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John Knox on the Scottish Reformation

A. Boyd Miller IV

In 1981, the movie Chariots of Fire, which won an Academy award for best picture, opened in theaters and demonstrated that a film with a strong Christian protagonist—even one who was intent on keeping the Lord’s Day Sabbath holy—could do well with audiences and critics alike.

As a young teenager at the time, I certainly did not understand everything in the film; however, among the memorable scenes of that movie, one portrayed Ian Charleson as the Scottish Olympian, Eric Lidell, running past a great statute of a heavily bearded man. As Lidell dashes toward the church, he lifts his hat high in salute to the statue. Only many years later would I realize that the statue was of the great John Knox. This month we in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church tip our own hat to Knox in remembrance of his birth five hundred years ago. As we reflect upon the life and ministry of Knox, we would do well to remember two significant and surprising points made by the Reformer himself in his work History of the Reformation in Scotland.

Not a Political Rebellion

First, Knox makes clear in his historical apology that the Reformation was not a political rebellion or a revolution. Toward the end of his years, when the Reformation had entered a period of greater peace and stability, Knox wrote his account of the historic years as an apologetic for the world. He was greatly concerned that enemies of the Reformation would misconstrue events in Scotland for the purpose of persecuting Protestants in foreign lands, particularly in France. Thus, Knox was anxious to convey to civil magistrates abroad that Scotland “sought not rebellion and revolution, but a Reformation of manners and abuses in Religion” (History of the Reformation, Book II, page 298, in The Works of John Knox, edited by David Laing). Documents such as Protestant petitions to the Queen Regent, indeed, suggest the truth of Knox’s thesis. “We are obedient subjects, yet desire redress of wrongs and reformation [of the] Estate Ecclesiastical,” reads one petition from the nobility.

This subjection to lawful authority for Knox was no mere external performance, but an inward Christian duty in the sight of the living God, who searches the minds and hearts of his people. Addressing his fellow Protestants on this matter, Knox declares that the iniquity of the Queen Regent ought not to be an excuse to withdraw their hearts from due obedience to their Sovereign (p. 443). Indeed, Knox warns his fellow reformers of God’s judgment upon their work of reformation if they seek with sinful motives to depose the queen, rather than seeking the preservation of their nation (p. 443). Thus, for Knox, success for the Reformation depended upon the blessing of God, which in turn meant the avoidance of a carnal and revolutionary spirit among his people toward authority in general and the queen in particular. Indeed, Knox labored to convince the Queen Regent, Mary of Guise, that the Reformers were more of a friend to her than her own flattering advisors because they told her the truth in love (p. 339).

Not the Work of One Man

Secondly, Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland demonstrates that the Protestant cause was not the work of one man alone, but rather the work of the Lord through all of his people in his church. It was a movement of God’s Spirit upon God’s people. Certainly Knox was a critical figure in the Protestant cause, but his History reminds us that the Reformation in Scotland was a team effort under the Lord. The Lord used many of his people. Some are recorded by name. Most remain obscure, except to the Lord. Knox recounts the martyrdoms of Patrick Hamilton, George Wishart, Walter Mille, and others. Mention is given to early preachers like John Willock and Paul Methven in the late 1550s. Knox praises Willock as one “deserving immortal praise … for his faithful labors and bold courage.… He preferred the comfort of his brethren and the countenance of the Kirk to his own life” (p. 388). Methven, however, would tragically fall into grievous sin and be subject to church discipline, despite his earlier usefulness.

Lessons for Us Today

Knox also notes the many contributions of the laity. Merchants and businessmen with access to foreign countries imported and disseminated the writings of Protestants, which was especially critical when ministers in Scotland were suppressed or exiled. Such an acknowledgement by Knox ought to encourage you who serve the Lord today as businessmen, tradesmen, teachers, moms, and grandparents. God has placed you strategically in the body of Christ and in the wider culture for a specific purpose to further the cause of Christ in your own context.

The challenges for us are different from those of our brethren in the sixteenth century, but their lessons still apply to us. While we pray for more laborers of the harvest like Knox, let us not despise our own role and duty to Christ’s cause in our nation. Knox’s writings demonstrate that Protestant successes were attained under the Lord through many members of the body of Christ. He surprisingly notes that the Lord’s early work of reformation was regularly accomplished in the absence, not only of Knox himself, but also of any ministers—with only the help of zealous men serving as exhorters. Believers gathered for meetings of fasting and prayer, followed later by assemblies for more prayers, Scripture reading, and exhortation (pp. 299–300).

In addition to the ordinary laity, the nobility of Scotland also proved instrumental to the development of religious liberty and ecclesiastical reform in the nation. When we think of Knox, we often think of those four dramatic interviews between the Reformer and Mary Queen of Scots. Yet Knox relates that prior to those encounters, several Scottish nobles had their own suspenseful dialogues with the previous Queen Regent. In 1559, when the Reformation had gained some sudden and open victories in Johnstone and St. Andrews, followed by Queen Mary of Guise vacating Edinburgh, Knox notes that the nobility of Ruthven, James, Boyd, and Olgletree pressed the crown for the Christian liberties of the Protestant cause. One wonders whether Knox might have remained in permanent exile or returned home only to suffer the flames of martyrdom, like his predecessors Hamilton and Wishart, had not the Lord turned the hearts of the nobility to the gospel and the attending interests of the Protestants.

The nobility served an indispensable role with Knox in creating and pressing the petitions for church reforms: that the vernacular be allowed in the reading of the Bible, baptismal vows, and the Lord’s Supper; that qualified men might interpret when a minister was unavailable; that the laity might drink from the cup at the Lord’s Supper; and that wicked and scandalous clergy be disciplined. Knox notes that the Reformation had four primary goals, all of which had the support of many from the nobility: the preaching of Christ and his gospel; the proper administration of sacraments; the suppression of superstition, tyranny, and idolatry; and liberty within Scotland from foreign tyranny, such as the quartering of French soldiers in their towns.

Like the author of the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, Americans love their heroes. I am no exception. Knox’s portrait hangs behind me as I type in my study. We love the romance of God raising up champions who do great things for the Lord, turn nations upside down, and make queens cry, putting iron in our blood and fire in our bones. We love godly men who suffer as galley slaves for the faith, yet rise to preach under the very steeples they almost never saw again. We love men who boldly condemn the guardians of idolatry with all the fervor of Jesus cleansing the temple, yet sweetly offer consolation to those among his people who are weary and heavy laden. We love heroes whose prayers cause more fear among tyrants than invading armies. Those are men of great faith, courage, love, and zeal. Knox, of course, is a great hero of the faith. We name our churches, children, and even pets after him. He is worthy of much better treatment from his fellow Scots than a burial plot under a modern parking lot. Yet, for our love of heroes and of Knox himself, we should consider his writings and note well that Knox saw the work in Scotland as a work of the living God through the body of Christ—not as revolutionaries, but as his humble and obedient servants.

The author is the pastor of Covenant OPC in LaGrange, Ga. New Horizons, October 2014.

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