‘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.

 

“This Grim Fire I Fear Not”: The Forging of Scotland’s Reformer in the Burning of George Wishart

One of the important historical sites in the lovely seaside town of St. Andrews in Scotland is the ruins of its historic castle. Just outside of the castle along the street there is an inconspicuous marker laid into the pavement consisting in the letters “GW” which stand for the name George Wishart. The marker quietly commemorates the exact spot upon which Wishart was burned at the stake on the orders of Roman Catholic Cardinal David Beaton for preaching the Reformed faith. Compared with his disciple John Knox, Wishart is not nearly as well known or widely remembered, having died when he was only aboutDSC_0423 33 years old. Apart from a relatively short period of itinerant preaching in Scotland, Wishart does not appear to have accomplished much in promoting the Scottish Reformation. Yet, as many have remarked, had there been no George Wishart, there would likely have been no John Knox, at least Knox as the Reformer that we esteem today.

Knox himself paid tribute to his courageous mentor in his History of the Reformation of Scotland when he wrote the following account of Wishart’s execution on 1 March 1546:

The manner of Master George Wishart’s taking was thus:—Departing from Haddington, he took his good-night, as it were for ever, of all his acquaintance, especially from Hugh Douglas of Longniddry. John Knox pressing to go with him, Master George said: ‘Nay, return to your [pupils], and God bless you. One is sufficient for one sacrifice.’ He then caused a two-handed sword, which commonly was carried with him, to be taken away from John Knox, who, albeit unwillingly, obeyed and returned with Hugh Douglas…. Before midnight, the place was beset about so that none could escape to make advertisement. At the first word, Master George said, ‘Open the gates. The Blessed Will of my God be done!’…

The Bishops, with their complices, condemned this innocent man to be burnt as a heretic, thinking verily, that they should do to God good sacrifice … When all was done and said, my Lord Cardinal caused his tormentors to pass again with the meek lamb unto [St. Andrew’s] Castle, until such time as the fire was made ready…. When the fire was made ready, and the gallows, at the west part of the Castle of St. Andrews near the Priory, my Lord Cardinal, dreading that Master George should have been taken away by his friends, commanded to ben all the ordnance of the Castle right against the place of execution, and commanded all his gunners to stand beside their guns, until such time as he was burned. They bound Master George’s hands behind his back, and led him forth with their soldiers from the Castle, to the place of their cruel and wicked execution….

When he came to the fire, he sat down upon his knees, and rose up again; and thrice he said these words: ‘O Thou Saviour of the World, have mercy upon me! Father of Heaven, I commend my spirit into Thy holy hands.’ Then he turned to the people and said: ‘I beseech you, Christian Brethren and Sisters, be not offended at the Word of God, for the affliction and torments which ye see prepared for me. But I exhort you, love the Word of God and suffer patiently, and with a comfortable heart, for the Word’s sake, which is your undoubted salvation and everlasting comfort.

Moreover, I pray you, show my brethren and sisters, which have heard me oft, that they cease not to learn the Word of God which I taught unto them, for no persecutions in this world, which lasteth not. Show them that my doctrine was no 1024px-The_martyrdom_of_George_Wishartwives’ fables, after the constitutions made by men. If I had taught men’s doctrine, I had gotten greater thanks by men. But for the true Evangel, which was given to me by the Grace of God, I suffer this day by men, not sorrowfully, but with a glad heart and mind. For this cause I was sent, that I should suffer this fire for Christ’s sake. Consider and behold my visage. Ye shall not see me change my colour! This grim fire I fear not; and so I pray you to do, if any persecution come unto you for the Word’s sake; and not to fear them that slay the body, and afterward have no power to slay the soul. Some have said I taught that the soul of man should sleep until the Last Day; but I know surely that my soul shall sup with my Saviour this night, ere it be six hours, for whom I suffer this.’

Then he prayed for them which accused him, saying; ‘I beseech Thee, Father of Heaven, forgive them that have of any ignorance, or else of any evil mind, forged lies upon me. I forgive them with all my heart. I beseech Christ to forgive them that have condemned me to death this day ignorantly.’ Last of all, he said to the people on this manner: ‘I beseech you, Brethren and Sisters, to exhort your Prelates to the learning of the Word of God, that they may be ashamed to do evil, and learn to do good. If they will not convert themselves from their wicked errors, there shall hastily come upon them the Wrath of God, which they shall not eschew.’

Many faithful words said he in the meantime, taking no care of the cruel torments prepared for him. Last of all, the hangman, his tormentor, upon his knees, said; ‘Sir, I pray you, forgive me, for I am not guilty of your death.’ To whom he answered: ‘Come hither to me.’ When he was come to him, he kissed his cheek, and said: ‘Lo! here is a token that I forgive thee My heart, do thine office!’ Then, the trumpet sounding, he was put upon the gibbet and hanged, and there burnt to powder. When the people beheld the great tormenting of that innocent, they might not withhold from piteous mourning and complaining of the innocent lamb’s slaughter.[1]

As Knox goes on to recount, Wishart’s martyrdom set off a chain of events that in God’s providence brought Knox to the forefront of Scottish Protestantism, under whose leadership the Reformed faith would arguably have its most widespread, unified success. The outrage over Wishart’s execution led to the storming of St. Andrews castle, the establishment of a consolidated Protestant movement, and the recognition of Knox as the movement’s primary preacher and driving force. Not only this, but as reflected in Knox’s History, the passionate preaching and dying exhortations of George Wishart fueled a fire in Knox’s bones equal to the flames which had consumed his beloved mentor. Little did Cardinal Beaton know, the fire that he kindled in an attempt to stop the spread of Reformation preaching in Scotland was the spark that ultimately set the entire country ablaze.

When Wishart went to the stake, the prospect of the Reformation’s success was tenuous at best. It would be understandable if in a passing moment of weakness prior to his execution Wishart had questioned if his short life really amounted to all that much some accounts, he had failed in what he endeavoured to do. Yet his was his self-sacrifice thatWishartKnox played a significant, if not determinative, role in shaping John Knox into the Reformer that he became and in galvanizing the Scottish people as a whole under the banner of the Reformation.

I am reminded of Jesus’s words to Peter at the end of John’s gospel: When Peter saw [the disciple whom Jesus loved], he said to Jesus, ‘Lord, what about this man?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!'” No doubt Wishart would have wanted to remain to continue to preach alongside Knox for many years to come. Perhaps he may have questioned God in allowing his ministry to be cut short. Yet in the providence of God, what perhaps seemed like a failure and a defeat in the immediate time turned out to be the catalyst for Scotland’s Reformation. We never know all that God intends to do with us, and it may take eternity before we discover the marvelous beauty and perfection of his sovereign plan. Yet discover it we shall. So let us not despair in our present sufferings, failures, setbacks, and defeats. In God’s redemptive economy, nothing is ever wasted.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 52, 55-56, 58-59, 62-65.

“Ye Shall Believe God!”: John Knox’s Defense of the Reformed Faith Before Mary, Queen of Scots

While in Scotland, I had the opportunity to visit the Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh which served as the royal residence of Mary, Queen of Scots in the sixteenth century. Holyrood Palace is significant in Reformation history as the place where the Scottish Reformer John Knox was summoned to appear before the Catholic Queen to explain and defend the Protestant cause in Scotland. The first of these encounters is described in Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland, and what follows is an excerpt of that cache_2469899779.jpgaccount. I find it a profitable read, for Knox’s responses to the Queen’s accusations and questions are surprisingly relevant to accusations and questions still raised against the Reformed Church today. As a quick prefatory note, I realize that the term Knox uses to denote Catholics — “papists” — can be perceived as derogatory. By using it below, I intend no offence to my Catholic friends, I only wish to reproduce what is written in the History for the sake of accuracy. The account begins by setting the stage:

Whether it was by counsel of others, or of Queen Mary’s own desire, we know not, but the Queen spake with John Knox at Holyrood and had long reasoning with him, none being present except the Lord James Stewart, while two gentlewomen stood in the other end of the house. The Queen accused John Knox that he had raised a part of her subjects against her mother and against herself…

John Knox. ‘God forbid that I ever take upon me to command any to obey me, or yet to set subjects at liberty to do what pleaseth them! My travail is that both princes and subjects obey God. Think not, Madam, that wrong is done you, when ye are willed to be subject to God…. Yea, God craves of Kings that they be foster-fathers to His Church, and commands Queens to be nurses to His people….’

Queen Mary. ‘Yea, but ye are not the Kirk that I will nourish. I will defend the Kirk ofRome, for it is, I think, the true Kirk of God.

John Knox. ‘Your will, Madam, is no reason; … the Church of the Jews was not so far degenerate from the ordinances which God gave by Moses and Aaron unto His people, when they manifestly denied the Son of God, as the Church of Rome is declined, and more than five hundred years hath declined, from the purity of that religion which the Apostles taught and planted.

Queen Mary. ‘My conscience is not so.’

John Knox. ‘Conscience, Madam, requireth knowledge; and I fear that right knowledge ye have none.’

Queen Mary. ‘But I have both heard and read.’

John Knox. ‘So, Madam, did the Jews who crucified Christ Jesus read both the Law and the Prophets, and heard the same interpreted after their manner. Have ye heard any teach, but such as the Pope and his Cardinals have allowed? Ye may be assured that such will speak nothing to offend their own estate.’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?’

John Knox. ‘Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word; and further than the Word teacheth you, ye shall believe neither the one nor the other. The Word of God is plain in itself. If there appear any obscurity in one place, the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places; so that there can remain no doubt, but unto such as obstinately will remain ignorant.Sidley, Samuel, 1829-1896; Mary, Queen of Scots and John Knox

‘Take one of the chief points, Madam, which this day is in controversy betwixt the Papists and us. The Papists have boldly affirmed that the Mass is the ordinance of God, and the institution of Jesus Christ, and a sacrifice for the sins of the quick and the dead. We deny both the one and the other. We affirm that the Mass, as it is now used, is nothing but the invention of man, and, therefore, is an abomination before God, and no sacrifice that ever God commanded. Now, Madam, who shall judge betwixt us two thus contending? It is no reason that either of the parties be further believed, than they are able to prove but insuspect witnessing. Let them prove their affirmatives by the plain words of the Book of God, and we shall give them the plea granted. What our Master Jesus Christ did, we know by His Evangelists; what the priest doeth at his Mass, the world seeth. Now, doth not the Word of God plainly assure us, that Christ Jesus neither said Mass, nor yet commanded Mass to be said, at His Last Supper, seeing that no such thing as their Mass is made mention of within the whole Scriptures?’

Queen Mary. ‘Ye are [too hard] for me, but if they were here whom I have heard, they would answer you.’

John Knox. ‘Madam, would to God that the learnedest Papist in Europe, and he that ye would best believe, were present with Your Grace to sustain the argument; and that ye would patiently abide to hear the matter reasoned to the end! Then, I doubt not, Madam, but ye should hear the vanity of the Papistical Religion, and how small ground it hath within the Word of God.’

Queen Mary. ‘Well, ye may perchance get that sooner than ye believe.’

John Knox. ‘Assuredly, if ever I get that in my life, I get it sooner than I believe. The ignorant Papists can not patiently reason, and the learned and crafty Papist will never come in your audience, Madam, to have the ground of their religion searched out. They know that they are never able to sustain an argument, except fire and sword and their laws be judges.’

Queen Mary. ‘So say you; but I can[not] believe that.’

John Knox. ‘It hath been so to this day. How oft have the Papists in this and other Realms been required to come to conference, and yet could it never be obtained, unless themselves were admitted for Judges. Therefore, Madam, I must say again that they dare never dispute, but when they themselves are both judge and party. Whensoever ye shall let me see the contrary, I shall grant myself to have been deceived in that point.’

With this, the Queen was called upon to dinner, for it was afternoon. At departing, John Knox said unto her: ‘I pray God, Madam, that ye may be as blessed within the Commonwealth of Scotland, if it be the pleasure of God, as ever Deborah was in the Commonwealth of Israel.'[1]

In closing, I only want to highlight Knox’s response to the question that Mary posed, and Catholics today still pose, regarding the coherency of the Reformed commitment to sola Scriptura. When Mary asked, “Ye interpret the Scriptures in one manner, and they in another. Whom shall I believe? Who shall be judge?”, Knox offered this marvelous response: “Ye shall believe God, that plainly speaketh in His Word”. Now to Catholics, this may only beg the further question: if God speaks plainly in his Word, than why doesn’t everyone agree on what he means?

But this is to miss the conviction underlying Knox’s assertion. It is unbelief that requires certainty about what the Word says, for it is not content to simply rest in the One whose Word it is. Unbelief seeks the certainty of knowing things (e.g. articles of faith), whereas faith is ultimately the certainty of knowing the person to whom those things refer. When the person who speaks, rather than merely the things spoken by that person, is the ultimate object of trust, certainty is not diminished by disagreements over those things which may be more difficult to understand. Rather, faith rests in the confidence that “God … speaketh plainly in His Word” (he did, after all, intend for us to understand it!) and that “the Holy Ghost, which is never contrarious to Himself, explaineth the same more clearly in other places”. In other words, Knox’s faith did not fundamentally repose in his personal understanding of Scripture but in the God whose Word Scripture is. He had faith in God, not faith in his own faith.

For Knox, what mattered was not “his own personal interpretation” of the Scriptures. His argument before the Queen was not “my interpretation is better than your interpretation”. Rather, it was in essence: “let God’s interpretation of his Word judge all of ours!” Unlike the pope in Rome, Knox demanded no obedience to his own interpretation of Scripture. What he demanded was obedience to the God who speaks through the Scriptures, and that meant that his own interpretation was just as much subject to the judgment of the Word as was that of his Catholic interlocutors. Inasmuch as certain elements of Catholic teaching could not be found in that Word, Knox firmly insisted that it was necessary to obey God rather than man.

Or in this case, a woman.

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[1] John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh; Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2010), 271-272, 279-282.

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.

“The Mouth By Whom We Speak to God”: John Knox on Praying on the Basis of Christ Alone

John Knox, from his “Treatise on Prayer” [The Select Practical Writings of John Knox (Edinburgh; Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2011), 12-16]

[G]odly prayer requireth … the perfect knowledge of the advocate, intercessor, and mediator; for, seeing no man is himself worthy to compear, or appear in God’s presence, by reason that in all men continually resteth sin, which, by itself, doth offend the majesty of God, raising also debate, strife, hatred, and division betwixt his inviolable justice and55380_john_knox_lg us, for the which, unless satisfaction be made by another than by ourselves, so little hope resteth that any thing from him we can attain, that no surety may we have with him at all.

To [release] us from this horrible confusion, our most merciful Father, knowing that our frail minds should hereby have been continually dejected, hath given unto us his only beloved Son, to be unto us righteousness, wisdom, sanctification, and holiness. If in him we faithfully believe, we are so clad that we may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy, doubting nothing, but that whatsoever we ask through our mediator, that same we shall obtain most assuredly. Here, is most diligently to be observed, that without our mediator, forespeaker, and peace-maker, we enter not into prayer; for the incallings of such as pray without Jesus Christ are not only vain, but also, they are odious and abominable before God….

For he who honoureth not the Son, honoureth not the Father. For as the law is a statue that we shall call upon God, and as the promise is made that he shall hear us, so are we commanded only to call through Jesus Christ, by whom alone our petitions we obtain; for in him alone are all the promises of God confirmed and complete. Whereof, without all controversy, it is plain, that such as have called, or call presently unto God by any other mean than by Jesus Christ alone, do nothing regard God’s will, but obstinately prevaricate, and do against his commandments; and therefore, obtain they not their petitions, neither have entrance to his mercy; ‘for no man cometh to the Father’, saith Jesus Christ, ‘but by me.’ He is our leader, whom, unless we follow, we shall walk in darkness; and he alone is our captain, without whom, neither praise nor victory ever shall we obtain….

Who, then, shall here be found the peace-maker? Surely the infinite goodness and mercy of God might not suffer the perpetual loss and repudiation of his creatures; and therefore his eternal wisdom provided such a mediator, having wherewith to satisfy the justice of God — differing also from the Godhead: — his only Son, clad in the nature of manhood, who interposed himself a mediator; not as man only; for the pure humanity of Christ of itself might neither make intercession nor satisfaction for us; but God and man. In that he is God he might complete the will of the Father; and in that he is man, pure and clean, without spot or sin, he might offer sacrifice for the purgation of our sins, and satisfaction of God’s justice. For unless saints have these two, Godhead equal with the Father, and humanity without sin, the office of mediators saints may not usurp….

Mark well these words. John saith, ‘we have presently a sufficient advocate; whom Paul affirmeth to sit at the right hand of God the Father (Rom. 8): and to be the only mediator between God and man; for he alone, saith Ambrose, is our mouth, by whom we speak to God: he is our eyes, by whom we see God; and also our right hand, by whom we offer any thing unto the Father; who, unless he make intercession, neither we, neither any of the saints, may have any society or fellowship with God. What creature may say to God the Father, ‘Let mankind be received into they favour; for the pain of his transgression, that I have sustained in my own body; for his cause was I encompassed with all infirmities, and so became the most contemned and despised of all men, and yet, in my mouth was found no guile nor deceit; but always obedient to thy will, suffering most grievous death for mankind. And therefore, behold not the sinner, but me, who by my infinite righteousness have perfectly satisfied for his offences’? — May any other, Jesus Christ except, in these words make intercession for sinners?…

Some say, we will use but one mediator, Jesus Christ, to God the Father; but we must have saints, and chiefly the Virgin, the mother of Jesus Christ, to pray for us unto him…. Alas! whosoever is so minded, showeth himself plainly to know nothing of Jesus Christ rightly. Is he who descended from heaven, and vouchsafed to be conversant with sinners, commanding all sore vexed and sick to come unto him (Matt. 11), who, hanging upon the cross, prayed first for his enemies, become now so untractable, that he will not hear us, without a person to be a mean? O Lord open the eyes of such, that they may clearly perceive thy infinite kindness, gentleness, and love towards mankind.

More Fearsome than an Army of 10,000 Men: John Knox and the Power of Prayer (Reformission Monday)

The following is excerpted from Douglas Bond, The Mighty Weakness of John Knox (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust, 2011), Kindle Locations 370-427.

In 1909, on the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, civic and church leaders unveiled the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. There stood Calvin and three other leading lights of the Reformation rising eighteen feet high along the ancient wall of the city. On Calvin’s far left stood John Knox, and chiseled in the wall next to him were the words Un homme avec Dieu est toujours Bans la majorite, or, “One man with God is always in the majority.”… Strictly speaking, in the history of redemption there never has been just one man with God. Elijah thought he was alone, but God told him there were seven thousand who had not bowed the knee to Baal (1 Kings 19:18). Knox had a host of antagonists, but many supporters as well. Few would dispute, however, that Knox was the man on whom the slings and arrows descended in the battle for Reformation in Scotland. What was it about Knox that made him so much the single man in a majority with God that mightyweaknessofjohnknox-temp_2011-01-31-1four hundred years after his life it was carved in stone in Geneva? No doubt it was many things, but perhaps chief among Knox’s God-given qualities was his sanctified understanding of his complete worthlessness unless he was on God’s side, unless he was with God. Knox never saw himself as inducing God to be on his side. He knew he had to be brought to a posture of submission to the will of God.

Furthermore, Knox knew there was only one conduit by which that could happen: “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10b). Put simply, Knox knew that without prayer he was “a dumb dog,” a watchdog with neither bark nor bite, of no use to anyone. Knowing this about himself, he humbled himself and fell to his knees, submitting his will, mind, and tongue to God in prayer. But unlike most of us, he did not do this only when things became unbearable. This was the pattern of his life. Those who knew him best called Knox “an eminent wrestler with God in prayer.” Most men are not. We think we can handle things; we believe we can do it on our own. Why do men drive around for hours rather than stop and ask directions? Asking directions forces us to admit that we don’t know where we are. We must admit our weakness, humble ourselves, and request help. Men don’t like doing this. Herein is the proof of Knox’s humility. He knew his profound weakness. He knew how lost he was. So he asked God for directions, and, hence, became the quintessential man of prayer.

In 1566, Knox prayed the following: “Thou has sealed into my heart remission of my sins, which I acknowledge and confess myself to have received by the precious blood of Jesus Christ once shed.” This, his confession of faith, was the foundation of his ministry and his confidence in his praying. This did not come naturally to Knox. He was not great in the pulpit, the public arena, or the closet by natural giftedness and self-confidence. He was giving an honest self-assessment when he said, “I have rather need of all than that any hath need of me.” Unpretentious Knox did not fake words like these to feign humility and thereby ramp up his approval rating ing with his congregation. By the grace of God, Knox was beyond such self-aggrandizement. He had a real sense of his own powerlessness, so he prayed earnestly for God’s power. As the apostle James wrote, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power” (5:16b). Humility showed Knox his great need of prayer, and his earnest praying brought down on him great power.

Words ascribed to Charles H. Spurgeon reveal the wide extent of that power: “When John Knox went upstairs to plead with God for Scotland, it was the greatest event in Scottish history.” Prayer was the engine that advanced Reformation in Scotland, and Knox was the foremost prayer warrior in the realm. Thus, when Knox felt overwhelmed by spiritual and political enemies, when all hope from earthly powers was exhausted, when all seemed lost for the gospel in Scotland, Knox prayed:

Seeing that we are now left as a flock without a pastor, in civil policy, and as a ship without a rudder in the midst of the storm, let Thy providence watch, Lord, and defend us in these dangerous days, that the wicked of the world may see that as well without the help of man, as with it, Thou art able to rule, maintain and defend the little flock that dependeth upon Thee.

Humble Christian that Knox was, he knew his great need of divine enabling, so he both prayed and sought the prayer support of others, something men in the flesh rarely do. Americans, schooled in Emersonian self-reliance, find asking for prayer an awkward, maybe even unnecessary, task. As noted above, seeking prayer is a tacit admission that we are not capable in ourselves, that we are desperately needy, that the arm of flesh is weak and ineffectual. Men don’t like owning up to these realities, but prayer itself, and awareness of our need of it from others, requires an honest admission of the facts. Knox was one who owned up to the facts about himself. Because of his candid acknowledgment of his great need, he sought the aid of the God of the universe, and one way he sought it was through the prayers of fellow believers. Empowered by the Almighty, Knox became the single most significant force to be reckoned with in an entire country. Yet it was not only Knox’s friends and supporters who appreciated the wide-ranging effect of his ministry of prayer. According to historian John Howie, Knox’s ardent enemy, the queen regent, Mary Guise, admitted that she was “more afraid of [Knox’s] prayers than of an army of 10,000 men.” If every Christian prayed like Knox, the Devil and his minions would melt like wax before the fire.

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.

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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.

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[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.

Under the Fearful Cross: John Knox and the Cost of Reformission

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time will already be familiar with the concept of reformission. It is, of course, the overriding theme of all that I write about here at Reformissio. The idea of reformission is not original to me, but I have tried (and am trying) to develop it further. Succinctly stated, reformission is short for “reformation as mission”. That is to say, reformation is the form that Christian mission takes in places where the church exists but in a form that neglects or distorts or forgets the centrality of the gospel of Jesus Christ. One of the reformissionaries of history that, for all his faults, I greatly admire is the Scottish Reformer John Knox (how could you not admire someone with a beard like that?). Having had the opportunity to finish reading Jane Dawson’s excellent biography 10175732754_57a7c8e5c0_o-e1416850534624of Knox during the holiday season, I was struck by a number of the fascinating aspects of his life and mission that she recounts, some of which I hope to share in the days ahead.

For my first post of this new year (which incidentally is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation!), it seems opportune to share one particular section in which Dawson recounts the great risks and fears that Knox had to face and overcome in order to carry out his vocation as a reformissionary. To set the stage for what follows, we need to remember that Knox had been compelled to leave his native Scotland and spend time among the English exiles in Geneva, Switzerland. Although seeming like a setback for his work in Scotland, it was in Geneva that Knox was able to formulate, under the tutelage of John Calvin, a strategy for promoting the Scottish Reformation. It was also in Geneva that Knox found the courage to return to his homeland, even though it meant persecution and possibly even martyrdom “under the fearful cross of Christ”. Dawson writes:

[While in Geneva] Knox had direct access to the most experienced team in Europe with expertise in cultivating an underground Protestant church. Over the previous decade Geneva had acted as the motor engine of French Reformed Church. Its large and expanding population of French exiles turned the city into a printing centre, despatching French books; a training camp for clergy to be sent back into the field; and a communications hub for the intelligence network that kept in touch with the French Protestant communities, or Huguenots as they were known. The Genevan pastors would have briefed Knox on what to do, what information to collect and which types of contacts to make in Scotland. Like later resistance fighters, he was being sent into occupied territory and would be working with a network of cells. The French were experts at this type of mission: how to proselytize and survive amid persecution. Although the Scottish Regent’s regime had a much lighter touch than the royal government in France, Knox remained a wanted man. Shortly after he had left Scotland he had been condemned in his absence as a heretic and his effigy had been burned at the market cross in Edinburgh in July 1556. If he were arrested on his return he might be executed without further trial and even denied the public witness [that his personal hero and mentor] Wishart’s death had achieved.

Although Knox had previously faced the possibility of having to die for his faith, in 1557 the odds had lengthened against a safe return. With details from the English persecution fresh in his mind, he wrestled with the prospect of his own execution. In a letter probably written in March 1557, he countered the accusation of cowardice, that “my fleing the contrey declaireth my feir’. Though addressed to Janet Henderson, Knox was talking to himself not her when he wrote about the fear ‘of the death temporall’. He argued that, since everyone had to die, it was a great opportunity ‘to be Chrystis witnes’ in death and for the price of momentary suffering gain eternal life and joy.

Yf we knew, I say, what comfort lyeth hid under the feirfull cross of Chryst, we wald not be sa slak to take up the same. Yf we knew that lyfe is bureit with Chryst in his grave, we wald not feir to ga and seik him in the same. We prais and extoll the martiris and sanctis whilk by affleictionis hath overcum this warld, and yit we having the same occasioun offirit, do flie frome the battell.

Towards the end of the letter he mentioned ‘my awin motioun and daylie prayer is, not onlie that I may visit you, but also with joy I may end my battell amangis yow’…

A farewell party was held for Knox’s family and friends on the night before he left Geneva in September 1557 and there was hardly a dry eye as they prepared to send him on his way…For the Genevan Company of Pastors farewells had become routine as they sent another trained cleric to minister to a newly formed congregation in France. With the list of French martyrs growing each year, everyone in Geneva appreciated the high risks of being sent to serve a church ‘under the cross’. Knox was part of an international effort to spread the Reformed faith and he was particularly conscious of his solidarity with his Huguenot brethren.[1]

By way of conclusion, I would simply like to add a few thoughts of my own. First, Dawson makes clear that the notion that the Reformers were not interested or engaged in mission and evangelism is erroneous. Under Calvin’s leadership, Geneva trained numerous pastors (reformissionaries!) and sent them into occupied territory in France to further the Protestant faith by evangelizing and planting churches. Second, this task of reformission in France was a highly dangerous, and many of the people sent from Geneva for this purpose paid with their lives. Knox himself was to discover this as he planned to return to his own country where he was considered a heretic worthy of death. Yet, third and finally, though Knox struggled mightily with the prospect of martyrdom (and he did struggle!), he ultimately realized that however “fearful” may it be to labor “under…the cross of Christ”, great “comfort” lay hidden there. Knox knew that whatever tears might be shed in the calling to reformission, the joy to be found in obedience to Christ would far outstrip the sorrow. For this reason, Knox steeled himself for his return, determined that he would not “fly from the battle” but would endure to the end in the effort to reclaim the land of his birth for Christ.

At the beginning of this year marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Knox’s example gives me great encouragement, and it inflames my heart to devote greater energy, passion, and commitment to the work of reformission still to be done where I live in Italy, whatever the cost may be. I hope that it does the same for you, wherever you have been called into the service of the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

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[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), pp. 129-132

The Beard that Changed a Nation: The Making of Scotland’s Great Reformer

While reading Jane Dawson’s excellent biography on the life and work of the Scottish Reformer John Knox, I was amused by a brief story that she recounts from a key period in Knox’s formation. First some background information: Knox’s predecessor and primary source of inspiration was a man named George Wishart who traveled through Scotland fearlessly preaching and promoting reform. Knox was irresistibly drawn to Wishart and became was of his close associates. It was thus largely under the tutelage of Wishart that Knox became the towering figure of the Reformation that we remembertumblr_m71pbqmfdn1rq40r4o1_1280. Wishart is not as well-known to us as Knox, yet, as Dawson describes, it is likely that had there be no Wishart, there would have been no Knox. Wishart was tragically put to death for his efforts, yet like Elisha who took the prophetic mantle from Elijah to follow his footsteps, it was Wishart’s passion and constancy that provided Knox with the pattern for his own vocation. Dawson explains:

Wishart’s example through deeds as well as words gave Knox a fresh understanding of what constituted the Church. It opened up new possibilities for Knox and, less dramatically and much more slowly, for his fellow Scottish evangelicals. Little of the theological content Wishart had brought on his return to Scotland was entirely new, but his charismatic preaching and personality made an incalculable difference. He gave the Scottish evangelical groups a dynamism and sharply defined direction that produced the nascent Protestant movement. For a recent convert such as Knox, no other man could compare to his ‘Master George’. Wishart was a shining living embodiment of a new vision of the Church. Having lost his Catholic anchors, once he had heard Wishart’s sermons Knox was able to grasp this new certainty with relief and conviction. Wishart had proved to him that the new anchor of his Protestant faith would hold and that he was aboard the vessel of the true Church. He had given Knox a new ecclesiology and a model for his future ministry.[1]

This indeed is an illuminating glimpse into the making of Scotland’s great Reformer. What I found particularly amusing, however, was the following little tidbit that Dawson includes in her account:

Wishart inspired his disciple Knox to follow his doctrine and his ministry. With that sincerest form of flattery, Knox imitated his hero. He might have started in a superficial way by growing a black beard as long as Wishart’s and for the rest of his life he sported a beard down to his chest in best prophetic style.

When I (as one who similarly sports a Reformer-inspired beard) read this, I couldn’t help but smile. I realize that Knox’s growing a beard, and an especially long one at that, was not the reason that he was able to do what he did. However awesome it may be, growing a beard does not a Reformer make, and as Dawson points out in Knox’s case, it may have been a superficial form of imitation at best! I would say, though, that if growing a beard could possibly inspire someone, as it did for Knox, to accomplish much greater and more significant deeds in the service of the gospel, then all I can say is: “Bring on the beard!”

I think we can all agree that the Lord often works in mysterious ways. Maybe even through abundant facial hair.

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[1] Jane Dawson, John Knox. (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2015), p.37.

[2] Ibid., pp.34-35.

The New Reformation: T.F. Torrance on Retrieving the Nicene and Protestant Pattern of Reform for Today

In a series of recent posts I examined the question “Is the Reformation over?” from a variety of angles and, in each case, I gave a resounding “No!” as the answer. When I say that the Reformation is not over, I do not mean, of course, that the unique circumstances and protagonists of the 16th century have remained until the present day. Rather, I mean to say that there is still just as much need for the church of today (particularly the Roman Catholic, but not only!) to be reformed as there was during the time of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and the other Reformers. Yet given that we who live in the 21st century face a very different cultural, social, political, and religious context, what would carrying forward the Reformers’ torch into this present darkness look like? What does it mean to be “always reforming”, especially when we consider the current state of affairs between the Protestant Church and the Roman Church that have been evolving in unprecedented directions since Vatican II?

T.F. Torrance offers some insightful suggestions for what such a “new Reformation” might involve. Characteristically looking back to the pivotal periods in church history that were the first ecumenical councils and the Reformation, Torrance exhorts us to retrieve the radical “Christological correction” that those moments brought to bear on the church’s thought, life, and practice:

Let us now come to the doctrinal content of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and in the light of it try to discern what is or ought to be the pattern of reform today – and here I wish to expand what was said above about the centrality of the homoousion in the Nicene theology. As I understand the Reformation it was an51sddm6csfl-_ac_ul320_sr208320_ attempt to carry through in the sixteenth century a movement of rethinking that corresponded very closely to that of the Early Church. Let us consider it in four steps.

(a) At Nicaea, as Athanasius and Hilary tell us, the Fathers were confronted with so many different conceptions and notions thrown up in the debates with Valentinians and Arians that they set themselves to seek out and sift through the basic biblical images and concepts and to reduce them to their fundamental essence in such a way that the basic logical structure or simplicity that was thus revealed would serve to throw light upon all the other forms of though and speech, and serve at the same time as a criterion for accurate assessment of them. The result was the homoousion, for in Jesus Christ who is not only the image but the reality or hypostasis of God we have the one objective standard by which all else is to be understood. He is the scope of the Scriptures and the scope of the faith. It is in Him that we have to do, not with a man-fashioned, but with a divinely-provided Form…to which all else must conform in the life and thought and worship and mission of the Church. It is that central relation of Christ to the Holy Scriptures that was revived at the Reformation…

(b) It remains a fact of history, however, that the Early Church did not carry through the results of its work in Christology into the whole round of the Church’s thought and life. Thus in the West many aspects of the Church were allowed a luxuriant growth that was unchecked and uncriticized by the central dogma of Christ. The Reformation represents an attempt to carry through a Christological correction of the whole life and thought of the Church. It was an attempt to put Christ and his Gospel once again into the very centre and to carry through extensive reform by bringing everything into conformity to him and his Gospel.

(c) In carrying through this programme of reform the Church had to push the development of Christian theology beyond the point which it reached in the ecumenical councils, especially into the realm of soteriology, Church and mission. The movement of the Reformation was not contrary but complementary t0 that of Nicaea, Ephesus, Chalcedon, etc. Look at it in this way. The fathers in the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to affirm their faith in the deity of Christ, believing that what God is to us in the saving acts of Christ he is eternally in his own divine Being. They thus stressed the Being of God in his Acts – they were concerned with theological ontology, the being and nature of the person of the incarnate Son. That did not stand in question with the Reformers, but what they were concerned to do was to stress the Acts of God in his Being – they focussed attention on the saving work of the Son.

We can state this in another way. The fathers of the Early Church were concerned in the homoousion to assert the belief that when God communicates himself to us in Christ it is none other than God himself in his own divine Being that is revealed. The fathers of the Reformation were concerned to apply the homoousion to salvation in Christ, insisting that when God gives himself to us in him it is none other than God himself who is at work. God himself is active in his saving gifts and benefits – that is to say, they applied the homoousion to the doctrine of grace. Mediaeval theology had evolved all sorts of distinctions here, proliferating many kinds of grace; grace was something that God communicated, something that was detachable from God and that could assume different forms in the creatures to whom it was communicated, as habitual grace or created grace or connatural grace, etc. But when the Reformers applied to grace the homoousion they cut all these distinctions completely away and carried through a radical simplification of mediaeval theology, for grace is none other than Christ, God communicating himself to us, the unconditional and sovereignly free self-giving of God the Lord and Saviour of men. Grace is total, and personal or hypostatic – Jesus Christ himself.

This carried with it, of course, a rethinking of the doctrines of salvation and sanctification and of the Church and sacraments. Accepting fully the patristic doctrine of the Being of God in His Acts in Christ, the Reformation insisted on stressing the Acts of God in the Being of Christ, and in so doing carried through a great transition in theological thinking from a more static mode to a more dynamic mode…It was indeed this stress upon the mighty living active God who intervenes in history creatively and redemptively and who has himself come to us in history in Jesus Christ that helped to emancipate all thought from the still and sterile notion of deus sive natura in the Latin conception of God, and set in motion the great advances of modern times.

(d) Along with this came a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit. The doctrine of Christ had hardly been set upon a proper foundation at Nicaea with the doctrine of the homoousion than the Church found itself faced with the same struggle with regard to the Holy Spirit, for the semi-Arians and Macedonians insisted on thinking of him as a creature. But the Nicene theology found it was bound to go on in faithfulness to the biblical teaching to affirm the homoousion of the Spirit also, and so laid the foundation for the doctrine of the Trinity. A full doctrine of Christ and a full doctrine of the Spirit stand or fall together. Hence at the Reformation there took place a recovery of the doctrine of the Spirit, of the living presence and personal action of God in the world, released to mankind in fullness on the ground of the reconciling work of Christ. The doctrine of the Spirit and the stress upon the Acts of God in his Being went together. This also involved a recovering of the doctrine of the Church. Right up to the Council of Trent the Roman Church had never produced an authoritative doctrinal statement on the Church. There was indeed no significant monograph on the subject between Cyprian’s De Unitate and Wycliffe’s De Ecclesia. But with the Reformation the whole picture was altered and the doctrine of the Church as the community of believers vitally united to Christ as his Body through the Spirit received its first great formulation since patristic times…*Indeed the whole apophaticmovement of the Reformation may well be regarded as a Christological criticism of the notions of Church, Ministry, and Sacraments as they had developed through the Dark and Middle Ages in strange detachment from the high Christology of Nicaea and Chalcedon…*

Is this the new ‘Reformation’? Here once again it would seem to me that reformation can take place only on the Church’s proper foundations, and that no real advance can be made until we learn to think together again the Being-in-the-Act and the Act-in-the-Being. I myself am convinced that it is this combination of patristic and Reformation theology which is our only real answer to the problems that Roman theology still presents to us, and that if we can undertake this constructive rethinking, as indeed Rome is now apparently undertaking herself, then we will be able to gather up the historical development of the whole Church in a movement of profound clarification which will enable her at last to make advances in theology understanding comparable to those which have been taking place in modern science…

I cannot see any reformation coming to its fulfilment and taking its place as it ought within the thinking of mankind, and among all the peoples of the earth, except that which is wholly committed to belief in the Creator and Redeemer God, and which takes seriously and realistically the stupendous fact of the Incarnation, and except that which develops its theological understanding not by means of its own artistic creations but through rigorous and disciplined obedience to the objective reality of the Word of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The Christian Church is confronted today with its Nebuchadnezzar and his dream of a vast image reaching up to heaven, the image of a technological empire in which man imposes his own will and the patterns of his own invention upon the universe. But like Daniel the Church must speak of the stone that is cut out of the mountain not by human hands, which will smite the image of human empire and break it in pieces, and will itself become a mountain that fills the whole earth. The new Reformation cannot do without its apocalyptic message which is a transference to the history of human achievement in all the empires of political, social and scientific endeavour of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone.[1]

Much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of Roman Catholics, Torrance (rightly!) identifies the Reformation as simply a renewal movement within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church that consisted in a “Christological correction” of those elements of the church’s theology and practice that had not developed in strict accordance with the profound dogmatic insights that emerged at the early councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Rather than deviating from the universal consent of the fathers established at these councils, the Reformation actually resulted from a deeper penetration into the central theo-logic that governs the Christian faith – that Jesus Christ is both coessential with God by nature and coessential with humanity by grace. As Torrance avers, when these twin pillars, upon which the whole of the Christian faith rests, are applied to the doctrines of salvation (soteriology) and the church (ecclesiology), the outcome is the Protestant Reformation! Indeed, the great Reformation solas – sola Scriptura, solus Christus, sola gratia, sola fide, soli Deo gloria – can simply be understood as a further and faithful development of the seminal patristic convictions embedded in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan and Chalcedonian symbols.

In other words, it was a theological retrieval of the Christocentric nature of the entire spectrum of the church’s thought, life, and practice that gave birth to the Reformation, and, as Torrance suggests, it will only be this same kind of rigorous Christological realignment of all things to the lordship and logic of Jesus Christ, the sole mediator between God and humanity, that will fan the flame of reformation today. While the challenges of the 21st century may differ from those faced by the Reformers in the 16th, the ultimate basis, means, power, and goal of reformation remains ever the same: the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord. Only to the degree that every thought, every practice, every aspect of the life of the church is taken “captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) will there be reformation. Yet insofar as all things are taken captive to obey Christ, there cannot but be reformation!

And, by God’s grace, so may it be!

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[1] Torrance, T.F., 1996. Theology in Reconstruction. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, pp.264-267, 282-283. The section demarcated by the * comes from Torrance’s (1996) book Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, p.230.