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John Knox – Scotland’s Reformer


Born near Haddington in 1505, Knox studied at the university of St Andrews, and upon graduating (at a very young age) was admitted into holy orders.  An early disciple of George Wishart, Knox soon developed a deep distaste for Roman Catholicism and the clergy of Rome, who had done to death his friend and mentor.  Knox was captured by the French and made a galley slave, escaping to England in 1550, where he preached at Newcastle, Berwick and London. Edward VI of England offered him a bishopric, but Knox refused on principle and after the King’s death made his way to Geneva, where he became a close friend of John Calvin.  In 1554, at the request of some of the nobility, Knox returned to Scotland, where he began to preach and campaign against the mass, with such success that people in droves began to turn away from the Catholic worship.  He spent another time in Geneva, between 1556 and 1559, after which he returned to Scotland.  Following a sermon preached at Perth in 1559, the people rose in anger and destroyed the popish idols adorning the churches, pulling down statues and breaking organs and high altars.

In 1560, the Scottish parliament, under the guidance of Knox, declared the reformed faith to be the national religion of Scotland, popery was condemned and the Scots Confession was approved.  On 20th December 1560 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met for the first time.  Knox died in 1572

The Theology of Knox

It was due to the work of Knox that the Scottish Reformation did not take on itself an Anglican or Lutheran complexion.  Patrick Hamilton had been a Lutheran, and his doctrine of Justification by Faith was the pre-Marburg Lutheran doctrine, but through the labours of Knox, the Reformation took on a distinctly Genevan hue.  Knox’s theology was, nevertheless a milder form of Calvinism than that of the succeeding generations of Scottish Presbyterians.  The future theological complexion of the Kirk would be the legacy of Andrew Melville, (of whom we shall learn more), who it has rightly been said, was to Knox, what Bucer was to Calvin.  So what was the theology of John Knox, and how did it influence the thought of the Covenanters?

a) The Scottish Confession.  This was not solely the work of Knox, although we may use it as a good indication of the basic theology of the reformer.  A committee of Scottish Divines was involved in its preparation, which took just one week (although it would be fair to say that their theological knowledge was already sharp and their preparation already complete).  Nor was it the definitive expression of the Reformed Faith in Scotland, although even after the Westminster Confession was published, and accepted as the subordinate standard for Scotland, the old Scottish Confession would still remain alongside the new, and at times would alternate in importance with it, right up to the end of the seventeenth century.  We may also note that the Confession was not a theological treatise, or a systematic theology, and its subjects do not follow in any logical order, perhaps due to the haste employed in its writing.  It is actually marked with a distinctly ‘untechnical’ bias.

The foundation of the Confession was the WORD OF GOD.  A whole section is devoted to the Authority of the Scriptures.  It argued that the only Canonical books which would be recognised would be the Old and New Testaments, in which are contained everything that a man needs to know to make him wise unto salvation.  In times of controversy, argues Knox and his fellows, our final recourse is to the Scriptures, for God will not do anything which is contrary to His own revealed Word.  This of course brought the Confession directly into conflict with the Romanists, who believed (and still do) that final authority rests with the Pope, and with the Church Councils.

With regard to REDEMPTION, and JUSTIFICATION, the Confession has been accused of being ambiguous, even to the extent that some have alleged that it differs in its treatment of justification by faith, from other Reformed Confessions.  If this is so, any ambiguity was removed when the Scottish reformers signed the Second Helvetic Confession in 1566, and later, on their ready acceptance of the Westminster Confession.

b) The Sacraments. There was, of course, a wide divergence of opinion among the reformers regarding the nature of the sacraments and they way that they work.  All of them had left behind the beliefs of Rome, but to what extent?

* The belief of the Roman church, in brief, was that the bread and wine, at the pronouncement of the priest became the actual body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ, and was sacrificed, as the communicants took the bread and wine.  The sacraments worked ‘ex opere operato’ i.e., even if both the priest and the recipient were unworthy, the sacraments were still efficacious, in that they themselves were the means of grace to the sinner.

* Luther still believed in the real presence of Christ in the elements at the Lord’s Supper, and based his belief on the necessary ubiquity of Christ, although he insisted that no transubstantiation was necessary, and that no sacrifice took place on the altar.

* Zwingli reduced the Lord’s Supper to a memorial meal only, emphasising the command of the Lord, ‘This do in remembrance of me’.

* Calvin had steered a course between the two positions.  He had argued that the Person of Christ was received, not IN the bread and wine, but WITH the bread and wine, and that the efficacy of the sacrament was restricted to those who were believers, in that they enjoyed the presence of God by faith, around the Lord’s Table.  There was, of course no place for any sacrifice at the Lord’s Table in Geneva.

As a disciple of Calvin, one would expect Knox to follow a similar moderate path, so the Scottish Confession disclaimed the doctrine that the Sacraments were but bare signs.

Some have tried to read into the confession an underlying tendency to baptismal regeneration, which would imply an, ‘ex opere operato’ position.  In the historic Scottish Reformed movement there is no basis whatsoever for such a view.  Knox used Calvin’s Catechism for the instruction of youth, and this clearly taught, “How and when is it that the Sacraments have this effect?” “When a man receiveth them in faith, seeking only in them Christ and His grace”   (Question 317 and its answer).

c) Faith and Assurance. In early Scottish Reformed theology, the question of faith and its evidences was much under discussion, especially between 1560 and 1647. The early reformers were concerned about proclaiming the FACTS of the gospel, and revival fires lit up in the hearts of the listeners as the glorious message was proclaimed, and sinners applied the truth to their own lives by the aid of the Holy Spirit.  However, as time went on, a more personal application of Gospel truth became necessary.  The question had to be asked, “How would a member of the congregation know for sure that he had been a partaker of the forgiveness of Christ, and was indeed a member of the Kingdom of God?”  To answer this question, the reformers took two approaches.  The early answer was:

– ASSURANCE.    Calvin’s catechism said, “The right faith…. is a sure persuasion and steadfast knowledge of God’s tender love toward us, according as he hath plainly uttered it in His Gospel that He will be both a Father and a Saviour to unto us, through the means of Jesus Christ.”  Much emphasis was laid on this personal assurance of salvation, and it rested not upon feelings, but upon the promises of God’s Word.  A believer had assurance when he knew that he had for himself received the provision of God in Christ for him, and accepted the Lord and Saviour as his own.  A later answer, in addition to assurance was:

– GOOD WORKS.  The reformers looked for the evidences of regeneration in the outworking of Christian faith in the one who professed such faith.  These evidences would need to be such that one might reasonably conclude that the subject has in fact passed from death unto life.

d) The Doctrine of the Church. This segment of Christian truth is most important in our understanding of the motives of the Covenanters, and in Knox’s teaching and in the Confession, are the seeds of the doctrine, to be more fully elaborated upon by Rutherford, which would bring the sword to Scotland, and cause those who despised the reformed position to spill the blood of her martyrs.

The Church Invisible The Scottish view on the Invisible Church was similar to that of any other group of reformed churches.  The visible church was the same church as the invisible church, except that to God, it was seen in its entirety.  He saw His church complete, as one church, and comprised of believers from every age, including those in ages still to come.  Of this church, Christ was enthroned as Head and King, and His subjects in His kingdom were bound to uphold His laws and to do His bidding.

The Church Visible was the outward expression of the invisible church, and Christ was still the Head of His church, even if it was confined to one place and comprised of only those who were alive at that time.  No other king could sit on His throne, and no one else could usurp authority in His church.  There was a definite distinction to be made between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God.   The citizens of the Kingdom avowed the Headship of their Sovereign, acknowledged His Authority, and accepted His Word as their Regulative Authority in matters of doctrine, worship, discipline and government.  They obeyed their King, and that obedience took precedence over obedience to any earthly king.

Luther had believed in the Doctrine of ‘The Godly Prince’, whose task and responsibility it was to reform the church.  Only the lawfully ordained authorities could carry out that task, and Scotland had no such prince, and the theologians had no such doctrine.  An ungodly king (or even a godly one!) had, in the Presbyterian mind, no right to rule in Christ’s kingdom.  Six basic rules governed Knox’s attitude to church and state:

1. In a conflict between the law of the state, and God’s Law, then God’s law must prevail.

2. The state is obligated to protect true religion.  (The mass was banned by the reformed state of Scotland.  Knox said in a letter to Queen Mary, “One Mass is more fearful to me than if ten thousand enemies were landed in any part of the realm”) This is despite the fact that the king was allowed no more say in the governance of the Kirk than any other layman.

3. Knox believed in the right of armed resistance, although the sword should not be the first weapon of choice for Christians.  He had no qualms about resisting princes or rulers, if they exceeded their bounds.  (This has an interesting bearing on contemporary issues in Northern Ireland.  How far can a person go in resisting the state, when the state takes decisions which are unbiblical, and which restrict ancient freedoms to worship?)

4.  Knox did not deny the right of the monarch to exist.  He remarked that he would just as well live under Queen Mary as under Nero!  His allegiance was on the condition that the monarch did not stain his hands with the blood of the saints of God.

5.  Church and state both have responsibility for relief of the poor and education of the people.  In these efforts they should work together.

6.  The church is obliged to maintain spiritual discipline, and the state’s responsibility is to punish wrongdoers.  In Knox’s church, the elders met every week to enforce discipline.  Adulterers, Sabbath breakers and backsliders would be brought before the Session.  The state, however, should be first to act in serious cases, especially in capital cases.

Knox and his followers laid the basis of the Covenanter dispute with the Episcopalians.   “In Scotland… (The doctrine of the church visible) … came to hold such a place of control as that it is largely in connection with the application and working out of this doctrine, that the most remarkable struggles and discussions of national church life have taken place.  It regards the church in its visible form as a Kingdom, with a King of its own.  The King is not an absentee monarch, nor is he only a figurehead.  He is looked upon as the Head of the church as it is His acknowledged realm.”

Why did Protestantism Succeed where Catholicism Failed?

Protestantism was a radical departure from the Old Catholic system.  It offered to the people a new warm faith, with ministers who cared about their calling, and who were passionate about preaching.  It offered them a personal faith, rather than an impersonal system of masses, confessions and indulgences.  Besides the spiritual benefits, there were practical reasons for the advance of the early Protestant faith.

Firstly, in the burghs, the merchants and mariners, who had been abroad, particularly on the continent, heard the message and carried the Good News back to their fellow townsmen.  There already existed an awareness of the issues of reform, which greatly assisted the efforts of the preachers.  The town guilds and tradesmen acted as societies for discussion of new ideas, and within these societies, the word spread fast.  In the burghs there were always plenty of poor and illiterate people, a rabble who could easily be stirred to action by the heated rhetoric of a reformer, and who were thus useful in the pulling down of idolatrous statues and the trappings of Roman worship.

Secondly, the bedding – in of the reformation was helped by a group of lairds who went over to the Protestant cause.  For example, in Ayrshire and Angus, where some of the minor lairds were resentful of the heavy taxes levied upon them to support contentiously wealthy churchmen, there was a willingness to support the preachers of the reformation.  There were other nobles, among them the Earls of Argyll and Arran, who felt disgruntled by the way that the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, was neglecting them at the palace.  Among many of these existed a seething resentment at the way Mary had virtually made Scotland a province of France.  These noblemen and lairds became the LORDS OF THE FAITHFUL CONGREGATION following Knox’s protest, and vowed to establish Protestantism as the religion of Scotland.

With support in both burgh and country, the work of Knox was certain to succeed. The final nail in the coffin of the Catholic Church in Scotland was when Queen Elizabeth Ist’s fleet sailed into the Forth in 1560, cutting the supply lines from France and forcing the Treaty of Edinburgh in which a new alliance was forged between England and France.

But Protestantism, and especially Presbyterianism did not take root evenly across the whole of Scotland.  In the Highlands, where Catholic Churches were closed, nothing was put in their place.  This is not to say that the Highlanders or their Catholic clergy put up a resistance against the new Reformed religion.  In many areas the Catholic Church simply gave up and closed down; a token of years of apathy, abuse and neglect.  As a result of this dearth of spirituality, the area became pagan, and ancient pagan rites were re-established.

Additionally, Gaelic speakers populated the Highland areas, and the infant Presbyterian Church had few such speakers among its pool of ministers, so ministers tended to be called to congregations in Lowland areas.  This suited the Lowland minor lairds of Ayrshire and other areas, who were not especially wealthy, and resented having to pay heavy taxes to the catholic clergy.  They regarded the Roman Catholic clergymen, many of them who were absentee rectors, rarely setting foot in their parishes, as pariahs, sponging upon the honest farmers and employers.  Unlike many of their wealthier brethren among the nobility, they did not have the resource of placing their sons and other relatives into paid bishoprics, nor did they have opportunity to be come ‘commendators’ themselves.  As a result they welcomed the opportunity to see the priests ousted and the Presbyterian ministers installed in the parish churches.

In the later the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, following the Catholic Counter-Reformation, Jesuits would come into the Highlands, and begin to fill the gap left by the regular clergy, re-establishing Catholicism and hindering any existing tendencies to reformed faith and worship.

Thus the Nation was bitterly divided, and throughout the Killing Years of the seventeenth century we see Scot taking up arms against Scot, with awful and bloody consequences.  While Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Lowlands became Protestant and Reformed, the Highlands remained outside the reformed faith; Dundee was Catholic, with a strong Irish influence, while Aberdeen was Episcopalian.  At the behest of government Highlanders entered Ayrshire to kill, torture and imprison anyone suspected of Covenanting activities.  Scotland was torn asunder.

From → Covenanters, History

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