‘He Hath Made My Tongue a Trumpet’: John Knox’s Humble Obedience to the Call and Word of God

The Scottish Reformer John Knox was far from a perfect man. He was, in fact, very flawed, as he himself was willing to admit (see below: ‘the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue’). Yet he is a part of that great cloud of witnesses that now cheers us on, and there is much of value that we can learn from his life. One aspect of his biography that strikes me in particular was his relentless zeal to do nothing, absolutely nothing, but that which he believed God had commanded him to do: preach the Word to the troubles of his time. While many other people of his day were pouring time and energy into writing ‘books for the age to come’ (driven in part, no doubt, by their desire to secure a legacy or make a name for themselves), Knox was firmly convinced that God had made his ‘tongue a trumpet’ in order to address the people of his day, without concern about being remembered or adulated by future generations. He explained:

That I did not in writing communicate my judgment upon the Scriptures, I have ever thought of myself to have most just reason. For considering myself rather called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud, by tongue and lively voice in these most corrupt days, than to compose books for the age to come; seeing that so much is written (and by men ofds4413_0 most singular erudition) and yet so little well observed, I decreed to contain myself within the bounds of that vocation whereunto I found myself especially called.

I dare not deny (lest in so doing, I should be injurious to the giver) but that God hath revealed unto me secrets unknown to the world; and also, that he hath made my tongue a trumpet, to forewarn realms and nations; yea, certain great revelations of mutations and changes, when no such things were feared, nor yet were appearing; a portion whereof cannot the world deny (be it never so blind) to be fulfilled, and the rest, alas! I fear shall follow, with greater haste, and in more full perfection than my sorrowful heart desireth. Notwithstanding these revelations and assurances, I did ever abstain to commit anything to writing, contented only to have obeyed the charge of him who commanded me to cry….

If any man think it easy unto me, to mitigate by my pen, the inconsiderate sharpness of my tongue, and so cannot men freely judge of that my sermon; I answer, that I am neither so impudent, that I will study to abuse the world in this great light, neither yet, so void of the fear of my God, that I will avow a lie in his own presence. And no less do I esteem it to be a lie, to deny or conceal that which in his name I have once pronounced, than to affirm, that God hath spoken, when his word assures me not of the same. For in the public place, I consult not with flesh and blood what I shall propose to the people; but as the Spirit of my God who hath sent me, and unto whom I must answer, moveth me, so I speak….[1]

Knox believed that God had called to preach to the people of his day and admonish them to obedience to the Word of God, and so he refused to direct his very capable mind to the writing of books that might have garnered him a greater reputation among a wider audience. Of course, Knox did write many treatises and letters, but these often served as a proxy during his long periods of absence from Scotland in exile. Yet compared to the extant works of Calvin or Luther, Knox’s complete writings fill a relatively meager number of volumes. Understandably, contemporary scholarship continues to churn out studies and monographs on the theology of the former two Reformers, while that of the latter goes largely (though not completely) ignored.

Yet I doubt that Knox today would care at all about this. His calling was to preach, and he set himself single-mindedly to this task. This is evidence of a man so consumed with a singular passion for the Word of God that all personal ambition and pride was put to death. Knox strikes me as a man who was at least in this way very much like the apostle Paul who, at the time of writing to the Philippians, did not care at all that fellow believers in Rome were taking advantage of his imprisonment to move themselves into the ‘spotlight’ that he had previously occupied as a preacher of the gospel (Phil. 1:15-17). It seems that while Paul was languishing in prison, other believers sought to further their own personal ambitions by taking advantage of the opportunity that his own imprisonment offered. What was Paul’s response? Simply that “whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (Phil. 1:18).

This is truly incredible. Paul was a man so utterly focused on his vocation as a servant of Christ and herald of the gospel that his only concern, at the total cost of his own ministry, reputation, and even his life itself, was that the gospel was proclaimed in truth and power. As to whether he received the ‘credit’ for the results he was utterly indifferent; in reality he considered such ‘gain’ as ‘loss’ and ‘refuse’ compared to the surpassing greatness simply of knowing Christ (Phil. 3:7-8). In John Knox, I see an imperfect but still compelling example of this kind of single-minded devotion to one’s calling. His is an example that is convicting and humbling, yet one that, as Paul exhorted the Philippians, is expected of all those who profess to be Christians and servants of Christ (Phil. 3:17).

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St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, where John Knox preached the Word of God

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[1] John Knox, The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 207-209.

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