Monday, June 17, 2013

"John Knox For Armchair Theologians" by Suzanne McDonald: A Review

There are very few theologians whose lives have been quite as turbulent and dramatic as that of John Knox. His life could be the stuff of historical novels, from being a prisoner in chains on a french warship to being the fearless scourge of monarchs. The sixteenth-century equivalent of the gossip columns even managed to find plenty of material in his somewhat unorthodox domestic life for some scandalous rumormongering.

There are also very few theologians who could be named as a driving force in the shaping of a nation. you can't trace the history of the Scottish Reformation - a defining moment in Scotland's story - without placing the towering figure of Knox close to the center, theologically and politically. (iv-x)

No doubt John Knox is a tough character for one to figure out. In her book John Knox for Armchair Theologians, Dr. Suzanne McDonald seeks to sift through some of the myths and folklore regarding the 16th Century Scottish Reformer John Knox and present in a way the average non-theology/history nerd can understand.

This is not your traditional biography. Most biographies go into great detail into various aspects of one's life, events, relationships, etc. Likewise, most biographies spend a sizable amount of time debating other biographers and traditional views of the subject. This book, however, seeks to introduce the reader to Knox the man. The audience is clearly those who have heard nothing or very little about him.

As a result, the book is pretty straight forward. Each chapter consist of two parts. First is strictly biographical. The author traces the story of Knox highlighting the main events without going into too much detail. The author goes through some pains explaining who is who especially the monarchs. Most, including myself, struggle with who married who, who was reigning when, how they are connected with this or that monarch, how they died, etc. Books like this offer a helpful guide to such difficulties.

The second part of each chapter consists of what the author calls "key texts." Here, the author highlights significant writings from Knox (or co-written by him) during that time period. The author, then discusses all of the major works including his most famous The First Blast and his history of the Scottish Reformation.

That is the structure of the book and it is a helpful one. One cannot understand Knox the man without interacting with his theology, writings, and work as a pastor and for the most part, the author does just that. Though the author could have treated Knox's theology more (she does discuss Knox's understanding of the Lord's Supper in great detail), Dr. McDonald offers a helpful introduction and survey into Knox.

My main critique of the book is how the author presents the two views of Knox. On the one hand, there are those who only see Knox as a misogynist bigot that make's queens cry unwilling to compromise on minute theological differences (like kneeling before the elements). Others see Knox the pastor and emphasize his many letters and spiritual counseling to his sheep. McDonald's approach, for the most part, is to present Knox as a public figure throughout the book and then present Knox as a private person in the very last chapter. To do this, the author highlights in her final chapter Knox's relationship privately with other women namely his two wives, his mother-in-law, and others. The strategy is to make the point that Knox was not a sexist pig and treated all women like he did the Mary's.

The problem is that this is but a small microcosm of Knox's compassion and love for God's people. Yes Knox saw himself as a sort of Christian prophet and thus was quite bold before those in whom he disagreed with on important matters. However, Knox was at heart, not a political theologian, but a pastoral theologian. Knox was more powerful in his pulpit then he was with his double-edged sword or before the Queen. I'm not sure McDonald has fully succeeded in convincing the reader that Knox was more than a fiery prophet that supposedly hated women, but perhaps she has contributed to correcting this unfortunate caricature.

One of the things that makes this series so great is the illustrations by Ron Hill. This book in the Armchair Series continues that tradition. My favorite is on page 65 and shows Knox before Queen Mary during the authors discussion of Knox's First Blast book with the Reformer saying "I've studied Deborah . . . And you are no Deborah." Touche.

Overall, if you are new to John Knox and need to know where to start, start here. If you are wanting to understand the man and his mind, then perhaps you should look elsewhere. The Armchair Theologians series is not written from nerds to nerds. With that understanding this is a great series and this book contributes to it.


This book was provided by the Westminister John Knox Press for the purpose of this review.





For more on Knox and the Scottish Reformation:
"The Reformation for Armchair Theologians" by Glenn S. Sunshine: A Review
"John Knox: An Introduction to His Life and Works" - A Review
"The Mighty Weakness of John Knox" by Douglas Bond: A Review
"John Knox & the Reformation" by M. Lloyd-Jones & Iain Murray: A Review
"John Knox" by Rosalind K. Marshall 
John Knox on the Threefold Office of Christ
Douglas Bond on the Legacy of John Knox
A Nestorian Heresy?: John Knox & His Rejection of Particular Redemption
John Knox on the Importance of the Ascension
"Five Leadeing Reformers" 
"The School of Faith" by Thomas F. Torrance: A Review
"Scottish Theology" by T. F. Torrance: A Review 
Theologians I Have Been Influenced By - The Dead


For more on John Craig:
An Introduction to the Life and Works of Scottish Reformer John Craig
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism: A New Translation - Introduction
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism: A New Translation - Chapter 1
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 2
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter  3
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 4.1
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 4.2
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 4.3
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 5.1
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 5.2
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 6.1
A Short Summary of the Whole Catechism - Chapter 6.2 
"Scottish Theology" by T. F. Torrance: A Review
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