John Knox Confronts the Anabaptists: The Intellectual Aspects of His Encounter

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Abstract: Along with the other Protestant Reformers, John Knox waged a war against two fronts--the Catholic establishment and the left wing radicals. While his great enemy was the Catholic Church, recognized by law and backed by the power of the state, he was not about to be outflanked on the left. So he vehemently opposed these radicals, who be loosely identified as Anabaptists. His attack on these radicals, however, came largely in the realm of ideas for little is known about his actual dealings with them. Knox opposed the Anabaptists on two grounds--a volatile mixture of civil instability and false doctrine. He believed that their unorthodox social and political views seriously threatened the stability of society. Worse yet, he regarded their doctrines as heretical and blasphemous. Thus he saw the Anabaptists as being latter day Manichaeans, Pelagians, Catharists, Donatists, and Arians.


John Knox (1514-1572) labored in England, the Continent and Scotland to further the Protestant cause. His intense efforts "more than justify his position amidst the great Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century," notes historian Ian Cowan. Standing squarely in the Reformed tradition, his closest relationship was with John Calvin, who inspired him significantly. But Knox had other influences and knew other reformers. He had connections with the Reformed churches throughout Europe and dealings with Reformed leaders such as Heinrich Bullinger, Pierre Viret and Theodore Beza. And Knox did not limit his associations to the Reformed tradition. To some extent he can be regarded as a "Protestant ecumenist." He desired closer contacts with the Lutherans though they rebuffed him for both political reasons and differences over Real Presence. And despite their conflicts over worship, Knox and Thomas Cranmer were still members of the same religious communion. However, in regard to both Catholics and radicals--all of whom he identified rather loosely as "Anabaptists"--Knox's ecumenism reached its limits. (1)

The general Protestant-Catholic conflict and the tensions between the Anabaptists and most of the major reformers--e.g., Martin Luther, John Calvin, Martin Bucer, Philip Melanchthon, Ulrich Zwingli, and Heinrich Bullinger--have been well documented. (2) But Knox's encounter with the Anabaptists has received only scant treatment. (3) The gap in Knoxian-Anabaptist studies, however, is not due to Knox's failure to address the subject. References are sprinkled throughout the six volumes of his complete works. While these statements are brief, they do reveal Knox's differences with the Anabaptists over specific issues. But two of his treatises contain more than passing references. They are entitled To His Brethren in Scotland and An Answer to a Great Number of Blasphemous Cavillations Written by an Anabaptist, and Adultery to God's Eternal Predestination. (4) Still, little is known about Knox's actual dealings with the radical groups. This essay will therefore focus on his writings against them.

The Protestant reformers of the sixteenth century tended to tar all radicals with the same brush. In so doing they often failed to distinguish between peaceful or violent radicals or between orthodox or heretical dissenters. In fact, for many reformers the derisive term Anabaptist was a generic label for all kinds of nonconformity, virtually synonymous with fanaticism or heresy. The reformers frequently linked the term with the Pelagians (free-willers), Novationists, Arians, Manichaeans, Antinomians, Familists and other groups that had no relationship with historic Anabaptism. (5) The reformers generally opposed the Anabaptists on two grounds. Theologically they tended to part company over such issues as baptism, human nature, predestination, sacraments, civil government, the use of force, the nature of the church, and perfectionism in the Christian life. With some radicals even the Trinity and the authority of scripture became contentious issues. …


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