Excerpt from THE MIGHTY WEAKNESS OF JOHN KNOX, by Douglas Bond (Reformation Trust, 2011).
John Knox’s Mighty Weakness
“John Knox felt toward [Scotland’s] idolaters,” wrote historian Roland Bainton, “as Elijah toward the priests of Baal.”[i] Recollect what Elijah was called to do to the priests of Baal, by the express command of God, drawing his sword and cutting down 450 of the deceitful clerics. Men called to be prophets—to do feats such as Elijah was called to do--are not generally touchy-feely, kinder-gentler, metro males. Far from it. In redemptive history, the Elijahs have been tortured voices crying in the wilderness, lone men called to take their stand against gnashing critics, men charged with the profoundly unpopular task of declaring God’s word to people who have taken their stand with the enemies of God’s word. Such men inevitably find themselves in the crosshairs of critics. For his Elijah-like zeal, Knox is—as was his spiritual, theological, and pastoral mentor, John Calvin—“as easy to slander as he is difficult to imitate.”[ii]
As with any mere man, besieged by controversy in turbulent times, called upon to do significant things, ones that affect the fortunes of many people,[iii] staunch critics have found plenty in John Knox to criticize. He had rough edges, some would call them tragic deficiencies, even fatal flaws. Like all great men, strip him of his God-given might, and the thundering power of his calling, and what remains is a mere mortal, a small man, “low in stature, and of a weakly constitution,”[iv] one who, when first called to preach, declined, and when pressed, “burst forth in most abundant tears” and fled the room.[v] But then such was Elijah, cowering in a hole, feeling sorry for himself, and begging God to deliver him from his enemies. Yet by the grace of God, who alone makes weak men strong, Elijah and Knox lived lives that were characterized far more by power and influence than by weakness and obscurity.
What transforms a man from a hand-wringing nobody into a theological thunderbolt, a bull-horn of bravery, a commando of conviction, into the unflinching left tackle of the Reformation? Is it mere hyperbole to say that “Knox was a Hebrew Jeremiah set down on Scottish soil”?[vi] With the zeal of a Jeremiah, Knox thundered against the “motley crowd of superstitions” that infested religious life in sixteenth-century Scotland, and he considered his country’s devotion to such error as far worse “than the idols over whose futility Hebrew prophets made merry.”[vii] When God’s messengers mounted the rooftops decrying people’s transgressions against Yahweh—Hebrew ones or Scottish ones--the multitudes responded, not surprisingly, with rancor and violence.
So it has been with John Knox. In his lifetime he was denounced by regents, queens, and councils, and his effigy was hoisted high and burned at the Mercat Cross in Edinburgh.[viii] Ridiculed as “Knox the knave,” and “a runagate Scot,” he was outlawed and forbidden to preach by the Archbishop of St. Andrews, with orders issued to shoot him on sight if he failed to comply. Knox did not comply. Years later a would-be assassin fired a shot through a window of Knox’s house at Trunk Close in Edinburgh, narrowly missing his mark.[ix] And still Knox preached.
And what of his legacy since his death in 1572? The English Parliament, 140 years after Knox’s death, condemned his books to public burning. In 1739 George Whitefield was ridiculed for preaching “doctrine borrowed from the Kirk of Knox.” Perhaps more than any other, he has been portrayed as “the enfant terrible of Calvinism,”[x] and has been characterized in books and film, and at his own house, now a museum, as a “blustering fanatic.”[xi] Moderns dismiss him as a misogynist for his untimely treatise against female monarchs, and for his unflinching stand before charming Mary Queen of Scots, denouncing her sins, and calling her to repent. In 1972, the 400th anniversary of his death, it was decided that such a man as Knox was an inappropriate subject to commemorate on a Scottish postage stamp. As a crowning blow, the Edinburgh Town Council ordered the removal of the stone marking his grave, relegating his earthly resting place to obscurity under a variously numbered parking stall.[xii] In my most recent visit to Edinburgh the “JK” once legible on a small square marker was completely obliterated.
As faithless Israel resented Jeremiah’s prophesy of doom and destruction for her whoredom against the Lord, so, for the most part, has Scotland come to resent the life and ministry of John Knox. Knox himself, however, would have been little troubled by such neglect, even hostility. It seems to be an essential quality in truly great men of God that they care far more for the glory of Jesus Christ than for themselves, which is reason enough to examine closely the life of such a man as John Knox...
CONSIDER JOINING AUTHOR Douglas Bond and his wife Cheryl on the Knox @ 500 Scotland Tour in 2014. Space is limited.
[i] Roland H. Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (Boston: Beacon Press, 1952), 181.
[ii] Theodore Beza, Life of John Calvin (London: L. B. Seeley and Sons, 1834), 76.
[iii] Patrick Fraser Tytler, The History of Scotland from the Accession of Alexander III. To the Union (Edinburgh: William P. Nimmo, 1869), 2:355.
[iv] Howie, The Scots Worthies, 63.
[v] John Dickinson Knox and William Croft Dickinson, John Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 1:83.
[vi] Mark Galli, The Hard-to-Like Knox, Christian History, (Issue 46, Vol. XIV, no 2, 1995), 6.
[vii] Alexander Smellie, The Reformation in its Literature (London: Andrew Melrose, 1925), 245.
[viii] Howie, The Scots Worthies, 52.
[ix] Ibid, 56-57.
[x] Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root (Eds), The Quotable Lewis (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House, 1989), 365.
[xi] Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 180.
[xii] Iain Murray, John Knox: The Annual Lecture of the Evangelical Library for 1972 (London: Evangelical Library. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1973), 3.