John Knox and the Lord’s Supper: The Mass
April 6, 2017
So far we have seen Knox’s rich and positive understanding of the Lord’s Supper. Now we turn to consider Knox’s view of what he called “that Papisticall abomination” – the Mass.
Knox understood the central place that the Mass occupied in the theology and piety of the Roman Church. He stated that “I know that in the Mass hath not only been esteemed great holiness and honouring of God, but also the ground and foundation of our [former] religion. So that, in opinion of many, the Mass taken away, there resteth no true worshipping nor honouring of God in the earth.” But in opposition to this Knox held that the Mass was “idolatry before God, and blasphemous to the Death and Passion of Christ.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:34) Four key strands of Knox’s opposition to the Mass are now considered.
First, it is important to consider Knox’s fundamental disagreement with the Mass understood as a propitiatory sacrifice. Knox asked “Of what spirit is it invented that the Mass shall signify a Sacrifice for the sins of the quick and the dead?” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:47) In the Mass the Priest “as mediators betwixt Christ and His kirk do offer unto God the Father a sacrifice propitiatory for the sins of the quick and the dead.” (Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:204) This, Knox held, “is blasphemous to Christ Jesus and making derogation to the sufficiency of His only sacrifice once offered for purgation of all those that will be sanctified, we utterly abhor, detest, and renounce.” (Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:204) He sought to prove this by showing how the New Testament knew nothing of this teaching. Knox took up the words of Hebrews in opposition to the Mass: “Paul sayeth, By one Oblation hath he made perfect for ever them which are sanctified; and also, Remission of sins once gotten, there resteth no more Sacrifice." (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:55) There was no escape as “They will not avoid Paul’s words, although they say Paul speaketh of the Levitical sacrifice. No, Papists! he excludeth all manner of sacrifice, saying Nulla amplius restat Oblatio, No more Sacrifice resteth." (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:55) Further, there was the testimony of Jesus Christ, “upon the cross, saying, Consummatum est [It is finished]; that is, whatever is required for pacifying my Father’s wrath justly moved against sin; whatever is necessary for reconciliation of mankind to the favour of my Eternal Father; and whatever the purgation of the sins of the whole world required, is now complete and ended, so that no further sacrifice resteth for sin.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:55)
Knox responded to more refined Roman arguments. He knew they believed that they did not offer a new sacrifice but simply that in the Mass the one same sacrifice was renewed and re-presented. However, Knox argued, “the words of Paul bind you more strictly than that so ye may escape: for in his whole disputation, contendeth he not only that there is no other sacrifice for sin, but also that the self-same sacrifice, once offered, is sufficient, and never may be offered again.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:56) Indeed, to maintain that Christ’s sacrifice can be “represented” at all is “extreme blasphemy; for that were to impute imperfection thereupon, contrary to the whole religion, and the plain words of Paul.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:56)
In summary Knox held that “And herein is the Masse blasphemous unto Christ and his Passion. For in so far as it offereth or permitteth remission of sins, it imputeth imperfection upon Christ and his sacrifice; affirming that all sins were not remitted by his death.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:66)
Second, Knox opposed transubstantiation. He was insistent that “we [do not] imagine any transubstantiation of bread in Christ’s natural body and of wine in His natural blood (as the papists have perniciously taught and damnably believe)”. (Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:201) This was because “the Scripture maketh no mention of conversion or transubstantiation of bread in Christ’s natural body, but witnesseth that bread remaineth bread”. (Knox, “The Reasoning Betwixt the Abbot of Crossraguell and John Knox Concerning the Mass” in Works, 6:174)
Third, Knox opposed the idolatry of worshipping the elements in the Mass. He insisted that “we will not worship the signs in place of that which is signified by them”. (Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:202.) In contrast the Romanists idolatrously held “that they [the elements] should be kept to be worshipped and honoured as God …” (Dennison, Reformed Confessions, 2:203) Thus Knox referred to the Mass on occasion simply as “that abominable Idol”. (Knox, “An exposition of the Sixth Psalm of David” in Works, 3:154)
Fourth, Knox abhorred the withholding of the cup from the congregation. He stated that “In the Supper of the Lord all were equally participants: The bread being broken, and the cup being distributed amongst all, according to his holy commandment. In the Papisticall Masse, the congregation getteth nothing except the beholding of your jukings, noddings, crossings, turning, uplifting, which all are nothing but a diabolical profanation of Christ’s Supper.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:67) He held that “as touching the damnable error of the Papists, who can defraud the common people of the one part of that holy sacrament, to wit, of the cup of the Lord's blood, we suppose their error to be so manifest that it needs no confutation”. (Knox, “First Book of Discipline” in Works, 2:187)
In summary, for Knox, “The Mass is an abominable idolatry, blasphemous to the death of Christ, and a profanation of the Lord’s Supper.” (Knox, “History of the Reformation in Scotland” in Works, 1:194) He therefore concluded his opposition to the Mass with the following exhortation: “For so odious and abominable I know the Masse to be in God’s presence, that unless ye decline from the same, to life can ye never attain. And therefor, Brethren, flee from that Idolatry, rather than from the present death.” (Knox, “A Vindication of the Doctrine that the Mass is Idolatry” in Works, 3:70)