John Knox on Predestination

John Knox’s sustained defense of the sovereignty of God in predestination.

It is, in short, a sustained defence of the sovereignty of God in predestination. Quite what led Knox to focus his only major theological treatise on predestination has been a matter of some dispute. Some have held that Knox was motivated to write it to restore himself to favour with one of his spiritual mentors John Calvin

 

While his Works fill six large volumes, John Knox wrote only one lengthy explicitly theological work. Its subject is encapsulated in its title, “An Answer to the Cavillations of Adversary Respecting the Doctrine of Predestination” (The Works of John Knox, 5:7-468). It is, in short, a sustained defence of the sovereignty of God in predestination.

Quite what led Knox to focus his only major theological treatise on predestination has been a matter of some dispute. Some have held that Knox was motivated to write it to restore himself to favour with one of his spiritual mentors John Calvin (Richard Greaves, Theology and Revolution, 27-29, 210, 219). It is fair to say Knox’s somewhat forthright 1558 “First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women” did not meet with approval in Geneva. 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” (Letters of John Calvin, 4:47). Then in 1560 appears this work of Knox on Predestination, with its 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” (Works, 5:31).

Building on this thesis that Knox wrote his work on Predestination to win back favour with Calvin many have argued that Knox did not really believe in predestination at all. James Kirk, for example, summarised much existing scholarship as positing that Knox “wrote a ‘dreary’ book on predestination but supposedly did not really believe what he wrote” (“John Knox and the Historians” in John Knox and the British Reformations, p. 16).

Many point to the 1560 Scots Confession in support of the view that Knox did not set much importance by predestination. That the Scots Confession lacks a detailed statement on election and reprobation is said to indicate that Knox did not really feel strongly about the doctrine. For instance, Greaves states that “Knox’s approval of a confessional statement lacking a specific chapter on predestination…indicates once again that Knox did not apparently accord a major role in his personal theology to the doctrine of predestination” (Theology and Revolution, 43).

More will be said about Knox and predestination in some future posts. However, for now, the (mis)use of the Scots Confession to argue that Knox did not believe in predestination will be considered.  The first point to note is that confessional documents are a specific genre. By their very nature they are less detailed than individual polemic treatises. This statement from the Westminster Assembly minutes bears that out, when the divines were cautioned not to “put in disputes and scholastical things into a Confession of Faith” (Alexander Mitchell and John Struthers, eds.Minutes of the Westminster Assembly of Divines, 150-151). As such, Knox may have been content with a confessional presentation of predestination that was less precise than his own, without it indicating any lack of passionate belief in his own published views on predestination. The second point to note is that to Knox the Scots Confession may have taught predestination plainly enough. The language of the Scots Confession on election is drawn from the first chapter of Ephesians: “God … who of mere grace elected us in Christ Jesus his Sonne, befoir the foundatioun of the warld was laide.” But what does this mean? For Knox the meaning was obvious. He had made significant use of Ephesians 1 in on predestination, believing that there “the Apostle in expresse wordes affirmeth, that God hath chosen a certein nombre … and that before the foundations of the world were laid, so that we have God’s Election before all beginning planely proved” (Works, 5:43). This, according to Ephesians 1, was “done once in his eternall and immutable counsell, without respect to be had to our merites or workes” (Works, 5:43). Thus, given his understanding of what the language implied, Knox could have quite possibly felt the Scots Confession was clear on predestination (See Richard G. Kyle, “The Concept of Predestination in the Thought of John Knox,” Westminster Theological Journal 46:1 [1984]: 53-77.

In future posts we will see why far from downplaying the importance of predestination Knox believed it was an important strand of biblical teaching.

For further reading:

  1. Kyle and Dale W. Johnson,John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works(Eugene, Or.: Wipf & Stock, 2009), 124-130.

Michael T, Pearse, Between Known Men and Visible Saints: A Study in Sixteenth-century English Dissent (London: Associated University Presses, 1994), 130-141.

This article appeared on the “Meet the Puritans” site and is used with permission.