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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » Aaron C. Denlinger on Robert Baron (c. 1596-1639), Hypothetical Universalism, and Reformed Orthodoxy


Having considered Baron’s views in some detail, we are better prepared to reflect upon where his teachings lay on the map of theological opinions current in his day. Some preliminary comments are in order regarding the terms employed to properly situate the doctrine of Baron and his contemporaries.

As intimated in the introduction to this essay, I believe that meaningful assessment of Baron’s doctrine and placement of the same in relation to his contemporaries has, in the past, been crippled by over-reliance on the labels ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ to name the theologies of seventeenth-century Scottish divines. The problems inherent to the use of these terms are several. Taken on its own the term ‘Calvinist’ perpetuates the myth that Reformed theology, in Scotland or elsewhere, was a monolithic reality which looked to Calvin’s teaching as the sole or principal standard of orthodoxy. That myth, in turn, tends to underwrite charges against later Reformed thinkers for departing from the standard on this or that matter; thus narratives pitting the ‘Calvinists’, or at least some of them, against Calvin are constructed–typically towards the end of promoting some present day doctrinal antidote to everything that went wrong in the Reformed theological tradition–while the fact that strict conformity to Calvin’s doctrine was no Reformed thinker’s goal is overlooked.85

Coupled with its would-be antonym ‘Arminian’, the label ‘Calvinist’ assumes other problems. If taken to denote adherence to Calvin’s or Arminius’s precise teachings, these terms prove to be rather too restrictive to capture the diversity of orthodox, or even heterodox, views that existed in Reformed settings on any given theological subject. More often, of course, the terms are used as something like sloppy synonyms for ‘Reformed’ and ‘Remonstrant’, but then they foster the anachronistic tendency to project later, more developed theological concepts and notions on to Calvin and Arminius respectively. Indeed, the ‘looser’ the labels ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ become, the more susceptible Calvin and Arminius become to misrepresentation.

Qualifying these labels with adjectives like ‘moderate’, ‘liberal’, ‘rigid’ or ‘extreme’ subverts to some extent the problems just noted, but in the end, proves equally unhelpful, because it suggests that early modern Scottish theological opinions existed, and can be charted, on a straight line that begins with Arminianism on the left and ends with ‘rigid Calvinism’ on the right. The notion of a ‘line’ (or ‘spectrum’) of historical theological opinions fails only marginally less than the notion of two strict options to capture the diversity of actual opinions one encounters in early modern Reformed settings. A more significant problem with the use of such qualified labels is that they almost invariably function to name the historical interpreter’s theological opinions rather than his or her subject’s views. After all, there’s no clear reason why one historical theological position should be counted ‘moderate’ and another ‘rigid’ or ‘extreme’. Such descriptions typically reflect the interpreter’s preference for this position (generally the ‘moderate’ one since few individuals revel in being labelled ‘rigid’ or ‘extreme’) over that one. In sum, the adjectives ‘moderate’ and ‘rigid’ have, when applied to ‘Calvinism’ in particular as indicators of (historical) doctrinal perspective, become as vacuous as terms like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ for mapping present-day theological (or even political) perspectives.

An antidote to the various problems associated with the use of the terms ‘Calvinist’ and/or ‘Arminian’ for naming post-Reformation theological views is discovered in recent scholarship on Reformed orthodoxy. I suggest, in short, that the term ‘orthodoxy’, and its adjectival form ‘orthodox’, is far more helpful than the terms ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminian’ for naming someone like Baron’s theology and positioning it in relation to that of his contemporaries. On the surface, it may seem strange to suggest that ‘orthodoxy’–literally meaning ‘right doctrine’–might be a far less value-laden term than qualified variants of ‘Calvinism’ or ‘Arminianism’; but if ‘orthodoxy’ is properly understood as a historical denominator, and recent scholarship which details so helpfully the confessional boundaries and characteristics of Reformed orthodoxy in particular is taken into account, the term proves more satisfactory than its principal competitors.86

It is not possible to rehearse in this context all that recent decades of research into Reformed orthodoxy have taught us. With a view, however, towards this essay’s particular objectives, it’s worth rehearsing one important point, which is that Reformed orthodoxy was a diverse, or variegated, reality. Recognition among scholars of considerable theological diversity among Reformed divines (who were committed, nonetheless, to common, core doctrines) has followed from recognition that no single individual–most obviously Calvin–ever served as the absolute measure of right or wrong doctrine.87 National confessions of faith, rather, provided boundaries to what was deemed doctrinally acceptable; and within those boundaries a variety of exegetically defensible positions could be adopted on a significantly large number of theological issues. Recognition of confessional ‘boundaries’ to orthodoxy fosters from the very first a more dimensional perspective on theological views existing in the period in question; a ‘map’ of opinions replaces the restrictive, if implicit, metaphor of a ‘line’ (or ‘spectrum’) of theological views.

Recognition of the variegated nature of Reformed orthodoxy has an important bearing upon our task of defining Baron’s theology. Baron’s convictions regarding a twofold aspect to Christ’s sacrifice–rooted in his perception of a universal (salvific) love in addition to God’s peculiar love for his elect–were not unique. The position he advanced–generally labelled ‘hypothetical universalism’–was shared by respected contemporaries, as reflected in his own rather accurate understanding of what certain English delegates and the Bremenese delegate Martinius had advocated at Dort. Early modern Reformed hypothetical universalism has been the object of some interest in very recent years.88 And, significantly, the upshot of research generated by such interest has been that hypothetical universalism represents, in Richard Muller’s words, ‘one significant streamof Reformed thought ‘among others, having equal claim to confessional orthodoxy’.89 In other words, Baron was correct to view his doctrine as consonant with the Canons of Dort. Those canons, in fact, had been very carefully crafted to reject the Remonstrant doctrine of a singular, indefinite atonement rendering salvation possible for each and every person contingent on the exercise of faith, but to allow Reformed divines–all of whom affirmed a peculiar efficacy of Christ’s death for the elect–to disagree on what if anything Christ’s death accomplished for the reprobate.90 Of course, it remains a moot point whether or not the Canons of Dort held any official authority in Baron’s native Scotland. This point is clear: Baron’s views on God’s universal love and Christ’s universal atonement were deemed within orthodox boundaries by the international consensus of Reformed divines at the period in which Baron expressed them.

This is not to minimize the significance, both historical and theological, of the disagreement between, say, an infralapsarian hypothetical universalist like Baron and a supralapsarian particularist like Rutherford. It is, rather, to properly categorize that disagreement. In his helpful taxonomy of differences among Reformed orthodox theologians, Muller places the controversy between Reformed particularists and Reformed hypothetical universalists on the extent of the atonement in the category of ‘debates that fall within the bounds of the major Reformed confessions and that, in some cases were debated in the process of framing confessions . . . but which did not rise to the level of causing further confessional formulation’. Muller adds: ‘These debates . . . manifest a kind of diversity and variety of formulation not suitably acknowledged in the older scholarship on Reformed orthodoxy’; nor, I would add, in scholarship which has sought to name the doctrine of Baron.91

Of course, some post-Reformation Reformed thinkers were less perceptive of, or at least less willing than others to acknowledge, the theological breadth that characterized orthodoxy. Rutherford’s dismissal of Baron and his Aberdonian colleagues as ‘Arminians’ and ‘papists’ serves as a powerful reminder of that point. One can only guess at what epithets Baron reserved for Rutherford–at least in the privacy of his own mind–though Baron as a rule refrained from name-calling or scoring cheap points by painting his Reformed opponents as heterodox in print. Scholars, in any case, should not let the rhetoric involved in early modern Reformed debates obscure the essential point that orthodoxy did admit of diverse views on important issues.

That Baron, in conclusion, was no ‘papist’ is clear, though this would be more readily apparent from a consideration of his other writings, especially those on the authority of Scripture vis-à-vis tradition and ecclesiastical authority. That he was no ‘Arminian’ should be readily apparent from the exposition above–he unequivocally sided with Dort in rejecting the Remonstrant notion of a divine election contingent upon foreseen faith. He equally rejected the notion of an atonement which had the singular effect of making salvation possible for all, to be actualized by the free exercise of faith. Whether Baron was, as James Gordon put it, one of ‘the best championes that ever Scottland afoorded’ to the Reformed theological cause I leave for others to decide; he was, in any case, an orthodox divine, and that reality has a significant bearing upon questions concerning the actual level of genuine heterodoxy–whether recusant or Remonstrant in kind–that existed in Scotland as the period of early orthodoxy drew to a close.

Aaron Clay Denlinger, “Scottish Hypothetical Universalism: Robert Baron (c.1596-1639) on God’s Love and Christ’s Death For All,” in Reformed Orthodoxy in Scotland, ed. Aaron Clay Denlinger (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) 99-102. [Some minor reformatting; italics original; footnote values and content original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: This essay is excellent and should be read by all those interested in Hypothetical Universalism within Reformation and Reformed theology. I would also highly recommend Denlinger’s dissertation, Omnes in Adam ex Pacto Dei (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010). This dissertation is an outstanding academic achievement.


85Examples of such narratives, applied specifically to the historical development of Scottish theology, can be found in Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology: From John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), and M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 1985).

86See Richard Muller’s explanation of the term ‘orthodoxy’ in PRRD, vol. 1, pp. 33-4.

87For a fuller development of this point see Willem J. van Asselt, ‘Reformed Orthodoxy: A Short History of Research’, in Herman J. Selderhuis, ed., A Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013), pp. 11-26 (22-4).

88See especially Jonathan Moore, English Hypothetical Universalism: John Preston and the Softening of Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007); idem, ‘The Extent of the Atonement: English Hypothetical Universalism versus

Particular Redemption’, in Michael Haykin and Mark Jones, eds, Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates within Seventeenth-Century British Puritanism (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011), pp. 124–61; Richard Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2012), pp. 126–60.

89Richard Muller, ‘Diversity in the Reformed Tradition: A Historiographical Introduction’, in Haykin and Jones, Drawn into Controversie, pp. 11-30 (25).

90Moore, ‘Extent of the Atonement’, pp. 144-8.

91Muller, ‘Diversity in the Reformed Tradition’, pp. 23-4.

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