Book Review

"John Knox" by Jane Dawson

Glenn A. Moots
Monday, February 29th 2016
Mar/Apr 2016

In her new biography of John Knox, Jane Dawson asks an insightful question: If Knox had died sooner than 1572, how would his career and character have been assessed? After all, a disappointed Knox, deep in "dolour," wished many times for death, and there were many occasions when Knox reasonably expected to die at the hands of his political or religious enemies. Knox tempted violence as a young man by theatrically carrying a claymore in the entourage of Scottish reformer George Wishart, cheated death as a French galley slave, survived clandestine journeys to and around Britain, ministered unflinchingly in Edinburgh during the plague, and unapologetically chose sides during civil wars. Yet despite his own wish to die and the malice of his opponents, God spared Knox for a long and storied career.

That career is now chronicled most expertly by Professor Dawson of the University of Edinburgh. Dawson has not only published extensively on Scottish history but also recently unearthed letters between Knox and his close friend Christopher Goodman, an archival discovery enhancing this biography. Her presentation of Knox is objective but sympathetic, giving full treatment to Knox's virtues and vices as well as his pastoral heart and self-doubt. It is not quite the rehabilitation that Dawson promises, but neither friend nor foe of Knox can content themselves with anything less than the full picture contained in Dawson's deliberate narrative.

Knox is best known for his leadership in the Scottish Reformation, particularly his sermon in Perth that sparked a Protestant riot. His History of the Reformation in Scotland likewise shaped Scotland's religious identity. Knox also famously rejected the 1552 Book of Common Prayer, a protest that continued in exile from "Bloody Mary" on the continent. He collaborated in the creation of the Book of Common Order, the metrical psalter, the (subversive) Geneva Bible, the Scottish Confession of Faith, and the First Book of Discipline. Knox also established the ethos of the Regulative Principle. Despite contemporary Presbyterians eschewing these traditional elements with alarming frequency, it is impossible to imagine the Reformed faith, particularly Presbyterianism, without Knox.

Knox also served as a model prophet before rulers and advanced a corresponding political theology of resistance’a legacy demonstrated by the 1766 republication in Philadelphia of Knox's The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (1588) that was no doubt a response to the Stamp Act. (Knox's more robust theory of rebellion wasn't articulated, however, until 1564.) James VI testified to Knox's revolutionary reputation when he exclaimed that had Knox's three surviving children been men instead of women, he would not have enjoyed his three kingdoms in peace. James was right. Knox was loathe to give peace to the three Marys that preceded James in Scotland and England. He wrote his First Blast against both Mary of Guise and Mary Tudor, gave powerful spiritual momentum to the overthrow of Mary of Guise, and administered hours of personal torment to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Knox's legacy came not only from his pen but also from authoritative preaching. Fifteen-year-old James Melville recalled that the application portion of Knox's sermon, delivered after thirty minutes of exposition, caused the listener to shudder and tremble such that he could no longer hold his pen. Remarkably, this was in 1571 when Knox was physically faltering and spending most of his time in bed. Over a decade before, Thomas Randolph compared Knox's battlefield preaching to the Lords of the Congregation to having five hundred trumpets blown in one's ears.

Knox's life's work can be summarized as his unshakable conviction that Scotland was a nation covenanted before God and accountable for reform from the accretions and idolatry of Rome. Such conviction permeates Knox's History, and it determined not only subsequent impressions of Knox but also the longstanding Scottish belief that they were a people of God. Warning against national sins and inevitable judgment, Knox's extant work evinces little difference in his mind between Scotland and Old Testament Israel. His own self-appointed role as mediating prophet necessitated preaching on public affairs. Knox continually threatened to withdraw from political life but was inevitably drawn back in, laboring without hesitation and often worn to exhaustion.

But all of this is largely grist for the mill of Knox's admirers over the centuries. Dawson also reminds us that Knox's belief in the covenanted nation sometimes drew him into a contradictory cul-de-sac. The preacher advancing active resistance to avoid national judgment was eventually won over by the virtues of ecclesiastical unity. Knox warmed to separatists within the Church of England in the late 1560s, for example, but withheld his approval for their secessionist schemes despite their use of his own prior arguments. Such dilemmas exemplified the oscillation of Reformed political theologians between the triumphant idea of a national church and the siege mentality of a persecuted minority. In pursuit of reform, Knox confused opponents with enemies and imbued politics with righteousness to the point of threatening excommunication for Protestant allies of Mary, Queen of Scots. He even refused to concede that Mary herself was capable of repentance and he had gloated over the death of Mary of Guise.

Not surprisingly, Knox was likewise prone to polarities and stereotypes and not given to particulars or subtleties. Throughout his career, he proved less than adept at building effective alliances or taking prudent advice. He came to acquire the reputation of "churching it like a Scythian" (as John Jewel cleverly put it in a letter to Peter Martyr). In other words, Knox drank undiluted reform just as the Scythians drank undiluted wine. He readily defamed his opponents but resisted criticism of himself. Dawson frequently asserts that Knox was inclined to "shoot first and ask questions later" and tended to see the glass as "permanently half empty." The misogynist tone of Knox's First Blast made him repellent to Elizabeth I and blunted any further penetration that either Knox or Geneva (i.e., Calvin) could make into the Church of England. This was a blow to Knox, who "regarded himself as an Englishman by adoption" and who devoted so much of his early ministry to England (rather than Scotland) that he was mocked for having an English accent. Furthermore, the man who boldly wielded the claymore as a youth was sometimes quick to shrink back from a fight.

Dawson's book provides almost all of these facts elegantly and precisely, but it should not be approached by general readers without some caution. Dawson's command of the historical particulars could prove frustrating for readers desiring more explanation and elaboration from such a relatively economical volume. Also, Dawson shares the historian's fastidious insistence on quoting early modern authors verbatim, implicitly demanding a shared appreciation for sixteenth-century grammar and spelling. Also, like most historians, she is loath to offer commentary or insight until the end of the book. When was Knox clearly right or wrong in declarations about his contemporaries, for example? Dawson usually offers such judgments only obliquely.

Nevertheless, Dawson's volume can be read profitably not only for its academic merits but also to spur meditation upon historical providence and the weary pilgrimage that men like Knox endured for the sake of ecclesiastical reform.

Monday, February 29th 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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