The Perfect School of Christ: The Example of Geneva and the Scottish Reformation

Prefatory note: I have decided to begin a new series of reflections that I intend to post every Monday on the topic of ‘reformission’ (i.e. reformation as mission, or the form that mission takes in contexts needing reformation) which constitutes the heart and soul of this blog. I do not plan to write them in any particular order, but simply according to what I personally am thinking about and working through at the moment. While much of what I write here is, in a way, reformission in action, these posts will step back and examine, from a variety of angles, the work of reformission itself. Hence, Mondays will be ‘Reformission Mondays’, and this can be considered the inaugural post.


One of the best ways to learn about reformission and how it can be pursued is by looking to the great reformissionaries of the past and learn from their example. Interestingly, this is precisely what some of those great reformissionaries themselves did as they prepared themselves for their own calling. Among them stands out the figure of John Knox who, though not alone in his efforts, is certainly foremost in the history of the Reformation in Scotland.

Knox did not, of course, appear out of nowhere. As Jane Dawson makes clear in her excellent biography, Knox was deeply influenced by many who preceded him, especially George Wishart whose life, labors, and martyrdom left an indelible impression on the young reformissionary. Knox found significant influences elsewhere, though, among which was John Calvin and his work in Geneva, Switzerland. It was during Knox’s many exiles in Geneva in which his vocation as a reformissionary gained distinct clarity and focus. It was also Calvin’s Geneva, considered by Knox to be “a perfect school of Christ”, that provided the model and template for the Reformation that would later achieve success in Scotland. Dawson writes:

The great missionary endeavour by Calvin and his fellow Frenchmen to sustain the Protestant cause in France helped the English-speaking exiles to find their own purpose. The congregation saw their mission as preparing for the future throughout the British Isles and witnessing in the present. They became a working model of a Reformed community embodied in Word, sacraments and discipline resting upon a strong spiritual core…The ‘example of Geneva’ which they created with the help of their zealous congregation became the model for everything Knox subsequently did. This time in Geneva was the shining beacon that remained with him for the rest of his life…

The greatest achievement of Knox’s congregation in Geneva was their production of a ‘community of texts’. These covered the broad spread of a public order of worship, private devotions, the metrical psalter, ecclesiastical discipline, catechisms and a new translation of the Bible accompanied by a complete interpretative apparatus…It conveyed a distinctive vision of the godly Church organized and packaged into a concrete, printable form that was easy to reproduce, transport and disseminate and was to prove of incalculable worth when Knox returned to Scotland.

Equally significant, by its own well-organized running and the exercise of discipline over its members the congregation proved that they had developed between 1556 and 1559 a workable template for a godly church. This ‘example of Geneva’ combined practice with theory into a single package that exerted immense influence upon the Reformation of Scotland and England and entered the mainstream of Protestant culture for the Anglophone world. Much of what today is recognized as the English-speaking Reformed or Presbyterian tradition was first assembled in Geneva between 1555 and 1560…When Knox wrote to Anne Locke in December 1556 he explained why he thought Geneva was ‘[the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the Apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place]’.[1]

In the situation in which the reforming church found itself in the 16th century, there was not much in the way of models, training, resources, infrastructure, or finances with which to sustain its missionary incursions into lands dominated by the traditional church that refused to heed its call to the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this reason, Calvin’s goal for his own work was not simply to reform Geneva but also to turn it into a missionary outpost from which inroads could be made into other regions. Calvin, for his part, concentrated much of his attention on his native France as well as the Italian peninsula, but Knox found in Calvin’s Geneva a template for facilitating the Reformation in Scotland. As Dawson explains, Geneva provided Knox with a compelling example, both in theory and in practice, of a truly reformed church, and it is precisely this example that Knox sought to bring back and replicate in his own country. In doing so, he hoped to establish in Scotland a Geneva-like “school of Christ” that itself could be reproduced and thereby launch a rapidly-reproducing reformissionary movement reaching throughout Britian. As Dawson notes, the influence of Knox on the contemporary English-speaking Reformed tradition testifies to the success of his undertaking.

I find this exemplary for my own situation in Italy, a place that, while not wholly untouched by the Reformation, was not by and large permanently affected by it, unless one wants to take into account the reverse impact on the country by the Counter-Reformation. While there are numerous Protestant churches here, many of which were founded by foreign missionaries, Italy has yet to see the kind of highly-reproducible and thus rapidly-reproducing reformissionary movement that Calvin spearheaded in France and Knox carried to Scotland. Could it be that the absence of such a rapidly-reproducing movement in Italy may be due, at least in some small part, to highly-unreproducible models used by missionaries and church-planters today?

It is my suspicion that something akin to the example provided Knox and his adaptation of Calvin’s model to the Scottish context could prove highly beneficial. Could it be that such a succession of historical templates – from Geneva to Scotland to Italy – might bear some fruit in the present? That is, could appropriately adapting Knox’s example of appropriately adapting Calvin’s example of a reformissionary church ignite the one tiny spark capable of setting an entire nation ablaze? Of course, nothing is possible without the power of God operative through his Word by the Holy Spirit. But, given much humble and prayerful dependence on the Lord, could Calvin’s and Knox’s “distinctive vision of the godly Church organized” in a form “easy to reproduce, transport and disseminate” be a viable and effective pattern for reformission today? Could a nation-wide reformation still occur through the inspiration and model of one “perfect school of Christ”?

Speaking personally, I would love nothing more than to be able to participate in a church-planting work that does not merely exist for itself but, like Calvin’s Geneva, exists also to provide a compelling and reproducible example of what a reformissionary church can be and do. A bit idealistic, I know, but this is perhaps not too lofty a goal if indeed it is the Lord who is building the house (Psalm 127:1). At the very least, Calvin’s and Knox’s example should challenge us to enlarge our vision beyond the borders of our own ministry context and to consider how Christ may, in his grace, choose to use us to further his gospel beyond what we would ever imagine to be possible.

I’m still working through this myself, but it offers much food for thought.


[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 147, 150-51. The quotation from Knox has been rendered into contemporary English.

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