/ Nathan Eshelman

The Trumpet Blasts that Were Never Heard

We live in times where the church is needing to think through her relationship with the state and the rulers over us. This is not the first time in the history of Christianity where we have had to meditate on our doctrine of the magistrate or our relationship to those in authority. This is not the first time that we have had to choose between losing our right hand and losing our left. Where would you turn to read about the relationship between the church and an oppressive government?

Looking for a book on the relationship between the church and a tyrannical government may be useful for the church in the next few decades. Consider the following statements:

  • It is not by birth that one can rule over a people; those under him must approve of that rule.
  • Those who practice idolatry or are living publicly scandalous lives are not to be placed in public office.
  • If a ruler proves to be a tyrant or is willfully disobedient to God’s Word, then not even an oath can keep him in office.
  • If people too quickly or without due consideration put someone in office and it is later found that he is unworthy of the office, he may be deposed by those who put him forward.

“Does the Bible really speak about these issues?” you may ask. “Where can I find this book? The church needs it!” I imagine that many reformed and presbyterian believers would be interested in such a volume, one that presented these statements from a biblical perspective. It could well be a best seller.

Indeed, this book almost came to be. These four discussion points were proposed by no one less than John Knox: the father of Presbyterianism, the evangelist of the Scottish people, the trumpeter of God, the great reformer.

Tucked away in the fourth volume of The Works of John Knox (Works 4.439-440) is a proposed outline for a book that would speak to the above discussion points. The Second Trumpet Blast was the proposed title. This would have proven to be a valuable book for us today, but the book was never written. The Second Trumpet never blasted.

Even publishing the outline of the book did not lead to the church of his day to ask him to write the book. The reformed church was silent. If they desired to hear the great reformer’s views on the above propositions, the desires were never expressed.

But why?

The First Trumpet Blast Unheard

The reason that people were not asking for Knox to write his Second Trumpet Blast was because he had already written a book on politics, and it did not go over well. It went over like a lead balloon, actually. It was hated. Really hated.

In 1557, Knox wrote The First Trumpet Blast Against the Monstrous Regimen of Women. It was originally published anonymously and was printed in Geneva (without Calvin’s knowledge). The title alone is terrifying and brings images of zombie female armies. And even today when the title is mentioned, the book is shrugged off as fanaticism or the overstepping of one heaven-bent on making queens cry. The book attracts overly-emotional reactions and disregard for its content— and this is as true today as it was 460 years ago when it first appeared in print.

Many reformed and presbyterian people know of the book. Even the secular world cites it as evidence against reformed Christianity. People who know something about the book will often say that even Calvin was against its content. Between Calvin being against the book and the bad reputation that has followed it for 460 years, The First Blast still goes unheard, and because of that, The Second Blast has been silenced.

If this book is so full of venom, what’s the content? The book is not about female zombie armies; it is a defense of male leadership in the political sphere as is in the church. The word monstrous means “unnatural.” Regimen means “rule.” It could be titled, The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Unnatural Rule of Women. It sounds like a valuable work to at least help evaluate where one stands— at least to hear the arguments made and to compare them with the Scriptures.

Knox wrote the book with Mary— of Bloody Mary fame— in mind. He went through the Scriptures and made his biblical case for male leadership in the civil realm. Knox then finished the book with three case studies that were presented as exceptions to his rule of male-only leadership in the realm of the state: Deborah (Judges 4); Huldah (2 Kings 22); and the daughters of Zelophehad (Numbers 27). With application and conclusion, he then boldly ended his book with a prediction that Bloody Mary would “not last long” and essentially predicted her early death (4.420). David Laing, 19th century editor of Knox’s Works, notes that Bloody Mary was dead within “seven or eight months of the publication of The First Blast.”

That’s the book in summary. Knox makes a legitimate biblical case for male leadership in the state (whether one agrees or not, his arguments are primarily from Scripture). He biblically answers three exceptions to the rule. Then he applies what he has taught and seeks to encourage the church that the reign of Bloody Mary would not continue forever.

Why the hatred for the book?

Where Knox failed is arguably not so much in the content of the book, but in the tone and language used in defending his propositions. The claim is made that the book is misogynistic, that Knox hated women. Some of the arguments that Knox used in the book do include things like claiming that women could not rule a nation because women, more than men, were greedy for wealth and gain. “Womenkind… be most avaricious (4.376).” He also made statements that would seem to promote the idea that women did not have the brain power and sufficient ability in logic and rhetoric to lead a nation. At one point he said, “[Women are] easily persuaded to any opinion, especially if it be against God; and because they lack the prudence and right reason to judge the things that be spoken [by God] (4.387).”

Knox would speak against the “stinking pride of women,” saying that women dressed in certain ways to “allure the eyes of men.” He “played upon common sixteenth-century stereotypes of women, their pride, their stupidity and subservience, and their obsession with sex.” (Dawson, 141)

Did Knox hate women? Did Knox think that women were not as smart or capable as men? Did Knox believe that women would base their primary decision-making on what would displease God the most? Did Knox think that many women were seductresses and sex obsessed? Sadly, sometimes it appears to be so.

Knox also spoke harshly against Mary herself. Two of his favorite descriptors of Bloody Mary included Jezebel and “that monster.” He described the reign of a woman as a disfigured body where the head and the hands, the eyes and the feet, are all in different places from where God had intended them. Essentially, the reign of a monster.

The Trumpet’s Out of Tune

How was such language toward a reigning female monarch received? As you can imagine, the Queen was enraged. Roman Catholics were enraged. Many of the English people were enraged.

It was said by Knox himself that no other of his books excited “greater odium.” In a letter from John Foxe, author of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, Knox’s First Blast was received with “rude vehemency.” Foxe was furious. Calvin’s penchant for understatement was captured when he said First Blast was “somewhat harsh… and should be handled with caution.” (4.359) Elsewhere, Calvin said that the book was “neither godly nor brotherly dealt with at all.” (Dawson, 106)

Eventually the book was deemed unacceptable for a reformed readership. Many of the continental reformers rejected the book. Calvin made sure it was not read in Geneva and further separated himself from the book by noting that it had been in print for a year before he knew of it. The First Blast was not a runaway best-seller. It was an embarrassment to the greater reformed community.

Knox, who was known to be quick with a pun and loved word-based humor, said in a letter dated April 6, 1559, “My_ First Blast_ hath blown from me all my friends…” The Scot stood almost alone on what he had written.

The Trumpet Silenced

What was the real problem? Strong language was common in all 16th century theological writing. One does not have to read too far into Calvin to hear him call an opponent stupid. Reading Luther’s Table Talk demonstrates that Luther was, at times, more vulgar-tongued than golden-tongued. Even the early confessions use harsh tone; how many of us today confess that we “despise the errors of the anabaptists” or call the mass an "accursed idolatry!" Strong language— even against ungodly women—was common during the reformation. Spiritual whores and Jezebels are found in most reformers’ writings.

So what’s at the heart of the discussion? Did Knox really hate women?Was his view of women in civic office really that much different than the other reformers?

First, we know that Knox did not hate women. Knox was a very compassionate pastor to the women in his charge. He wrote extensively to his own mother-in-law and pastored her with the warmth and Christ-centered care of even the best of spiritual physicians. Knox was also close friends with Mrs. Anne Locke. Anne Locke was known as a well-educated English poet and staunch defender of 16th century reformed theology. Locke was responsible for translating Calvin’s sermons into English and seeing them published for the English Christians. She also was published alongside Knox in one of his sermons. Knox also was noted to be a very tender husband to his wife and had a number of female patrons who supported his preaching and writing ministries. Knox’s strong language against women seemed to be reserved for those who opposed the truths of the reformation.

Despite the claim, Knox was no misogynist. The reformers, such as Calvin and Bullinger, did not necessarily disagree with the conclusions of The First Blast. Instead, they questioned the wisdom of publishing a book against a reigning monarch who was killing and imprisoning reformed believers. It was unwise to write The First Blast. It was unwise and, at times, it was too harsh in its tone.

Years before_ The First Blast_ was written, John Knox sent a letter to John Calvin asking him a number of questions concerning the role of the government and the relationship between the church and the state. One issue was “Whether a female can preside over a kingdom.” And the follow-up question was “Can she transfer her power to her husband?”

Calvin did not respond directly to Knox, but instead Heinrich Bullinger answered Knox on behalf of Calvin. Bullinger sent Calvin his answer and wrote the following: “I have enclosed in this letter the answer I made to the Scotsman whom you commended to me.” (3.219)

So, what was the answer that Bullinger gave to Knox to the question, “Can a female preside over, and rule, a kingdom by divine right, and so transfer the right of sovereignty to her husband?”

Bullinger’s answer— and by extension, Calvin’s— shows the reader that Calvin, Bullinger, and Knox were essentially in agreement on women civil leaders:

The law of God ordains the woman to be in subjection, and not to rule; which is clear from the writings of both the Old and the New Testament. But if a woman be in compliance with or obedience to the laws and customs of the realm, is acknowledged as Queen, and, in maintenance of the hereditary right of government, is married to a husband… it is a hazardous thing for godly persons to set themselves in opposition to political regulations; especially as the gospel does not seem to unsettle or abrogate hereditary rights…. (3.222-223)
It was Calvin’s belief that women were not to rule in the realm of the state under normal providential circumstances. But Calvin was not rigid in this, and allowed exceptions, for he saw exceptions to this principle in the Word of God. Deborah and Huldah are biblical exceptions made through providence, according to Calvin. With only two exceptions in the thousands of years of biblical history, Calvin was in essential agreement with his friend Knox.

Despite that general agreement, Calvin thought that Knox’s writing of The First Blast was “harsh” and “should be handled with caution” even if “his positions are true.” (4.359) Elsewhere, Calvin affirmed to an even greater degree what Knox said in The First Blast. Calvin said, “[The rule of women] was a deviation from the original and proper order of nature…” (4.357)

The reason, then, that Knox’s First Blast was rejected by Calvin was not because it was theologically wrong, but because it was unwise to poke at Queen Mary while she held the lives of many brothers and sisters in her hand. Through The First Blast, Knox set in motion a hostile relationship between England and the continental reformation. Calvin said that Knox brought “great confusion” to the people of England.

Was he promoting reformation or was he promoting revolution? It was difficult to tell, as First Blast called for Christians to question the legitimacy of Mary’s rule. Calvin was grateful to come along side of reformation, but revolution he would outright reject. Calvin was thinking of the exiles and what they would suffer because of Knox’s writing. It was a matter of wisdom that Calvin and others rejected and stepped away from the book.

Calvin, speaking of the problem of his aligning himself with the book, said, “Great confusion might have arisen… and there might have been cause to fear, that in such a case through the arrogance of one individual, the wretched crowd of exiles would have been driven away.” (4.358) Knox biographer Jane Dawson noted that even in the Protestant generation that followed Mary, there was suspicion of Knox and company. Dawson says, “Throughout her reign, Queen Elizabeth linked Geneva to sedition and never extended any warmth in that direction.” (Dawson, 175)

The First Blast kept Knox and Scottish Presbyterianism from truly influencing English reformed Christianity for almost 90 years (until the Solemn League and Covenant). For what many thought was a lack of wisdom, Knox may have retarded the English reformation. And for what many thought was a lack of wisdom,_ how_ Knox communicated his position against women in civil office is remembered more than the Scriptural defense of his position.

Lasting Sound of the First and Second Trumpets

We began with a modernization of a series of questions that were proposed by Knox. As a student of reformation and post-reformation history, I long to hear Knox’s answers to these questions. Questions without answers are what drive historians sleepless and drive PhD students into the dustiest corners of ancient libraries. But this is more than a theoretical problem for church historians. This is not mind candy for reformation trivia games. What was left unanswered and what was left unheard is of vital importance to the church of Jesus Christ.

Twenty-first century Christians are living in times where governments are overstepping their God-given authority; and we need biblical answers. Around the world, we face governments forcing Irish bakers and other private business owners to lay aside their religious convictions or pay the price; despots and tyrants ruling harshly over God’s people, such as in Red China and North Korea; governments such as Canada leaving homeschool parents fearing their government’s next move; Islamic grassroots-governors beheading our siblings in Christ in places like Syria; civil governments such as the USA leaving their voters in the position of trying to discern the so-called lesser of two evils. In times like this, the church needs to hear Knox’s propositions expanded upon:

  • It is not by birth that one can rule over a people; those under him must approve of that rule.
  • Those who practice idolatry or are living publicly scandalous lives are not to be placed in public office.
  • If a ruler proves to be a tyrant or is willfully disobedient to God’s Word, then not even an oath can keep him in office.
  • If people too quickly or without due consideration put someone in office and it is later found that he is unworthy of the office, he may be deposed by those who put him forward.

Knox’s trumpets were silenced—not so much because of what he said, but because of a lack of wisdom in_ when and how_ he said it. Friends, the Lord Jesus Christ calls us to use great wisdom as the people of God—wisdom in how, as well as what we say. We are to be harmless as doves and as crafty as serpents (Matthew 10:16).

Maybe it’s time for some of God’s people to pick up The First and Second Blast of the Trumpet and separate the meat from the bones, as we say. Maybe it is time to have a serious look at what Knox has said— recognizing the problems it caused in its historical setting, but at the same time not rejecting it because it doesn’t fit our current paradigm. Is there truth in The First Blast that can be applied to our situation? Can we expand on Knox’s thoughts in the proposed Second Blast and bless the church with instruction and wisdom for life today?

It’s time to tune our trumpets, church. It’s time for the people of God to sound the trumpet call with wisdom that will allow our trumpeting to be heard. Not in compromise. It is not with compromise that we should sound our trumpets; it is with boldness, clarity, and wisdom that we should we blast unto the glory of God. What in our trumpeting keeps us from being heard? Is it what is said, or is it the lack of wisdom with which we say it? Does what we say accurately reflect the truth of Scripture? If so, blast clearly, boldly, and confidently—and with great wisdom.

Nathan Eshelman

Nathan Eshelman

Pastor in Orlando, studied at Puritan Reformed Theological & Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminaries. One of the chambermen on the podcast The Jerusalem Chamber. Married to Lydia with 5 children.

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