Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford

Politics, Religion and the British RevolutionsOver the past 2 years I’ve read many PhD’s which, quite frankly, could have been cobbled together in a couple of months such was the lack of quality in content and style.  It is therefore refreshing to read a work of genuine depth and quality – a work that is substantial, insightful and yet readable.  Such a work is John Coffey’s Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).  Now, there are elements of the book I would respectfully differ from (some of which below) but taken as a whole this is a marvelous intellectual biography of Rutherford.  Here are some of the points which struck me:

1) Coffey argues that the allegation Rutherford had “relations” with his wife prior to marriage (which was the cause of his dismissal from Edinburgh University) was true (p38).  I was not convinced that this is the most plausible reading of events e.g. the reference to Baillie’s letters (2:96) as providing another incidence of a man taken in fornication ordained a year later did not seem support this as the Synod were reproved for allowing the man to resume his ministry.

2) Coffey states “Along with Robert Bruce … [John] Welsh was a pioneer of the intense style of extemporary conversionist preaching which was to be imitated by younger Presbyterians like Livingstone, Rutherford and Dickson.”  (p39) It is heartening to see someone else pick on the aim of so much of 17th C Scottish preaching – to convert sinners.

3) Coffey makes the following comments about Rutherford and the inspiration of scripture which demonstrate the sheer ignorance of the claim, still made in “progressive” evangelical circles that belief in the inerrancy of scripture is a new development in church history which only works given certain post-enlightenment paradigms and was only really developed by Princeton e.g. Warfield and Hodge.  Here is Coffey on Rutherford:

Rutherford adhered to a very strict view of biblical inspiration. In the Divine Right he seemed to have offered something very close to a dictation theory: ‘In writing every jot, tittle, or word of Scripture, [the authors] were immediately inspired, as touching the matter, words, phrases, expression, order, method, majesty, stile and all. So I think they were but organs, the mouth, pen and Amanuenses … God borrowed the mouth of the prophet.’ This belief led to the position that it was necessary to accept the statement that ‘Paul left his cloak at Troas’ as of no less authority than the statement that ‘Christ came into the world to save sinners’, ‘in regard of Canonical authority stamped upon both’. [Rutherford, Divine Right, pp64-6] … Early-modern theologians went to great lengths to reconcile Scripture and scientific discoveries and to harmonise apparent discrepancies in the biblical text. The option of treating Scripture as fallible in matters of history and science was simply not open…
p77-8 [Spelling as per Rutherford!]

 4) The book is also helpful in considering Rutherford’s position relative to theonomy:

…there was more controversy concerning the judicial laws of Moses … Calvin had contemptuously dismissed the idea that these laws might still be binding and argued that magistrates were free to set penalties that they saw appropriate [Institutes, IX.xx.14-16] … Rutherford … illustrates there were other options besides either affirming or denying the present validity of the entire judicial law. Rutherford argued that with the coming of Christ ‘the whole bulk of the judicial law, as judicial, and as it concerned the Republic of the Jews only, is abolished’, but he added that ‘the moral equity of all those be not abolished’. [Divine Right, 493-4]. The judicial laws could not be dismissed as irrelevant by Christian magistrates; they contained elements of moral equity that were still binding … [For Rutherford] the type of punishment the law prescribed for a particular crime – for example, the death penalty for fornication – was not a moral absolute, but a ‘mysterious’ type of God’s anger towards certain sins which was no longer binding on magistrates in the New Testament age [Divine Right, 493-4]…

My basic take from reading Rutherford and Coffey is that Rutherford was no theonomist!

5) Coffey also notes how in many way the popular Rutherford is only half the man.  The piety of his letters and sermons is what is remembered while his polemic works and his views on toleration are buried in obscurity.  It is certainly true that my own home denomination has parted ways with Rutherford Supremacy Of God In The Theology Of Samuel Rutherfordon toleration as the Free Chruch of Scotland in 1846 stated, “…the Church firmly maintains the same Scriptural principles as to the duties of nations and their rulers in reference to true religion and the Church of Christ, for which she has hitherto contended, she disclaims intolerant or persecuting principles, and does not regard her Confession of Faith, or any portion thereof, when fairly interpreted, as favouring intolerance or persecution, or consider that her officebearers, by subscribing it, profess any principles inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgment.”  There are other aspects of his theology which I am also not unhappy have faded in influence i.e. his supralapsarianism and his denial of the necessity of the atonement.  Nevertheless Rutherford the theologian and Rutherford the polemecist do not deserve to be forgotten and hopefully Guy Richard’s work The Supremacy Of God In The Theology Of Samuel Rutherford will rectify that neglect.


3 Responses to “Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford”

  1. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    Calvin uses the word “dictation” many times. I don’t know why folk are confused on this. His view of dictation had some very wooden literalistic elements to it.

    And are you saying Rutherford was not a Theonomist? Rutherford clearly held that the first and second table was still binding, but the case laws were not literally.

    Not all modern theonomists insisted on the case laws as still binding. And I could be wrong, but it was only a few theonomists who said that “equity” was not applicable for OT penology, but that the exact penology of moral and case law still applied today.

    If Rutherford was not a theonomist, how was he different to the Levellers? 🙂

    I must be missing something.


  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi David

    I don’t know why people are confused over the historic view of Scripture either – but they seem to be 🙂

    On Rutherford – certainly he was no tolerationist and no pluralist. Heresy was punishable by the civil authorities as well as the church. And sure, he drew on the OT for this. But, for me at least, Rutherford denying that the civil penalties are binding on the civil magistrate today seems to undermine the whole theonomic project. For if the civil punishments in Israel are no fixed guide for us today, and we are free to disregard them, then all we are really left with is the “general equity” which I don’t think many people deny. But I’m no expert on theonomy and it isn’t in my immediate plans to become one 🙂

    Every blessing

  3. David Says:

    Hey Donald,

    Thanks for the reply. I would only followup by saying that what characterises theonomy, in my understanding, is not that the penology from the Mosiac covenant is carried over literally, exactly, but that the both tables of the law are to be enforced by the magistrate. As understand it, many theonomists of recent times admitted to the principle of general equity as far as penology is concerned.

    With this working definition, Rutherford would have been a theonomist.

    Thanks again,

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