Calvin & Knox – A Comparison & Contrast
This year (2014) is the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Knox. It is therefore right and fitting that we consider Knox at this time for, as Thomas Carlyle said, ‘He is the one Scotchman to whom, of all others, his country and the world owe a debt’. It is also the case that a similar 500th anniversary was observed recently for John Calvin (2009). This series of three articles, then, will focus on Knox but also weave in references to Calvin, and in particular highlight practical lessons which can be learned from the similarities and differences in their lives.
To begin, though, who is John Knox? A BBC news story some months back asked the public in Edinburgh this very question. Some had no idea who Knox was, showing that today he is a largely forgotten figure. But to be forgotten is perhaps preferable than to be remembered in the way Knox is by the public. This one comment sums up the attitude of many who remembered him: ‘(He was) a pretty miserable kind of guy. The Scottish dour character originates with him, cause he was a miserable person’. Even more bluntly in the 20th century the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir, who wrote a biography of Knox, said, ‘As I read about him in the British Museum I came to dislike him more and more, and understood why every Scottish writer since the beginning of the eighteenth century had detested him ... everyone except Carlyle’. Douglas Bond in his excellent book on Knox has rightly said, ‘As faithless Israel resented Jeremiah’s prophecy of doom and destruction for her whoredom against the Lord, so, for the most part, Scotland has resented the life and ministry of Knox’. The words of the apostle are true to a large degree of Knox, 1 Cor. 4:13, ‘We are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day’.
And this perhaps is the first point of contact with John Calvin. Both have been disparaged and hated in popular memory. In Calvin’s own day a vicious and unfounded attack on his character was published by Jerome Bolsec who held that Calvin was ‘irredeemably tedious and malicious, bloodthirsty and frustrated. He treated his own words as if they were the word of God, and allowed himself to be worshipped as God’. Bolsec disagreed with Calvin over predestination and eventually committed apostasy in returning to Rome. However, that thread of opinion regarding Calvin has continued down to our day. In the Scottish imagination these negative views of Knox and Calvin have become fused together so that almost anything that is wrong in Scottish life is due to ‘Calvinism’ mediated from Calvin’s Geneva to Scotland by Knox. As a writer in the Herald newspaper noted in 2010, ‘Calvinism ... is routinely described as being a blight on Scotland. It gets blamed for turning Scotland dour. Calvinists are generally portrayed as misanthropic kill-joys, Puritans who are haunted, in the words of American humourist HL Mencken, by the fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy ... (a) burden of “doom and gloom” (has been) imposed by Calvinism’. Both Knox and Calvin then are free from the imprecation of Christ, Luke 6:26, ‘Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets’.
But that of course is not the whole story; as Knox and Calvin have been reviled by the world, so they have been cherished by the true church of Jesus Christ. As Prov. 10:7 tells us, ‘The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot’. And so we can still, 500 or so years on from their births, sit at their feet and learn from Knox and Calvin as those who laboured faithfully in Word and doctrine and therefore who are worthy of double honour (1 Tim. 5:17).
Knox’s and Calvin’s Early Lives
Knox, it is believed, was born in 1514, five years after the birth of John Calvin. The exact year of his birth is difficult to determine, as is so much about his early life. Like Elijah, the prophet to whom he is often compared, Knox bursts on the scene from a life of obscurity. We know he was born into a relatively poor family in Haddington, 20 miles or so from Edinburgh, and that his parents died while he was still a child. We know that he studied at St Andrews University, presumably supported by relatives. We can surmise that he probably entered St Andrews the year after Patrick Hamilton had been burnt at the stake there for his Protestant faith (1529).This incident obviously had little effect on Knox, as following his education he was ordained a priest. But beyond this we really know very little. Knox’s life only steps into the light in the 1540s when, as a man around 30, we find him still working in the Roman Church.
Calvin, too, was raised as a faithful son of the Roman Church. Unlike Knox his family were relatively well off and he studied at Paris University, before eventually turning to the study of law which his father deemed more lucrative. Calvin had learned excellent Latin at Paris, before he moved to the University of Orleans and then to the University of Bourges pursuing law. At Bourges he learned New Testament Greek. The foundations of Calvin’s learning were laid deep. In 1533, and with the swirling tides of reform rising in Europe, Calvin was converted. At the age of 24 he became a new man. He was in the kingdom of God before Knox.
And that is an important point to make. In any comparison between the two men, Calvin must be regarded as the senior: in age, in years in the kingdom of God, and it must be said, in theological ability (a point Knox himself would acknowledge). Before Knox was converted Calvin had been born again, had to flee France, published the first edition of the Institutes, led the Reformation in Geneva, and been exiled from Geneva only to be called back again after three years to continue the work of reformation. Bond is right to note that, ‘Throughout his ministry, Knox considered Calvin his spiritual father’.
A number of Protestant preachers were operating in Scotland in the 1540s as Scottish political leaders tried to cultivate friendship with Henry VIII of England who had already broken with Rome. One of these obscure preachers was the means of Knox’s conversion. Knox’s faith was strengthened and grounded in Reformed truth through the great preacher and martyr, George Wishart. Knox heard Wishart’s preaching, and drank in the Reformed doctrine which Wishart had learned on the continent. However, the political climate in Scotland in a short space of time turned against England and the Reformation, and so Wishart’s life was in danger. Knox took up a position as his bodyguard — often wielding a two-handed broadsword in defence of the preacher. Eventually the authorities closed in on Wishart, and as he was conscious of his impending capture he told Knox to leave him, stating that ‘One is sufficient for a sacrifice’. Wishart was duly captured and martyred.
Knox, as a known associate of Wishart, became a wanted man. After being chased round the country he eventually ended up with other Protestants barricaded in St Andrews Castle. And it was here that Knox preached his first sermon. Protestant preachers were very few in number and it was soon recognised that Knox had the gifts to be a preacher. Pressed privately to acknowledge a calling to preach, Knox refused. He could not preach, he said, unless called by God. Undeterred, in the course of the next sermon the preacher stopped, and addressed Knox directly. ‘Brother’, said the preacher looking at Knox, ‘in the name of God and of his Son Jesus Christ, and in the name of all those here present I call you by my mouth, I charge you that you refuse not this holy vocation...’ The preacher turned to the congregation, ‘Was not this your charge to me? And do you not approve this calling?’ They replied with one voice, ‘It was, and we approve it’. Knox ran out of the meeting in tears, but eventually he submitted to the call of God’s people. Not quite what we later Presbyterians would recognise as done decently and in good order, but, nonetheless, the means used by the Spirit to call Knox, in his early thirties, into the glorious work of proclaiming the unsearchable riches of Christ.
And here is another point of contact between Knox and Calvin. As is well known, Calvin too had to be forced, as it were, into the gospel ministry. Calvin, after his conversion, desired the quiet life of a scholar. He had no desire to be a pastor and a reformer. He said, ‘I had resolved to continue in ... privacy and obscurity, until at length William Farel detained me in Geneva, not so much by counsel and exhortation, as by dreadful imprecation, which I felt to be as if God had from heaven laid his mighty hand upon me to arrest me’.
Therefore neither Calvin, nor Knox, felt any internal call until the external call of the church constrained them. And this I think presents a question to us regarding the relative balance we place on the internal and external call to the ministry. In neither of these men did the internal call come first, and in neither of these men did the internal call come until necessity was laid upon them by the church.
On this point the later Scottish theologian James Durham (1622-58) has a very important essay in his Commentary on Revelation entitled ‘Concerning a Call to the Ministry and Clearness Therein’. While not neglecting the importance of the internal call Durham quotes a section from the First Book of Discipline (1560).
He says, ‘the established doctrine of our church in the First Book of Discipline, in that head concerning … Prophesying and Interpreting Scripture ... (is) Moreover men in whom it is supposed to be any gift, which might edify the church ... must be charged by the Ministers and Elders to join themselves with the Session and company of interpreters, to the end that the Kirk may judge whether or not they be able to serve ... in the vocation of Ministers. And if any be found disobedient, and not willing to communicate the gifts and special graces of God with their brethren, after sufficient admonition, Discipline must proceed against them ... for no man may be permitted to live as best pleaseth him, to live within the Kirk of God; but every man must be constrained by fraternal admonition, and correction, to bestow his labours, when of the Kirk he is required, to the edification of others’.
Perhaps this strikes some as unspiritual? Surely an internal call is necessary? Well, yes, but to what degree? As Durham would say, ‘there are more clear grounds to gather God’s mind from’ regarding the call to the ministry than the internal call. He states that ‘the effects of the Spirit fitting one with gifts for the charge ... whereupon weight may more safely be laid, than upon any inward apprehending, or not apprehending of the Spirit’s motion, which is never given to us in anything, as the alone rule of obedience; and we must suppose the motion of the Spirit to be where these gifts are, seeing the impulse hath always the gifts with it, so we may gather the impulse from the gifts’. A position echoed later in the Reformed tradition by no less than Robert L Dabney.
Whatever our understanding of the call to the ministry, we can record our thanks that the little gathered congregation in St Andrews compelled Knox into preaching, and that Farel in Geneva compelled Calvin to give up his goal of a quiet scholarly life. At least in these two instances the wisdom of the external call preceding the internal call was justified of her children.
Knox in England
Having been called to preach the gospel, all was not to go smoothly for Knox. The Protestants in St Andrews were captured by the French, and Knox spent the next eighteen months in terrible conditions as a galley slave for the French navy. Eventually Knox was released — no one is quite sure why — and he made his way to England in 1549, now aged 35. Knox would spend the next ten years of his life ministering to English congregations, five of them in England and five on the continent in exile. The story of Knox in England is fascinating. Knox’s ability was recognised immediately and he was sent to Berwick to bring the Reformation to the still stubbornly Catholic North. He cut a swathe through the English church. He was soon debating Bishops on the danger of the Roman Mass, preaching before the King, being offered Bishoprics and influencing debates on the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles of the Church of England. The latter was much to the annoyance of Archbishop Cranmer! But Knox was never going to be an establishment man in England. He was too much of a prototypical Puritan to be a Bishop. And when the Reformation in England suffered its disastrous reversal in the death of Edward and the ascension of Mary to the throne, Knox once more had to flee.
However, it is fair to say that Knox’s five years in England impacted him greatly. He even fell in love with, and ended up marrying, an English girl! On the eve of his fleeing England for the continent Knox stated: ‘I have thought it to be impossible ... to have removed my affection from the realm of Scotland, that any realm or nation could have been equal dear to me. But I take to record in my conscience, that the troubles present (and appearing to be) in the realm of England are double more dolorous (marked by grief, sorrow or pain) unto my heart than ever were the troubles of Scotland’.
And again Knox’s and Calvin’s experiences overlap. Knox was not the only one to know exile and seeming defeat. Calvin of course had to flee his own homeland, and, unlike Knox, he was never to return, nor to see it won for Christ. Calvin also knew what it was to have his ministry cut short, having to leave Geneva in 1538 for three years because of his faithfulness over the administration of the Lord’s Supper. Both Knox and Calvin put truth before consequences. The point here is that most of God’s servants are brought low before they are lifted up. This is a general pattern, you might say. Before exceptional usefulness there is trial and humbling. Jacob had his years of service in Paddan-aram before he could return to the Promised Land, Moses had his forty years in the wilderness, and our Saviour had his forty days in the wilderness. And in keeping with this pattern both Knox and Calvin knew trials before God gave them success.
So in the lives of both these men we see the importance of continuance in the face of setbacks. To focus on Knox — how did he arrive at the Reformation of 1560 in Scotland? Did it come easily? No. He was captured and had to spend eighteen months on a French galley ship. He had to flee England. He was a rejected pastor in Frankfurt. His 1555-6 preaching trip to Scotland produced no immediate fruit. And after the Reformation was life easy? No, there was the continual turmoil of a Catholic Queen, and an untrustworthy nobility. Knox knew suffering and setbacks. As Thomas Carlyle has said: ‘He bared his breast to the battle; had to row in French galleys, wander forlorn in exile, in clouds and storms; was censured, shot-at through his windows; had a right sore fighting life: if this world were his place of recompense, he had made but a bad venture of it’. But Knox endured as seeing Him who is invisible, as one who knows that here he has no continuing city but is seeking one to come. Knox lived his life in the light of eternity. And so it may be that we are facing discouragements. That is often the way. As Psalm 126 reminds us, the task of sowing the seed is often accompanied with tears. But it is the Lord’s work, and while we may not know the blessing Knox did, at the end, as the Psalm also reminds us (Ps.126:6), ‘He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him’.
Knox on the Continent
The next period in Knox’s life brings him into direct contact with Calvin, since following Knox’s fleeing England his next five years (age 40-45) were largely spent on the continent ministering to English refugees from the Marian persecution.
Arriving on the continent Knox made his way to Geneva. By now Calvin was fully established as a leading reformer, and his place in Geneva was more or less secure. He had formed a firm friendship with Bucer in Strasbourg. He had married Idelette, but tragically by now had to bury her and his only son. He had established his reputation as a theologian with successive editions of his Institutes and a stream of commentaries. And the most infamous event in his life had occurred — Servetus had been executed for his blasphemy in 1553. Knox arrived in 1554.
On his arrival Knox immediately sought spiritual counsel from Calvin. He asked him questions related to his recent experiences in England: could a minor rule by divine right, could a female rule and transfer sovereignty to her husband, should subjects obey ungodly or idolatrous rulers, and what party should godly persons follow if they resisted an idolatrous rule? Calvin’s replies were cautious and so were the replies of Heinrich Bullinger in Zürich. Undeterred, Knox on 20 July 1554 published a pamphlet attacking Mary Tudor and the bishops who had brought her to the throne. Knox looked to Calvin for guidance but he was his own man.
Shortly after this Knox received a call to Frankfurt. Frankfurt did not go well for Knox. He was called as Pastor of the English Church there — a church which was constituted on the basis of a more thoroughly Reformed worship than had been possible in England. But as more exiles flooded in who were committed to the Prayer Book rather than Reformed worship, Knox was ejected. Knox knew the pain of what it is to be a rejected Pastor. Even Calvin’s influence could not save Knox here. Calvin had written urging moderation on both sides, and yet those who wanted the full ceremonies of the Prayer Book eventually drove Knox out.
Knox’s time after his return to Geneva was altogether happier. There he found what he called ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was in the earth since the days of the apostles. In other places I confess Christ to be truly preached; but manners and religion so sincerely reformed, I have not yet seen in any other place’. Knox pastored and preached happily in the English congregation at Geneva. But he also committed his greatest blunder, writing what is sadly his most famous work: The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment (Rule) of Women. If Servetus is the black mark in Calvin’s life, then the First Blast is Knox’s equivalent. Its publication has been justifiably called ‘the worst mistiming of the European Reformation’. Knox argued in this work for the illegitimacy of female rule and for the right of subjects to resist tyrants. And here is something of a contrast between the two men. Both were fearless proclaimers of the truth. But, perhaps, Calvin knew better than Knox that there is a time to keep silence as well as a time to speak (Eccl. 3:7).
The publication of the work deeply annoyed Calvin, and understandably upset Elizabeth as she came to the throne in England. As has been pointed out, all the female monarchs Knox knew attempted to have him killed, and in that light his opposition to female political rule and his championing of the right to resist becomes rather more understandable! However, Calvin regarded the publication of Knox’s views as ‘an evil which could not be redressed’ and which ‘had better be hushed up than publically canvassed’.
Partly, we can surmise, to heal this breach, Knox’s 1560 treatise On Predestination contained repeated expressions of appreciation for Calvin. For instance, he begins his treatise by asserting that ‘we dissent not from the judgment of the reverend servant of Jesus Christ, John Calvin...’ As well as aiming to restore the relationship, this again indicates what we have noted before. Knox and Calvin were not equals. Calvin is the teacher, if you will, and Knox is the pupil. Knox holds his own views, but he looks to Calvin for guidance — it is not the other way round.
Knox and the Scottish Reformation
Still, however congenial Geneva was — Scotland was on Knox’s heart. He said, ‘I feel a sob and a groan, willing that Christ Jesus might openly be preached in my native country, although it should be with the loss of my wretched life’. Knox had been on a clandestine preaching tour of Scotland in 1555-6 which ultimately ended in disappointment. (He married his first wife, an Englishwoman, Marjory on this trip, after a long engagement.) There was an aborted attempt to bring him back again in 1557. But then in November 1558 the call came again — Scotland needs you! In May 1559 Knox ended his five years on the continent and travelled back to Scotland. And the rest as they say is history...
The ground had been prepared and so Knox and the Lords of the Congregation led a swift and rapid Reformation. Just over a year after Knox returned, Scotland officially embraced the Protestant religion. A Reformed confession of faith was drawn up — the Scots Confession. A Reformed church order was drawn up — the First Book of Discipline. A Reformed liturgy based on Geneva’s was agreed. And Knox himself was installed as minister of St Giles church in Edinburgh.
It is interesting that we have two letters from Calvin to Knox from the period around the Scottish Reformation. Both letters were in response to requests from Knox for advice. One at the end of 1559 covered questions regarding whether the children of those who were idolaters or excommunicated could receive baptism. Calvin replied to the specific questions but more generally wrote:
We are astonished at such incredible progress in so brief a space of time, so we ... give thanks to God whose singular blessing is signally displayed therein ... I am not ignorant how strenuous you are in stirring up others, and what abilities and energies God has endowed you with ... meanwhile we are not less anxious about your perils, than if we were engaged with you in a common warfare ... we join our vows to yours, that our heavenly Father would strike all your furious adversaries with the spirit of folly and blindness, scatter all their counsels, and defeat all their attempts and preparations.
The cause of the Reformation would always be precarious through the remaining twelve years of Knox’s life. Mary, Queen of Scots, remained resolutely Catholic and returned to Scotland from France in 1561. Knox stated, ‘The very face of heaven the time of her arrival did manifestly speak what comfort was brought unto this country with her, to wit, sorrow, dolor, darkness and all impiety’. Their confrontations are infamous but perhaps one of Knox’s finest hours came when Mary summoned him before the Privy Council to answer supposed charges of raising rebellion. There Knox denied the charge and attacked the false teaching of Rome as the true danger to Scotland. He was stopped by one of the privy councillors who told him ‘you are not now in the pulpit’. To which Knox responded, ‘I am in the place where I am demanded of conscience to speak the truth’. In the pulpit, or out of it, Knox was the same man. His life was all of a piece. Carlyle is right to say, ‘It is not denied anywhere that, whatever might be his other qualities or faults, Knox is among the truest of men’. The same trait is seen in Calvin.
As Knox was securing the Reformation in Scotland, Calvin died in 1564. As he was born again before Knox, so he saw glory before him. Knox continued fighting tirelessly for the Reformed faith until his death in 1572. On his last day on earth his wife read to him some of Calvin’s sermons and passages of Scripture — John 17, where he had ‘cast my first anchor’, and 1 Corinthians 15 where Knox heard the glorious words: ‘O death where is thy sting, O grave where is thy victory’. Calvin’s great successor Beza said, ‘We have been afflicted beyond grief by the death of Mr Knox’.
And so Knox, the faithful servant of his Master, went to his eternal reward and joined Calvin in glory.
As we have very briefly gone through the lives of Knox and Calvin we have seen some comparisons and contrasts. We have seen that both men have had their reputations assaulted by the world; we have seen that in both their cases the external call to the ministry preceded the internal call; we have seen that both persevered in the face of setbacks before, under God, their labours were blessed; we have seen that Calvin is the senior figure of the two, and that Knox, though he forms his own opinions, looks to Calvin for advice and guidance. Some further comparisons and contrasts will now be highlighted.
If one lesson stands out from the life of both these men it is the power of preaching. Knox usually preached up to five times a week, with sermons lasting up to three hours! He said, ‘I consider myself called of my God to instruct the ignorant, comfort the sorrowful, confirm the weak, and rebuke the proud; by tongue and lively voice in these corrupt days’. Knox was nothing if not a preacher, and it was his preaching that turned the nation of Scotland upside down. Knox truly believed that, ‘The person of the speaker is wretched, miserable, and nothing to be regarded, but the things that are spoken are the infallible and eternal truth of God’. Calvin held the same convictions. He could say that Christ’s ‘kingdom consisteth in the preaching of the gospel ... Christ ... reigns ... as he subdueth unto himself (all the whole) world by the preaching of the gospel’.
And yet there is a clear difference of style. Calvin is more expositional, more rational, more thoughtful. Knox is more immediate, more powerful. There is the well-known description by James Melville of the preaching of the elderly Knox: ‘(he was) lifted up to the pulpit, where he behovit to lean at his first entry, but ere he had done with his sermon he was so active and vigorous that he was likely to ding the pulpit in pieces and fly out of it’. And there is a place for both. Each preacher brings his own personality to the pulpit. Paul is not John. Elisha is not Elijah. Knox is not Calvin, and nor should he be. And yet, what mighty preachers both were! It is not so much the style or the mould, but the gospel content of preaching that matters. And God blessed both their preaching to the saving of souls.
Difference in Personality
To continue on the theme of difference, Knox and Calvin were different personalities. Calvin is a man who is quite hard to get to know. To cast it in modern terms he is probably an introvert who does not like to reveal too much of himself. As the standard modern biography of Calvin states: ‘He deliberately wrote next to nothing about himself and his life. In the preface to his 1557 commentary on the Psalms he provided a spiritual autobiography, but to the modern eye it is conspicuously short of facts ... There are scattered fragments ... but on the whole we search Calvin’s writing in vain for much personal information’. Knox on the other hand is much more visible as a man. You feel you get to know Knox. He wears his heart on his sleeve. We have a record of him in his History of the Reformation in Scotland. He is a man of action. He is the typical extrovert. He thinks, and he speaks and he acts. As Carlyle has said, ‘We find, in that old Edinburgh house of his; a cheery, social man, with faces that loved him! They go far wrong who think this Knox was a gloomy, spasmodic, shrieking fanatic’. And again, neither one nor the other is better. God uses both. And what is wonderful is, that despite their differences in personality, they had such a respect for one another. Calvin regarded Knox as a ‘distinguished ... and honoured brother’. And we have seen already that Knox calls Calvin, ‘the reverend servant of Jesus Christ, John Calvin’.
One was a writer and a preacher
Continuing on the contrasts Calvin had gifts Knox did not. Knox and Calvin are not equals. For instance Knox painted a picture of himself as a ‘painful preacher of ... (the) blessed Evangel...’ rather than a theologian. Again Knox disclaimed himself as a writer, believing it better to use his ‘tong and livelye voice’ than ‘compose bokes for the age to come’. Now, Knox has to be challenged somewhat on this description of himself. He was a good theologian (as a preacher he had to be!) and he was a composer of books. His treatise on predestination is a good work, and his writings fill six volumes. But, compared to Calvin he was no theologian, and no writer. He produced no Commentaries or Sermons or Institutes like Calvin. He had his gifts and he used them to the utmost of God’s glory. And there is much wisdom in that. Our calling is not to cultivate gifts that God has not given us. We will never be criticised for that. Our calling rather is to use every gift God has given us for His praise and glory.
Both able to be moderate when required
If you think of Knox and Calvin, immediately you probably think of rigidity, of unflinching faithfulness to the truth whatever the cost. And you would be right. But there was also moderation when required. Knox, for instance, advised his former congregation in Berwick to receive the Lord’s Supper in the posture of kneeling.
He said that ‘kneeling at the Lord’s Super I have proved to be no convenient gesture for a table ... But because I am but one, having in my contraire magistrates, common order, and judgments of many learned, I am not minded for maintenance of that one thing to gain-stand the magistrates, in all other and chief points of religion agreeing with Christ and with His true doctrine, nor yet to break nor trouble common order, (therefore I) thought (kneeling) meet to be kept for unity and peace in the congregations for a time’.
And Calvin, too, was prepared to be flexible. In his 1561 letter to Knox referred to earlier he said, ‘With regard to ceremonies, I trust, even should you displease many, that you will moderate your rigour. Of course it is your duty to see the church purged of all defilements which flow from error and superstition. For it behoves us to strive with careful perseverance (sedulously) that the mysteries of God be not polluted by the admixture of ludicrous or disgusting rites. But with this exception, you are well aware that certain things should be tolerated even if you do not quite approve of them’.
Now, Knox and Calvin were passionately concerned with the reformation of worship. John Calvin famously stated that the fundamental principle of the reformation was the reformation of worship: ‘If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped...’
The first point in which ‘the whole substance of Christianity’ is comprehended is particularly the ‘mode’ of worship. And yet there has to be balance, and a certain degree of toleration.
Both were absolutely and passionately committed to the doctrine of predestination
If Knox and Calvin are known for anything it is their robust and thorough teaching on predestination. They loved the sovereignty of God. Calvin stated, ‘The doctrine of Election and Predestination. It is useful, necessary, and most sweet. Ignorance of it impairs the glory of God, plucks up humility by the roots, begets and fosters pride. The doctrine establishes the certainty of salvation, peace of conscience, and the true origin of the church’. Knox similarly stated that ‘the doctrine of God’s eternal predestination is so necessary to the church of God, that without the same, can faith neither be truly taught, neither surely established; man can never be brought to true humility and knowledge of himself; neither yet can he be ravished in admiration of God’s eternal goodness, and so moved to praise Him as appertaineth’.
Both were committed to a holistic vision of the Christian life that impacted every area of society
In particular Knox and Calvin were committed to the importance of care for the poor and also education. Regarding the poor, the First Book of Discipline states,
Every several kirk must provide for the poor within itself; for fearful and horrible it is, that the poor, whom not only God the Father in his law, but Christ Jesus in his evangel, and the Holy Spirit speaking by Saint Paul, has so earnestly commended to our care, are universally so contemned and despised ... for the widow and fatherless, the aged, impotent, or lame, who neither can nor may travail for their sustenance, we say that God commands His people to be careful. And therefore, for such, as also for persons of honesty fallen in(to) decay and penury, ought such provision be made that (of) our abundance should their indigence be relieved.
In Geneva care for the poor was important too. The deacons had to ‘take heed to and care for the sick and administer the pittance for the poor’. A hospital too was maintained ‘not only to (care for) the sick but also other aged persons who are unable to work, to widows, orphans and other needy persons’.
In the West today much of this diaconal care has been ceded to the state. But is that right? And are there not opportunities where we could seek to do good to all men, through the provision of hospitality, and thereby advance the witness of the church?
Regarding education the First Book of Discipline states, ‘of necessity it is that your honours be most careful for the virtuous education and godly upbringing of the youth of this realm, if either ye now thirst unfeignedly (for) the advancement of Christ’s glory, or yet desire the continuance of his benefits to the generation following. For as the youth must succeed to us, so we ought to be careful that they have the knowledge and erudition to profit and comfort that which ought to be most dear to us — to wit, the church and spouse of the Lord Jesus’. As such, ‘Of necessity therefore we judge it, that every several church have a schoolmaster appointed, such a one as is able, at least, to teach grammar and the Latin tongue’. Calvin, in the ecclesiastical ordinances of Geneva had a similar concern: ‘since it is necessary to prepare for the future in order that the church may not be neglected by the young, it will be necessary to establish a school to instruct the youth, to prepare them not only for the ministry, but for government ... This we hope to do to further the work of God’. An education for all, dedicated to the glory of Christ. Has the church retained that vision?
Men at Best are but Men
But Knox and Calvin had one other thing in common. They were both sinners. We could talk of the faults of Calvin. We could talk of his role in the execution of Servetus. We could talk of his occasional lack of charity in dealing with others, of his occasional lack of Christocentricity in exposition. We could talk of the faults of Knox — of his, at times, overly literal application of the Old Testament; of his alienating people he need not have alienated; of becoming overly involved in the political intrigues of his day. But this would not surprise Knox, who said of himself, ‘It hath pleased God of His superabundant grace, to make me, most wretched of many thousands, a witness, minister, and preacher’.
And that in a sense is the wonder of Knox and Calvin, or rather the wonder of God’s working in the world. To be confronted with these two giants of the faith reminds us of this one great truth — God in His glory uses weak sinful creatures to turn the world upside down, for ‘God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: that no flesh should glory in his presence’ (1 Cor. 1:27-29). To that Knox and Calvin would add their amen, for Knox himself said, ‘I sought neither pre-eminence, glory, nor riches; my honour was that Christ Jesus should reign’.