By Gordan Runyan

Part I

Of "Lengthened Shadows"

A.W. Tozer once defined a denomination as "the lengthened shadow of a man." This phrase makes us mindful of the history of Protestant denominations and their founders. One thinks immediately of John Wesley’s Methodists and of the church which grew out of the following attracted by Martin Luther.

America has seen several splinter-groups become denominations as the result of one person’s spiritual journey. Some of these have grown quite large. There is the Foursquare Gospel Church, started by Aimee Semple McPherson; Calvary Chapel, from Chuck Smith; and, John Wimber’s Vineyard Fellowship, to name a few.

But with the exception of the Lutheran church, few denominations are as closely associated with their founder as the Presbyterian Church is with John Knox. An honest study might also show that these denominations are effected almost as much by their founder’s personality as by his/her doctrine. We think again of Calvary Chapel and the Vineyard, both founded by baby-boomers, both featuring informality as a hallmark, and both sharing an obsessive desire to avoid offending anyone.

The purpose of this article, then, is to look at John Knox and the Presbyterian Church in light of Tozer’s perspicuous definition. A look at Knox will let us know what sort of shadow he might cast. The present section will attempt to determine what Knox’s legacy might look like. Part II will compare Knox’s shadow to the modern PC(USA). Does this church, far and away the largest Presbyterian denomination, look anything like that shadow?

We attempt this study with the understanding that no man is the Church’s standard. No matter the beginnings of a denomination, it is its eternal Head, Jesus Christ, to whom it ought to be conformed. Still, Paul taught that we should follow his example, as he followed Christ. Where the PC(USA) has departed from Knox, has it been in a direction toward, or away from, Jesus?

John Knox—Hero

John Knox was born to peasant parents between 1505 and 1515 AD, at or near Haddington, Scotland. To put this in historical context, that’s just a handful of years before Martin Luther’s "Hammer Heard Round the World" nailed up his 95 Theses and put the Reformation in gear.

Despite beginning in poverty, Knox came to be educated at St. Andrew’s University. He was ordained a Catholic priest.

Sometime after this, he came into contact with the ministry of George Wishart. Wishart was some sort of itinerate preacher, probably of a Lutheran flavor. This man lived a life of self-imposed poverty, and placed great emphasis on ministry to the poor. Wishart was also a prophet after the Biblical model. (At least he thought he was and so, apparently, did Knox.)

The two men became friends. It might not be going too far to say that Knox became Wishart’s disciple. Knox definitely became something of a bodyguard. He was known to brandish a sword when he accompanied his teacher. It was during this time that John Knox the Catholic priest became John Knox the fiery Protestant. Or John Knox, the virulent anti-papist. According to Knox’s personal writings, this change happened quite suddenly, with his reading of John 17.

In reading Jesus’s "High-Priestly Prayer", Knox came to this passage: "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me; for they are mine." (John 17:9, KJV) Something clicked for Knox in this. Jesus was praying for His own people, but not for the world. Jesus was making a distinction. So this verse was a key for Knox, through which he came to believe that Wishart’s doctrine of Election was true.

John Knox did not yet renounce his Catholic priesthood, though. One wonders if he retained a Luther-like hope that this recovery of Biblical truth could be made the doctrine of the Roman Church without requiring schism and fracture.

At this point in history, Scotland was something of a political brass ring; both England and France were intent on possessing her. It should also be remembered that the events that follow took place in a world some two hundred years away from the appearance of the concept of "separation of Church and State". To an alarming extent, political history was church history, and vice versa.

Therefore, any Protestant reformation was inextricably linked to national independence from both France and England. Knox was to become a leader on both fronts.

In 1546, Cardinal Beaton was in authority in Scotland. (By now, all over northern Europe, the Protestant Reformation is taking hold, stripping papal power and authority.) Beaton had George Wishart arrested. Knox was at his side, ready to fight for him, but Wishart went willingly. Wishart was tried for his heresy and burned. It is this instance which finally prompted Knox to renounce his own priesthood.

Twenty-seven days later, Cardinal Beaton himself was murdered. One source suggests the motivation for his murder was split between revenge over the death of Wishart and retribution for Beaton’s sympathies with the French. There is no evidence of any involvement in Beaton’s death by Knox himself.

Beaton’s killers, though, holed up in Saint Andrew’s castle, waiting for Catholic/French retaliation. John Knox became the pastor of these men. There is no indication of the size of the force attempting to repel the French here, but, whatever its number, it fell. The French subdued St. Andrew’s.

Thus began one of the lowest periods of Knox’s life. He spent 19 months as a slave on a French galley. The cruelty of that existence, chained beside the worst criminals and murderers, threatened always by exposure, starvation, and exhaustion, must have been unspeakable. We will never know. Knox did not speak or write of this time in much detail. When he did mention it in some personal correspondence, he offered praise to God. He knew that his Lord had both ordained that time, and had used it to do much work in molding and shaping his heart.

After Knox’s release, under the reign of Protestant King Edward VI of England, Knox became a royal chaplain. Then, in 1554 came the ascension of Mary, of French/Catholic heritage. Knox was forced to flee to Reformation-friendly Germany. There, he became pastor of a congregation of English-speaking exiles in Frankfurt.

But Protestantism has never come in one flavor only. Knox got into trouble over his criticisms of the Edwardean (read: Anglican) Prayer book. It was too Catholic for his tastes. The larger portion of his Frankfurt church was English and wanted to use the book in the conduct of services. Knox would not. He finally received the "Left Foot of Fellowship" and was removed from his position.

Released from his duties, Knox took the opportunity to visit Geneva, Switzerland, where he met and studied under John Calvin for some time. There, Knox worked on the Genevan version of the English Bible.

Some sources make passing reference to a sort of uneasy tension between the two great Reformers. The stereotypical Scotsman is one who, when he decides what is right, plunges into it with a sort of reckless abandon. The modern word, "berserk," may descend to us from an old description of this tendency.

Calvin might’ve seen this brand of Scot in John Knox. The Genevan would have preferred to proceed in a cautious, calculated manner, but this was not John Knox. Knox’s heart never left his homeland, and his passion for her independence produced a zeal that made Calvin nervous.

Knox, in fact, made several trips back to Scotland, conditioned upon swings in political power. And sometimes sparking those swings. His fiery preaching was legendary. But what concerned Mary Tutor, Mary of Guise, and Mary Queen of Scots was his political impact.

John Knox appeared no less than five times before the royal court to account for his preaching, which the succession of Mary’s found threatening. This was serious business indeed. Remember the context. Wishart had been executed by the Church/State in the same generation. If Knox had been found guilty of fomenting sedition, he would have met the same fate.

But Knox was a brilliant debater, to say the least, with an impressive command of Scripture. He escaped every time to the dismay of the Queen, who certainly thought she had him cornered on each occasion. She was so frustrated at one point that she stormed out of the room in tears, realizing that she could not put Knox to death as she had hoped.

Knox’s preaching had immense political implications during 1555-1556. He so inspired a group of Scottish nobles that they came together to form the "Lords of the Covenant", whose purpose it was to oppose the French to "establish the most blessed word of God and his Congregation."

The importance here is impossible to miss. The nobles were the landowners. Land equaled power. The Lords of the Covenant thus represented an organized, purposeful move toward independence. Scotland won her freedom shortly thereafter.

On August 17, 1560, the new Scottish Parliament adopted the Scots Confession as a national creed. Knox was the principle author. He and four unknown others (all named "John", oddly) wrote the Scots Confession in four days. Realizing Knox’s skills and dynamic nature, it is difficult to imagine that the Confession reflects anything other than his own thought. His influence is noted by historian Kenneth Scott Latourette, who observes that the Confession was "more Calvinistic than Lutheran or Zwinglian".

At the same time, Knox presented a book he had authored titled, The First Book of Discipline, described as an attempt "to apply the system worked out by Calvin to a whole kingdom." This book outlined procedures for discipline within the Church, as well as creative plans for national education and relief to the poor. It was controversial and ambitious. Too much so, in fact. The Parliament refused to enact it alongside the Scots Confession.

But what this highlights is a side to Knox that is often overlooked. Knox as Warrior and Preacher tends to crowd out Knox as Minister to the poor. From the time of his training with Wishart, though, this was a fundamental concern of his ministry. He saw it as the Church’s responsibility to provide the material things needed to lessen the devastating effects of poverty; and, to provide the education that would tend to solve poverty in the long-term.

Political tides continued to ebb and flow, endangering both Scotland and the new Church for which Knox fought all his life. John Knox died on November 24, 1572, having won some measure of lasting independence for both.

Knox’s Shadow?

Without question, John Knox was a dynamic, even pivotal player, not only in the history of Presbyterianism, but in the history of Christianity as a whole. He found himself radically confronted by the truth of God’s Word, and thus compelled to confront the world on the same basis.

The second part of this article will explore the legacy Knox has left to this particular denomination. Have we continued in his footsteps, or discarded his mantel?



Part II

The Shadow of Knox.

In the first part of this article, we looked at biographical information on John Knox. This is a relatively safe thing to do. Both Knox’s supporters and his critics generally agree to the historical data. They differ on what the facts mean, not what the facts are.

But now we enter the dangerous portion of this study. We must speculate. From what we know of Knox, where would he stand in today’s Christian spectrum?

There can be no doubt that Knox would at least be labeled Evangelical in his beliefs, and possibly Fundamentalist. (Depending on who gets to define the terms.) He was conservative enough to earn for himself the derogatory title of "Puritan" in his own day.

Knox was the principle author behind the formulation of the Scots Confession. As previously noted, given the strength of his personality, it is hard to image the Confession reflects anything but his own views.

A glance at the Scots Confession confirms, then, the notion that Knox would be toward the Right end of the modern theological spectrum. No person of Moderate or Liberal leanings theologically could possibly sign onto it in good faith. It quite clearly affirms doctrines that those on the Left despise (e.g. the Trinity; the historicity of the Eden account; the Incarnation; the Atonement; a literal Resurrection; and Sola Gratia/Sola Fide).

Scripture and John Knox

The role of Scripture takes up an oversized portion of the Scots Confession (sections 3.18 – 3.20), although not directly. That is, there is no statement on Knox’s view of the Bible, as a doctrine unto itself.

However, indirectly there is much to be learned, for in the above sections, appeal is made over and over to the authority and supremacy of the Bible. This authority is set over that of popes, priests, councils, creeds, tradition, etc. In this vein, the Confession states things that would cause some modern Conservatives to halt and stammer, wondering if maybe Knox hadn’t gone too far. In commenting on the role of the Old Testament Law, there is this: "We confess and acknowledge that the law of God is most just, equal, holy, and perfect…" (section 3.15). This does not jive with a generation that likes to believe Christ came to loosen up all the rules for us.

A website on the Internet records something called, "Knox’s Resistance to Wicked Civil Magistrates". This is the transcript of one of the above mentioned appearances (see Part I) which Knox had to make in the royal court to answer for his seditious preaching. The Queen’s theologians grilled him on why he said this, and why he said that. At each point, Knox answered and refuted their charges with Scriptural citations. His answers do two things. First, they make one wonder if he had the entire Bible committed to memory. Second, they evince reliance upon Scripture and reverence for its authority rarely seen in our own world.

So we might sum up and say this about Knox’s shadow, theologically. The doctrinal descendant of John Knox will be a Calvinist, for whom the Bible is the final arbiter in all matters of faith and practice.

Where Rubber Meets the Road

Next, we address matters involving the manner in which Knox put his faith in practice, within the context of his own public ministry. Three things should be highlighted.

To begin, we mention Knox’s concern for the poor. As we saw, George Wishart impacted him powerfully. Christ-like ministry to those struggling in poverty was a lifelong passion.

Second, there is education. In our own day, we note a tendency within some conservative circles toward a mild anti-intellectualism. It might also be characterized as a distrust of education itself as documented, for instance, in Mark Noll’s The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. Knox would have thought this a strange idea, indeed. Instead, he stood with the rest of the Reformed tradition in believing that education is vital, both to individuals and to societies.

This is why, over four hundred years ago, Knox was planning for the education of all of Scotlands’s children. His innovative ideas contained in his The First Book of Discipline represented a first in all of human history.

Third, we should be mindful of Knox’s dealings with the civil government. By default if not by active teaching, much modern Evangelicalism inspires members to political apathy and inactivity. (The Religious Right doesn’t even represent a true exception to the rule. This rather loose movement is para-church. So, conservative Christians have basically had to venture outside their churches’ walls in order to be motivated toward political action.) Again, this is an idea Knox would’ve found foreign.

In addition to section 3.24 of the Scots Confession, which states that civil powers are established by God, and therefore are responsible to God, we remember the startling fact that the preacher of holiness in question led armies into battle for independence from tyranny! As we have noted, Knox’s world was one in which the Church and the State sometimes had some pretty fuzzy dividing lines. Anyone who was concerned for the Church had to be involved in politics.

The Presbyterian Church (USA)

How does the denomination descended from Knox compare with the shadow outlined above? If this were a question posed during a court trial, we could bet on a hung jury. There is evidence both ways.

To its credit, the PC(USA) has maintained all of the last three practical concerns mentioned. Even today, local congregations send large portions of total missions monies to fund Presbyterian-run schools, hospitals, and, especially, overseas poverty relief efforts.

To the extent that a look at a person’s checkbook is a good indicator of that person’s priorities, it is plain that the PC(USA) places a special and nearly unique emphasis on ministry to the poor, and on education. Knox would surely approve, and even urge more.

And on the issue of politics, the PC(USA) continues a Knox-like involvement. The denomination maintains an office in Washington, D.C. for the express purpose of attempting to influence public policy. Knox definitely saw the Church and the State related in a manner similar to the Old Testament prophets and kings. The Church, that is, should be teaching, exhorting, and even rebuking the civil government for the cause of God’s glory.

However, there is a demurrer to the things stated above. Although the PC(USA) has been concerned about poverty, education, and politics, it has tended to manifest that concern through the support and endorsement of Leftist/humanist ideology in public policy.

Knox had a healthy fear of human governments. The modern Presbyterian Church seems to want to empower those governments to the greatest extent possible. This humanistic inflation of the proper role of human governments, though, is all an outgrowth of what follows. It is merely emblematic of the PC(USA)’s greatest departure from the heritage of John Knox.

Scripture and the PC(USA)

We noted above the thoroughgoing biblicism of John Knox. We echo the quoted historian in observing that Knox saw the Bible as a rule, not only for the Church, but for all of life. For him, it was the first best rule for all of society.

That belief would make Knox part of a tiny minority in modern America. It would likely make him part of a similar minority among the PC(USA)’s clergy. The PC(USA) has been part of the general trend among "mainline" denominations, first to tolerate, and then to accept, and finally to codify the pronouncements made by Higher Criticism. As a result, the denomination’s view of the authority of the Scripture has fallen. This is documented exhaustively (over 1100 pages worth of exhaustively) in Dr. Gary North’s book, Crossed Fingers: How the Liberals Stole the PC(USA).

The results of this lowered view of Scripture’s authority have been catastrophic. The denomination freefalls from one scandal to the next, each of which could have been prevented if the denomination’s leaders had held to a more Knox-like view.

The now legendary ReImaginging Conference is an extreme but poignant example. PC(USA) officials figured prominently in this appalling episode of lesbian/feminist idol-worship, funded at least in part by tithes and offerings given by unsuspecting members worldwide. (Knox thought that participation in a Catholic Mass equaled idolatry worthy of the death penalty. What would he think of a blasphemous Lord’s Supper celebrated with milk and honey in the name of the goddess, Sophia? I’m betting his hand would curl instinctively around the hilt of his sword.)

It did not end there. An uproar resulted. Some congregations withheld money from the denomination’s administration. Membership continued in a downward spiral.

Later, at a recent General Assembly, a group of pro-homosexual activists was given the unique opportunity to demonstrate within the assembly, and to surround delegates as a critical vote was cast. The demonstrating group was discovered to have provided recommended links to hard-core gay and lesbian pornographic sites on the Internet from their homepage.

This all stems from a very un-Knox-like refusal to forthrightly condemn that which Scripture condemns. Given a choice between preaching the gospel to a hell-bound world and spending denomination resources on so-called studies of homosexuality, the PC(USA) opts for study. Time and again, the study fails to find a way to justify homosexuality through Scripture.

The tragedy may be in the simple fact that some within the Church have failed to see that Scripture itself encompasses the world in its straightforward assessment of fallen humanity’s need for redemption in Christ Jesus. That is, the Bible is inclusive. It speaks to each individual, demanding repentance and faith. This is God’s version of the Big Tent, and it has been summarily rejected by a small, yet vocal minority.

Why there is hope

There is hope for the PC(USA) because God is a God of longsuffering, a God of great mercy and patience, and a God of renewal through faith in Jesus Christ. That hope may be starting to make itself evident.

The church implemented a program calling all congregations to mindfulness of the "Great Ends of the Church", which looks like an attempt to get back to basics, so to speak. Concurrent with that program, there seems to be a growing emphasis on biblical Evangelism. Maybe the church is beginning to realize that her only true power lies in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, preached without apology.

There are other, more grassroots signals that the PC(USA), like an enormous ship, may be turning around. The denomination recently voted down a proposal, by a large margin, which would have removed any significant obstacles standing in the way of ordination of openly homosexual individuals. A recent study has shown that the presbyteries which voted in favor of the liberalizing amendment suffered a loss of members at roughly three times the rate of those voting against it. An instance of "voting with their feet", maybe. Loss of members equals loss of revenue. At some point, the leadership is going to have to pay attention to this.

Finally, another recent study has shown that rank-and-file members of the PC(USA) are generally conservative. (Probably more so than the average ordained minister.) Only 14% of those polled were willing to admit to being theologically liberal. Given four choices on their view of the Bible, less than a third chose "Useful Guide for Christians". Seventy-one percent opted for either "Word of God" or "Inspired, without error" (with no explanation of what the differences between the two might be.) Less than 1% chose "Irrelevant literature". Assuming these results are accurate, then close to three-quarters of the denomination stand pretty squarely with John Knox on this.

Historians have noted that churches experience identity crises when the theology of the clergy begins to look foreign and non-biblical to the laity. This may be in the PC(USA)’s near future.


Biographies of John Knox are peppered with certain words, appearing over and over again. "Courage" is one. "Zeal" another.

At a very basic sort of foundational level, the PC(USA) has left Knox’s shadow. But it has not stepped into the light in any sense. It has rather stumbled and faltered, displaying the hesitancy and false moderation that characterize lack of commitment. John Knox has carved out for this denomination a heritage of prophetic preaching, and a zeal for the kingdom of God recalling the pages of the Book of Acts. It does not take much imagination to see him now, before the Throne of Grace, petitioning God for this church, that it might once again take up his discarded mantle and, with it, be about the work of discipling the nations. Amen.


iThis is such a foreign concept to the American way of thinking. One way we might conceptualize the national importance of John Knox to Scotland is to imagine that our own George Washington had not only led the American Revolution, but had also simultaneously founded a church to which every American Christian then belonged from that point forward. He wouldn’t "merely" be remembered as the Father of our Nation, but also of our Church.

iiA History of the Christian Church, Walker, p.369

iiiOne critic of Knox, historian Edwin Muir, is in fact at a loss to explain this. It is a seeming lack of bitterness which Muir simply can’t believe. In his John Knox the Calvinist, Muir goes to some amazing lengths to prove, in spite of the evidence, that his time as a galley slave was actually the singular event which motivated Knox against the Catholics for the rest of his life.

ivA few of the more notable instances:

Knox bucked the system in which countries observed the religion of their monarchs, saying, "Right religion takes neither origin nor authority from worldly princes but from the eternal God alone," and that subjects must not "frame their religion according to the appetite of their princes" – Religion in America, Hudson, p. 84.

Wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women against the French/Papal oppression of Mary of Guise.

Publicly prayed for the conversion of the Queen, and her repentance from idolatry (i.e. the Catholic Mass).

In writing, urged the assassination of Mary Stuart of France (who was seeking the throne) for her idolatry.

vA History of Christianity, Volume II: Reformation to Present, Latourette, p.772

viibid, p.772

viiA History of the Christian Church, Walker, p. 371

viiiThe Scots Confession (3.01)

ivibid (3.02)

vibid (3.06)

viibid (3.09)

viiibid (3.10)

viiiibid (3.08, 3.12)


xvThe publishing company has announced it is ceasing all printing this year. However, this book and many others can be obtained for free over the Internet from the company’s website, "Freebooks from the Institute for Christian Economics" hotlinked from

xviThe Presbyterian Layman, Volume 31, Number 5, Sept/Oct 1998, page 1 "Troubles mounting for college women’s network".

xviiibid, p. 5, "Membership loss three times higher in ‘Amendment A’ presbyteries"

xviiiPresbyterians Today, November 1998, "What do Presbyterians Think?" p.24.