When German Christians suffering under Adolph Hitler cast about for guidance as to how to act under a fascist, totalitarian regime, some of them found great help in the Scots Confession. That may surprise us because the Confession had been created by an act of the Scottish Parliament nearly 400 years earlier, in 1560, and hurriedly put together in four days by John Knox and five others.

The Confession is unpolished, a bit repetitive, uneven, often verbose, and streaked with emotion. It was the Scottish church’s official theology for only 90 years, having been superseded in 1647 by the Westminster Confession.

Yet the Confession is also cordial, vigorous, and spontaneous. A crystal-clear theological core is dressed in prophetic and militant language. A number of its passages have inspired Christians in Scotland and elsewhere. Especially noteworthy are its insights on the Bible, Communion, Christian living, and the Christian’s relationship with civil power.

Exegesis of Love

The Confession strongly affirms the exclusive authority of Scripture and the need to interpret it in light of the whole Bible: “If the interpretation of any theologian, church, or council conflicts with the plain Word of God written in any other passage of Scripture … this is not the true understanding and meaning of the Holy Spirit, although councils, kingdoms, and nations have adopted it.”

Furthermore, interpretation is not to be done in a mechanical or robotic fashion. It must square not merely with Christian faith and the whole Bible but also the dictates of love: “We dare not receive or allow any interpretation contrary to the chief points of our faith, to the clear sense of Scripture, or to the rule of love” (article 18).

Transported to Christ

Among Reformed confessions, the eucharistic teaching of the Scots Confession is “high” because it states that believers receive and absorb the true body of Christ as a gift.

The enabling power of this sacrament is neither the words and actions of the minister (as in Roman Catholicism) nor the recipients’ faith (as with many Protestants), but the Holy Spirit:

“This union and conjunction we have with the body and blood of Christ Jesus in the right use of the sacraments is achieved by the Holy Spirit, who by true faith carries us above all things that are visible, corporal, and worldly, and offers us the body and blood of Christ Jesus as food. … ”

The sacrament mystically conveys to believers Christ in full. Real communion with Christ not only brings food for the soul, it also promises ultimate physical regeneration:

“We believe … that the faithful, in the right use of the Lord’s table, eat the body and drink the blood of the Lord Jesus so that he remains in them and they in him; they are made flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone so that just as eternal God has given life and immortality to the flesh of Christ Jesus, which by nature was corruptible and mortal, so eating and drinking the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus does the same for us. …

Thus, contrary to some other Protestant teachings, the Eucharist is not just a memorial service: “Therefore if anyone slanders us by saying that we hold the sacraments to be nothing more than symbols, they offend us and the truth” (article 21).

Down-To-Earth Ethics

In the Confession, Christian existence is not just having faith and obeying prohibitions but also living a transformed life for one’s neighbor and for society: “We confess that God has given to man his holy law. In this, not only are all works which displease and offend the divine Majesty forbidden, but also those which please him and which he promised to reward are commanded.”

The Confession is unique in specifying practical Christian ethics. It urges good citizenship, honorable living, and a commitment to social justice: “These works are of two kinds. … The first kind is: to have one God, to worship and honor him, to call on him in our troubles, to reverence his holy Name, to hear his Word and believe it, and to share in his holy sacraments.

“The second kind is: to honor father, mother, monarchs, rulers, and superior powers; to love them, support them, obey their orders providing they are not contrary to God’s commandments, save the lives of the innocent, overthrow tyranny, defend the oppressed, keep our bodies clean and holy, live in soberness and temperance, deal justly with all men in word and deed, and finally to subdue any desire to harm our neighbor. … Contrary acts are sins” (article 14).

Discreet on Rebellion

Most controversial has been the Confession’s attitude toward civil power. Does it envisage resistance to oppressive government, even by force?

Those who deny it contains any resistance theory cite article 24, On the Civil Magistrate: “We hold that any men who conspire to rebel or overthrow the civil powers … are not merely enemies of humanity but rebels against God’s will. … We swear that those who resist the supreme powers, as long as they act in their own domain, resist God’s ordinance.”

Others, like Swiss theologian Karl Barth, maintain that Knox’s views on the matter—overthrow tyrants (the real rebels and enemies of society)—are in the document discreetly. It is argued further that Knox makes such action not just permissible but mandatory. In article 13, for example, “workers of iniquity” are not just “filthy persons, idolaters, drunkards, and thieves” but also “murderers, oppressors, and cruel persecutors.” And article 14 affirms the Christian duty to save innocent lives, overthrow tyranny, and defend the oppressed: “Such good works … are done in faith and at the command of God.” If this does sanction rebellion, it accords with Knox’s known controversial views.

Probably the best way to understand the Confession’s teaching is that the civil power is not absolute and is permanently on probation in Christian eyes. No Christian should give unqualified and absolute allegiance to any government, and Christians reserve the right of just rebellion.

No other Reformation confession ventured so far into such dangerous waters—perhaps because it was composed in dangerous times, times that demanded vigorous faith.

Ian Hazlett is senior lecturer in ecclesiastical history at the University of Glasgow, Scotland.