What Scotland Owes to Knox

Illustration: John Knox

What Scotland Owes to Knox

What was achieved by Knox and his fellow Reformers in 1560 took a long time to work out in both Church and state. The battle was won but the mopping up work would occupy many years. In spite of this he previous years had seen a radical change take place in Scotland. The Reformation Parliament had abolished Romanism in the country. The achievements of the Reformers were enshrined in the Scots Confession, the First Book of Discipline and the Book of Common Order. The Reformed Church was given a Biblical pattern. In all of this Knox had been the dominant figure for it was largely through his drive and leadership that these accomplishments had been effected.

It is given to few men to shape a generation but Knox, in Carlyle’s phrase, ‘made Scotland over again in his own image’. The whole conflict was, as Knox constantly affirmed, ‘a battle’ against the rage of Satan. If not for the resolution and courage of Knox the whole movement might have failed. He was the one person as ‘God’s Trumpeter’ who seemed capable of maintaining and strengthening the morale of the forces that were seeking to make the Reformation successful. He was able to keep his faith and stimulate those threatened with defeat to action and achievement.

What was the source of his determination and courage? And what did he contribute to the recovery of Biblical Christianity? What did the Reformation recover for future generations?

The glory of God the Goal of Everything: soli Deo gloria
1. The Reformation was a movement from heaven that turned attention from a man-centred religion back to God.

The strength and courage of John Knox arose from a strong sense of the presence of God in his life. In a climactic moment he retorted to Mary Queen of Scots and her court: ‘Madam, in God’s presence I speak’. Luther and Calvin felt themselves to be living, as they testified, coram Deo, before the face of God. The same was true of John Knox. His convictions could best be expressed in the words of the prophet Elijah, ‘As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand’.

At the heart of Knox’s Christianity was a vision of God on his throne. He likewise had a passion to put God first. His main focus was not on the doctrine of ‘predestination’, as some have contended, nor on a view of salvation, but it was first and foremost on God. It was the relentless orientation on the glory of God which gave coherence to his life and to the theology he propagated. The indignation that Knox felt against the Roman Church sprang from this source. He was possessed of an indignation against all that dishonoured God. He saw Roman Catholicism as a system bound up with giving to men and to idols that which belongs to God alone. The destruction of idolatry and false worship he regarded as a Biblical mandate. He believed that Romanism destroyed men’s souls by its idolatry, and that he was called to blow the Master’s trumpet to destroy it, as the Israelites did when they blew the trumpets round the walls of Jericho.

The Reformation, therefore, saw a return to the centrality of the triune God and an apprehension of his glory and majesty. The Reformers contended that the goal of everything we do is to be God’s glory. The reformation in doctrine affected the Church’s worship and government. The piety it produced was concerned above all with God. The new orientation likewise had an effect on family life, giving prominence to marriage and the Christian home. Still further it spilled over into society as educational, political, economic and cultural institutions and activities were reformed to the glory of God.

Scripture the Only Authority: sola Scriptura

2. The Reformation was a movement from the authority of the Church back to the authority of the Word of God.

God is a God who speaks, who communicates himself. He has spoken in the the divinely-inspired Scripture. Calvin, commenting on 2 Timothy 3:16, said: ‘In order to uphold the authority of the Scripture, he declares that it is divinely inspired; for if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men ought to receive it with reverence. This is a principle which distinguishes our religion from all others’. To the Reformers, Scripture was the sole authority. The Medieval Church held that tradition had a place alongside the Scripture. The Bible was not the alone rule for the Christian’s faith and practice. They taught that the Holy Spirit inspired the ‘tradition’ of the Church in the same way as he had inspired Scripture. The Pope alone had the power authoritatively to interpret Scripture, tradition, the Church Fathers, and, for that matter, the Church Councils.

The Reformers put the Word of God into the hands of the people and so brought them directly to God through Christ. Scripture, they claimed, is its own interpreter, so that not only does it not need Popes or Councils to tell us, as from God, what it means, it can actually challenge papal pronouncements, convince them of being untrue and ungodly and required the faithful to part company with them. Knox speaking of the counsellors of the Queen Regent in 1560 said ‘These ignorant Papists that were about her understood nothing of the Mystery of our Redemption’.

The Reformers believed in the sufficiency of Scripture. It alone should regulate the Church’s life, worship and government. This New Testament warrant was what became known as ‘the regulative principle’. Nothing is lawful in the Church unless it be found in Scripture. In regard to kneeling at the communion table, which was required in the Second Prayer Book, Knox urged that a principle was being ignored in the imposition of something ‘whereof ye neither have commandment nor example of Jesus Christ. nor of his apostles.’ This principle he put into operation in the congregation in Geneva: ‘On the practical level the Genevan congregation demonstrated in a new way the unity possible in a Church where nothing is imposed besides Scripture’.

Christ Alone for Salvation: solo Christo

3. The Reformers moved the whole basis of salvation from the Church to Christ.

For Knox the need for reformation was fundamentally the fact that Rome had destroyed the glory of Christ, by calling on saints to intercede for sinners, by adoring the Virgin Mary, by offering a continual sacrifice in the Mass. Knox’s passion was to display the glory of God in Christ. Calvin asks in his Commentary on Colossians, ‘How is it that we are carried about with so many strange doctrines?’ (Hebrews 13:9). And he answers, ‘Because the excellence of Christ is not perceived by us.’

The restoration of the centrality of Christ in salvation meant the recovery of the priesthood of all believers. The special power of the ordained priesthood was broken and every believer could now come to enjoy the privileges of priesthood (1 Peter 2:5,9). The new teaching freed the land from priestcraft with its attendant evils. It freed Scotland from the curse of clericalism. The absolute authority of the Church over the souls of men and women was at an end.

Salvation all of Grace: sola fide and sola gratia

4. The Reformers maintained that salvation depends entirely on God and his grace.

The core matter on which the Reformers disagreed with Rome was justification. Calvin in his debate with Cardinal Sadoleto said that justification by faith was ‘the first and keenest subject of controversy between us’. ‘Justification by faith alone’, sola fide, was one of the great watchwords of the Reformation. We have seen that by 1548 Knox himself had clear views on justification taking Balnaves‘s treatise on Justification by Faith as ‘the sum of his doctrine, and confession of his faith.’

But justification by faith raises the question: Does the human will have the capacity to believe the Gospel? What is the source of that faith, by which we are justified ? The Reformers held that faith is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Our salvation depends wholly on God and his grace, sola gratia.

B B Warfield says ‘It was Calvin who related the whole experience of salvation specifically to the working of the Holy Spirit, worked it out in its details, and contemplated its several steps and stages in orderly progress as the product of the Holy Spirit’s specific work in applying salvation to the soul. The Institutes is, accordingly, just a treatise on the work of God the Holy Spirit in making God savingly known to sinful man and bringing sinful man into holy communion with God’.

Preaching and Teaching

5. The Reformers recovered the theological importance of word communication.

The charge of the Reformers against the ministry that preceded them was that it failed to bring men into the presence of God. Calvin’s view was that if there was to be a meeting between a holy God and man in his desperately sinful condition this meeting must take place in the preaching of the Word. ‘Man before God‘s face’ was one of the watchwords of his ministry. The same can be said of John Knox in his preaching.

Carl Trueman has observed: ‘Everywhere the Reformation made an impact it did so via the production and proliferation of vernacular scriptures and the preaching (the verbal proclamation of the Word of God)’. A sign of the shift was the change that took place in the architecture of the churches. The Medieval elaborate altar structures were replaced by the raised pulpit with the people gathered around it. In medieval Catholicism the Mass was central, in Reformation Protestantism the preaching of the Word was central. ‘The Reformation represented in terms of theological culture, a move from a visual aesthetic, and sacrament-centred theology to a word-based theology.’

The Reformers made every possible use of the printed word. It was a tour revealing to him the gross ignorance of his fellow-countrymen that constrained Luther to take up the work of catechizing in earnest: The preparation and production of Luther’s Short Catechism (1529) was an immediate and surprising success, a decisive factor in reformation at the ‘grass-roots’ in the homes of the German people. Calvin made his return to Geneva conditional on him being permitted to write a catechism. In this respect Geneva had a great influence on Scotland. It was the Genevan Catechism that was translated and used at the commencement of the Scottish Reformation. It is little wonder that the Council of Trent said ‘the heretics have chiefly made use of catechisms to corrupt the mind of Christians.’

The True Church

6. The Reformers recovered the true doctrine of the Church.

John Knox saw the Church of Rome as ‘the synagogue of Satan’ and the Pope as the Antichrist. The Reformers were all agreed that the Medieval Church was no longer a gathering of the faithful but a worldly institution whose grandeur derived from the authority and traditions of men, and external connection with clergy, sacraments and buildings. It no longer held the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Many were deluded by thinking that the Church connection could save them and did not see that without a personal experience of divine grace, applying to them the merits of Christ‘s death, any external church connection is spiritually meaningless.

The Reformers believed that the true Church is distinguished from the false by having Christ as its living Head. According to the New Testament the Church is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached and the sacraments duly administered, according to Christ‘s ordinance, and discipline faithfully administered. All three marks are necessary for the being and well being of the Church. Calvin said: ‘The right administering of the Sacrament cannot stand apart from the Word. For what benefit comes to us from the Supper requires the Word’. Preaching and the words of institution created the context in which they could be understood. This true Church is to be kept separate from the world by the faithful exercise of discipline so that reproach is not brought upon God by the character of its members, an so that the good is not affected by the evil.

Godly Living

7. The Reformers brought all of life under God.

In the teaching of the Reformers the whole of personal and corporate life is to be subjected to God and to his will. It is said that the Reformation man was, ‘someone who lived consciously before God under his sovereign rule’. This is the most basic fundamental principle that ought to govern all of our living. Corrupt belief and corrupt practice went hand in hand and the one could not be reformed without the reformation of the other. The Reformation theology of salvation by grace through faith is found in the last resort to be the only true guardian of holiness and godliness.

Knox roused the common man to a sense of his true dignity. There was the dignity and divine calling of everyday work. He said: “Before God all men are equal. In matters of religion God requireth no less of the subject, be he ever so poor, than of the prince and the rich man”. One historian said of Puritanism that a Puritan was someone who would humble himself in the dust before God and would rise to put his foot on the neck of a king. Calvinists were strongly persuaded that they must serve God above men, and that began to relativize notions of superiority and aristocracy. King James VI and I once remarked as he looked at Presbyterianism: “No bishop, no king.” If the Church is not governed by a hierarchy, certainly the political world does not need to be governed by a hierarchy either. Such Calvinist attitudes toward kings helped contribute to modern democracy.

Reformed theology has consistently sought to order the whole of life according to the requirements of God in Scripture. It has always sought to do justice to the corporate dimension of the glory of God. Strong efforts were made to model civic as well as ecclesiastical life in this way. The Reformation had its effect in all spheres. Educationally it gave impetus to literacy as the common people learned to read the Bible for themselves. Socially it broke down the wall between the sacred and the secular, leading to fresh appreciation of marriage, family and the ordinary tasks of life. Politically it lead to the recognition of an essential equality among all people, a recognition of basic human rights and accordingly the creation of representative forms of government.

John Knox shared so much in common with John Calvin, and, like the Genevan Reformer, his thinking contributed to the development of the modern world. He laid the foundation of an extraordinary forward-looking new state, away ahead of the time in such matters as education and welfare. It led Sir William Stirling Maxwell to say: ‘No man in England or Scotland who values liberty, national, civil or religious, can speak of Knox without reverence and gratitude’.

Spiritual Renewal

8. The Reformation was dependent on spiritual renewal.

The theology of the Reformation was born out of a tremendous renewal of Christian experience. The Reformation was a spiritual revival, if any movement in Christendom ever was. Luther’s experience of the discovery of the meaning of the divine righteousness in Romans 1:17 is described in his own words: ‘I felt just as though I had been born again, and believed I had entered Paradise through wide-opened doors.’ It was with this experience, says Arthur Skevington Wood, ‘that the Protestant Reformation really started.’ The root of the Reformation experience of God was the conviction that what Scripture declares is God’s authentic message to us who hear and read it. It is the reception of that message in the heart that makes the man of God. That experience is re-echoed in the hearts of people in subsequent times. In the next century the Covenanter, James Fraser of Brea, said in his Memoirs ‘When I read Knox, I thought I saw another scheme of divinity, much more agreeable to the Scriptures and to my experience than the modern.’