Douglas Bond, “The Mighty Weakness of John Knox”

John Knox (c. 1514-1572) was a Scottish minister and Reformed theologian, who was a leader in his country’s Reformation and, indeed, the founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  This book is one of the “Long Line of Godly Men Profile” series, other titles of which I’ve also reviewed on this blogsite.  The idea of the book (and the series) is to hold up various Christians (all Protestants, I think) as exemplars.

In his preface (xxi), the author says the book

is intended to be a practical biography.  The first chapter is an overview of [Knox’s] life and legacy, while the following chapters investigate how he was transformed from weakness to strength in various dimensions of his character and ministry.  These chapters [respectively] examine Knox as a Christ-subdued man of prayer, as a preacher, as a writer, as a theologian, and as a shaper of worship, education, and public life in sixteenth-century Scotland and beyond.

John Calvin was John Knox’s hero (17, footnote omitted):

Throughout his ministry, Knox considered Calvin his spiritual father, and he sought the counsel of the Genevan Reformer in correspondences.  So influential was Calvin in Knox’s life that when he lay dying, he asked his wife to read Calvin’s sermons on Ephesians to him.

Regarding Calvin, I’ll just note that there is a whole chapter devoted to the “Power of Predestination” (not entirely fair in its presentation of those questioning it, in my humble opinion (see 86; see also 145 n.6, the only footnote that is not a bare citation, by the way)).  Relatedly, there is much in Knox’s life, and thus in this book, regarding conflict with the Catholic Church (see especially 61-62 and 72), including Catholic secular rulers; the author includes a section defending Knox’s “Praying Imprecatory Prayers” (43-46).  Incidentally, Knox apparently did not read St. Paul’s letter to the Romans to require broad submission to earthly authorities (see, e.g., 17-18); he also supported the state-supported Scots Confession (20-21; the entire Confession is included in one of the book’s appendices), as well as the criminalization of the Catholic Church (77).


One chapter in the Scots Confession, the book notes, concludes that God’s electing love in the redemption of Christ did “triumph, and purchase for us life, liberty, and perpetual victory” (84, quoting chapter 8 in the Scots Confession).  I wonder whether Enlightenment thinkers like John Locke and Thomas Jefferson got the first two-thirds of life, liberty, and property/pursuit of happiness from Knox.

And speaking of politics, I was intrigued by the conclusion of the penultimate chapter, “Empowering the Weak” (99, footnote omitted):

[Knox had] the most profound confidence in the power of God to accomplish great things using ordinary men.  Hence, small men throughout the realm were raised up by the grace of God and the power of the gospel to exercise their God-given gifts in the advancement of His kingdom.  And what was true in the church became increasingly true in politics and culture, to the extent that it has been said, “Under God, John Knox was an architect of a Scotland enfranchised, intelligent, self-governing.”

And along these same lines, the author credits Knox with “establish[ing] the first national education system in the Western world” (97).

Does all of this indeed suggest that perhaps Knox, in addition to his Reformation role, also has an enduring political and economic legacy?  The individualism inherent in Protestantism was crucial not only to the American founding but also to capitalism:  see Max Weber (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), of course, and I’ll note that Adam Smith (c. 1723-1790) was a Scot.


Knox’s hero may have been Calvin, but mine is C.S. Lewis — who is quoted in the book a couple of times, I suspect from his day job as a scholar of English literature, both times praising Knox’s writing.  He notes Knox’s “humor” and “tenderness,” and calls it “safe and dependable prose; a better prose than any (except Tyndale’s [!]) which we have met in this chapter” (73).  And this quote from Lewis is both complimentary and funny (50):

He [Knox] thought himself a timid, temporizing, culpably gentle preacher. … One is tempted to say that no equal instance of self-ignorance is recorded until the moment at which [Samuel] Johnson pronounced himself “a very polite man.”

Here’s an unfortunate fact (55):  “Though it is for preaching that [Knox] is known — especially thundering preaching — the texts of only two full sermons have survived the centuries.”

I’ll end with what two other facts about Knox, both of which I found to be endearing.  First, so un-PC is he nowadays that the present powers apparently determined that his final resting place shall be an unmarked grave under a parking lot (xix).  Second, after his first and beloved wife died, he remarried in his fifties — a 17-year-old girl (92):  And who can blame him for that, especially since it was predestined?