July 13, 2018
The Life & the Cares of a Scottish Father
I have just finished a superb biography of John Knox. I had received a review copy of it a couple years ago but was not quite curious enough to carve out time to read it. I assumed my knowledge of what turns out to be a caricature of the Scottish Reformer was adequate. Still, being half Scot, my curiosity grew, so I finally took up and read.
What a surprise! The author, Jane Dawson, John Laing Professor of Reformation History, University of Edinburgh, and "expert on sixteenth-century Scotland and Calvinist politics and religion," is to be congratulated on a fine, balanced, insightful, sympathetic yet critical study of a character who comes alive through her engaging prose, all based on careful research, including recently discovered archives. Diarmaid MacCulloch (A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years) writes that this book "renders all previous biographies obsolete."
The times in which Knox lived, especially the tumultuous mid-16th century in Europe and the British Isles, are portrayed in greater color and complexity than my limited knowledge provided. From beginning to endᾹfrom Knox serving as a galley slave, then pastor in Frankfurt, Geneva, and northern England, military chaplain, and preacher at St. Giles, EdinburghᾹDawson's telling held my keen interest.
When Knox, 59, was nearing death,
"the series of passages Knox requested to be read to him from the Bible all carried a strong Christological message: Isaiah's description of the suffering servant, the meaning of Christ's resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, and the beloved 'first anchor' of John 17. As well as leaning on his old friends, the Psalms, Knox turned to the basic texts of the Lord's Prayer and the Creed."
I can think of no section of Scripture as revelatory of the dynamic of the Father-Son relationship as John 17. While it is high-priestly in its intercession for us, it is also intimate in offering us an insider's view of the Son speaking in love to the Father. Here is patriarchy, fatherhood, servanthood, and manhood in their evangelical fullness.
Concerning Knox, Dawson notes in the course of her very fine summary,
"He has been remembered primarily as an 'admonisher', whether as a champion of Protestant belief and morality or as a ranting sectarian killjoy. As the different perspectives and generations have come and gone, the labels 'good' or 'bad' have been variously use to describe Knox's undoubted ability to 'rebuke magnificently'."
Modern religious writers would likely use with the cardboard caricature of Knox to portray him as stern and distant father-figure. Dawson does not. Rather, he seems both a loving husband to his first and second wives and a loving father to his five children—"All of Knox's children served the Church in their adult years."
While times in which he lived were deeply troubled and grievously tragic, and I cannot agree with all his disagreements, Knox, I believe, sought to serve Christ and His troubled flock, and not himself, and commended himself to the mercy of the Lord from the beginning to the end of his days.
Yours for Christ, Creed & Culture,
James M. Kushiner
Executive Director, The Fellowship of St. James
James M. Kushiner is Executive Editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity, and Executive Director of The Fellowship of St. James.