What Did John Knox Believe About Head Covering?
[Series introduction: This post is part of a series that will examine what certain leaders in church history believed about head covering. Their arguments, choice of language and conclusions should not be misconstrued as an endorsement from us. The purpose of this series is to faithfully show what they believe about covering rather than only selectively quoting the parts we agree with.]
In 1558 John Knox penned “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women“. This work which he published anonymously was a fiery case that female rule is contrary to Biblical teaching. His letter was aimed at the female sovereigns of England and Scotland during his time.
In his writing he quotes extensively from the Bible and appeals to various leaders throughout church history. He does this to demonstrate that women having a subordinate position is Biblical and has been taught by Christians throughout the ages. In this work he briefly stops on 1 Corinthians 11 and also quotes from a defense of head covering by John Chrysostom. His purpose in quoting these sections is not to teach on covering, but to prove his central point that women shouldn’t rule. However, when we look at these quotations we can gain some insights on his own view of head covering.
First, Knox quotes 1 Cor 11:8-10 for support that a woman should not rule over a man.
First, I say, that woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him. As St. Paul does reason in these words: “Man is not of the woman, but the woman of the man. And man was not created for the cause of the woman, but the woman for the cause of man; and therefore ought the woman to have a power upon her head” [1 Cor. 11:8-10] (that is, a cover in sign of subjection). 1) John Knox – The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Accessed on: The Works of John Knox, Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
Knox adds his own interpretation at the end of the passage showing that he understood “power upon her head” to mean a covering 2) Translated as ‘coverture’ in Knox: On Rebellion (Cambridge University Press, 1994) , which is a sign of subjection. He then shows how this passage applies:
Of which words it is plain that the apostle means, that woman in her greatest perfection should have known that man was lord above her; and therefore that she should never have pretended any kind of superiority above him, no more than do the angels above God the Creator, or above Christ their head. So I say, that in her greatest perfection, woman was created to be subject to man. 3) John Knox – The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Accessed on: The Works of John Knox, Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
Knox reasons that because of the created order (woman created from and for the man) and because she is to wear a sign of her subjection, that she should not “have pretended any kind of superiority above him”. This makes it plain that she should not lord over men as a ruling leader but should know that “man was lord above her”. Knox then adds that her subjection is even in “her greatest perfection”, a reference to the pre-Fall creation. Her subordinate position didn’t arise 4) Knox believes that her subjection was re-affirmed in a different way at the fall as her punishment. He does state that she was to be subordinate before the fall though. from the curse, but was God’s plan for her life before there was any sin.
Later in his letter, Knox circles back to 1 Corinthians 11 by interacting with the writings of John Chrysostom (347-407AD). Chrysostom was a believer in the timelessness of head covering and wrote a lengthy defense of it. Here’s how Knox starts:
Chrysostom, explaining these words of the apostle (1 Cor. 11:3), “The head of woman is man,” compares God in his universal regiment to a king sitting in his royal majesty, to whom all his subjects, commanded to give homage and obedience, appear before him, bearing every one such a badge and cognizance of dignity and honour as he has given to them; which if they despise and condemn, then do they dishonour their king. “Even so,” says he, “ought man and woman to appear before God, bearing the ensigns of the condition which they have received of him. Man has received a certain glory and dignity above the woman; and therefore ought he to appear before his high Majesty bearing the sign of his honour, having no cover upon his head, to witness that in earth man has no head.” Beware Chrysostom what you say! You shall be reputed a traitor if Englishmen hear you, for they must have my sovereign lady and mistress; and Scotland has drunken also the enchantment and venom of Circe 5) Circe is the mythical enchantress who detained Odysseus and transformed his men into swine. let it be so to their own shame and confusion. 6) John Knox – The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Accessed on: The Works of John Knox, Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
Chrysostom says that both man and woman must appear before God bearing the signs of their respective roles. The man, who has a “glory and dignity above woman” must have no cover upon his head to show that he has no earthly head. Knox responds to Chrysostom with a sarcastic warning, telling him that those in England and Scotland are going to repute him a traitor since they love the queen ruling over them.
Knox then continues with his quotation where Chrysostom talks about the woman’s sign:
He proceeds in these words, “But woman ought to be covered, to witness that in earth she had a head, that is man.” True it is, Chrysostom, woman is covered in both the said realms, but it is not with the sign of subjection, but it is with the sign of superiority: to wit, with the royal crown. 7) John Knox – The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women (Accessed on: The Works of John Knox, Logos Research Systems, Inc.)
By saying “True it is, Chrysostom” Knox first affirms Chrysostom’s belief that women ought to be covered. He then points out in a mocking fashion how the queen with a crown on her head is actually doing the opposite. To paraphrase Knox, “She is wearing a covering all right, but it’s a covering of superiority, not a covering of subjection.” Ouch.
From Knox’s writings we learn many things about his view of head covering. We first see Knox upholds the complementarian roles of men and women (which the symbol points to). We also see that he believed the “power” that goes upon a woman’s head is a covering/coverture (not a woman’s long hair). Finally, because Knox affirms Chrysostom’s views (“True it is”) and quoted from his head covering defense positively with no qualifications, we see that he too believed it to be a timeless symbol. While we would wish he provided more specifics on how this teaching applies, we must remember that this was not his point for writing. Knox’s work had only one central purpose: to show female rule as anti-Biblical. His work drives home that one point forcefully and he does so without getting side-tracked by other topics, even head covering.
Summary of John Knox’s views:
|Did he see the need for covering today?||Yes|
|At what times does he believe women need to be covered?||N/A|
|What did he see the covering as?||Sign of subjection|