[K:NWTS 26/1 (May 2011): 44-45]
Richard G. Kyle and Dale W. Johnson, John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. Paper. 208 pp. ISBN: 1-6060-8090-3. $24.00.
It is nothing short of disappointing to read a history of the Scottish Reformation when the author only gives but a passing reference to perhaps the most pivotal figure, John Knox. Unfortunately, revisionist historians commit such an error. However, the recent historical work of Richard Kyle and Dale Johnson in John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works corrects such a historical bias (see especially 182-97). Kyle and Johnson persuasively show that Knox was indeed essential and indispensable to the Reformation in Scotland.
However, Kyle and Johnson do not take the typical approach by writing a biography of Knox. Rather, Kyle and Johnson approach Knox by allowing his own writings to tell his story. "This volume traces the life and thought of John Knox by examining his writings. A number of biographies tell the story of the famous Scottish reformer. But we have taken the reader in a different direction, offering an interpretation of his writings. We take a chronological approach to his writings, allowing them to speak for themselves. In doing so, Knox's writings partially tell the story of his life and ideas" (ix). Such an approach is refreshing, allowing the reader to hear from Knox himself, within the context of his sixteenth century reform movement.
One of the strengths of Kyle and Johnson is their ability to balance their depiction of Knox's personality. It is commonly known that Knox could be difficult. "One side of Knox could be charismatic, hateful, forceful, courageous, and intimidating. To be sure, a cannon at Edinburgh Castle is aptly nicknamed John Knox" (19). However, Kyle and Johnson do not stop there but insightfully recognize that there was also another side to Knox.
"On Sunday, this 'great voiced, bearded man of God' could beat the pulpit. On Monday, however, he would sit with his parishioners and weep with them over their trials and temptations. While he castigated female rulers (usually Catholics), he could be warm and tender to other women. At times Knox had the courage of a lion. On the other occasions, he prudently protected his life, fleeing danger as the need arose. He promoted godly livingbut not excessive Puritanism. He was less austere than supposed" (19).
It is tempting to view Knox's hatred of Rome, for example, as a sign of his harsh temper. However, Kyle and Johnson remind us that Knox must be read in his sixteenth century context.
Knox has "often been seen in 'either . . . or' terms-either as a hero or a villain." However, to "interpret his life in such exclusive categories is a mistake" and instead we need a "both . . . and" framework. "Depending on the context, he can be regarded as both compassionate and unforgiving, tolerant and uncompromising, etc. And these opposites are not easily reconciled" (20). Kyle and Johnson do not try to overlook or downplay the complexity and at times contradictory personality of Knox. However, what they do show is that Knox's temperament was motivated according to the context in which he found himself. So, for example, his hatred of Rome came from his belief that Rome was a house of idolatry, leading masses of people to hell by its false doctrine. Rome's persecution of Protestants did not help either. With life and death (both literally and spiritually) hanging in the balance, "Knox saw himself as a prophet proclaiming God's judgment" (20).
Kyle and Johnson have written a work that will be revisited again and again by theologians and historians alike. Knox is once again a reminder that Reformed theology did not end in Geneva but had an international influence, as seen in Scotland. Knox was central to such reform as he "recognized that the Reformation rested on a new theology" (21). This "new theology" was the heart of the Reformation and Kyle and Johnson make it clear that these Reformation ideas "drove Knox's actions."
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