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John Knox, A Biography
Chapter XIV - Reconstruction of Church
I. The Confession of Faith


The Confession of Faith which Knox, with the assistance of his five colleagues, John Wynram, John Spottiswoode, John Willock, John Douglas, and John How, prepared, was publicly read, first in audience of the Lords of Articles and afterwards in audience of the whole Parliament. The Bishops of St. Andrews, Dunblane, and Dunkeld were present, and certain of the ministers put in an appearance in expectation that objection would be taken to some of its clauses. In this they were agreeably disappointed. The representatives of the old Church kept silence, and only one or two of the lay members, among them the Earl of Athole, made any opposition, for which they could produce no better reason than "we will believe as our fathers believed." The doctrine of the Confession was unanimously approved of, and ratified by the whole body of the Estates.

Knox was not a stranger to the task that he had thus been suddenly asked to discharge. We saw that while in England he had a hand in the final revision of the Second Prayer Book of Edward vi.; and when on the Continent, both at Frankfort and Geneva, he had been engaged in preparing Confessions for his congregation. In addition, it was the age of Confessions. They were so numerous and so formidable that Roman Catholics called them in derision "Paper Popes." Their authority was great, and they governed the minds of those who accepted them much in the same way as the Vicar of Rome ruled his Church. In these days there is a widespread feeling that it might be better if there had been fewer Confessions, and if their treatment of the doctrines of Christianity had been less full, elaborate, and minute. Many are oppressed by the burden of belief which the symbols of the Church lay on their spirit, and the difficulty of shortening or of simplifying them makes that burden all the heavier. We are apt to criticise and condemn somewhat severely our Protestant forefathers for having put the free spirit of Christianity into bonds and fetters which we have not the power to break, but we should remember that there can be no Church without a Confession, and that in the days of the Reformers it was absolutely necessary, for the very existence of the Church, to have subordinate standards which all the members could accept as a bond of union, and round which they might rally.

Comparing this Confession of Knox with some that went before and came after it, we cannot help admiring its free spirit, and the frankness and joyousness almost with which it expresses the doctrinal convictions of those who drew it up. Dr. Hume Brown complains of Knox's Medievalism, and declares that in method he was no better than the Schoolmen. He surely cannot have read this Confession with a quite unbiassed mind, for we can imagine nothing less medieval in form, and matter. It is much more modern in conception and style than the Westminster Confession of Faith which replaced it. The very first sentence of the preface reveals the spirit in which it was undertaken. "Long have we thirsted, dear brethren, to have notified unto the world the sum of that doctrine which we profess, and for the which we have sustained infamy and danger." That is not how men speak who intend to produce a tame and stilted performance; it is the utterance of those whose hearts are full and who are desirous of proclaiming to the world the convictions for which they have suffered.

Nor can we help admiring the spirit in which they regard their completed task. It is one of charity. "If any man will note in this our Confession any article or sentence repugnant to God's holy Word, that it would please him of his gentleness and for Christian charity's sake to admonish us of the same in writing, and we of our Honour and fidelity do promise unto him satisfaction from the mouth of God (that is, from His holy Scriptures), or else reformation of that which he shall prove to be amiss." A recent historian is kind enough to suggest that this was only a phrase in the mouth of the Reformers, and not to be taken seriously. In this he shows less charity than those he is accusing of the lack of it, and Knox's controversy with the Jesuit Tyrie, the very last work published by him, in which he answers the charges of his opponent point by point, is surely proof enough that he and those who drew up the Confession with him meant what they said.

Dr. Mitchell points out that although four days only were allowed for presenting the Confession, instructions to prepare it were probably given as early as the month of April, at the same time that the nobles and barons asked Knox, when signing one of their "godly bonds," to draw up the Book of Discipline. The matter would thus be gradually arranging itself in his mind even though not a word were written, and when the time came for putting the Confession as a whole into shape he would be quite prepared for doing so. Randolph, the English envoy, wrote to Cecil two days afterwards, "I never heard matters of so great importance neither sooner despatched nor with better will agreed to. . . . The old Lord Lindsay, as grave and godly a man as ever I saw, said, 'I have lived many years, I am the oldest in this company of my sort, now that it hath pleased God to let me see this day where so many nobles and others have allowed so worthy a work, I will say with Simeon, Nunc dimittis."

Whatever may be said about this and other Confessions of the Reformation time, it should never be forgotten that they bore witness to religious thought which found expression in conduct. There was nothing mediaeval about them in that respect. They were not the mere quibbling of Schoolmen, but the assured beliefs of those who were persuaded that their salvation, here and hereafter, depended upon the acceptance of these beliefs, and also upon the measure of success with which they carried them out in their daily life. Their duty to God they did not feel to be perfectly realised until it found expression in service to man.

It is impossible, and perhaps on the whole unnecessary, to deal in detail with the first Confession of the Reformed Church of Scotland, but one or two outstanding features of it must be referred to. We cannot, for instance, agree with Dr. Mitchell that with regard to the doctrine of Election Knox's Confession is as explicit in content and purpose as the Westminster Confession itself. On the contrary, the way in which the first Confession of the Reformed Church handles this difficult subject makes it much easier for the modern man. The Confession's treatment of it is general, and it declines to enter into details and to forecast the unknown future; problems which offered no difficulty to those who drew up the Westminster Standards. While putting in the forefront the sovereignty of God, it does not fail to emphasise His Fatherhood. Indeed, in the very chapter which treats of Election the filial relationship of the believer towards God is duly notified, and again and again throughout the document similar references occur, freeing Knox's Confession, at any rate, from the charge of sternness, and of glorying only in the terrible judgments of the Almighty.

Knox's doctrine of the Church is perhaps the most outstanding feature of the whole Confession. It may interest those who find in our Reformer's teaching nothing save hard-and-fast and, to them, repellent Calvinism, to know that this doctrine was held by Zwingli the earliest theologian of the Reformed Church, and that Knox's theology on the whole had taken definite shape long before he had seen Calvin or probably read many of his books. "Those who drew up the Confession of Faith of 1560," says the late Professor Hastie, "laid it down that the true Church of which they were members was essentially grounded in an Invisible Church, which had existed in the world from the beginning of all true religion, and was coextensive with all true religion. And in so far as this Invisible Church, the true Kingdom of God, the holy communion of saints, became visible, it was distinguishable by certain clear and perfect notes whereby any branch of it could be easily and certainly recognised: namely, first, the true preaching of the Word of God as the highest, divinest truth known to man; secondly, the right administration of the Sacraments as the sealing of that truth on the hearts and lives of men; and, lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered as God's Word prescribeth "whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished." Such was the large and comprehensive conception of the Church accepted and advocated by John Knox, and indeed it was upon this idea of the Invisible Church that "the leaders of the Reformed Church took their stand and did their imperishable work for God and the world. It is a Church that embraces in its fold the saved and purified spirits of all time, the spiritual elect of the race, even the saintly souls that had whitened into the pure radiance of eternity amid the foul corruptions of the idolatry of Rome."

This large and generous conception of the Church was held by the Reformed Churches everywhere; they cultivated intercommunion, for they regarded themselves as members of the one Church. It is after a revival of this ideal that many are striving at the present moment. The exclusiveness, or, as it might be justly enough phrased, the ecclesiastical snobbery of certain of the Reformed Churches was a later growth. It took its rise in the Church of England, under Laud, and since his day it has gone on increasing.

Nor can we help admiring the broad way in which Knox deals with General Councils and Ceremonies. While paying every respect to the judgments of Councils, he does not by any means accept them without examination. He will test their actions by the Word of God. Nor does he admit that any order of Church Government can be accepted as divine or can be regarded as binding for all time. Episcopacy and Presbytery he puts on this footing; and as for Ceremonies, "such as men have devised, they are but temporal, so may and ought they to be changed when they rather foster superstition than they edify the Kirk using same." This is surely a saner deliverance than that of some moderns, who on the one hand condemn the narrowness of the Reformer, and at the same time regard as of divine institution articles of Church millinery and forms of ritual which, in the words of Knox, are "such as men have devised."

It is alleged by some, who base their statements on the information which Randolph sent to Cecil on the 7th of September 1560, that before the Confession was publicly presented it was remitted privately to certain Lords of Parliament, and revised by Wynram and Lethington, who went the length of recommending the omission of a chapter, that on "Obedience and Disobedience due from Subjects to Magistrates." Professor Mitchell does not believe that anything of the kind took place, and holds that the chapter which treats of the Civil Magistrate is the original and only chapter written on the subject. In it Knox, following the other great theologians of the Reformed Church, regards the State as a divine institution, maintained under the Providence of God for the well-being of man and the manifestation of His own glory. If God is to be found in nature, much more should He be found in man, and especially in man's ordered life under civil government.

It followed, therefore, as a necessity, that with this conception of the State there should be a union between it and the Church; for the Church regarded the State to be like itself a divine institution under the universal headship of Christ, and the State saw in the Church an institution which was possessed by a spirit fitted to maintain and promote its own highest well-being. The co-ordinate relation of Church and State, which is a distinctive note of the Church of Scotland as the Established Church of the land, was first of all conceived by John Knox, and by his wise and far-seeing statesmanship put into the form which from then till now has never changed nor varied.

At the present moment, when the tendency all round would seem to be towards shorter and simpler creeds, it is not surprising to hear a desire expressed that we should revert to the Confession of John Knox, for the other doctrines with which it deals, such as the authority of the Scriptures, the unity and attributes of God, the effects of the Fall, the nature and work of the Holy Spirit, and the Sacraments, are treated in much the same frank and free spirit as those we have more fully discussed. We can therefore quite understand this modern tendency, although those who support it may not be able altogether to endorse the high eulogium passed upon Knox's Confession by Edward Irving. "This document," he declares, "is the pillar of the Reformation Church of Scotland, which hath derived little help from the Westminster Confession of Faith ; for, though the latter was adopted as a platform of communion with the English 'Presbyterians in the year 1647, it exerted little or no influence upon our Church, and was hardly felt as an operative principle either of good or evil until the revolution of 1688, so that the Scottish Confession was the banner of the Church in all her wrestlin gs and conflicts, the Westminster Confession but as the camp colours which she hath used during her days of peace,—the one for battle, the other for fair appearance and good order." Irving was in the habit of reading it twice a year to his own congregation in London, for he felt there was "a freshness of life about it which no frequency of reading wore off."

But there are one or two features in Knox's Confession, apart altogether from its conception of the doctrines of the Church, which would make a return to it practically impossible. It contains certain vituperative clauses and expressions that refer to the pre-Reformation Church which would not be at all to the taste of the modern mind. The Roman Catholic Church is characterised as the "pestilent synagogue," the "filthy synagogue," and the "horrible harlot and kirk malignant"; and in the last chapter the language of Revelation xiv. 11 ("the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever, and they have no rest day nor night who worship the beast and his image ") is adduced to point to the doom of those who delight in superstition and idolatry.

Many critics, of course, seize upon these and similar expressions as the chief notes, not only of the Confession but of the teaching of the Reformers as a whole. They make considerable capital out of such language, and feed the popular mind with their comments thereon. But such critics ought to remember what has already been pointed out, that Knox and his colleagues were engaged in a life-and- death struggle, and that the terrible corruptions of the Romish Church, which they saw with their own eyes, but which we only know, after the lapse of long centuries, by hearsay, impressed them so profoundly as to make such language to their minds more than justifiable.

This Confession was the doctrinal standard of the Church for nearly a hundred years, until it was replaced by the Westminster Confession, and it has never been abrogated. Upon it, as Edward Irving points out, the theology of the Scottish Church was founded. It is not responsible for the narrower views and less liberal practices which prevailed during the earlier half of the seventeenth century, and which led up to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Had the type of theology of the first Confession of the Reformed Church of Scotland been more closely followed, and had the influence of English sectaries been resisted, the religious spirit, doctrinal teaching, and ethical principles of the Church of a bygone age would commend themselves more to our mind than they now do, and would have saved the Church of Knox from many of the troubles and trials which since his day have time and again grievously afflicted it.

The same Parliament which ratified the Confession passed three Acts which abolished the Church of Rome so far as it could be abolished by legislative enactments. By the first of these Acts the power and authority of the Pope were destroyed; by the second condemnation was passed on all doctrinal practices contrary to the new Confession; and by the third the celebration of the Mass was prohibited. The penalties involved for disobeying the last enactment were: to hear the Mass was to incur confiscation, to say or hear it for the second time exile, and for the third time death. This also may seem harsh to many, and contrary to the more tolerant spirit that prevails in our time, but it should not be forgotten that Scotland had just passed through a political revolution as well as a religious reformation, and that the elements which respectively belong to such movements were so bound up as to make it impossible to separate them. In considering the laws passed by nations that have just gone through some great civil crisis, and which are much harsher and sterner than those decreed by the Scottish Parliament of 1560, we say that they were necessary, that had not the supreme power asserted its authority the fight for freedom would have been fought in vain. If we thus justify the acts of Cromwell, why should we condemn the deeds of Knox? And, as a matter of fact, however stern the enactments which the Scottish Reformers countenanced may seem, they were more honoured in the breach than the observance.

Acute minds have recently been exercising themselves about the reason why the Scottish people accepted at the Reformation the Calvinistic type of theology. Mr. Lang rather superciliously declares that it suited the national spirit because of its cheapness, and Dr. Hume Brown maintains that it was agreeable to the national mind because of its metaphysics; but the vast majority hold that it was Knox, the pupil of Calvin, who by his strong will and personality imposed it upon the people. We believe that all three reasons are beside the mark. The Scottish Reformation was not transacted in a day or hour. In the end it may have been sudden and complete, but, like all great movements, it was a growth.

The seeds were sown in the fourteenth century by the followers of Wyclif . They were nourished by the blood of Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, and by the sacrifice of pure and noble spirits who suffered exile and death rather than deny the truth. Knox himself and his fellow-Reformers had spared neither time nor labour in teaching the people, and rousing them to a sense of their spiritual birthright. Books and pamphlets, hymns and ballads, all saturated with the life of the Reformed Faith, had done their part. The fetters of superstition, of ignorance and idolatry, by which the nation had been bound, were being gradually loosened; the yoke of Rome was being thrown off; a new spirit was possessing the people, they were attaining to self-consciousness; and after having learned, studied, and examined the truth, so far as their abilities and opportunities permitted, they of their own accord embraced the type of theology which is found in Knox's Confession; and so strongly attached to it were they, even from the very first, that Randolph, who sounded them as to the possibility of arriving at a uniformity with England, wrote to the effect, that however much they might like such a uniformity they would not for its sake give up those special features of their own creed, worship, and policy, to which they were deeply attached.

It is very cheap to sneer at Calvinism, but it should be remembered that the theology of Knox was not technically Calvinistic; it was the theology of the Reformed Church, and the real founder of that theology was Zwingli, and not Calvin. Besides, Scotland had only other two types of theology to choose from, Lutheranism and Arminianism. We know the types of national life which these two religions have produced, and we also know the type Calvinism has produced; and if religion be the dominating factor in a people's life, as we hold it to be, very few will be prepared to maintain that the mould into which Calvinism has cast Scotland is inferior to that into which Arminianism has cast England and Lutheranism Germany. Those who condemn the religion of their own country should be consistent, and condemn their country at the same time, for we fail to see how they can separate the one from the other.


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