In the sixteenth century, subjects were required to adopt the religion of their rulers. But two questions quickly arose:

What should Christians do when their “true religion” conflicted with the beliefs of the ruling authorities?

What should Christians do if civil authorities persecuted them?

Most Protestants answered by endorsing the idea of passive resistance: God, rather than human beings, must be obeyed. Romans 13, a passage often quoted in the 1500s, commands Christians to be in “subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God.” Thus in some circumstances, it was admitted, individuals might refuse to obey commands contrary to God’s law. But no sixteenth-century reformer believed forcible resistance was ever justified—until John Knox came along.

Knox insisted that if the circumstances were right, Christians had the obligation to revolt against a tyrannical monarch. Previously, it had been a sin to revolt. The Scottish reformer now said that it was a sin not to overthrow an idolatrous monarch.

Knox’s views shocked European society. How did Knox arrive at such a radical position?

Son of the Prophets

Knox’s intense hatred of Catholicism, a hatred generated by the persecution of Protestants, played no small part in forming his views. But Knox was primarily a religious reformer, and his resistance theory was a means to an end: the reforming of religion in Scotland.

Knox believed that the ruler’s highest obligation was to preserve pure faith and worship. If he had found a godly ruler, a second Josiah, to establish the Reformation, no theory of resistance would have developed. But Knox found no such sovereign (with the exception of Edward VI of England). Instead, Knox spent most of his life witnessing, and sometimes running from, persecution by Catholic rulers.

Thus Knox wanted to neutralize belief in passive resistance, particularly an overdependence on Romans 13. So he turned to the Old Testament. In fact, Knox was preoccupied with issues addressed by the Old Testament: purifying national religion, holding to the covenant, and resisting authorities who promoted “idolatry” (by which Knox meant Roman Catholicism).

Knox littered his writings with allusions to Elisha, Hezekiah, Abraham, Samuel, Jehu, Moses, Jezebel, Deborah, Josiah, Isaiah, Elijah, Amos, and Jeremiah. Indeed, Knox adopted the role and rhetoric of an Old Testament prophet to 1500s Scotland.

While the entire Bible was important to Knox, his resistance theory depends heavily on concepts derived from a literal interpretation of certain Old Testament texts concerning sin (especially idolatry), God, and the covenant.

Wicked Idolatry

Knox’s notion of political resistance related to his belief in corporate resistance to sin. As Knox stated in a 1564 debate, the faithful, when in a minority, are required only to separate themselves from idolatry. When in a dominant position and reasonably unified, however, they must not simply separate from idolatry, they must also abolish it. And if exterminating idolatry meant overthrowing a Catholic sovereign, then such action became necessary.

Idolatry was the primary sin that concerned Knox. In his 1549 tract, A Vindication That the Mass Is Idolatry, Knox did not define idolatry literally as substituting a false god for the true God. Rather, he said, idolatry entails not only worshipping what is not God, but also trusting in anything besides God. To honor anything in religion contrary to God’s Word is to lean on something other than God. That’s idolatry.

Knox applied this logic to the Catholic Mass, in which he saw many additions unsupported by Scripture: “Unto the Mass is added a wicked opinion [merely human additions]. Therefore it is abomination.” Furthermore, the Mass promoted a false atonement, based on works, and he called anyone an idolater “whose heart believed remission of sins by a vain work.”

To Knox, then, to be a Catholic was to be an idolater. And if the sovereign was Catholic, then the faithful were obliged to rid the country of such an idolatrous ruler.

No Statute of Limitations

Knox believed in divine immutability: God is devoid of all change, in his being, purposes, and promises. Since the law of God never changes, he must respond to sin in Scotland as he did in ancient Israel, even raising up a Jehu to slay an idolatrous ruler. Thus, Knox demanded that God’s law be upheld in the Commonwealth of Scotland as in Old Testament Israel.

At first, Knox merely warned believers to separate from idolatry. Later, in A Godly Letter (1554), Knox argued that a nation, because of the covenant obligation to live by God’s laws, incurred corporate guilt for tolerating evil (i.e., “idolatrous” Catholicism). Knox prophesied that if the people permitted Catholicism to remain in England, the nation would be subject to divine judgment, namely plagues. Knox cited the example of God’s punishing the entire tribe of Benjamin, not because all were adulterers but because some were tolerated.

By spring 1558, increased persecution and four years of exile had pushed Knox into full-blown resistance theory. That year, he published three pamphlets that openly challenged the standard interpretation of Romans 13, held by such reformers as William Tyndale.

The First Blast of the Trumpet (1558) was directed at Catholic Mary Tudor of England and argued, as the title put it, “Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” that is, that it was against the law of God and nature for a woman to rule a kingdom. The inferiority and subjection of women to men were accepted in all ranks of society. Paradoxically, society considered women ineligible for any public office except that of head of state. So Knox’s premise—that female rule had subverted both the divine and natural order—did not in itself seem so startling.

What alarmed Europe was his conclusion: The faithful, if afflicted by a female sovereign, “ought to remove from honor and authority that monster in nature.” Furthermore, if any support her, Christians ought to “execute against them the sentence of death.” Further still, not to revolt against an idolatrous ruler was “plain rebellion against God.”

In The Appellation and Letter to the Commonality, Knox broadened these principles to include any idolatrous (i.e., Catholic) sovereign, male or female. In these works, he also called Tyndale’s doctrine of Christian obedience sinful.

Most sixteenth-century theologians instructed people to obey their sovereigns not from fear of earthly punishment but from fear of God. Knox reversed this teaching. If the people obeyed unjust commandments of evil rulers, they would receive a far more terrible punishment from God than any sovereign could inflict upon them for treason. Previously the covenant obligation demanded only separation from idolatry; now the godly (nobles and people) must punish idolatry.

Necessary Violence?

To some, Knox’s views on revolution appear radical and violent. It helps, though, to understand his political context.

Knox wanted to reform religion in Scotland. To him, that meant returning Christian religion to the ideal of spiritual Israel. The great obstacle to such reform was the Catholic church, established by law and promoted by the civil power.

Other sixteenth-century reforming movements had to depend on political power to protect them and to effect changes. The magisterial Reformers (like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, who believed in the God-given authority of the magistrate) found that power in the temporal state. For example, Luther had his protector prince; the English Reformation had its Edward VI.

Since no civil authority in Scotland was sympathetic to Protestantism, Knox believed the authority should be overthrown; political power should be seized and used to bring down the Roman church. Consequently, the Scottish Reformation was a revolution, and its success depended on the wielding of political power. That may seem harsh to moderns, but it made eminent sense in sixteenth-century Scotland.

Richard G. Kyle is professor of history and religion at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. He is author of The Mind of John Knox (Coronado, 1984).