November 24 – John Knox

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

John Knox (c. 1514-72), reformer of the Church

 Almost everyone has an opinion about John Knox. His character has been the subject of long and bitter controversy. To some he is the apostle of truth, the fearless warrior of God, a great hero of Scotland, and the founder of the Protestant Church; to others he is the architect of evil, a rabble-rouser, the father of intolerance and the destroyer of the old and beautiful. The poet Matthew Arnold quipped that there was more of Jesus in St Theresa’s little finger than in John Knox’s whole body.

Carlyle, the Scottish historian, rejected the conventional caricature of Knox as a gloomy, opinionated fanatic, describing him as a practical, patient and discerning man. Robert Louis Stevenson perhaps comes close to the truth: “He (Knox) had a grim reliance in himself, or rather, in his mission; if he were not sure he was a great man, he was at least sure that he was one set apart to do great things.”

While opinions about Knox’s character may differ widely, there is more general agreement as to his legacy. For good and for bad Knox set his stamp upon the Scottish Reformation. While it is no longer popular to speak of Knox as the “hero”, or the “maker of the Scottish Reformation”, his energy, courageous faith, and single-minded determination gave the reform movement a purpose and direction that marked it for all time.

Above all, Knox was a preacher: this was the source of his power and influence. He called himself God’s mouthpiece, a trumpeter for the Word of God. He believed himself to be “called of God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice”. His preaching was often lively, volatile, and violent.

His first sermon at St Andrews (1547) declared that the lives of the clergy (including the Pope) were evil and corrupt and that the Church of Rome was “the whore of Babylon”. At the Reformation Parliament in 1560, his powerful preaching on Haggai contributed to the Parliament’s action in abolishing papal jurisdiction and approving a confession of faith as the basis of belief in Scotland.

Knox was not a systematic theologian. His ideas, however, though not particularly original, have had a long-term influence upon Scottish thought. Apart from one theological work on predestination, almost all of his surviving works (six volumes) are polemical tracts written in response to specific circumstances. There are, however, three defining works of the Scottish Reformation in which Knox had a major hand—the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), The First Book of Discipline (1560), and the Anglo-Genevan Book of Common Order (1556–64), also known as “Knox’s Liturgy”. The Confession embodies the true spirit of the Scottish reformers. It is a typical Calvinistic document, and is simple, straightforward, frank, nationalistic, revolutionary in sentiment, and fiercely anti-Roman. The Confession sets forth three “notes” by which a true church could always be distinguished—the true preaching of the Word, the right administration of the Sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly administered. Due to the Confession and Knox’s influence the Church of Scotland became Calvinist rather than Anglican, and after his death became Presbyterian rather than episcopal.

The Book of Discipline provided for the enforcement of moral discipline, the recognition of five classes of office bearers—superintendent, minister, elder, deacon, and reader—and for the organisation of the Church into courts known as Kirk Session, Synod, and General Assembly. (Presbyteries came later.) The Book of Discipline advocated universal compulsory education and relief for the poor—ideas well in advance of their time. Although the Book of Discipline was never authorised by Parliament, it nonetheless helped to mould the life of Scotland for centuries. It is commonly believed that the Book of Discipline helped produce a race of people who admired discipline and honest work, valued moral integrity, and prized education.

Knox was not always tactful and diplomatic. His conduct in politics was fumbling and uncompromising. In public and political life, he was his own worst enemy. His hatred of Catholicism, his dogmatism, his invective sprinkled with his favourite adjectives—“bloody”, “beastly”, “rotten”, and “stinking”—made him many enemies and alienated some of his friends. His tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1558), a violent diatribe against Mary Tudor, asserting that government by a woman is contrary to the law of nature and to divine ordinance, earned him the hostility of Protestant English Queen Elizabeth and persuaded many Scottish Protestants that Knox was a liability to the fledgling reform movement. Knox’s reasoning from nature and Scripture for the exclusion of women from power was not unusual for his time; what was extraordinary, however, was his call to the English to remove their Queen by whatever means necessary. The First Blast was, essentially, a call to revolution, a justification for armed resistance.

Of all Knox’s writings, the most brilliant is his History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland. This began as a record of events of the Scottish Reformation of 1559–60, but during Mary Queen of Scots’ short reign, it evolved into a long sermon on Scotland’s covenanted status and the folly of breaching God’s law by tolerating a Catholic sovereign.

A constant theme in the History is the absolute necessity of avoiding idolatry, which Knox identified specifically with the Mass. He believed Scotland (and England), like ancient Israel, were bound to promote and defend “true religion”.

Late in his life Knox wrote: “What I have been to my country, albeit this unthankful age will not know, yet the ages to come will be compelled to bear witness to the truth.”  History seems to have vindicated Knox.  The role he played in the upheaval of the sixteenth century is of prime importance to our understanding of the church and Christian theology today. Knox not only helped to establish the Church of Scotland; his teachings formed the basis of Presbyterian theology as it developed in Scotland and elsewhere.

William Emilsen