Scholarship on historic debates

By Nathan Hood

Nathan Hood is a doctoral candidate in Theology and History at the University of Edinburgh. He specializes in the theological developments of Early Modern Scotland.

Given its geographical location on the western edge of Europe, divided from the continent by the sea, most early modern Scots probably never met or encountered Muslims directly. Thus, it is somewhat surprising that Islam appears in sixteenth and seventeenth century Scottish theological discussion. This brief article will look at two examples of Scottish ministers using Islam in their theological writing.

John Knox

John Knox (c.1514-1572) is often credited as a key figure in the Scottish Reformation. His involvement was crucial in Scotland officially becoming a Protestant country in 1560. He also had an important influence on the doctrine and practice of the tradition, which was quite a turnaround considering Knox had been a Roman Catholic priest. Following his conversion to Protestantism, he had joined George Wishart’s attempts to reform Scotland, but following imprisonment on a French Galley, was exiled in England. He became a vicar in the Church of England during the time of Edward VI. When Mary I, a Roman Catholic, took the throne, Knox was exiled to the continent. It was within this context that he wrote his work A Declaration of the True Nature and Object Prayer (1554).

Writing in a context where the new monarch was a Roman Catholic and had designs to restore England to papal submission, Knox was keen to spread the Protestant practice of prayer. This is most clearly seen in his discussion of the necessity of having a mediator in prayer. Knox argued that all people, due to their sin, cannot pray to God by themselves. Only if reconciliation is made between God and the sinner can they, when they engage in talking to God, be heard. God is so loving that He has given humanity his Son, Jesus, so that if we believe in Him, we ‘may with boldness compear and appear before the throne of God’s mercy’ in prayer.[1]

Knox zealously argued that without a mediator one cannot enter into prayer. Praying without a mediator is ‘odious and abominable before God’, provoking His wrath. Knox illustrated this point by using the example of ‘Turks and Jews’, Turks a synonym for Muslim in this context. Though they may be pious and pray with great fervour, because their prayers are not mediated by Jesus Christ, ‘their prayers are never pleasing unto God’. As anything which does not acknowledge Jesus does offence to God, their prayers are worthless.[2]

By the same principle, Knox took aim at the Catholic practice of asking the saints to intercede. While Catholics rightly acknowledge the need for a mediator, they often appeal to the wrong powers. Only Christ can mediate between God and humanity, as He alone is God and man, and as such is able to satisfy God’s wrath on humanity’s behalf. As saints are not both divine and human, they cannot intercede. Consequently, the prayers of Catholics to saints or angels are, in Knox’s view, as useless as those of the Muslim’s, as they are not mediated by Jesus Christ.[3]

George Gillespie

George Gillespie (1613-1648) was minister of Kirkcaldy in the south-west of Scotland, ordained on 26th April 1638. Noted for his exceptional intellectual gifts, he was an influential controversialist in defence of Presbyterian theology, liturgy, and polity. Following riots in 1637 against the introduction of The Book of Common Prayer (1637), alternatively known as the Service Book, Gillespie rose to prominence by arguing against Charles’s ecclesiastical reforms. In a pamphlet entitled Reasons for which the Service Booke, urged upon Scotland ought to be Refused (1638). In the main, he opposed the liturgical change because, in his mind, it would make Scottish worship essentially Roman Catholic. In his fifth reason for objecting to the Service Book, he took a different tack. Gillespie argued Caroline religious reform should be rejected because it condemns extempore prayers. For most Scottish Protestants, Episcopalian and Presbyterian, prayers should be spontaneous, not preplanned, to allow for the Holy Spirit to inspire the words of the speaker. By contrast, the Service Book and Canons required all prayers to be read from the liturgy.[4]

Defending the mainstream Scottish view, Gillespie argued that God had not appointed a formed liturgy for His worship. It is not, in his words, ‘lawfull for a man to tie himselfe, or bee tyed by others, to a prescript forme of words in prayer and exhortation’.[5] He gave many reasons for this conclusion. Prescribed prayers and sermons hinder the ‘many spirituall petitions and prases that otherwise would be’, and so make the gifts of Christ ‘needlesse’. This is nothing other than quenching the Holy Spirit, and a hinderance to the edification of God’s people, who might as well have stayed at home to read the Service Book themselves. Lacking divine inspiration, the set prayers and sermons cannot convert the unrenewed heart, and so cannot convince a heretic. One can read the liturgy having just been in ‘the Ailhouse’. A seven-year-old boy, or even ‘a Turcke if he can read, may be such a minister’.[6] Seeing the role of the Spirit in public worship as interventionist, reading the Service Book was for Gillespie unacceptable, as it provides no space for divine inspiration to interrupt normal cognition.


Knox and Gillespie both used ‘the Turk’ to tarnish their opponent’s position. Both assume that Islam is heretical. They then identified their opponents, whether Roman Catholicism or liturgical ceremonialism, with the positions of Muslims, thus showing their absurdity. Islam was not the main target of critique: it was a vehicle for intra-Christian polemic. Therefore, Islam was used by Scottish Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as an instrument of theological polemic in debates surrounding liturgical practice.

For more scholarly analysis of historic Christian-Muslim debate, see this post on Wahhab’s writings about Christianity, or this post on the first English translation of the Quran.

[1] John Knox, ‘A Declaration of the True Nature and Object of Prayer’, in The Works of John Knox, Volume III, edited by David Laing (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1854) 93-94.

[2] Knox, ‘Declaration’, 94-95.

[3] Knox, ‘Declaration’, 95-96.

[4] Canons and Constitutions Ecclesiastical (Abderdeen: Edward Raban, 1636) 27; The Book of Common Prayer, and Administration of the Sacraments (Edinburgh: Robert Young, 1637) A4v-A5r.

[5] George Gillespie, Reasons for which the Service Booke, urged upon Scotland ought to be Refused (Edinburgh: G. Anderson, 1638) 3.

[6] Gillespie, Reasons, 3-4. ble 4;\