Sunday, 24 April 2016

The First of Three Blasts of the Trump

As I’ve been saying in previous blogs, C. S. Lewis in English Literature in the Sixteenth Century displays a wonderful balance of critical analysis and sympathetic insight. He brings out for us the strengths of the era, so that we may profit from them, while not hiding their dark side—a side that is unfortunately quite familiar today.

John Knox is one of the most important, and most colourful, figures of the Reformation in the British Isles (especially for Scots). Having been brought up a Northern Ireland Presbyterian, Lewis was well placed to understand Knox’s faith from the inside.

Soon after Mary’s accession in 1553, Knox fled from England, where he was already in exile, to the Continent. From there he wrote the Epistle to His Afflicted Brethren in England, ‘full’, Lewis tells us, ‘of his exulting certainty that the persecutors will be punished in this life and in the next’. Lewis comments ‘it is impossible to suppress the uneasy remembrance (even though we dare make no judgement) that these fiery exhortations are uttered by a man in safety to men in horrible danger’. Those are my italics: Lewis’s reactions are more charitable than mine would have been.

Knox then wrote the Faithful Admonition, along the same lines, only stronger. ‘That outrageous pamphlet’, the English congregation at Frankfurt protested to Calvin, no less, had ‘added much oil to the flame of persecution in England’. Lewis again: ‘Knox is already becoming the enfant terrible of Calvinism; and in the Admonition we see both why and how.’

Amazingly, Knox thought of himself as a culpably gentle preacher; he felt that he had sinned by not speaking out plainly enough, not being fervent enough. And this, says Lewis, for a reason that no one who had ever met him would suspect: ‘My wicked nature desired the favours, the estimation, and the prayse of men’. Lewis allows himself a degree of good-humoured criticism when he comments ‘No equal instance of self-ignorance is recorded until the moment at which [Dr] Johnson pronounced himself “a very polite man”.’

In 1558 Knox then turned his attention back to Scotland (not yet reformed) and wrote an Appellation to the Nobility and Estates of Scotland, showing that all the estates of a nation had as much responsibility for enforcing orthodox Christian belief as the church. He tells the common people that if they shirk their duty it will not help in the day of wrath to say ‘we were but simple subjects’. Lewis comments: ‘Knox…undisguisedly appeals to every section of the community to use instant violence for the establishment of a revolutionary theocracy.’ Lewis could not have envisaged how familiar such a situation would become to us fifty years after his death.

When he comes to discuss the First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstruous Regiment of Women (it was planned to be the first of three blasts), Lewis calls it ‘the most embarrassing of all his works’ because, ‘in a certain sense nearly every one…agreed with Knox.’ Everyone at the time believed that it was contrary to Natural Law for women to rule men; but many political arrangements, as the world is, are equally contrary to Natural law, because this is a fallen world, therefore nobody should try to depose female rulers. Spenser, for example, says that women are ‘borne to base humilitie’, but as a practical and loyal citizen, adds ‘Vnless the heauens them lift to lawfull soveraintie’. Calvin took exactly the same view: ‘it is unlawful to unsettle governments’, he wrote. Nevertheless, Knox went ahead and published his book. Lewis comments: ‘No book more calculated to damage the Protestant cause could have been written—and all, as Calvin says…because one conceited man would not think what he was doing’.

Knox writes:

Women as nature and experience do this day declare them…weake, fraile, impacient, feble, and foolish.

Lewis continues: ‘St Paul has said in so many words that he permits not a woman to bear rule over a man; therefore’, Knox says:

Nowe let man and angell conspire against God, Let them pronounce their lawes and say, We will suffre women to beare authoritie, who then can depose them? Yet shall this one word of the eternal God spoken by the mouth of a weake man, thruste them everie one into hell.

Lewis tells us that Knox concludes by stating that it is the duty of the people to depose all sovereign queens and kill all who defend them. ‘And he never to the end of his days seemed quite to understand why Elizabeth disliked this little book. He had advanced proofs from scripture; if they were invalid, let them be answered.’

Knox’s treatise on Predestination was written as an answer to an Anabaptist tract. The tone of the Anabaptists and the tone of Knox’s writing are equally harsh and vindictive. Lewis comments: ‘behind every system of sixteenth-century thought, however learnedly it is argued, lurks cruelty and Ogpu [the infamous Soviet secret police, forerunner of the KGB].’

There isn’t space to go into Lewis’s critique of Knox’s History of the Reformation in Scotland. It contains a little deliberate, but ferocious,  humour, but a great deal of unconscious humour, as in Knox’s descriptions of his dealings with Elizabeth I. He wrote to her telling her not to be offended by the Monstrous Regiment at exactly the moment when English aid was most crucial to the Scottish Protestants. Just to inculcate humility in the Queen, he told her:

Consider deiply how for feir of your lyef ye did declyne from God and bow till idolatrie.

Stylistically, the History is well written; ‘it is not the style that keeps readers away from John Knox’, says Lewis humorously.

Lewis and Knox may perhaps serve as models of how to be and how not to be a Christian writer.

Stop Press: A film on the life of John Knox has just been nominated for a bafta:


  1. I loved your post. It was especially interesting to me because: 1. I am one of the “monstrous regiment” and share in all the feebleness and ineptitude thereby implied! 2. I love C.S. Lewis. 3. I have a particular kind of Scots folk memory lodged in my English psyche. This involves my semi-abandoned infant mother being regularly entertained on the streets of Glasgow by the bloody running battles between Protestants and Catholics. This makes me very touchy I’m afraid when I come across religious intolerance which is based on brute emotionalism that tramples all over reasoning; brute reasoning that tramples all over love, or limp attempts to avoid the truths that underpin both.

    I have unfortunately not read the particular books by Lewis that you describe and am unlikely to have the time in the near future, so thank you for giving me a feel for these pieces. I am a particular fan of The Abolition of Man in which he exercises his ferocious humour at the expense of two unfortunate grammarians, and I have spent many long hours meditating on his Space Trilogy which is dear to me.

    I also enjoy the work of his chum, Charles Williams. If you combine his work with the truths that Lewis obviously felt unable to approach directly, but placed like gems in the Space Trilogy then a very different picture of reality starts to emerge.

  2. Thank you. Lewis's 'OHEL' volume (as he jokingly called it = 'Oxford History of English Literature') Is regarded as one of his best professional writings, but is a fairly dense read, which is why I thought I would devote several monthly blogs to some of the easily accessible bits. I've been a (not wholly uncritical) fan of Lewis since 1965 and probably owe my faith to him, so it's a pleasure to propagate his ideas (badly needed in today's dreadful world). I might do some more OHEL or I might write about others of his works in future.