his views on episcopacy. His zeal for the observance of the Perth Articles faced strong opposition in Edinburgh, as did his argument that it was possible to reconcile that the doctrines of Catholics and Reformers could be easily reconciled in many points.
Forbes felt his ministry at Edinburgh was a failure, and he returned to Aberdeen, where in 1626 he resumed his former post.
Some years after he was sent for by Charles I, when he was being crowned in Edinburgh in 1633. Forbes preached before the king at Holyrood with such eloquence and learning that the king declared the preacher was worthy of having a bishopric created for him. Charles I had founded a new Diocese of Edinburgh out of the Archdiocese of St Andrews.
Thew new diocese was formed from those parts of the Archdiocese of Saint Andrews lying south of the Firth and was endowed with the properties, both spiritual and temporal, of the Abbey of Holyrood and of the New Abbey in Dumfrieshire
Charles I nominated Forbes to fill the new see, and he was consecrated bishop in February 1634 with the usual ceremonies. Forbes applied himself with diligence to the tasks of his new office. Edinburgh became a cathedral city, with John Knox’s former church, Saint Giles’ Church, as the cathedral of the new diocese. At the same time, Forbes’s friend Thomas Sydserf (1581-1663), a former Minister of Saint Giles’ Church, was appointed Dean of Edinburgh on 19 February 1634.
At the beginning of March 1634, Forbes sent an injunction to his clergy to celebrate the Eucharist on Easter Day, to receive it themselves on their knees, and to minister it with their own hands to every one of the communicants. When Easter came he was very ill, but he was able to celebrate the Eucharist in Saint Giles’ Cathedral. On returning home, he took to bed, and died on the following Saturday, 12 April 1634. He was only 49 and had been a bishop for a mere two months.
He was buried in his cathedral. His monument was destroyed later, but a copy of the inscription is in William Maitland’s History of Edinburgh.
Forbes was married and had a family. One of his sons, Arthur Forbes, is said to have become Professor of Humanities at St Jean d’Angel, near La Rochelle. Another son, Thomas Forbes, entered the Scots College, a seminary in Rome, and eventually joined the staff of Cardinal Carlo Barberini.
After the death of Bishop Forbes, his friend Thomas Sydserf was made a bishop on the recommendation of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was consecrated Bishop of Brechin on 29 July 1634, and a year later, on 30 August 1635, he became Bishop of Galloway.
When the episcopacy was abolished yet again in 1637, Saint Giles’ lost its status as a cathedral. It was restored as a cathedral again when episcopacy was reintroduced in 1661. When the Church of Scotland reverted to Presbyterianism in 1688, Saint Giles’ became the “High Kirk” once again. The last bishop at Saint Giles’, Bishop Alexander Rose of Edinburgh, left the cathedral in 1689 accompanied by much of his congregation, finding a new place of worship in an old wool store in Carrubber’s Close, close to the present site of Old Saint Paul’s Church.
Later Bishops of Edinburgh included Daniel Sandford (1806-1830), who was born in Dublin in 1766, and John Dowden (1886-1910), who was born in Cork in 1840.
Although Forbes was learned and able, he had published nothing before his death and had written very little. He once said: “Lege plura, et scribe pauciora, Read more, and write less.” A treatise he wrote seeking to reconcile controversies was printed in London in 1658 with the cumbersome title Considerationes Modestae et Pacificae Controversiarum de Justificatione, Purgatorio, Invocatione Sanctorum, Christo Mediatore, et Eucharistia (Temperate and peace-making reflections on the controversies regarding justification, purgatory, the invocation of saints, Christ the Mediator, and the Eucharist).
Forbes entrusted the manuscript to his friend Thomas Sydserf, asking him to “macke any use of it that he pleased.” The Civil Wars meant that Sydserf did not have it printed until 1658, more than 20 years after Forbes’s death. It was published from his manuscripts by “TG,” his friend Thomas Sydserf, Bishop of Galloway.
“This posthumous work,” says Sydserf, “is a signal specimen and proof of a pacific temper, and a moderate mind: wherein, like a second Cassander and catholic moderator, he endeavours to compose, or at least to mitigate, the rigid and austere opinions, in certain points of religious controversy, both of the reformed and of the popish party. How greatly he regarded moderation, appears from that usual saying of his, that, if there had been more Cassanders and Wiceliuses, there would have been no occasion for a Luther, or a Calvin.”
Other editions were published in Helmstadt (1704) and Frankfort-on-the-Main (1707).
Forbes also wrote Animadversions on the works of Bellarmine, which was used by his friend and colleague at Marischal College, Robert Baron, but the manuscripts seem to have perished soon after.
A summary of his sermon before Charles I is given in an edition (1702-1703) of the works of Dr John Forbes.
Forbes as theologian
At the end his short Life of William Forbes, Thomas Sydserf predicts that no passage of time will erase or obliterate the memory of Forbes. Among contemporary theologians, AM Allchin has commented on the importance of Forbes’s “pioneering work,” which he hopes will be recognised more widely. Dr Kenneth Stevenson describes the Considerationes as “one of the most unusual works of the seventeenth century,” and one that has “far more ecumenical potential … than has so far been appreciated.”
Forbes’s Considerationes received little attention and went through only a few editions in the 17th and 18th centuries, suggesting little interest in the book. However, between 1850-1856, through the impulse of the Oxford Movement, the Scottish Episcopalian priest and patristic scholar, the Revd George Hay Forbes (1821-1875), produced a new two-volume edition, with the Latin text and an English translation side-by-side.
The Considerationes is virtually the sole source for Forbes’s ideas. It shows his immense learning, his fluency in three sacred languages, Latin, Greek and Hebrew; and his prodigious knowledge of Scripture, the Fathers, the mediaeval schoolmen and contemporary theologians, both Roman Catholic and Protestant.
The origins of the Considerationes may be traced to his lectures in theology students at Marischal College, although the bulk of the work belongs to later years.
At the beginning of the book, Forbes launches straight into a debate about the doctrine of Justification, devoting more space to this than to any other subject. William Forbes’s writing on Justification is perhaps the most important contribution from the Caroline Divines to the discussion of the subject.
While Forbes is at pains to reassure Roman Catholics that Protestants have not simply discarded good works in their thinking about Justification, he is equally anxious to reassure Protestants that Roman Catholics place a high value on faith and are therefore misrepresented as believing in ‘”works righteousness.”
He quotes from the Council of Trent, which pronounces: “We are said to be justified gratis, because none of the things which precede justification, neither faith nor works, merit the grace of justification.” He also quotes Francis White (?1564-1638), Bishop of Norwich, who remarked regarding assurance of justification that the differences “between some learned Papists” and Protestants “is very small (if it be any at all).”
With regard to Purgatory, prayers for the dead, the invocation of angels and saints and the Eucharist, Forbes does his utmost to convince Protestants who have rejected Roman Catholic doctrine on these matters that these doctrines do not deserve to be regarded with such abhorrence as they often are. He tries to show how they may be made more acceptable to Protestants.
He makes two proposals that he believes would reduce the extent of disagreement. Firstly, he calls for only the fundamentals of the Christian faith to be required to be believed de fide. Outside this central core, a variety of opinion should be allowed on a range of matters of lesser importance, known as adiaphora, or “things indifferent.” Secondly, he urges that the authorities recognised as definitive by all Christians should be: Scripture, the teachings of the early Fathers, the pronouncements of the General Councils, and the practices of the Church in the first five centuries of its existence.
In this, Forbes echoes his contemporary, the Caroline Divine Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), who summarises the Anglican understanding of doctrinal authority in similar words: “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of fathers in that period – the three centuries, that is, before Constantine, and two after, determine the boundary of our faith.”
He believes that much of the acrimony could be taken out of the argument about Purgatory if Rome ceased to require the doctrine to be believed de fide and consigned it to the category of adiaphora. Forbes also suggests that an, “intermediate state” after death, something which he himself thought was “by no means devoid of a considerable degree of probability,” would be acceptable to many Protestants if it could be divorced from ideas about a punitive Purgatory.
Forbes was convinced that the idea of a punitive Purgatory was without warrant either in Scripture or the teachings of the early Fathers. However, some different ideas about an intermediate state can be found in the Fathers, including one he quotes who wrote of the “sweet consolation” enjoyed by God’s departed servants.
Forbes seeks to detach the practice of prayers for the dead from the idea of a punitive Purgatory, pointing out that the notion that such prayers deliver souls from the torments of Purgatory did not appear until the 5th century.
He quotes the Roman Catholic lay theologian Georg Cassander (1513-1566) who says such prayers are “acceptable to God and useful to the Church as a testimony of love towards the departed and as a profession of faith in the immortality of the soul …”
When it comes to the intercession and invocation of angels and saints, Forbes argues that such prayers are not propitiatory, that they do not take away from Christ’s role as our sole Mediator, nor do they involve offering worship to angels or saints. He also reminds Protestants that, as with prayers for the dead, these practices have not been pronounced de fide by Rome.
He cites a number of Protestants who are not wholly opposed to the practice, as long as no worship is offered to the saints. He hopes that abuses are removed this ancient custom of the Church in both East and West need not be abandoned.
His final discussion is on the “very serious” controversy about the Eucharist. All Protestants were at odds with Rome over the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was pronounced de fide in 1215). But they were also at odds with one another about the nature of the Sacrament.
Forbes’s thinking resembles t that of the English Caroline Divines, particularly Lancelot Andrewes, who was praised by Forbes for his great learning and as “a man worthy of all credit.”
He makes the same distinction as Andrewes between the reality of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament and the manner of it. For both theologians, the doctrine of transubstantiation concerns only the manner of the presence and so belongs to the category of adiaphora. Forbes, like Andrewes, insists that it is possible to believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist without being committed to transubstantiation.
He is anxious to convince Roman Catholics that many Protestants have not abandoned belief in the real presence, but only differ from them on the question of how it is brought about. Similarly, he wishes Protestants to understand that the rejection of transubstantiation does not necessarily entail the rejection of belief that Christ is truly present in the Sacrament.
Forbes points to the lack of scriptural warrant for transubstantiation and says the doctrine was unknown to the early Church, whose understanding of the matter was expressed by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who says Christ’s flesh “is exhibited to us, but spiritually, not carnally.”
However, Forbes does not mean that the Body of Christ is received “by bare faith.” He quotes from Calvin, who says: “The bread is not a bare and simple figure, but one joined to that which is its reality and substance … Deservedly is the bread called the Body, since it not only represents it to us, but also offers it …”
Forbes explains that the reason for the stress on the spiritual nature of the presence is partly a reaction against some accounts of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament that he believes have been far too gross and material.
Forbes pleads with persuade Roman Catholics not to condemn as heretical those who believe that after the consecration the substance of bread and wine remains along with the Body and Blood of Christ. He quotes the Franciscan theologian Peter of Alliaco (1350-1429), a professor at the Sorbonne, Archbishop of Cambrai and a cardinal, who said: “It is not contrary either to reason or to the authority of holy scripture . . . to believe this.”
Forbes also draws on Cuthbert Tunstal (1474-1559), Bishop of Durham, who points out that before 1215, it was left for Christians freely to decide on how they thought the presence was brought about, as long as they “owned the truth of the Body and Blood of the Lord in the Eucharist, which was the very faith of the Church from the beginning.”
Having called on Roman Catholics not to accuse Protestants of being heretics because of their Eucharistic beliefs, he calls on Protestants not to accuse Roman Catholics and Lutherans of being “heretical, impious and blasphemous” on account of their Eucharistic beliefs. Pointing out that transubstantiation is believed by Roman Catholics and many Greek Orthodox, Forbes warns that “it would be an act of great rashness and temerity to condemn as guilty of heresy or deadly error all these followers of Christian religion.”
When it comes to the question of the reservation of the Sacrament, Forbes wants to return to the ancient practice of the Church when reservation was for the purpose of taking the Sacrament to the sick, not for the purpose of being carried about in processions.
In Scotland, many regarded even the simple act of kneeling to receive Holy Communion as idolatrous because it was taken to imply adoration. He argues that here adoration is not being offered to the bread and wine but to Christ present in the Sacrament.
Forbes is at pains to correct the mistaken idea that to describe the Eucharist in terms of sacrifice is to imply belief in a repetition of the one sacrifice of Calvary. It is no such thing, but rather a representation of Christ’s one sacrifice, as Roman Catholic theologians as eminent as Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas have taught he says. Nor is there any suggestion that the Mass can procure forgiveness of sins, only Calvary can do that, but the Mass is a way of appropriating the propitiation made once for all on the Cross. Understood in this way, and linked to Christ’s perpetual intercession in heaven, there is no need to deny that the Eucharist is propitiatory and profitable both for the living and the dead.
Forbes also has a deep interest in the Greek Orthodox Church. He makes a number of references to its beliefs, especially in regard to the Eucharist. His stress on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharistic action owes much to his knowledge and appreciation of the beliefs and liturgies of the Orthodox Church, which he respects as an important strand in Christian thinking. He deplores the schism between East and West as much as he deplores the schisms among the Christians of the West.
Forbes’s Considerationes, while firm in its criticisms of both Roman Catholics and Protestants, never descends to sectarian language. For example, he never refers to the pope as Antichrist, and he invariably calls for moderation and courtesy in theological debates.
JHS Burleigh, A Church History of Scotland (London: Oxford University Press 1960).
James Cooper, ‘Forbes, William (1585–1634),’ Dictionary of National Biography (vol 19, 1889).
GH Forbes (ed), The Works of William Forbes (Oxford: Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, 1850-1856).
Frederick Goldie, A short history of the Episcopal Church in Scotland (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, rev ed, 1976). DG Mullan, ‘Forbes, William (1585–1634),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).
Thomas Sydserf, Life of William Forbes (1650).