This article looks at the history of the Scottish Reformation (from about AD 1500-1600), the preaching of the Scottish Reformers and their view of the church.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1990. 4 pages.

The Faith of the Scottish Reformers

In considering the Scottish Reformation we are looking at our own "family heritage". Not just those who are Scots, but all Presbyterians owe an incalculable debt to it. From Scotland, through Ulster, Presbyterianism reached the American colonies; it was Scotland that mothered the Presbyterian Churches in Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And Scottish missionaries went to found Presbyterian churches in Africa.

Even the English gladly admit that the faltering cause of English Presby­terianism has often been boosted by Scotland. So in looking at Knox and the wondrous regiment of Presbyterians who, under God, gave direction to that Reformation we're touch­ing the ancestry of our own church-life.

The Men🔗

Our purpose is not to describe the course of events in Scotland in the sixteenth century, nor to give biographies of the leaders. Our concern is to consider their doctrine and its place in that summary of Biblical teaching which we call, for brevity's sake, "The Reformed Faith". But that doctrine was believed, confessed, and even died for, by real men. There was the martyr, Patrick Hamilton, a student of Luther's; there was bold George Wishart, the early master of John Knox, who followed Hamilton to the stake in 1546. Then there was Knox himself, bestrid­ing the scene like a colossus, exiled for 13 years before returning in the triumphant revolution of 1560 to guide the fragile church through its first decade. But even Knox was not a solitary champion. The Scots Con­fession of 1560 was drawn up by no less than six Johns — Knox, Willock, Spottiswood, Winram, Douglas, and Row. Another John, Craig, published a once-famous catechism in 1581. And yet another, Davidson of Prestonpans, took a major part in events in the last decade of the century. The surfeit of Johns was diluted by other notables, such as Andrew Melville, Robert Bruce and Robert Rollock. The end of the century was not the end of the story, of course, but by 1600 the Scottish church knew where it was going, even though it also knew that the passage would be far from smooth. James VI's protest became a prophecy for the House of Stuart and for the character of the Scottish church — "no bishop, no king".

Their Faith🔗

What was the faith espoused by these men? That is a relevant question for us who claim theological descent from them. The faces of Knox and Melville adorn the stained glass windows of our Presbytery Hall in Edinburgh. We call our publishing house "The Knox Press". So, what was their faith — and do we stand firmly within it? We shall be better able to answer to those questions by isolating three broad characteristics of the theology of the Scottish Reformers:

A Common Faith🔗

First, it was the same as elsewhere. That may seem a strange characteristic, but in many ways it is the most important of all. The faith of the Scottish Reformers was not some peculiarly Scottish theology. It was not even a Scottish version of the Reformed faith. It was, quite simply, the same faith as found wherever the Reformed Church was found, from Spain to Lithuania, from Ulster to Transylvania. These Scots were consciously part of a continent-wide movement. In the Preface to their 1560 Confession they say, " we have been afflicted until now the greater part of Europe, we suppose, knows well".

Their oneness with the continental movement is epitomised by the Heidel­berg Catechism. Written for the German Reformed Church in 1563, this power­ful statement of Calvinism was also destined to become a "standard" for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands and those in Hungary. But it was widely used in Scotland, too. In 1591 a translation was printed officially for use in the Church of Scotland. Only the arrival of the Shorter Catechism, in the next century, overshadowed it.

This oneness was more than merely theoretical. In his days of exile, Knox had eagerly served the Reformed cause in the Church of England, in Newcastle, Rochester and Amersham. Then he had lived and fellowshipped in Frankfurt and Geneva, and continued to correspond with Calvin after 1560. John Craig had been converted to the Reformed Faith through reading Calvin's Institutes while rector of a Dominican convent in Italy. With such personal histories, these men could not be parochial in their thinking.

In their worship, too, the Scots displayed their involvement with the wider Reformed movement. In 1577 the Protestant leaders decided to use the "2nd Prayer Book of Edward VI" (that most Reformed of Cranmer's productions) for their worship. Later the "Genevan Book of Order" was also employed until both were superseded by the "Book of Common Order" of 1564, whose forms and prayers owed much to these predecessors.

One final indication of this characteristic is evident towards the end of the century when, exiled in their struggles with James VI, men such as Melville, John Welsh and Robert Boyd found a ready and congenial role in the Huguenot churches, pastor­ing and even lecturing in the college at Saumur.

All this doesn't mean that the Scots were mere mimics, mindlessly following Geneva. Knox himself could write a thorough treatise on Predestination, while the Scots Confession is a fresh and powerful statement of the Faith. But it does vividly show that the faith of our Reformers was not nationalistic but "ecumenical" in the richest and most positive sense. In the Scotland of the mid-1500s, there may well have been powerful social and economic forces at work. But the Reformation can­not be explained away in mere local, secular terms. The same faith was power­fully active and effective in a whole range of different societies. No explanation that ignores the widespread power of rediscovered Biblical truth can ade­quately account for this movement.

This characteristic of "sameness" is a challenge to our churches in respond­ing to current developments in eastern Europe and beyond. The Reformed Churches in Transylvania, etc., are our own folk. Over the centuries we and they have acquired "distinc­tives", but these must not prevent our working eagerly with them — and the Dutch, American and other members of the Reformed/Presbyterian family — to advance this great world­wide faith.

A Preaching Faith🔗

Secondly, it was a preaching faith. In his book The Theology and Theologians of Scotland (reprinted by the Knox Press), James Walker says of Knox: "no doubt the Reformer was more a preacher and a man of action than a student and a thinker". In a sense that may be true. But if it implies that to be a "thinker" and a "man of action" are mutually ex­clusive options, it is not only dangerous but also utterly unbiblical. To look at the paucity of "academic" volumes pro­duced by Knox and his cohorts and to conclude that they were "preachers, not theologians", is to put asunder what God has joined together. Indeed, the published works of Knox include more letters and sermons than theses, and most of his colleagues have no published works at all. Such was the shortage of Reformed pastors that they had no time for anything but preaching and organis­ing. But their preaching WAS their theology, and their theology was a theology of preaching. What is theology but the study of God and God's revelation? And why do we study it except to have something to preach to the church and the world? And what else shall we preach except the truth about God? Later generations were to develop a sharp distinction between academic theology and the preaching that grips the throats and lives of a congregation. But the Reformers would have been bemused by such an antithesis.

They saw preaching as the power behind the entire life and progress of the church. The Scots Con­fession proclaims: "The notes of the true Kirk (are)..: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed Himself to us..." (ch 18). They did not view such preaching as a static thing, merely "possessed" by a sound Church. Rather, they saw it as the dynamic whose presence would surely create a sound Church, for God's Word will not return to him void. So where the Word is preached the Church will certainly appear.

It needs repeating that, for them, preaching was the most powerful Gospel activity of all. Barred from preaching in Mauchline Church in 1544/5, George Wishart would not let his followers try to seize the building: "Brother, Christ Jesus is as potent upon the fields as in the kirk, and he himself preached oftener in the desert ... than he did in the temple of Jerusalem". Who needs a "consecrated" building, so long as he can preach?

In the crisis of the Reformation, it was Knox's preaching that repeatedly put heart and vigour into his followers. He wrote to a friend, "We do nothing but go about Jericho, blowing with trumpets as God giveth strength, hoping victory by his favour alone".

The theology of the Reformation was hammer­ed out in the pulpit, and the pulpit was never absent from the theology. The Scots Confession is a carefully-worded document, dealing with ancient and modern errors. But there is always the sound of the preacher's voice, e.g. in the concluding part of chapter 13 on "The Cause of Good Works": "But the Spirit of God ... makes us resist filthy pleasures and groan in God's presence for deliverance from this bondage of corruption... (The) sons of God fight against sin; sob and mourn when they find themselves tempted to do evil; and, if they fall, rise again with earnest and unfeigned repentance." Here is truth that bites!

The modern age makes an idol of academic respect­ability if it disparages preaching. Much of the very best theology in every age, such as Robert Bruce's work on the Lord's Supper, has come from the pulpit as well as the desk.

In all this there is a challenge to our theology. Reformed theology has often been tempted to become scholastic, dry, and divorced from the life and mission of the church. It has not always overcome the temptation. The goal of all theology is that the Word might be preached more clearly, relevantly, and fully. The Professor of theology is a servant of the pastor/preacher.

There's also a challenge here to our preaching. The Reformers preached their theology. Not in a dry-as­-dust intellectualist way, but relevantly, with vivid illustrations and forceful applications to everyday life. This was a world apart from the superficial repeti­tion of anecdotes and pious platitudes! How different would John Knox sound from your average "Thought of the Day" divine!

A Faith for The Church🔗

Thirdly, it was a faith concerned for the Church. When James Walker claims that, "There is perhaps no country in the world in which all kinds of Church questions have been so largely discussed as our own", a Dutch eyebrow may be raised but the English-speaking world would probably assent. From its very beginnings in Switzerland, the Reformed Faith has been concerned for the Reformation of the Church as a whole. It saw no tension between being concerned for Christ and being concerned for the Church. And the Scots, with the cry "For Christ and His Kirk", developed that concern most energeti­cally. They recognised that the Church is Christ's body. In struggling to preserve and advance the Church they were pursuing Christ's own cause and presence. They could no more con­ceive of Christ apart from the Church than they could conceive of the Church apart from Christ.

From the beginning, Knox and his colleagues aimed to purge and revita­lise the entire Church in Scotland. In England the reforming of the Church was halted in mid-stream by the actions of Elizabeth I, and the Church of England has had no Biblical stability ever since. Despite the efforts of the Stuart kings, the Scots achieved a far more thorough renewing. The Reformers announced their concern by publishing "The First Book of Discipline" along with their Confession of Faith. Though a full-blown Presbyterianism was to come only later, its seeds were well-sown from the beginning. The Church was to be orderly governed, with Biblical officers, and a discipline that was firmly and equally applied. While the early leaders were certainly flexible and inventive in their church polity, it cannot con­vincingly be claimed that, had they lived today, they would be episcopalians rather than Presbyterians.

But that book, together with "The Second Book" of 1578, was also concerned for the Church's role in the community, calling for better education, and asserting the office of deacons as distributors of alms. The Church was not seen as an accidental gathering of individuals, united only by a common "spiritual" experience. Rather, it was an organism whose influence reaches into every aspect of life, and the "school of Christ" in which his children trained for service on earth and in heaven.

The accompanying stress on church-discipline has been the butt of endless caricature. It is not easy to assess across the centuries whether it was applied with the spirit of grace and wisdom. But if it seems to have been harsh on some offenders, it should be remembered that the church could also be severe on her own sins. In March 1596 the Assembly in Edinburgh spent a whole day in "humiliation". They made "solemne promise before the Majestie of God, and ... new covenant with him, for a more carefull and reverent discharge of their ministrie". As men con­fessed their sins

…there were suche sighes and sobbs, with shedding of teares among the most part of all estats that were present, everie one provok­ing another by their example... There have been manie days of humilia­tion for present or immanent dangers, but the like for sinne and defectioun was there never seen.Calderwood

Such deep concern for the health and activity of the Church inevitably brought conflict with a monarch who was loathe to acknowledge "two kings and two kingdoms" within his realm. Succeeding centuries were to see that conflict unravel, from the uprising of 1638 to the Disruption of 1843. But behind all those later events lay the Reformers' insist­ence that Christ's Church is central to Christian believing.

The Faith Today🔗

Today, evangelical Chris­tians are reawakening to the significance of the church. The heirs of Knox have a rich heritage of Biblical interpretation and application to share with others. But to do so, they must truly practise "continuing Reformation". The Bible alone — not the traditions of men, however holy — must be seen to rule in our churches. As Knox wrote in 1558, "If antiquity or multitude of men could justify any religion, then was the idolatry of the Gentiles, and now is the abomination of the Turks, good religion; for antiquity approved the one, and a multitude bath received and doth defend the other". Precedents and anecdotes have, at most, only a secondary place in our deliberations. There must be room for liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment, for, unlike the Bible's, the Church's decision is never final: The Scots Confession opens its arms to discussion in the light of "God's Holy Word", admits the possibil­ity of error in its past deci­sions, and promises to "alter whatever (anyone) can prove to be wrong".

Such were some key characteristics of those men, whose faith we seek to follow in the strength of the unchanging God, theirs and ours:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom alone we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust.Scots Confession, chapter 1

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