Friday, October 31, 2008

Reformation Day!

I thought that I would take this reformation day as an opportunity to write about the life of John Knox, the great Scottish Reformer who is firmly in our Presbyterian heritage.

First, I want to let everyone know that Ligonier Ministries is presently offering a free copy of the Reformation Study Bible for a donation of any amount. You can read about the offer here. I have a copy of this study Bible and while I'm not convinced that it was an improvement on the New Geneva Study Bible and it appears to have been surpassed in this translation by the new ESV Study Bible I think that most people will still find this to be a fantastic resource for personal study. Just make sure that you don't answer a "What does the text say?" question in Sunday School with, "The note in my Study Bible says..." :-)

The Life of John Knox

Iain Murray writes, “The most frequently user word in John Knox’s vocabulary was undoubtedly the word ‘battle’; and the battle, as he knew it, was ‘not against flesh and blood, but again principalities, against power, against the rulers of the darkness of this word (Eph. 6:12).” (8)*

Knox was born around 1514 in East Lothian. Not much is known of his early life but he did attend the University there and was ordained to the priesthood in 1536. From 1540 to 1543 he served as a church lawyer in East Lothian. At that time a new government allowed some toleration of Protestants and Knox was saved after hearing the preaching of Thomas Guylliame. When the Protestant preacher George Wishart came to East Lothian in the winter of 1545-6 Knox waited on him, which included guarding the preacher with a two-handed sword against assassins. Eventually the preacher ordered Knox to return to teaching and that night Wishart was seized and later burned at the stake by Cardinal Beaton outside St. Andrews.

After Beaton himself was later assassinated some pled with Knox to take up the pulpit at St. Andrews. He preached on the Gospel of John for a short time before the castle was attacked by French galleons and Knox, along with the 120 defenders, was taken as a prisoner to France. After this, Knox tells us in his autobiography that he spent nineteen months as a slave rower aboard a French galley. After English intervention Knox was released and spent time preaching in England before fleeing back to Europe after Mary Tudor took the throne. During this time he married Marjory Bowes but, having left her in the north for her safety, he was not able to get back to her before having to flee the islands.

Knox spent a number of years in exile from Britain at Geneva where he studied theology under the French Reformer, John Calvin, and pastored an English-speaking congregation in the city. After twelve years in exile he finally returned to Scotland in 1559. The Scottish Reformation became an armed conflict when the “Lords of the Congregation” and the Catholic lords raised armies and met in several battles. Knox served as the spiritual leader of the Protestants who preached and ministered to the soldiers and leaders as well as securing funding from English allies. When military aid finally came from England the Protestants prevailed and the Scots’ Confession (written by Knox) was ratified at the first Scots Parliament in 1560.

Mary Queen of Scots returned to the country in 1561 and Knox was in conflict with her and her supporters for the next six years until the Protestant forces again took up arms in 1568 and she was forced to flee back to England where she was eventually executed. At this time James VI of Scotland (later James 1 of England) became king though he was only an infant. A protestant Regent was appointed but after his assassination Knox was forced to leave Edinburgh and return to St. Andrews with his family.

Knox was not the human cannonball that he is often made out to be. Instead he was a well-cultured man who understood when Christian duty called for moderation. Iain Murray argues that his ministry can best be summed up as encouragement. Before his wife could leave England to join him in Geneva he wrote to her in a letter, “Your imperfection can have no power to damn you, for Christ’s perfection is reputed to be yours by faith, which you have in his blood.” (27) While in Geneva he wrote back to the believers suffering for persecution under Mary Tudor:

Be not moved from the sure foundation of your faith. For albeit Christ Jesus be absent from you (as he was from his disciples in that great storm) by his bodily presence, yet he is present by his mighty power and grace . . . and yet he is full of pity and compassion. . . . Stand with Christ Jesus in this day of his battle, which shall be short and the victory everlasting! For the Lord himself shall come in our defence with his might power; He shall give us the victory when the battle is most strong; and He shall turn out tears into everlasting joy.” (27)
Above all Knox believed that Christ was seated on the throne of heaven and was king over all earthly rulers and powers. He believed that Christ had a great design for Scotland and continued to believe it through the days of exile, persecution, and even the early death of his first wife.

At the end of his life, it is reported that Knox was so weak that he could no longer mount the steps the pulpit on his own but had to be helped up. At the beginning of his sermons he would lean heavily against the lector and his voice could barely be heard in the far parts of the sanctuary at St. Andrews. Yet by the time he finished he would nearly be hopping up and down in the pulpit and speaking the words of Christ loudly as in his youth. Later in 1572 he was too weak to preach at all and had difficulty breathing so he spent his waking hours hearing Scripture read to him (especially Isaiah 53, John 17, and Ephesians). Murray writes this about his final hours:

On Monday, 24 November 1572, he insisted on rising and dressing but within half an hour he had to be put back to bed. To the question of a friend, Had he any pain?, he replied: ‘It is no painful pain, but such a pain as shall soon, I trust, put an end to the battle.’ There was further intermittent conversation that day and a last reading of 1 Corinthians 15 at which he exclaimed, ‘Is that not a comfortable chapter?’ About eleven o’clock that evening he said, ‘Now it is come’, and, lifting up one hand, he passed through his final conflict in peace. (33)
* All quotations in this essay are taken from Iain H. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006).

Here are some other lesser known Reformers to read about:
"John Wyclif: Morning Star of the Reformation" by Ra McLaughlin
"William Tyndale: Covenant Theologian, Christian Martyr" by Jules Grisham (Part 2)
"Theodore Beza" by Henry Martin Baird

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