‘Let Her Learn to Swim!’: The Holy Audacity of John Knox

The Scottish Reformer John Knox has not always enjoyed the greatest reputation in the annals of history. He was, after all, the one who created quite a stir with his strongly polemical work against Mary Tudor entitled The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. That certainly did not earn him much favor from the Queen, nor from her successor Elizabeth I, nor from many other friends and foes alike. Admittedly, it was perhaps not Knox’s wisest move at the time, for it ended up greatly offending Queen Elizabeth and thus hindered him from in helping to promote the Protestant cause in England.

nevertheless, hard times often call for hard individuals. Although often exaggerated by his critics, the faults of John Knox were not insignificant, as any fairly written biography (Jane Dawson’s comes to mind) will not hesitate to point out. Having said that, however,710BgyDUmDL D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones insightfully explains why it was precisely a man like Knox that was needed in such a pivotal period in Scottish history:

Was John Knox like one of the people? Was John Knox a matey, friendly, nice chap with whom you could have a discussion? Thank God he was not! Scotland would not be what she has been for four centuries if John Knox had been that kind of man. Can you imagine John Knox having tips and training as to how he should conduct and comport himself before the television camera, so as to be nice and polite and friendly and gentlemanly? Thank God prophets are made of stronger stuff! An Amos, a Jeremiah, a John the Baptist in the wilderness in his camel-hair shirt—a strange fellow, a lunatic, they said, but they went and listened to him because he was a curiousity, and as they listened they were convicted! Such a man was John Knox, with the fire of God in his bones and in his belly! He preached as they all preached, with fire and power, alarming sermons, convicting sermons, humbling sermons, converting sermons, and the face of Scotland was changed: the greatest epoch in [Scotland’s] long history had begun!

Lloyd-Jones makes an important point. John Knox was, by all accounts, much more like an Elijah or a John the Baptist who certainly did not mince words or use flowery, polite language to get their point across. The message that they had to deliver from God was a matter of life and death! Moreover, the opposition that Knox had to face, the harsh suffering and constant threats of death that he endured, the powerful rulers with which he had to contend, all of these things required an individual made of sterner stuff than most. It required an individual who, like Lloyd-Jones remarks, had “the fire of God in his bones and in his belly”! When you have to do with a man who is on fire, sooner or later you are bound to get burned.

As an example of this kind of “holy audacity” that one needed to do the work of a Reformer, Knox recounts the following story of what happened to him during his nineteenth-month imprisonment as a galley slave in the belly of a French ship. Knox had been taken captive after the castle of St. Andrews where he had served as chaplain was overrun by French troops. The life of a galley slave, of course, was one of excruciating labor and suffering, one over which the captors held an absolute power of life and death. Being a French ship, the slaves were forced to participate in the Catholic Masses said aboard or else face grave consequences. One day, one prisoner by the name of John Knox took his stand:

At certain times the Mass was said in the galleys, or else heard upon the shore, and those that were in the galleys were threatened with torments if they would not give reverence to the Mass. But they could never make the poorest of that company to give reverence to that idol. Yea, when upon the Saturday at night they sang 4532970_origtheir Salve Regina, the whole Scottishmen put on their caps, their hoods, or such things as they had to cover their heads; and when others were compelled to kiss a painted [board], which they called ‘Notre Dame,’ they were not pressed after once; for this was the chance:—

Soon after their arrival at Nantes, their great Salve was sung, and a glorious painted Lady was brought in to be kissed, and, amongst others, was presented to one of the Scottishmen then chained. He gently said: ‘Trouble me not. Such an idol is accursed; therefore I will not touch it.’ The [Skipper] and the [Lieutenant], with two officers, having the chief charge of such matters, said, ‘Thou shalt handle it’; and they violently thrust it to his face, and put it betwixt his hands. He, seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about him, cast it into the river, and said: ‘Let our Lady now save herself. She is light enough; let her learn to swim’! After that was no Scotsman urged with that idolatry.[2]

Holy audacity indeed! This was not simply Knox responding this way at a safe distance through written correspondence; this was Knox as a galley slave responding to his Catholic captors who could have killed him on the spot! In reality, it was likely through fiery trials such as this that God smelted Knox’s character into the iron-clad form necessary for enduring the agony required to bring the Reformation to Scotland. Knox may not have been the kind of person you would want to invite for a peaceful afternoon of tea and biscuits, but he was doubtless the kind of person you would need for galvanizing an entire nation in the Protestant cause.

I don’t write all of this to exalt John Knox. He was a fallible, flawed human being like the rest of us. But that is precisely the point: he was a fallible, flawed human being that God used in epoch-making ways! And if we truly believe that the God of Knox is the same God we serve today, then what might happen if we knew him, trusted in him, and burned for him as Knox did? As Martyn Lloyd-Jones concluded his address commemorating the Scottish Reformer:

The God of John Knox is still there, and still the same, and thank God, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and for ever. Oh, that we might know the God of John Knox![3]

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[1] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Carlisle, PA; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 30.

[2] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 94-95.

[3] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Knox and the Reformation (Carlisle, PA; Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 34.

 

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2 thoughts on “‘Let Her Learn to Swim!’: The Holy Audacity of John Knox

  1. highplainsparson 17 August 2017 / 23:45

    Great story! Am I correct to understand that we don’t know who the Scotsman was who threw the painted lady overboard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Kleis 18 August 2017 / 08:41

      Actually it is generally accepted that it was Knox himself who did this. There is even a footnote in the text of the “History” to that effect.

      Liked by 1 person

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