Dear Friends at Providence,
Why “Presbyterian”? Well, in part, due to John Knox (1514-72). This is the 500th anniversary of Knox’s birth. Who was Knox? He was born in northern England, ordained a priest in the pre-Reformation Catholic Church in Scotland, and then came under Protestant/Lutheran influences from Germany. He later served as a priest in the newly Protestant Church in England in the late 1540s and ’50s. When Mary Tudor came to the English throne(1553-1558), he moved to Geneva (Switzerland), the Protestant stronghold of Reformer John Calvin. He was so taken with Calvin and his teaching, he called Geneva “the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles.” And while there, Knox labored as minister of an English-speaking group of exiles from England. But all this time, he desired and prayed to get back to Scotland and bring Reformation to his native land.
Knox visited Scotland briefly in 1555 and encouraged the Scottish Protestant nobles to declare the church as Protestant and organize accordingly. This was difficult to do,as the Scottish monarch was the very French and Catholic Mary of Guise. She was then succeeded by her daughter, Mary, Queen of Scots, and both were opposed to the Reformation movement. But Knox returned to the nation’s capital, Edinburgh, in 1559 at just this crucial time.He became the leading voice and soul of the Reformation in Scotland, and was such an effective leader, the reform of the church was carried out largely under Knox’s direction and quite successfully.
First, a Reformed Confession of Faith, the Scots Confession, was written by Knox and six other men named John. This fiery document (It is one of the 11statements of faith of the our PCUSA) set forth clearly the Reformed faith along the lines of the teachings of John Calvin. A Book of Common Order provided orders, forms and prayers for the various services of the church. Then, a Book of Discipline, which laid out the organization of the church in Scotland was drawn up. This, too, largely reflected Calvin’s views on church order, who thought that the New Testament supported four kinds of officers for the church–ministers, elders, deacons,and teachers/doctors. In a brilliant stroke of democratic sensibility, Knox ordered that ministers were to be elected/chosen by the people–not appointed–and each congregation would elect its own elders and deacons from among the people. Further, there was to be a series of ascending courts or governing bodies of the church–the local session (made upof a congregation’s minister/s and ruling elders); the presbytery (a body madeof all the ministers in a given area and representative elders from each church); the synod (essentially a larger body made of several presbyteries);and the general assembly. The last became the most representative body in all Scotland, and was able to speak forthe nation as a whole in some ways more authentically than the ScottishParliament. From the Scottish churchcame the term “general assembly” used in many American state governments.
John Knox did not see in his lifetime and ministry everything he wanted to happen for his beloved Scotland,but he accomplished a great deal. He held forth in the St. Giles Church in Edinburgh for a dozen years. It was said that his voice “could put life into people more than five hundred trumpets!” It cannot be said that Knox invented the Presbyterian system(Presbyterian [being Greek word for elder] meaning “governed by elders), but he hewed and organized it so effectively in the Scottish Church or Kirk, that it became quite distinct. It was particularly influential on the American Presbyterian Church in itsorganization in 1789. ThoughPresbyterians in America came from many countries other than Scotland–Ireland,England, Wales, France, Holland, Germany, and Hungary, to name some–it was the Scottish Church’s order of Presbyterianism that was the most influential on the American organization.
Summing up, one historian wrote of Knox: “No figure stands out more sharply in the Reformation story than [Knox]. Far from possessing the originality and genius of a Luther or of Calvin as a thinker, he was like Luther in his capacity to sway men, in his love for the language of his native land, and in his passion. He also had something of Calvin’s gifts of organization, and he was, to the utmost fiber of his being, typical ofthe land of his birth. Intense,religious, argumentative, democratic, fearless, intolerant, forceful, he led Scotland as no other man in its history has done. He influenced the character and religion of his nation as no other.”
So then, “why Presbyterian”? Well, John Knox is a big part of the answer.
Happy Birthday, JK.