John Knox for Armchair Theologians by Suzanne McDonald

John Knox for Armchair TheologiansTakeaway: Ways of reading scripture that we take for granted as today were revolutionary in the past.

Short histories, like the Armchair Theologian series or the Very Short Introduction series are hit or miss. Because the author usually has wide latitude to emphasize what they want and organize the books on their own, reading one book is not a good introduction to series.

Aquinas for Armchair Theologians gave a decent biography of Aquinas but focused on how Aquinas changed the nature of philosophy for the modern world.  It as very focused on explaining how to read Aquinas as a modern reader.

John Calvin for Armchair Theologians was very sparse on biography and mostly focused on walking through the structure of Calvin’s Institutes as an organizational structure for Calvin’s theology and thought process. In the process, it seems to not do a very good job introducing Calvin or his theology.

John Knox for Armchair Theologians is mostly a history of the Scottish Reformation and John Knox’s role in that.  While there are several interludes discussing Knox’s writing, there are only a handful of short quotations.  So if you are looking for an introduction to Knox’s theology, this is not it.

I really did not know much about Knox other than he was important to Presbyterian church history.  So it was all new to me. I think that placing a person in their historical context is very important to understanding why they are who they are. So I think given the constraints of this type of book, it was a good choice to focus mostly on this history.  But I do wish there were more excerpts of his actual writing.

Knox is best known for writing a history of the Scottish Reformation, which as a pre-modern history book, focuses primarily on how God worked in leading the country to ‘true Christianity’ and away from the Catholic church.

Knox is clearly a man of his time and should not be evaluated as a 21st century person.  But he was important to the transition from the state church to the free church model, even if he would have been opposed to the actual free church.  His most controversial work seems to be opposing the rule of Queen Mary and later Mary Queen of Scots.  He opposed their rule, not primarily because they were women (although he did play that card) but because they were Catholic.  And he called upon the nobility of England and later Scotland to resist and if necessary overthrow the Queens.

His reasoning is important and has been influential to this day.  Knox reinterpreted Romans 13 (Submission to Governing Authorities) to be primarily about the fitness of the governing authorities and not so much about the submission of those being governed.  I believe this is a clear distortion of Paul’s intent, Paul was not writing to Nero, he was writing to the church that was living under the oppression of Nero.  But regardless of Paul’s intentions, Knox’s reading, that the legitimacy of government be evaluated as part of the process of determining whether and how to submit to governing authorities, has been important since the Reformation.

His interpretation of Romans 13, and the very fiery language that he used when writing and preaching alienated not only the two Queen Marys, but also Queen Elizabeth and other nobility.  While Knox was not talking about a proto-democratic system of government, he was advocating overthrow of a ruler, which was very much not appreciated by the ruling class.

Knox was also was very important to the development of the Scottish church.  The official confession of faith, book of church discipline and model of worship were all written by committee, but Knox was involved in the writing of all of them and the model of worship was heavily based on one that he wrote while in exile in Geneva and pastor of the English speaking church there.

As part of the model of church, Knox and others intended for a system of public education to be erected for the education of all young people.  They intended to take the wealth and income of the monasteries and other Catholic institutions that were being disbanded and use it to pay for the education of the poor.  This did not happen and the nobles of Scotland absorbed the wealth of the monasteries into their own estates.  But Scotland was one of the early countries to emphasize the education of all, even if actual public education did not start until nearly a century after Knox’s death.

On the whole, this was a helpful book to give context for Knox and the history of the period.  I just wish it had more explicit discussion of Knox’s own writing.

John Knox for Armchair Theologians Purchase Links: Paperback


A PDF copy of the book was provided by the publisher through Netgalley for purposes of review.


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