Missionary-Preacher-Theologian: T.F. Torrance’s Tribute to Scotland’s Great Reformer

This week is John Knox week here at Reformissio! Earlier this year I had the privilege of visiting a number of historical sites in Germany related to Martin Luther, and this past week I had the opportunity to visit Scotland and see many of the locations associated with the life and work of John Knox. Knox, of course, was to Scotland what Luther was to Germany and Calvin to Geneva. Knox, however, distinguishes himself somewhat from the other Reformers in that he left considerably little (by comparison) written work after his death. Although his writings fill six full volumes (which is no small achievement), this amounts to much less than the collected works of either Luther or Calvin. There is a reason for this, and, as we will see below, Knox was very clear about what that reason was.

Knox was certainly decisive in shaping the theology of the Scottish Kirk for generations to come, yet this was not the fruit of ivory-tower scholarship but blood-and-sweat, dirt-10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624and-grime, day-in-day-out preaching and missionary labor. Fellow Scottish theologian T.F. Torrance pays Knox the following tribute when he writes:

‘The theology of Scotland begins with the Reformation, and the first of our great theological writers is John Knox himself.’ There were, of course, Scottish theologians of note in the pre-Reformation Church, Richard of St Victor, John Duns Scotus, and John Major, to mention only three, but there is no doubt that John Knox made a unique contribution to the character and shape of the theology of the Reformed Church of Sotland. This was certainly to see changes and modifications over the centuries between the Reformation and the Disruption, but underlying them all and affecting them was the original mould contributed by John Knox and the Scots Confession of 1560.

Of partiular note is the Preface of the Confession. Matthew 24.14 was first cited on its frontispiece. ‘And these glad tidings of the kingdom shall be preached through the whole world, for a witness unto all  nations, and then shall the end come.’ Then the Preface follows with the sentence:

The Estates of Scotland, with the inhabitants of the same, professing Christ Jesus’ holy evangel: to their natural countrymen, and unto all other realms and nations, professing the same Lord Jesus with them, wish grace, mercy, and peace from God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, with the spirit of righteous judgment, for salvation.

This is quite startling for, in contrast to every other confessional statement issued during the Reformation, it gives primary importance to the missionary calling of the Church…. Of course, the missionary task to which Knox and his fellow Reformers devoted themselves was the proclamation of ‘the sweet savour of the Evangel’ to people in Scotland — that was surely the origin of our ‘Home Mission’.

How far was John Knox a theologian? Here are some of his statements about himself in this respect.

Consider, Brethren, it is no speculative theologian which desires to give you courage, but even your Brother in affliction.

The time is come that men cannot abide the Sermon of verity nor wholesome doctrine.

For considering myself rather called of God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come, seeing that so much is written (and that by men of singular condition), and yet so little well observed; I deemed to contain myself within the bonds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called…

It has pleased his mercy to make me not a lord-like Bishop, but a painful Preacher of his blessed Evangel…

John Knox himself was essentially a preacher-theologian, on who did not intend to be a theologian, but who could not help being a theologian in the fulfilment of his vocation. He regarded his vocation: a) as a preacher of the Gospel, someone burdened with the lively Word of God, which he had to proclaim in a correspondingly lively manner; b) as a steward of the mysteries, or ‘a steward of the mystery of redemption’ (one of his favourite expressions).

The price of Christ Jesus, his death and passion is committed to our charge, the eyes of men are bent on us, and we must answer before the Judge, who will not admit every excuse that pleases us, but will judge uprightly, as in his words he has before pronounced … Let us be frequent in reading (which alas, over many despise) earnest in prayer, diligent in watching over the flock committed to our charge, and let our sobriety and temperate life shame the wicked, and be example to the godly.

The desperate earnestness with which Knox took his calling demanded theological earnestness: i.e. a theology in the service of evangelism and preaching, in which ‘arguments and reasons serve only instead of handmaids, which shall not command but obey Scripture pronounced by the Voice of God’.[1]

What strikes me about this is that Knox was first a missionary and preacher, and only second a theologian. His was a living theology, an evangelistic theology, a reforming theology. He was not interested in fame or notoriety. In fact, he initially resisted being thrust into the public position that he came to occupy. Therefore, he understood his calling not as to the writing of books and the inventing of systems to get his name out there or to become a famous theologian who would be studied for generations to come. Rather his calling was to preach the gospel, to hold up the beacon of the Word to DSC_0393illuminate the darkness of Scotland. Like the apostle Paul, his theology served his missionary work, not the other way around. He was, in other words, a reformissionary, and the theology that forged the soul of the Scottish Reformed Kirk was birthed not in the safety of the scholastic study but in the fires of the missionary crucible.

May the Lord raise up in our generation missionary-preacher-theologians like Knox who will make it their mission simply to preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten!

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 1-3. Knox quotes have been updated to reflect contemporary English spelling.

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