'You are holding in your hands a rare and precious book', reads the publisher’s description on the jacket of this book.1 'It contains the choicest practical writings of a man whom God used to transform his native country and bring it into the light and under the blessing of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that in spite of constant opposition and grave personal danger.' Knox is well known as a man of resolute action and a most powerful preacher under the Holy Spirit’s mighty operation. He sought no honour, however, for himself, saying: 'It hath pleased God of His superabundant grace to make me, most wretched me of many thousands, a witness, minister and preacher'.
We are not apt to think of Knox as a writer, or at least a particularly extensive writer, even though his collected works comprise six substantial volumes. As John Ker observed, 'The life of Knox was too busy and troubled to permit him to be a great writer, even had this been his faculty'. Although he published relatively little, his pen was rarely at rest but, as Thomas Thomson notes in the introduction to this book, it was 'indefatigable . . . at one time drawing up a manifesto, and at another, penning a treatise, or letter of religious consolation and advice' (p xxix). At certain times, however, even this labour took its toll: 'My daily labours must now increase . . . My old malady troubles me sore, and nothing is more contrarious to my flesh than writing' (p 316).
Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland2 is frequently read and referred to, together with his controversial pamphlets. One literary historian (Kenneth D. Farrow) justly maintains that Knox’s History is the first great work of Scots prose. We are unlikely, however, to think of Knox as an author of a quantity of writings valuable for practical Christian experience. Yet, as John Ker observes, Knox’s 'practical treatises, which are less read, have great fervour of spiritual feeling'.3 As the five-hundredth anniversary of Knox’s birth approaches (2014), this volume may help us to gain a fuller appreciation of his character and legacy as well as ministering real spiritual help to our souls.
We have here, as the historian Gordon Donaldson notes, 'almost for the first time in Scotland, a quantity of intimate personal letters'.4 What letters they are! Though comparatively few survive, his letters are indeed brief epistles of hope. Usually they are one-to-one letters, mostly to his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Bowes, and therefore more personal. Needless to say, we can find no evidence for the caricature constructed by unsympathetic secular writers – of a harsh, unfeeling fanatic. He can speak freely of his fears and write very candidly of himself, as he did in 1558: 'My heart is corrupt, and the hypocrisy thereof in many thousand cases hid from myself, so is my zeal cold, and my love nothing, if it shall be tried by the right touchstone' (p 289).
He writes in striking yet tender terms:
If we should earnestly consider the fruit that shall follow a transitory and a momentary pain, as St Paul calleth the afflictions of this life, they should not so greatly affray [frighten] us. The fruit is called Life everlasting, the Sight of God, and the Fullness of all joy . . . If we knew, I say, what comfort lieth hid under the fearful cross of Christ, we would not be so slack to take up the same. If we knew that life is buried with Christ in His grave, we would not fear to go and seek Him in the same (p 294).
Iain H Murray makes an acute observation in A Scottish Christian Heritage: 'If it were to be asked what is the recurring theme in Knox’s words and writings the answer is perhaps a surprising one . . . From the first years that we have anything from his pen, we find him engaged in a ministry of encouragement.'5 Encouragement was certainly a key note in Knox’s public epistles, such as Chapter Four, 'A Comfortable Epistle, sent to the Afflicted Church of Christ' (pp 103ff). He looked earnestly to the time of deliverance 'more than they that watch for the morning' (Psa. 130:6). 'The sun keepeth his ordinary course, and leapeth not back from the west to the south; but when it goeth down, we lack the light of it, till it rise the next day towards the east again. And so it is with the light of the gospel, which hath his day appointed by God.'
He gives beautiful encouragement to a generation such as our own, when the light of the gospel appears comparatively to be withdrawn:
Alas then, the trumpet hath lost its sound; the sun is gone down, and the light vanished away. But if that God shall strengthen you, boldly to withstand all such impiety, then is there but a dark misty cloud overspreading the sun for a moment, which shortly shall vanish, so that the beams of the sun shall afterward be sevenfold more bright and amiable than they were before; your patience and constancy shall be the louder trumpet to your posterity than were all the voices of the prophets that cried to you (pp 95-96).
One of the key themes in these writings is the evil of idolatry and the duty to avoid it (pp 284ff). In his 'Letter to the Faithful in England' (pp 61ff), he emphasises the injunction he frequently makes: 'That so you avoid and flee, as well in body as in spirit, all fellowship and society with idolaters in their idolatry'. He was aware this was a hard thing during the persecuting times under Mary Tudor: 'You shrink, I know, even at the first' (p 61). Some were in danger of going back to attendance at mass during times of persecution and therefore his warnings are vigorous and unequivocal. It goes without saying that, if this was the duty of Protestants when their lives were at risk, how much more must it be their duty in our day when there is no such threat.
Knox is unflinching in his exposure of the corruptions and guilt of the Romanist leaders in Scotland:
They have violated the law and holy ordinances of the Lord our God; they have opened their mouths against His eternal verity; they have exiled His truth, and established their own lies. They daily persecute the innocents, and stoutly maintain open murderers. Their hearts are obdurate, and their faces are become shameless (p 154).
Chapter 6 (pp 123ff) contains practical guidance as to how to handle the Scriptures to greatest profit in such circumstances. It is entitled, 'A Most Wholesome Counsel how to behave ourselves in the midst of this wicked generation, touching the daily exercise of God’s most holy and sacred Word'. In this volume there are also treatises full of Christian experience, such as his exposition of Psalm 6, which he calls, 'A Fort for the Afflicted'. His treatise on prayer is a precious unfolding of the groanings of the heart in this exercise. It is a means whereby 'our hearts may be inflamed with continual fear, honour and love of God, to whom we run for support and help, whensoever danger or necessity requireth' (p 50). In another passage he highlights the connection between prayer, precept and promise: 'To mitigate or ease the sorrows of our wounded conscience, two plaisters hath our most prudent Physician provided, to give us encouragement to pray, notwithstanding the knowledge of offences committed: that is, a precept and a promise' (p 41).
There are two sermons in the volume, one of which was written from memory and printed after exception was taken by the Queen’s husband, Lord Darnley, to one or two references made by Knox. The royal couple sought unsuccessfully to prevent Knox from preaching. The following noteworthy prayer concludes the sermon:
Give us, O Lord, hearts to visit Thee in time of our affliction; and that albeit we see none end of our dolours [griefs], that yet our faith and hope may conduct us to the assured hope of that joyful resurrection, in the which we shall possess the fruit of that for the which we now travail (p 247).
In 'Answers to Some Questions on Baptism etc' (pp 197ff) Knox handles, among other things, the perplexed question of whether or not baptism administered by a Roman Catholic priest can be considered valid. Although he considers it to be corrupted by superstition, nevertheless Knox regards it as valid, albeit unlawful. God 'maketh our baptism, how corrupt that ever it was, available unto us, by the power of His Holy Spirit' (p 260). He gives various reasons for rejecting rebaptism in such a case, including the fact that it was in the name of the Trinity: 'the malice of the devil could never altogether abolish Christ’s institution, for it was ministered to us in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost' (p 255). He also points to 2 Chronicles 30:6-8, where those circumcised by the false priests of the northern kingdom were 'not to be circumcised again; but that only they should turn their hearts to the living God, that they should refuse idolatry, and join themselves with the sanctuary of the living God, which was placed at Jerusalem' (p 260).
The Select Practical Writings of John Knox were first published by the Free Church of Scotland in 1845. This reprint has not altered the original edition significantly but rather enhanced it through fresh typesetting, supplementary notes and a very attractive cover and binding.
Thomson, the original editor, speaks of Knox’s 'rich and impressive style' evidenced in this book and says that 'as a writer of the old rich English tongue, he had few equals, and certainly no superior, during his own day' (p xxx). In comparison with the writings of the English Reformers, Knox is not at all difficult to read. As Thomson observed: 'Knox is a writer for all time, and will be intelligible in every age and especially to those who prize the language of the Bible'. We are sure that those who give careful study to this volume will express agreement with Principal Smeton, a contemporary of Knox: 'Certain I am, that it will be difficult to find one in whom the gifts of the Holy Spirit shone so bright to the comfort of the Church of Scotland'.
1. The Select Practical Writings of John Knox
Thomas Thomson (Ed.)
336 pages, clothbound
ISBN 978 1 84871 102 0
All references in brackets in this article refer to this volume.
2. John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982; reprint of the 1898 edition).
3. Scottish Nationality and other papers, Edinburgh, 1887, p. 33.
4. 'Knox the Man', in D. Shaw, ed, John Knox: A Quatercentenary Re-appraisal (Edinburgh: 1975), p. 18.
5. Iain H. Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), p. 26.
Taken with permission from the September 2012 Free Presbyterian Magazine. Note 2 and links added.