Q&A: Who was John Knox?

Who was John Knox?

Question

Who was John Knox?

Answer

Knox, John (c. 1514-72). The principal theologian and architect of the Reformed Kirk of Scotland, Knox was born at Haddington and educated at St Andrews University, possibly under John Major (1467-1550), an advocate of scholasticism and conciliarism. Following his ordination in 1536, Knox held minor posts as a notary and a tutor. Shortly after his conversion to Protestantism he came under the influence of George Wishart (c. 1513-46), from whom he learned an amalgam of Lutheran and Reformed ideas, including the views of Martin Bucer on the Lord's Supper (see Eucharist). Knox's conception of his calling as a prophet also dates from this period. While supporting a group of Protestant rebels in the castle at St Andrews, he was captured by the French and enslaved on a French ship. During his imprisonment he prepared a summary of the compendium of Lutheran thought by Henry Balnaves (d. 1579). Thus by 1549, when he was released and returned to England, Knox's theology was characterized by its eclectic fusion of the principles of Lutheran and Reformed thought, particularly with respect to the doctrines of justification and the Lord's Supper.

In England Knox's preaching at Betwick, near the Scottish border, attracted so many Scots that the government became nervous. He accepted an invitation to preach to Edward VI's court but declined an offer to become Bishop of Rochester. During the revision of the first Book of Common Prayer, he was instrumental in the inclusion of the 'Black Rubric,' which stipulated that kneeling during Communion did not imply transubstantiation. When the Catholic Mary Tudor became queen in 1553, Knox struggled with his conscience over the duty of martyrdom before deciding he should flee the country. His years of exile were spent at Frankfurt, where he lost a battle to continue reforming the second Book of Common Prayer, and Geneva, where he was influenced by John Calvin. At Geneva he wrote a series of tracts on political disobedience to idolatrous rulers, particularly the well-known First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, which generally denied the right of females to rule, excepting only those rare individuals such as the Hebrews' Deborah who had a divine calling. In these political tracts he developed the revolutionary view that common people had the right to overthrow a tyrannical and idolatrous sovereign (see Revolution, Theology of). During his exile he also wrote a lengthy and tendentious defense of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination against the work of an unknown Anabaptist.

Knox's exile was interrupted in 1555-56 by a return to Catholic Scotland, where he was fortunate to escape a charge of heresy. A group of Protestant lords invited him to return in 1559, and his preaching and leadership in the ensuing year was a major factor in the success of the Scottish Reformation. With a select group of colleagues, he helped draft the Scots Confession of Faith (1560), a classic of Reformed Protestantism (see Confessions), and the Book of Discipline, with its pattern for church government and an ambitious blueprint for educational reform. After Mary Stuart returned to Scotland in 1561, Knox confronted her in three emotion-charged interviews in which he uncompromisingly condemned idolatry. His years in Scotland were characterized by major theological controversies with Catholics, the first with Ninian Winzet (c. 1518-92) over ordination and the second with Quintin Kennedy (1520-64) over the mass. Knox's greatest achievement in these years was the writing of his History of the Reformation of Religion within the Realm of Scotland (ed. W. C. Dickenson, 2 vols., Edinburgh, 1949). The triumph of Protestantism in Scotland was assured when Mary Stuart abdicated in 1567 and Knox preached the coronation sermon for her infant son, James VI.

Reference

Sinclair B. Ferguson and J.I. Packer, New Dictionary of Theology, electronic ed., 252 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000, c1988).

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).