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On the Monstrous Government of Women

The Position of Protestant Reformers
Respecting Female Government

A Letter in Response to a Book Review
by Professor David Engelsma
Critical of John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet

31 August 1993


Dear Mr. Engelsma:

I was disappointed to see the review in the Standard Bearer (Aug. 1993) highly critical of John Knox's First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women.

Respecting Knox's argument from "nature," your reaction is merely argumentum ad hominem. You isolate a small quote which will be offensive to many modern readers; but you fail to reply to the logic of Knox's argument.

Scripture clearly teaches that women are the "weaker vessel" (1 Pet. 3:7). With this truth in mind, Knox seeks to draw forth the logical ramifications and illustrate the subject from history. Since women are "weaker" by nature ­ that is, according to human nature as constituted by our Creator ­ then why should the weaker be placed above the stronger? In other affairs, we would not dream of setting "the weak, the sick, and impotent persons" to guard the whole and the strong.

At this point, Knox is arguing by analogy in order to drive home his point. You may find his 16th-century analogies objectionable. But do you deny the underlying truth that women are "weaker vessels" and, as such, by nature, not suited to rule over men?

Further, if you are offended by Knox's argument, are you also troubled by similar statements from Calvin? The Genevan Reformer makes kindred assertions regarding nature, as related to distinctions of gender:

For it were a great shame for us not to have that honesty at the least which nature teaches the very heathen. And if it be so, that they which know not either what God is, or what true religion means, have yet notwithstanding some kind of governance amongst them, how much more ought it to be observed amongst us? Now it is certain that women were never received to any public office. And who hath letted it, or been the stay of it, but that God only has imprinted such a knowledge in nature, that although we be not otherwise taught, yet we know that it were an unseemly thing to have women govern men? This is St. Paul's meaning, and the meaning of the Holy Ghost which spake by his mouth. (Sermons on the Epistles of Timothy and Titus [1579; rpt. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983], p. 212; spelling modernized.)

Yet consider now, whether women are not quite past sense and reason, when they want to rule over men. In a word, it is madness. For, were men made for women? It is true that today men are as channels through which God causes His grace to stream down upon women. For, from whence does labor come? From where do all the most excellent things and highlyesteemed things come? To be sure, it all comes from the men's side. So God is wellpleased for men to serve the good of women, as experience shows. Yet St. Paul has an eye here to the beginning of the creation, where it was said that it was not good for the man to be alone, and that he needed someone at hand who would always be ready to help. Since God was thinking of the man, it certainly follows that the woman is only an accessory. And why? Because she was only created for the sake of man, and she must therefore direct her whole life toward him. She must confess, "I am not supposed to be without direction here, not knowing my purpose and station. Rather, I am obliged by God, if I am married, to serve my husband, and render him honor and reverence. And, if I am not married, I am bound to walk in all soberness and modesty, cognizant that men have the higher rank, and that they must rule, and that the woman who disregards this forgets the law of nature and perverts what should be observed as God commands. This then the place to which St. Paul brings back women. (Men, Women, and Order in the Church: Three Sermons by John Calvin [Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1992], pp. 3536.)

You claim that Knox exhibits a twofold error because he "applied to all women in relation to all men what Scripture applies to wives in relation to their own husbands. Then he extended to the sphere of society what the Bible limits to the home and the church institute" (Cf. Gen. 3:16; 1Cor. 14:3435; 1 Tim. 2:11ff.).

Knox was not alone in his understanding of scripture in this regard. We've already noted some remarks by Calvin that place him perilously close to this "two-fold error." But wait, there's more. In his Commentaries, we find the following doctrine:

It is asked, whether he speaks of married women exclusively, for there are some that restrict to them what Paul teaches, on the ground that it does not belong to virgins to be under the authority of a husband. It is however a mistake, for Paul looks beyond this ­ to God's eternal law, which has made the female sex subject to the authority of men. On this account all women are born, that they may acknowledge themselves inferior in consequence of the superiority of the male sex. (On 1 Cor. 11:10, Calvin Translation Society edition of Commentaries.)

If the woman is under subjection, she is, consequently, prohibited from authority to teach in public. And unquestionably, whenever even natural propriety has been maintained, women have in all ages been excluded from the public management of affairs. It is the dictate of common sense, that female government is improper and unseemly. (Comments on 1 Cor. 14:34.)

In your review, you seem to deny that scripture passages restricting women from office in the church have any application also prohibiting women from public office in the state. But Knox and Calvin saw things differently. They recognized that women were ordained to a subordinate role from Creation. Therefore, regardless of whether they are speaking of government in church or state, they adhere to the underlying principle which restricts women from usurping the authority God ordained for men.

You recoil from what you style the "sedition" advocated by Knox. In so doing, you fail to take into account the historic context of the struggles in Scotland and England against the tyranny of female despots.

When Mary seized the throne in England, there was a civil conflict over whether she was the legitimate heir to the crown. At that time, the right of female succession was not an established point of English custom. A crisis was caused because there was no male heir with a clear claim to the throne. Further, because king Henry viii had multiple wives, a question was raised about the legitimacy of his offspring ­ much less their right to the crown. Rival factions among the nobility took up arms, seeking to control the future of the monarchy.

Mary gained the throne by craft, promising religious liberty to Protestants. But once she was in power, she quickly sought to exterminate the true religion, burn ing multitudes of Protestants at the stake. Hence, her historical epitaph ­ Bloody Mary.

In this setting: (1.) Was it wrong for Knox to address a preeminent question under dispute ­ the subject of female succession? (2.) Was it wrong for him to encourage the Protestant nobles to defend the people from the raging madness of the queen? (3.) Was it wrong for Knox to encourage the people to disobey the civil laws which required their attendance at the Romish Mass? (4.) Also, should the Protestant ministers have ceased preaching because the queen forbade them to preach the gospel?

On these crucial questions, Knox and Calvin speak with one voice. First, the Reformers are united in urging Christians to disobey any civil authority which commands Christians to violate the word of God. Hence, the people were instructed to refuse Mass attendance; and Protestant ministers continued to preach. Is this sedition? Certainly not! "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29)

Concerning the question of female succession: Would you believe that Calvin also declared that female government is monstrous? In his commentary on 1 Tim. 2:12, he says:

I reply, there is no absurdity in the same person commanding and likewise obey ing, when viewed in different relations. But this does not apply to woman, who by nature (that is, by the ordinary law of God) is formed to obey; for [Gr.] gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach. Accordingly, he bids them to be 'quiet,' that is, keep within their own rank.

Regarding the duty of the nobility to oppose a tyrant, Calvin declares, in the Institutes, that

if there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings I am so far from forbidding them to withstand, in that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protec tors of God's ordinance" (4:20:31; translated by Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960, p. 1519).

Indeed, in a less guarded statement, Calvin says, "For earthly princes lay aside their power when they rise up against God, and are unworthy to be reckoned among the number of mankind. We ought, rather, utterly to defy them [conspuere in ipsorum capita, lit., "to spit on their heads"] than to obey them." (Comment on Dan. 6:22, as cited in Institutes, Battles translation, p. 1519, note 54.)

Thus we see that, regarding the preeminent questions of the day, Knox and Calvin were largely in agreement. This is the one crucial fact your review fails to mention. Had the review acknowledged this truth, and then explored more subtle differences between the Reformers, the article might have been useful. As it stands, the review gives a truncated representation of Knox's work, while concurrently implicating Calvin with many of the criticisms you hurl at Knox.

You seem to be disturbed by Knox's use of Jehoiada's example, in advocating the removal of a female monarch. This biblical example is a classic case of lesser officers acting in concert to remove a usurper from the throne. Of course, Athaliah decried the action as treason (2 Chron. 23:13); and you seem to echo her sentiments when you characterize Knox's appeal to the Bible here as sedition.

Before publishing the First Blast, Knox had consulted with many eminent Protestant ministers. Henry Bullinger's response included the following comments:

The law of God ordains the woman to be in subjection, and not to rule; which is clear from the writings of both the old and the new Testament. But if a woman in compliance with, or in obedience to the laws and customs of the realm, is acknowledged as queen, and, in maintenance of the hereditary right of government, is married to a husband, or in the meantime holds the reins of government by means of her counsellors, it is a hazardous thing for godly persons to set themselves in opposition to political regulations; especially as the gospel does not seem to unsettle or abrogate hereditary rights, and the political laws of kingdoms; nor do we read that Philip the eunuch, by right of the gospel, drove out Candace from the kingdom of Ethiopia. And if the reigning sovereign be not a Deborah, but an ungodly and tyrannous ruler of the kingdom, godly persons have an example and consolation in the case of Athaliah. The Lord will in his own time destroy unjust governments by his own people, to whom he will supply proper qualifications for this purpose, as he formerly did to Jerubbaal, and the Maccabees, and Jehoiada. (Cited in The Works of John Knox [Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895] Vol. 3, p. 222-23; emphasis added.)

After reading your review, I must ask: Is the example of Jehoiada of no use to us in settling questions raised in a like case? You stand opposed to the application of this Old Testament narrative to a parallel case, but without telling us why the application is wrong. Until otherwise instructed, we will stand with the Reformers.

As your review points out, Calvin bristled over Knox's book, after it was published (secretly) in Geneva in 1558. Since Calvin held so much in common with Knox, it is a legitimate inquiry to ask why Calvin was irritated.

In a letter to William Cecil, Calvin explains himself. Since female government is "a deviation from the primitive and established order of nature, it ought to be held as a judgment on man for his dereliction of his rights just like slavery." Yet Calvin considers Huldah and Deborah as providential exceptions to the general rule. Moreover, Calvin holds that:

Since by custom, common consent, and long established usage, it had been admitted that kingdoms and principalities might be by hereditary right transmitted to women, it did not seem proper to me that this question should be moved, not only because the thing was odious in itself, but because in my judgment it is not permitted to unsettle governments that have been set up by the peculiar providence of God. Of the book [The First Blast], I had not the slightest suspicion, and it had been published a whole year before I was aware of its existence.

To this reasoning, Calvin added a pragmatic concern. He feared that the publication of such a controversial work might endanger the protected status of the English exiles living in Geneva. Calvin continues: "I had reason to fear, if the affair had been brought to trial, that for the inconsiderate vanity of one man, an unfortunate crowd of exiles would be driven not only from this city, but almost from every part of the world." (Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters [1858; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983], Letters, Part 4, pp. 47-48.)

Note some of the deficiencies of Calvin's remarks here: (1.) The example of godly Deborah in no way corresponds to the treacherous Mary or shifty Elizabeth. (Indeed, Knox expounds the case of Deborah differently; and the exegetical contrasts here might have made a useful study.) (2.) Note that Calvin, at a crucial point, rests his case on "custom, common consent, and long established usage," in a manner inconsistent with his other expositions of scripture. It seems that Calvin is waffling here, since he elsewhere declares that the authority of scripture always takes precedence over any custom of man. (3.) In England, at that time, it was simply not the case that female succession was an hereditary right of "custom, common consent, and long established usage." Mary was the first female to assume the monarchy.

In the final analysis, Knox and Calvin were not engaged in a dispute over the central issues related to female government. Rather, they approached the case with differing views as to what was practical and expedient under the circumstances. The matter was one upon which good men might differ. Calvin may have questioned the expediency of Knox's publication of the First Blast ­ or the manner of the presentation ­ but Calvin's personal convictions serve to confirm the chief propositions of Knox's argument.

Apparently Knox never saw a copy of Calvin's letter to Cecil. Otherwise, as one historian has noted, "We may rest assured that even Calvin would have received a plain reminder of his undue concessions to worldly policy. As it was, the friendship of the two Reformers remained unbroken to the end; and each, we may be certain, retained a cordial admiration for the special endowments of the other." (Paul Hume Brown, John Knox: A Biography [London: Adam and Charles Black, 1895], Vol. 1, pp. 243-44.)

In your review, you have made an assertion which gives Knox the primary blame for Elizabeth's alienation from the Calvinistic Reformation. Yet, Elizabeth's alienation was largely due to her desire to make the English monarch the head of both the church and the state, and to impose prelacy and corrupt forms of worship upon unwilling subjects ­ ideas which were sanctioned by neither Knox or Calvin. Do you truly believe that Knox's book was the primary cause of Elizabeth's disdain for the Calvinistic Reformation?

Last, I must comment on the dubious quotation you borrowed from another author who claims that the First Blast "permanently damaged his [Knox's] career and effectiveness as a reformer." Even a casual reading of history reveals that Knox's greatest accomplishments as a Reformer occurred after the publication of the First Blast. To be sure, the book diminished his reputation among the sycophants who populated the English court; but his greatest work was not in England. Knox returned to Scotland in 1559, and his heroic efforts were instrumental in bringing a thorough Reformation to his native country. If Knox's labors in Scotland are to be characterized as the work of a damaged and ineffective leader, then may God raise up more of these weaklings. After all, "God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty" (1 Cor. 1:27).


Kevin Reed

Copyright © 1993 by Kevin Reed
Presbyterian Heritage Publications
P.O. Box 180922
Dallas, Texas 75218

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