John Knox and the Women Who Loved Him

Today, the title First Blast of the Trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women evokes images of an approaching army of terrifying woman-like creatures. Its author, John Knox, meant something quite different. It was the title of a short treatise on government (regiment = rule) held by women, a concept he found unnatural (monstrous).

It was not a controversial idea. At that time, most people believed that government was a male prerogative. The biblical examples of women leaders were seen as an indication of the corruption of times when no man could rise to the task.

Most Protestant leaders, however, wouldn’t have expressed their thoughts in such drastic terms. They were concerned about winning rulers – male or female – to their cause, and tempered their words accordingly. But Knox was not a tame man.

His Life

Born in an obscure village in eastern Scotland, Knox made his bold entrance in the annals of history in 1545, at about 31 years of age, holding a two-handed sword in defense of his peer George Wishart, a fervent Reformed preacher in a stubbornly Roman Catholic country. When Wishart was finally captured and executed, Knox, who had been ordained as Roman Catholic priest, served as minister of the Gospel for a group of Protestants who occupied St. Andrews church in protest.

His strong constitution survived the consequence of his actions: 19 months as prisoner on the cruel French galleys. Freed by the English, he clashed with Thomas Cranmer over the Book of Common Prayer, which he considered too popish. Finally, the Church of England assigned him a pastorate in Berwick, a small town near the Scottish border, where he could relate the gospel to the large community of Scottish immigrants (with the added benefit of keeping him away from London).

With the ascension to the throne in 1553 of the Roman Catholic Mary Tudor, Knox moved to the continent, causing a major stir in Frankfurt by comparing the current Emperor Charles V to the Roman Emperor Nero. Ousted by his congregation, he finally settled in Calvin’s Geneva, a city he deeply loved, where he co-pastored a church of English refugees.

In 1559, he returned to Scotland on the insistence of the growing Protestant community in that country. There, he found that the group of Protestants had grown to become theologically and politically strong. Soon he became part of an actual military revolution, which he galvanized with his fierce sermons. After only two years of fighting, Scotland became an official Protestant country.

The Women Around Him

            In spite of his formidable life and bold choices, Knox is still largely unknown. Maybe his larger-than-life charisma is the very reason for this neglect. People generally remember blazes and flares. In his case, they remember the blasts of his trumpet against women rulers – especially Mary Queen of Scots, “that cursed Jesabel,” as he called her. In the popular mind, he is a misogynist and a kill-joy.

            Why then so many intelligent women loved him deeply, confided in him and zealously supported him until the end?

Elizabeth Bowes

            Elizabeth Bowes was Knox’s mother-in-law, and popular stereotypes have contributed to distort the nature of their relationship. She has been portrayed as a weak and needy woman, perennially unsure about her salvation, and a test of Knox’s patience. In reality, most of her letters to Knox were written soon after she met him in Berwick, while she was fighting her family’s resistance against Knox’s proposed marriage to her daughter Marjorie. And while Knox always saw himself as the pastor in this relationship, he admitted that Elizabeth’s questions helped him to consider more carefully the passages of Scripture she found troubling.

            As she poured out her questions and doubts to him, he opened his heart to her, confessing his own personal struggles with faith, his feelings of guilt, and his fear that his troubles will never end in this life. He used these confessions to help her understand she was not alone in her struggle, and enveloped them with pastoral words of encouragement: “And this is more plain than ever I spake, to let you know ye have a fellow and companion in trouble, and thus rest in Christ, for the head of the serpent is already broken down, and he is stinging us upon the heel.”[1]

When Marjorie died in 1560, Elizabeth stayed with Knox four more years to take care of his and Marjorie’s sons Nathaniel and Eleazar, until he remarried. In 1568, Knox sent his sons, then nine and seven years old, to Elizabeth to continue their education in England.

Anne Locke

            It’s to English poetess and translator Anne Locke, another one of Knox’s closest friends, that he made his notorious confession, “Of nature I am churlish, and in conditions different from many. … I have rather need of all [my friends] than that any hath need of me.”[2]

Anne Locke was among a group of women who offered hospitality to Knox when he was in London. Escaping the reign of Mary Tudor, Anne moved to Geneva at Knox’s insistence with her two small children (her daughter died four days after their arrival). Anne didn’t seem to have the same struggles with assurance of salvation that had been plaguing Elizabeth, and Knox treated her as his equal, encouraging her to keep fighting for the gospel and thanking her for her continual efforts to support the Scottish Reformation.

As he did with Elizabeth, he often revealed the perplexities of his heart, including his struggles to cope with his new tasks as husband and father “wherewith I have not been accustomed, and therefore are fearful,”[3] and his late, painful resignation to the fact that the church will always have imperfections in this life.

Knox’s wives

            While we don’t have any letters from and to Knox’s two wives (Marjorie Bowes and Margaret Steward), we know that they were both strong women who greatly supported him in his ministry. Marjorie showed a great amount of courage in leaving her home to marry Knox against the opposition of her father and many of her relatives, and then again crossing the Channel to follow him to Geneva, where she lived in much humbler conditions than in her English mansion. Besides raising their children and hosting a constant stream of visitors and boarders, she helped her husband with his correspondence and publishing activities.

            We know less about Margaret, but she was by his side at the end of his life, when he suffered some discouragement because the church of Scotland had not progressed as radically as he had hoped and he had been conveniently put aside as being too fanatical. She stayed at his side until the very end, in 1572, when he asked her to read to him John 17, the chapter where he “had cast first anchor.”[4]

Mary Queen of Scots

            We don’t immediately think of Mary Stuart as a woman who loved Knox. In reality, the two had a measure of mutual respect. If he called her Jezebel in her Roman Catholic impositions, he also prayed she would become a new Deborah. Religious matters aside, they cooperated very well in many things for the common goal of maintaining peace in the country (they even worked together as marriage counselors in one case). In her uncomfortable position of Roman Catholic ruler of a Protestant country, she often sought Knox’s assistance, even offering him the opportunity to become her religious adviser. While refusing the role, he remained faithful to the prophetic vocation he believed God had given him.

            In conclusion, why did these and many other women express so much love toward a man who blew a fierce trumpet against female rulers? Maybe it’s because he needed, valued, respected them, and understood their struggles, offering at the same time warm and candid pastoral care.

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She worked first as elementary school teacher and then as home-schooling mother for many years. Besides writing books, she has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and viceversa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.


[2] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1559

[3] Letter from John Knox to Anne Locke, 1556.

[4] [4] Thomas M’Crie, The Life of John Knox, p. 228.

The Ruling Elder Podcast

This week on Theology on the Go, our host, Dr. Jonathan Master is joined by Dr. Calvin L. Troup.  Dr. Troup is the president of Geneva College (Beaver Falls, PA). Before becoming Geneva’s twentieth President since 1848 Dr. Troup was Associate Professor and Director of the Rhetoric Ph.D. Program in the Department of Communication & Rhetorical Studies at Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA.

He earned his B.A. from Geneva College (1983) and the M.A. (1991) and Ph.D. (1994) degrees from The Pennsylvania State University. His communication research agenda focuses on the rhetoric and philosophy of St. Augustine and Rhetoric of Technology from media ecology perspectives informed by the work of Jacques Ellul and Walter J. Ong. His published work includes Augustine for the Philosophers: The Rhetor of Hippo, the Confessions, and the Continentals (2014), Temporality, Eternity, and Wisdom: The Rhetoric of Augustine’s Confessions (1999), scholarly book chapters and articles in journals such as Communication Quarterly, Explorations in Media Ecology, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, The Journal of Communication and Religion, and The Journal of Business Ethics. Dr. Troup has edited the Journal of Communication and Religion and is the editor-elect of Explorations in Media Ecology the international journal of the Media Ecology Association.  Dr.Troup entered the academy after serving as a press aide in the U.S. House of Representatives and working as an association executive for a national non-profit organization in Washington, D.C.

Today Dr. Master is going to talk with Dr. Troup about the office of the ruling elder.  Dr. Troup is well suited to discuss this topic since he has served as a ruling elder in three different Presbyterian congregations.  He is currently a ruling elder at Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA.

So, grab that cup of coffee and join us at the table!

The book Dr. Troup mentioned in the podcast is: The Elder’s Handbook: A Practical Guide for Church Leaders by Gerard Berghoef and Lester DeKoster

Sola Scriptura: Four Profitable Words

Many years ago, my two friends and I developed an interest in rock climbing.  We lived in an area where you could do a lot of top roping.  We would walk into the woods and find a rock face.  Someone would unpack the gear and tie off the rope and then we would rappel to the bottom. Being inexperienced and a bit apprehensive, it didn’t take long for us to develop an important rule: “He who ties the knot goes first!”

On one of our outings, two of us decided to wait at the bottom of the cliff while our friend hiked to the top in order to tie off the rope and then rappel down. We waited below for quite some time but he never threw the rope over the edge. In fact, we didn’t see or hear anything coming from above. Finally, curiosity got the best of us and we hiked up to investigate.  When we finally reached the top, his back was to us and he was sitting cross-legged.  He didn’t even hear us approach.  When I got close, I peered around to see what he was doing.  To my absolute astonishment, I discovered him reading a book on how to tie knots! He looked up rather sheepishly and said, “I was starting to doubt myself.”

As I thought about the phrase sola Scriptura, I thought of this story. I thought of it because many believers are like my friend.  They are unsure of themselves.  They are filled with self-doubt.  As a result, the self-help section of the bookstore strains under the weight of numerous titles. Now, let me be clear.  I am not suggesting that we dispense with reading anything but the Bible.  However, I am suggesting that we have a propensity for looking everywhere but the Bible for help.  In other words, we read something in the Bible and we think, “I wonder what book I can read to help me with this or that?”  Let me suggest an alternative practice.  Let us look to the Bible as a sufficient help for faith and life.  In fact, Paul tells us four things in II Timothy 3:16 that will help us in that direction.

First, Paul says that the Bible is profitable for teaching. What exactly is the didactic aim of Scriptural teaching? It’s simple. God’s word teaches us to think God’s thoughts after Him. Why is that so important?  It is important because, as God says to his people through the prophet Hosea, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” And later, “So the people without understanding are ruined.” In other words, Scripture is profitable for teaching the knowledge of God.  As Paul says in Romans 6:17, there is a form of teaching, which must be known by all God’s people because a lack thereof will bring ruin upon God’s people.

Second, the word of God is profitable for reproof.  Now, this benefit flows from the first. In other words, the word of God is profitable for teaching.  But what is taught enters through our ears, into our minds and then from there it passes into our conscience. What happens then? It begins to comfort or convict us.  In other words, it begins to shape us. God’s word shapes our thinking about God, the world, people, and us. If I can put it the way Jesus did, taking this word into our conscience is like finding a rock upon which to stand no matter what we are thinking about.

Third, the word of God is profitable for correction. Just as the teaching passes into our minds and then into our conscience it must pass into our lives. In other words, the word of God tells us what we need to add and subtract from our living.  Have you taken inventory of your practices lately?  What practice needs to be uprooted and what needs to be put in its place?

There is a fourth profitable thing. The word is profitable for training in righteousness. The word Paul uses here is a word that flows from what I’ve been saying. It’s the same word the author of Hebrews used in 12:7, “It is for discipline that you endure; God deals with you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline?” The word translated “discipline” is our word for training. God is training you by His word.

And Paul has already given Timothy an example of this very thing. In the verses immediately preceding the one we are considering, Paul says, “You, however, continue in the things you learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Let me ask you a simple question.  What word are you continuing in these days?

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R Publishing) and Managing Editor for Place for Truth.

Sola Scriptura: A Brief Historical Summary of the Seige Against Scripture

           When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden his angle of attack was to bring into question the sufficiency of God’s word. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden?” Not only did Satan, like a good legalist, subtly add on to God’s word by adding the command ‘any tree in the Garden’”, he also more devastatingly brought God’s word into question, “Did God really say?” Eve’s bite into that presupposition was the fruit of flowering sin.  At that moment, God’s word ceased to have the highest authority over her life.

            Thousands of years later, the sons of Satan tried to embroil the Son of Adam in the same trap. The second Adam would not bite. But in their legalism they looked on with disgust as some of Jesus’ disciples ate food without ritually washing their hands. Mark tells us it was not so much a germ thing (because they didn’t know about germs back then) as was a religious thing. “The Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3). So, they asked Jesus, “Why do your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders?”

            Here Jesus answered them with profound theological and practical insight. “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:6-7). Here Jesus pinpoints their hypocrisy: they had exalted the traditions of men to a level that actually caused them to deny and leave God’s word! He ends his discussion with the Pharisees by telling them that by exalting tradition to a level of authority on par with Scripture they have actually “made void the word of God” (Mark 7:13). Satan’s tricks are as old as Eden.  

             Paul likewise did battle with this same diabolical lie when in 1 Timothy 4 he reveals that “the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1).[1] And how would these demonic teachings cause people to leave the faith? Paul answers, “through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:2-4).

            Apparently, there were false teachers who were telling these Christians in Ephesus that true spirituality could only be reached through asceticism – abstaining from certain foods and not getting married. And Paul smelled something ancient and rotten going on. He pinpoints this heresy as being right in line with what Satans been doing since the Garden of Eden: taking what God has declared good and asking the question, “Well, did God really say?”

            Now God’s word is clear, marriage is good and honorable and given from God. And God’s word makes it clear that all food is good for man to eat and enjoy.[2] Yet, when someone takes what God has made good and prohibits it as if it were sinful, that person has put himself in the place of God. This is why Paul calls this asceticism Satanic; it is a lie that subjugates God’s word to our own self-exulted wills and words. When Eve looked at the fruit and saw that it was good to eat (though God said it was not good to eat), so the ascetic-legalist looks at marriage and says it is sin (when God Himself has said it is good). There is nothing new under the Sun.

            The Protestant Reformers fought against the same lie when they argued that the Scriptures alone must be the final and binding authority upon the church. As Rome exalted tradition to a place of equal authority with Scripture, they effectively made void the word of God..  Alas, Luther himself infamously cried out against Rome’s attack that “unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well-known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”

            The doctrine of Sola Scriptura is a doctrine that has been under siege since the beginning of history and has continually been a main target for Satan’s lies and schemes. But we who follow Christ and live in submission to His living and active word alone, we continue to read and love and fear His word so as to “not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs” (2 Corinthians 2:11). May God help us. Amen.

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] See what Jesus reveals concerning this in Matthew 24:3-4; 11-12.

[2] See Genesis 1:11-13 and Acts 10:9-33

Sola Scriptura: A Biblical Casuistry Case with a Test for Truth over Experience

When Martin Luther took his stand at the Diet of Worms, proclaiming, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…, I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God,”[i] he affirmed that divine revelation is the only absolute, normative authority for truth.  This doctrine of Sola Scriptura is of no little consequence today because at its core is the question, “What is our ultimate authority for what we are to believe and how we are to live?”  How we answer it makes all the difference.

The Reformers answered unequivocally that God’s revelation is our only authority.  In providing this particular answer, they were reacting against the medieval Roman Catholic Church’s reliance on Tradition, which was an amalgamation of handpicked authorities: Church Fathers, Church councils, papal pronouncements, and medieval philosophers.  From this, the doctrine of transubstantiation developed more out of medieval philosophy than biblical exegesis.

It started with exegesis of the text (“This is my body”), but over time theologians employed a little hermeneutical legerdemain, gradually adding philosophical reasoning until in 1215 they pulled transubstantiation out of the hat!  Thus, Rome’s authoritative basis for it was really a sleight of hand.  It was precisely this concoction of biblical truth and human philosophy that the Reformers reacted against.  They pared down the number of sacraments from seven to two because they had already pared down the number of sources of authority to one.

But are the Reformers guilty of committing their own theological prestidigitation and inventing Sola Scriptura?  Could they be accused of a heavy-handed use of Occam’s razor to narrow authorities based solely on their own preferences?

The clear answer is No.  They did not invent the doctrine; on the contrary, they embraced Sola Scriptura because it arises from the biblical text itself.  One passage in which it is clearly taught is Deuteronomy 13.  The first three verses constitute God’s authoritative test for a prophet:

If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder comes true, concerning which he spoke to you, saying, ‘Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you to find out if you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” (NASB)

These verses can be considered a sort of casuistry, which was a learning technique popular among Puritan authors.  Casuistry provides a case study in which a particular set of circumstances are laid out and moral and practical lessons are to be drawn from it.

A practical application of Sola Scriptura gleaned from this situation is that the Lord is providing a reliable test for truth, one by which we are to evaluate our experiences.  Even if our senses should entice us to believe a glittering spectacle, we should nevertheless be cautious.  For while it seems reasonable to believe such a miracle, the decisive determiner of authoritative truth lies solely in the message that squares with divine revelation.  This “message over miracle” test was designed to safeguard God’s people from the ever-present danger of syncretism (the harmful blending of belief systems) and its follow-on danger, apostasy.

The admonition to be skeptical of our experience is quite counter-intuitive to the little Adam inside all of us…after all “Seeing is believing,” so why question the authenticity of our experience?  Luther was forced to combat credence given to appearances of spirits and to healings that were alleged to have occurred at the graves of certain saints, “all of which,” he said, “were contrary to the received Gospel.”[ii]  While we may not be in danger of being wowed by a wonder-worker today, there still remains the constant allure of our experience: worship music that is full of emotion but bereft of biblical content that should move us to worship, or a sermon that excites our desires to fix our dysfunctions, but never informs us how to be imitators of God or how to become partakers of all the benefits which are freely offered through Christ.

Luther’s admonition regarding Sola Scriptura still holds authority today: “One must rest wholly on the Word alone and shut out everything from eyes and senses, because when the Word is lost, God is lost.”[iii]

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.


        [i] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32: Career of the Reformer II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 32 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 112.

        [ii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 130, f.n. 1.

        [iii] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 9: Lectures on Deuteronomy, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 9 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 129.

Cloud of Witnesses: Peter Martyr Vermigli (1499-1562) – the European Reformer

In the summer of 1542, Peter Martyr Vermigli reached the northern side of the Alps with mixed emotions: thankfulness, excitement, relief, but also homesickness, concern, and occasional doubts.

Born to Teach

            Born in Florence, Italy, in 1499, he had entered the Augustinian order at the young age of 15 with conviction and anticipation. From an even earlier age, he had dreamed of teaching God’s word and focused his energies toward that goal, crushing his father’s ambition of having a wealthy son.

            His theological turnabout happened in Naples, where he moved in 1537 after his ordination and some years of experience as preacher and prior. There, he met Juan de Valdés, a refugee from the Spanish inquisition, and his heterogeneous group of followers. They were known as spirituali and were committed to a deep study of Scriptures and a reformation of the church.

It was no secret that the church needed to be reformed. Many had already denounced its corruption and hunger for power. At that point in time, however, much criticism was focused on its theology. Some commonly taught doctrines, like the nature of justification or the transubstantiation of the elements in the mass, were often late and poorly discussed developments which had lost connection with the biblical texts. Ad fontes (to the sources), the prevalent rallying cry of the day, included theology, and northern reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Martin Bucer became models of this insistence on biblical accuracy and ecclesiastical purity.

True to this motto, Vermigli applied himself to the careful study of Scriptures in the original languages – a knowledge not required for Roman Catholic preachers – and of the writings of the church fathers. He also devoted himself to teaching, which was his passion and vision. He had experienced first-hand the poverty of many sermons under preachers who were either theologically unprepared or motivated by money and fame. As soon as he had the opportunity, as prior of the church in Lucca, he founded an unprecedented school of biblical studies, hiring competent teachers of Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and theology to lead separate courses for older children, young people, and adults.

His sermons were theologically rich and gospel-oriented, even if he had to carefully weigh his words – in Naples, he had been temporarily banned from preaching for stating that 1 Corinthians 3:9–17 cannot be taken as proof text for the existence of purgatory, as the church had been doing for some time.

The Escape

            Pope Paul III, however, was not sitting idle in this rapidly changing climate. In 1542, after a failed attempt to conciliate Roman Catholics and Protestants at the Diet of Regensburg, he agreed on renewing the earlier practice of the Roman Inquisition under the oversight of the zealous Cardinal Giampietro Carafa. Anything that suggested echoes of European Reformers was now subject to rigorous scrutiny.

            When Vermigli got news that an invitation by church officials to a meeting in Genoa, Italy, was really a call to an interrogation, he realized he had three options: deny (at least outwardly) his faith, face the possibility of torture and death, or flee. He chose the third one. At least he could continue to teach and preach abroad.

            It was not an easy decision. He was 43 and unaccustomed to long trips, and feared the problems common to all travelers: lack of knowledge of foreign languages, utter dependence on others, and even the trivial discomforts of new foods and strange lodging. Besides, much like today, a stranger was often seen with suspicion, “regarded as a person of dubious character, … rejected or badly received.”[1] Little did he know that this was going to be his condition for much of his life.

            At times, he must have wondered if he was really chasing a dream. He was eager to see some Reformed churches to find out if the good reports he had heard were true or if “the renovation of the church was like Plato’s republic which could be clearly understood but which by no means actually exists anywhere.”[2] His arrival in Zurich and later stay in Strasbourg dispelled his doubts, as he found a church that was not only committed to Scriptural faithfulness, but also warm, caring, and sacrificial. His talents and superior education were soon recognized, and he was given the position of Old Testament Studies at Strasbourg, a course which attracted students from all over the Holy Roman Empire.

New Country, New Challenges

            Soon, he discovered that each place has its challenges. While the political arrangement of cuius regio, eius religio (the ruler of each region can determine its religion) provided some religious freedom in the numerous German states, hostilities between Emperor Charles V and Protestant princes broke out twice in the devastating Schmalkaldic Wars. After winning the first of these wars, Charles instituted a series of decrees reestablishing some traditional Catholic practices for all, something that most Protestants objected fiercely. It was supposed to be a temporary measure (known as interim) in the hope that the Roman Catholic Council that had begun in Trent in 1545 would bring a permanent solution.

            In 1547, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of the Church of England, called Vermigli to the position of Regius Professor at the University of Oxford, where the Italian reformer had to face new problems. King Henry VIII had died in January the same year, leaving the kingdom in the hands of his ten-year old son, Edward VI. Edward’s tutors and counselors favored the continental model of church reform and wanted to bring it to England, improving on the partial reformation started by Henry.

Vermigli accepted the position, but soon came to define it “a hard assignment,”[3] as he had to deal with the fierce opposition of “closed minds”[4] who strongly resisted change. “More than once I was in critical danger and at the serious risk of my life,”[5] he wrote.

All this came to a head in 1533 when Edward suddenly died and the feeble hope of a Protestant rule under Edward’s cousin Lady Jane Grey ended in less than two weeks, with the ascension to the throne of his Roman Catholic half-sister Mary. Once again, Vermigli had to flee, returning to Strasbourg and then moving permanently to Zurich, where he taught Hebrew at the university, working closely with Heinrich Bullinger until his death in 1562. Even in Zurich, his life was not completely peaceful, as he had to deal with raging controversies within the Protestant camp (reportedly, Theodore Bibliander challenged him to a duel with a double-edged axe over doctrines of predestination).

Vermigli’s Legacy

Convinced that a reformation of the church could only be the fruit of a serious study of Scriptures, Vermigli remained true to his calling of teacher until the end, both in the classrooms and in his writings. With Thomas Cranmer, he worked on the publication of literature aimed at facilitating the training of both pastors and laypeople, such as the Book of Common Prayer, a liturgical and devotional manual that helped Christians to develop a correct language of worship.

His influence spread much further than his immediate circle of students, as he was highly respected and consulted. He had a great (although not entirely successful) impact at the Colloquy of Poissy in France, where he held a private consultation with the Italian-born French regent, Catherine de’ Medici, and remained in epistolary contact with many leaders of the French Reformation. He also exercised an important influence on the Polish reformer John Laski and consequently on the Polish Reformation.

After his death, his teachings and writings continued to remain vital in shaping the Protestant Reformation in Europe, as many of his pupils went on to train a future generation of leaders and worked on important documents of the Protestant church, such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Canons of Dordt. While his name became gradually less conspicuous in church history books, his legacy lived on, until today, when he is finally and rightly being rediscovered.

Simonetta Carr was born in Italy and has lived and worked in different cultures. She worked first as elementary school teacher and then as home-schooling mother for many years. Besides writing books, she has contributed to newspapers and magazines around the world and has translated the works of several authors from English into Italian and viceversa. Presently, she lives in San Diego with her husband Thomas and the youngest of her eight children. She is a member and Sunday School teacher at Christ United Reformed Church.


[1] Life, Letters, and Sermons, 75

Sola Scriptura vs Opinion

            One of the most important doctrines of the Reformation is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura. It means that the ultimate and final authority for all things is the Bible, which is the Word of God. As Protestants, we stand on the Bible. This does not mean we ignore creeds or church history but it does mean that in disputes on these issues the final authority, the highest court of appeals, is the Scriptures.

            One common critique of the Protestant view of Sola Scriptura is that it so elevates the individual that anyone can arrive at any interpretation and justify it. In leveling this critique, Roman Catholics appeal to church tradition and teaching as the safeguard against this sort of “me-and-my-Bible-alone” sort of approach. The idea is that we need a safeguard from individualistic interpretations.

            There are several problems with this critique and the approach that flows from it. First, it creates a straw man of what Sola Scriptura affirms and denies. Second, the critique denies that the Scriptures are sufficiently clear. If we take the argument to its logical conclusion, we can ask: if God cannot be clear in giving us the Scriptures why can we be assured that God will be clear in church tradition? In other words, you take the hermeneutical issue from Scripture (“how do I interpret Scripture?”) and shift it to church teaching (“how do I interpret church tradition/teaching?”).

            When it comes to the Bible being the final authority in matters of faith and conduct, in our twenty first century context with the rise of postmodernism and hermeneutics of suspicion, the question that arises against Sola Scriptura is “whose understanding of Scripture?” In fact, in debates where someone says “the Scriptures say…” one can find responses ranging from “that’s your interpretation” to “interpreters disagree.” It is often assumed that if one can find sufficient disagreement of interpretation then a particular view must be valid, acceptable, or in an appropriate range of meanings.

            Let me suggest that the issue of Sola Scriptura contains its own antibodies to protect us from the virus of hermeneutical folly, which is present in our postmodern context. First, those who hold to Sola Scriptura have always held that the core doctrines of Scripture are basically clear. When God speaks, he does not veil himself or hide behind smoke and mirrors. He gives revelation in basic and understandable language. The clarity of Scripture presupposes that God is a communicating God and has the power to make himself understood. Both the authority of the text since it is God-breathed and the inward working of the Holy Spirit in the believer assure us that there is clarity in God’s Word and one can arrive at a clear interpretation.

            Second, part of Sola Scriptura is also affirming the basic principle that Scripture, as God’s Word, does not contradict itself and we must let Scripture interpret Scripture. Unclear passages must be interpreted by clear passages. Those who hold to Sola Scriptura understand that certain passages are difficult to understand and interpret. However, we recognize that unclear passages have the boundaries of a clear passage so that a proper interpretation of any passage cannot bring it into conflict with other passages that are clear.

            Third, God upholds His Word. We also recognize that ultimately God is the giver of language and the sustainer of all his creation. The gift of language presupposes that genuine communication is possible, even if at times difficult. However, because God is God over all we are not left with an endless hermeneutical spiral that is like a death spin never arriving at the meaning of the Word of God.

            Fourth, when any two interpreters disagree over Scripture, the authority over which one is correct resides not in the hermeneutics they use but in the text itself. In other words, when two interpreters disagree, the debate is not ultimately resolved by marshaling opinions to one’s corner (whether church tradition, new hermeneutical techniques, or experts), the debate is ultimately resolved by asking “what does Scripture say?” Traditions, hermeneutical techniques, and expertise are all useful tools but they can be wrong, and they themselves must be subject to the authority of Scripture.

            We live in a day and age where we need to recover the foundations of Sola Scriptura. It is far too easy for those with a postmodern bent to appeal to all sorts of other authorities rather than the Scripture’s teaching. Particularly on moral issues plaguing evangelical Christians today, it is common to find a person appeal to new trends, new voices, or others who rally to the new cause rather than asking the hard questions: “do these things submit to Scripture?” and “what does Scripture say?”

            It takes a level of Christian character, courage, and confidence in God to stand and say “the Bible says…” Our confidence is in God and not ourselves. Far from making us proud, it should make us humble. Nevertheless, it does not leave us wandering a hall of mirrors hearing the echoing refrain, “well that is your opinion.” My life is not my own but beholden to God and what He has said.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.