John Knox, Reformer and Preacher
The man who in the estimation of friend and foe alike was the greatest man that Scotland ever produced was born in 1505 near the village of Haddington (some of his biographers place his birth as late as 1512). John Knox’s education was at the Burgh School of Haddington, where the instructors were Roman Catholic and the instruction prepared young men for the clergy or holy orders. Latin was stressed at this school, so much so that the students were required to speak Latin at all times. Knox himself was an outstanding Latin scholar. He did not study Hebrew and Greek until after his fortieth year. He remained in the Haddington school until he was seventeen, at which time he faced the question of where to attend university. By choosing to remain in Scotland, Knox avoided the humanism that was rampant in the schools on the continent. He finally decided to attend the University of Glasgow, mainly because the most famous teacher in Scotland at that time, John Major, was on the faculty there. This university was a stronghold of Roman Catholic teaching. It sought to defend and advance Medieval theology and philosophy as well as the authority of the pope.
Knox was ordained into the priesthood shortly before 1540. He employed himself in giving private instruction to the sons of prominent Scottish families, rather than engaging in parochial duties. It is generally thought that Knox never renounced his priestly vows but considered his original ordination to suffice even as he took up the cause of the Reformation in Scotland.
Knox first professed the Protestant faith toward the end of 1545. Several influences were used by God to convert this peasant’s son from the bondage of Rome into the freedom of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In his early manhood, he read both Augustine and Jerome. Secondly, he attended the preaching of George Wishart for some time, became his personal friend, and even served as his bodyguard when Wishart’s life was threatened. Knox embraced Wishart’s Reformed preaching with enthusiasm. For this preaching, George Wishart was burned at the stake by Cardinal Beaton. Thirdly, a powerful influence in Knox’s conversion was his correspondence with Calvin and Beza, and his residence in Geneva on several occasions. At first, Knox was nearer to Luther than to Calvin in his views, but later he considered Lutheran a term of reproach, agreeing with Latimer that the German Reformation was only a partial receiving of the truth.1 Knox’s views regarding the papacy, the mass, purgatory, and other outrages show clearly that he embraced the teachings of the Genevan reformers.
But along with these three influences, we must add Knox’s wholehearted commitment to the Bible as the inerrant Word of God and as the only, final authority in matters of faith, worship, and life. Knox agrees with a certain Balnaves, whom he quotes, “They deceive you which say, The Scriptures are difficult, no man can understand them but great clerics. Verily, whom they call their clerics, know not what the Scriptures mean. Fear nor dread not to read the Scriptures as ye are taught here before; and seek nothing in them but your own salvation, and that which is necessary for you to know. And so the Holy Spirit, your teacher, shall not suffer you to err, nor go beside the right way, but lead you in all verity.”2 Knox expounded the Word of God, Old Testament and New, with insight and power. He applied the Scriptures to the situation in Scotland, England, and Europe. He loved the Psalms and explained them at length to those in spiritual distress with a great understanding of them and with compassion for the weak. One of his favourite passages was Deuteronomy 4:2, “Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the Lord your God which I command you.” This passage was a faithful guide to him in all his difficult labours, as it was to Luther and Calvin. He embraced the great Reformation principle of Sola Scriptura!
The bold reformer’s first charge was at St. Andrews. The first sermon he ever preached had for its text Daniel 7:24, 25. He called the Church of Rome the man of Sin, the Antichrist, the whore of Babylon. He laid down the marks by which the true church may be discerned from the false. Some said, “Others hewed the branches of the papistry, but he strikes at the root to destroy the whole.” Others said, “Master George Wishart spake never so plainly, and yet he was burnt; even so will he be.”3
A short time later the castle of St. Andrews became a refuge for those of Reformed persuasion because politically and religiously Scotland sided with England against Roman Catholic France. In 1547 a French army invaded Scotland and took Knox and other refugees captive, forcing them to row in the galleys for seventeen months. As a galley slave Knox suffered many torments, and his health was permanently damaged. After his release in 1549, Knox served several churches in England: Berwick, Newcastle, and London. While in London he joined with other pastors in approving “The Articles Concerning a Uniformity of Religion,” a document which became the basis of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.
The years 1554-59 found Knox in Europe. He served a congregation of English-speaking refugees in Dieppe, France, and a similar type of congregation in Hamburg, Germany, at Calvin’s urging. This pastorate he resigned due to controversies over vestments, ceremonies, and the use of the English prayer book. He next became the pastor of an English refugee congregation in Geneva. During these years Knox did much writing, for this time in Europe was the most peaceful of his life. Although urged by Bullinger and Calvin to use caution regarding female magistrates, Knox published his First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Because Anabaptism was growing in England and in Scotland, a request came from England to the exiles inGeneva that someone writes against the attack being made by the Anabaptists against predestination. Knox was chosen to make this response. Understanding the importance of this issue for true religion he wrote, “But yet I say, that the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination is so necessary to the Church of God, that, without the same, can Faith neither be truly taught, neither surely established: man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself: neither yet can he be ravished in admiration of God’s goodness, and so moved to praise him as appertaineth. And therefore we fear not to affirm, that so necessary as it is that true faith be established in our hearts, that we be brought to unfeigned humility, and that we be moved to praise him for his free grace received; so necessary also is the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination …. Then only is our salvation in assurance, when we find the cause of the same in the bosom and counsel of God.”4
Knox’s views in the area of ecclesiology are remarkably similar to our own in the Protestant Reformed Churches. He thundered against the claims of the papacy. He called the mass an abomination and an idolatry. He considered the preaching of the gospel to be the chief means of grace, and the sacraments as secondary to preaching as a sign and seal. Baptism was the sign of entrance into union with Christ, and thus was to be administered to a person but once. The Lord’s Supper was continuous nourishment for believers who were in Christ. He stood for infant baptism and was dead set against any re-baptism; the Anabaptists were his foe not only in the matter of baptism but also because they tried to upset the entire social order. We find it interesting also that Knox considered Roman Catholic baptism valid, and no reason for re-baptism. While insisting that baptism used in the papistry is an adulteration and profanation of the baptism which Christ instituted, insisting that Romish baptism leads people to put their confidence in the bare ceremony, and insisting that God’s children ought never to offer their children to papistical baptism for this is to offer them to Satan, Knox nevertheless answers the question, “Shall we be baptized again that in our infancy were polluted with that adulterated sign?” with an unqualified “No.” His grounds for this position were: (1) “The fire of the Holy Ghost has burnt away whatsoever we received at their hands besides Christ Jesus’ simple institution.” (2) “And in very deed, the malice of the devil could never altogether abolish Christ’s institution, for it was ministered to us in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” (3) “I confess, for the time it did not profit us; but now, as it is said, the Spirit of Christ Jesus, illuminating our hearts, has purged the same by faith, and makes the effects of that sacrament to work in us without iteration of the external sign.”
Knox held strenuously to the regulative principle of worship as we also know it and maintain it. Condemning the mass, he said, “And now, in a few words, to make plain that wherein you may seem to doubt: to wit, that God’s word damns your ceremonies, it is evident; for the plain and strait commandment of God is, ‘Not that thing which appears good in thy eyes shalt thou do to the Lord thy God, but what the Lord thy God has commanded thee; that do thou; add nothing to it; diminish nothing from it.’ Now unless you are able to prove that God has commanded your ceremonies this his former commandment will damn both you and them.”All religious ceremonies and institutions must have a clear biblical warrant if they are to be considered valid expressions of worship. Always Knox’s argument against false worship turns upon his defence of the regulative principle of worship.
Only in one respect did Knox differ from the Genevan theologians and us. He never really condemned the episcopacy. He was a man of his time and shared the views of his contemporaries in the matter of church government. His refusal of an English bishopric was for practical rather than principle reasons. He preferred pastoral work in a humble sphere, preaching the blessed evangel, rather than the arduous duties of a superintendent. He never held the opinion that bishops were an unscriptural institution; they could be tolerated. Beza, hearing of the discussions going on in Scotland on church government, wrote to Knox in April of 1572, “But of this, also, my Knox, which is now almost patent to our very eyes, I would remind yourself and the other brethren, that as Bishops brought forth the Papacy, so will false bishops (the relics of Popery) bring in Epicurism into the world. Let those who devise the safety of the church avoid this pestilence, and when in process of time you shall have subdued that plague in Scotland, do not, I pray you, ever admit it again, however it may flatter the pretence of preserving unity.”7 It is thought that had he lived longer his attitude would have changed and come more in line with the Presbyterian form of church government.
As a theologian Knox was not equal to Calvin, or even Melanchthon; he lacked the constructive powers needed to build up a theological system that united all doctrines into a unified whole. Nevertheless, he was a formidable, skilful disputant. His preaching style was unyielding and at times harsh. His language could be rather violent. His five conferences with Queen Mary were characterized by language that was exceedingly blunt and was not designed to win her over but to show her how wrong she was. On the other hand, he was the gentle father of five children born to him to two wives, the second of which was much younger than he and served as his nurse in his declining years. He was loved by his students and parishioners and was a good example to them in all godliness. Near the end of his life, he was so weak that he had to be helped into the pulpit; once there he became so vigorous that he began to strike the pulpit as to destroy it. His appearance was grave and severe, although he possessed a natural graciousness and dignity. His love for the truth and boldness in declaring it drew believers to his preaching services. He spent much time and meditation on his sermons, either writing them out in full or using copious notes. His harshness in debate and in preaching was defended by his followers for the importance of the issues at stake; they required a plain-spoken prophet rather than a smooth-tongued orator.
The esteem in which Knox was held by the faithful in Scotland was expressed by his servant Richard Ballantyne thus: “Of this manner departeth this man of God, the light of Scotland, the comfort of the Kirke within the same, the mirror of Godliness, and patron and example to all true ministers, in purity of life, soundness in doctrine, and in boldness in reproving of wickedness, and one that careth not the favour of men (how great soever they were) to reprove their abuses and sins …. What dexterity in teaching, boldness in reproving, and hatred of wickedness were in him, my ignorant dullness is not able to declare.”8 He died in October of 1572, full of faith and still ready for the conflict. He died with friends reading to him Isaiah 53 and John 17. He died quietly and in peace. He was buried in the graveyard near the church of St. Giles, where a flat stone still marks his grave.
Knox’s importance for the cause of the church and gospel of Christ in Scotland, England, and Europe can hardly be overemphasized. He gave his entire life to the reformation of the church. His religion took full possession of him, as true religion ought. Just before he died he said of himself, “None have I corrupted; none have I defrauded; merchandise have I not made.” Just after he died the Earl of Mortoun eulogized him thus: “Here lieth a man who in his life never feared the face of man: who hath been often threatened with dag and dagger, but yet hath ended his days in peace and honour. For he had God’s providence watching over him in a special manner when his very life was sought.”9
All Presbyterian and Reformed churches owe a great debt to John Knox, and thankfulness to God for what He wrought through this brave man of the hour. Where can men of his stature be found today in Scotland, England, Europe, and the United States? Where can there be found such holy hatred for Romish superstitions, false doctrine, and wickedness today, as could be found in Knox from the time of his conversion to the last day of his life? May God raise up such men in those places that require them, for the preservation and defence of the truths of the Reformation today!
Written by Rev. Dale H. Kuiper, Minister of SE PRC in Grand Rapids, MI
(Jimmy Hamilton aka The Street Preacher.