Monday, August 4, 2014

John Knox and the Regulative Principle of the State

John Knox (1514-1572), Scottish Reformer, Founder of Scottish Presbyterianism 

Knox on Perpetual Old Testament Civil Laws

John Knox held that all are bound to the same civil laws given to the Jews (at least those that were not particular to the Jewish nation). In his Appellation, he writes this in defending the Bible's prohibition of idolatry: 
But if any think, that after the Gentiles were called from their vain conversation, and by embracing Christ Jesus were received into the number of Abraham's children, and so made one people with the Jews believing: if any think, I say, that then they were not bound to the same obedience, which God required of his people Israel, what time he confirmed his league and covenant with them; the same man appeareth to make Christ inferior to Moses, and contrarious to the law of his heavenly Father. For if the contempt or transgression of Moses' law was worthy of death, what should we judge the contempt of Christ's ordinance to be?I mean after they be once received.And if Christ be not come to dissolve, but to fulfill the law of his heavenly Father; shall the liberty of his gospel be an occasion that the especial glory of his father be trodden under foot, and regarded of no man? God forbid.[1]
Therefore, Knox calls the death penalty for idolatry "perpetual."[2] He also argues that "the eternall God in his Parliament has pronounced death to be the punishment for adulterye and for blasphemye."[3] Regarding the latter, he says this in rebuke of those who opposed the execution of Servetus:
Ye will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God's judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24.[4]  

Knox's "Rigorous Application of the 'Regulative Principle' of Scripture"

In his Appellation, while discussing the role of the state in reforming religion and defending the oppressed, Knox seems to advocate the regulative principle of the state by appealing to Deuteronomy 12:32—which prohibits man from adding to or taking away from God's law—to inform rulers of their duty to suppress idolatry:
But the more ample discourse of this argument, I defer to better opportunity: only at this time, I thought expedient to admonish you, that before God it shall not excuse you to allege, we are no kings, and therefore neither can we reform religion, nor yet defend such as be persecuted. Consider, my lords, that ye are powers ordained by God, as before is declared, and therefore doth the reformation of religion, and the defence of such, as unjustly are oppressed, appertain to your charge and care, which thing shall the law of God, universally given to be kept of all men, most evidently declare; which is my last and most assured reason, why, I say, ye ought to remove from honours, and to punish with death such as God hath condemned by his own mouth. After that Moses had declared what was true religion: to wit, to honour God as he commanded, adding nothing to his word, neither yet diminishing any thing from it; and after also that vehemently he had exhorted the same law to be observed, he denounceth the punishment against the transgressors, in these words, "if thy brother, son, daughter, wife, or neighbour, whom thou lovest as thine own life, solicitate thee secretly, saying, let us go serve other gods, whom neither thou, nor thy fathers have known, consent not to him, hear him not, let not thine eye spare him, show him no indulgence or favour, hide him not, but utterly kill him, let thy hand be first upon him, that he may be slain, and after the hand of thy whole people." [somewhat of a paraphrase of Deut. 13] Of these words of Moses are two things, appertaining to our purpose, to be noted. Former, that such, as solicitate only to idolatry, ought to be punished to death, without favour or respect of persons. For he that will not suffer man to spare his son, his daughter, nor his wife, but straitly commandeth punishment to be taken upon the idolaters, have they never so nigh conjunction with us, will not wink at the idolatry of others, of what estate or condition so ever they be.[5]
Elsewhere, while mainly defending the regulative principle of worship, Knox holds that one cannot add or take away from God's law in any area of life—thus endorsing the regulative principle of the state in the process:
Disobedience to God's voice is not only when man do wickedly contrary to the precepts of God, but also when of good zeal, or good intent, as we commonly speak, man do any thing to the honor or service of God not commanded by the express Word of God ... And that is principal idolatry when [by] our own inventions we defend to be righteous in the sight of God, because we think them good, laudable, and pleasant. We may not think us so frie [free?] nor wise, that we may do unto God, and unto his honour, what we think expedient. No! the contrary is commanded by God, saying, "Unto my word shall ye add nothing; nothing shall ye diminish therefrom, that ye might observe the precepts of your Lord God:" Which words are not to be understand of the Decalogue and Law Moral only, but of statutes, rites, and ceremonies; for equal obedience of all his Law requireth God.[6] 
And so on this last sentence, P. D. L. Avis writes: "It followed from John Knox's rigorous application of the 'regulative principle' of Scripture that he accepted the validity of the judicial law."[7] 

The Criminality of Civil Rulers Deviating from God's Word

For Knox, rulers are not to deviate from God's word, and to do so is criminal:
[F]or Moses in the election of judges, and of a king, describeth not only what persons shall be chosen to that honour, but doth also give to him that is elected and chosen, the rule, by the which he shall try himself whether God reign in him or not; saying, "When he shall sit upon the throne of his kingdom, he shall write to himself an exemplar of this law in a book, by the priests the Levites: it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, and to keep all the words of this law, and these statutes, that he may do them; that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not from the commandment, to the right hand, or to the left." (Deut., xvii.) The same is repeated to Joshua, in his inauguration to the government of the people, by God himself, saying, "Let not the book of this law depart from thy mouth, but meditate in it day and night, that thou mayest keep and do all that which is written in it. For then shall thy way be prosperous, and thou shalt do prudently." (Josh., i.)
The First thing then that God craveth of him that is called to the honour of a king, is, the knowledge of His will revealed in his word: the Second, is an upright and willing mind to put in execution such things as God commandeth in his law, without declining either to the right hand or the left.
Kings then have not absolute power to do in their regiment what pleaseth them; but their power is limited by God’s Word. So that if they strike where God commandeth not, they are but murderers; and if they spare, where God commandeth to strike, they and their throne are criminal, and guilty of the wickedness that aboundeth upon the face of the earth for lack of punishment. Oh, if kings and princes would consider what account shall be craved of them, as well of their ignorance and misknowledge of God’s will, as for the neglecting of their office![8]


[1] "The Appellation of John Knox," in John Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland (Edinburgh: Blackie, Fullarton, & Co. and A. Fullarton and Co., 1831), 393. 

[2] David Laing, ed., Works of John Knox: Volume 2 (Edinburgh: 1864), 447. Cited in Martin A. Foulner, ed., Theonomy and the Westminster Confession: an annotated sourcebook (Edinburgh: Marpet Press, 1997), 47.
[3] Laing, Works of John Knox: Volume 2, 339, 340. Cited in Ibid., 46.
[4] John Knox, "The Execution of Servetus for Blasphemy, Heresy, & Obstinate Anabaptism, Defended," Retrieved July 2, 2014 from
[5] Knox, The History of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland, 390, 391.
[6] John Knox, "A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Sacrifice of the Mass is Idolatry," in David Laing, ed., The Works of John Knox: Volume Third (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter), 37, 38. We have modernized the wording.
[7] P. D. L. Avis, "Moses and the Magistrate: A Study in the Rise of Protestant Legalism,"Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 26, no. 2 (April 1975): 24. Retrieved August 4, 2014 from

[8] "Sermon on Isaiah, XXVI, 13-20," in John Knox, Selected Practical Writings of John Knox, Issued by the Committee of the General Assembly of the Free Church of Scotland (Edinburgh: William Collins and Co., 1845), 270-272.

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