Samuel Rutherford for the 21st Century

Article by   February 2009
If you have heard the name of Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) at all, you have probably heard it in connection with the Westminster Assembly or one of his two best known works, the Letters of Samuel Rutherford or Lex, Rex. You may know that Rutherford is arguably the most important of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, that he stayed in London longer than any of his Scots brethren (from November 20, 1643, to November 9, 1647), that he was the only commissioner specifically commended by the Assembly for his faithful attendance and assistance in its debates, and that very few of the delegates or commissioners spoke on the floor of the Assembly as frequently or as forcefully as Rutherford did.

You may know that the Letters of Samuel Rutherford has been in print ever since its original publication in 1664, that it has passed through something like 100 editions and been translated into at least four languages, that it has been treasured by Christians the world over for the manifest fragrance of heaven that lingers on its pages, and that men the caliber of Charles Spurgeon and Richard Baxter once said of the Letters: "When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford's letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men;" and "Hold off the Bible, such a book the world never saw."

You may know that Rutherford's Lex, Rex (originally published in 1644) not only fueled the Covenanters' armed resistance to King Charles I, but was also influential in justifying the French and American revolutions that would follow in the next century; you may know that many historians regard it as one of the most important contributions to political science in any age, that no less than 9 histories of early modern political thought examine it and its implications, and that it is still read and discussed in university level political science courses to this day.
 
But what you may not know is that Samuel Rutherford is a towering figure in Scottish theology, that he stands head and shoulders above others of his contemporaries as a theologian, a preacher, and a pastor, and that the magnitude of his literary achievements alone puts him in a category by himself. You may not know that Rutherford published 13 major theological treatises in his lifetime, amounting to just over 7,000 pages of text, not to mention other works, including sermons, letters, an in-depth catechism (totaling 562 questions and answers--over five times the number in the Westminster Shorter Catechism), and a variety of political writings, all of which add nearly 3,000 pages to the total. (Just to give you a frame of reference, John Owen's sixteen volumes, including the prefaces to the treatises, total only 9,200 pages!) You may not know that when we add to the Rutherford corpus a commentary on Isaiah, which has tragically been lost, and several unpublished manuscripts and sermons, we have a literary output that clearly rivals that of John Owen. And yet Rutherford has received and continues to receive very little attention, especially when compared to other English Puritans like Owen.
 
In this article I would like to help initiate a reversal of this trend by introducing you to Samuel Rutherford and by pointing you to several practical lessons that we in the 21st century might be able to learn from him. My hope is not only to inform you about this towering figure in post-Reformation history but also to motivate you to take up and read him for yourself (tolle lege!). Much more could be said in this article, to be sure. But I trust that what I have selected will help shed some light on a handful of issues that we are facing today.

Rutherford's Early Life and Education
Samuel Rutherford was born in 1600--the same year as King Charles I and Edmund Calamy, both of whom would later become outspoken critics of Rutherford's jus divinum (i.e., divine right) brand of Presbyterianism. He was born in the town of Nisbet in the parish of Crailing, approximately four miles from Jedburgh, in what is called the Borders region of Scotland. Not much is known about his early life or education. Robert MacWard, who is probably Rutherford's closest disciple and is the author of the first biographical account of his life, states that he was "a Gentleman by extraction." Others, however, in the 20th century, claim that his father was a farmer or a miller. Prima facie, one would think that MacWard's account would be the closest to the truth, seeing as how he had the benefit of knowing Rutherford personally and, therefore, should have known the story of his early life more accurately than would be possible for later researchers to discern. But, whatever the case may be in regard to Rutherford's family, it is apparent that they at least were of sufficient means to allow Rutherford and his brother to receive the best education possible at the time.
Rutherford's early education was most likely at the grammar school in the Jedburgh abbey, where the curriculum would certainly have been based upon the medieval trivium--i.e., grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. Whatever else he gained from his time in Jedburgh, Rutherford clearly gained a thorough grounding in Latin. This was vital in the seventeenth century, because university lectures at that time were given entirely in Latin (still the lingua franca of the day). Not only did students have to pass a rigorous Latin entrance examination just to get in to university, but they also were required to speak only Latin among themselves the entire time they were there. After passing his Latin entrance exam, Rutherford began his course of study at the University of Edinburgh in November 1617.

Rutherford's Conversion
Rutherford received the M.A. degree in 1621 from Edinburgh and, two years later, was appointed Regent of Humanity for the university. He was chosen for this position over three other candidates, who far exceeded him in years, because of his "eminent abilities of mind, and vertuous [sic] disposition." Shortly after being named Regent in 1623, however, Rutherford was embroiled in two controversies that called this virtuous disposition into question and resulted in his being removed from the university. The more serious of the two controversies is recorded in the city records of Edinburgh for February 3, 1626. There we are told by the Principal of the university John Adamson that Rutherford had committed a great scandal by falling in fornication with his eventual wife Eupham Hamilton. Unfortunately, this account does not completely square with the university's record, which states that Rutherford resigned on account of an "irregular marriage."
 
Because the details lying behind this charge are nowhere given, a great debate has ensued over the years as to what exactly happened. Those who dismiss Adamson's charge against Rutherford do so largely on the basis of the difficulty they have in believing that Rutherford could commit fornication one year and then be appointed minister in Anwoth the next. While this is a legitimate point that ought not to be treated cavalierly, it, nevertheless, seems best to conclude that Adamson's charge was in fact correct. For one thing, the committee that was formed to investigate the charge against Rutherford and to appoint a replacement for him in the event that the charge was substantiated, did in fact appoint a replacement, which suggests that they did in fact find that the charge was substantiated.
 
Before moving on, it may be helpful to pause for a moment and to consider what lessons there might be for us to learn from Rutherford's sin of fornication. There is, in the first place, a stark warning here to those who are ministers of the gospel or who are candidates for the ministry. The allurement of sexual immorality has ensnared far too many men and done untold harm (from a human perspective) to the cause of Christ. We need to be on guard against this in our own lives. In the second place, there is a warning here to those who might think they are above this sin and that something like this could never happen to them. Although it is true that Rutherford was probably not converted at the time he fell--as we will soon see--he was, nevertheless, described as being of a "vertuous disposition." The example of Rutherford and many other at least outwardly godly men should be enough to alarm us and to teach us that none of us, no matter how virtuous, are above the reaches of this (or any other) sin.

As a result of what was clearly a profoundly difficult time in Rutherford's life, one in which he was confronted like never before with the corruption of his own heart, Rutherford appears to have experienced Christian conversion. On this there is little disagreement among his biographers. Even some of those who deny the charges of fornication still trace his conversion to this point in time. If they are right that this event did precipitate Rutherford's conversion, then it would help to explain why he might have been shown leniency and been appointed as minister in Anwoth only a little over a year after committing what certainly would have been a serious sin in the eyes of the church.
 
One of the most convincing reasons for tracing Rutherford's conversion to the time of the fornication scandal is that this event sets the paradigm for the remainder of Rutherford's Christian life. From this point on, Rutherford's Christianity becomes deeply experiential, which one would expect to find following conversion, especially a conversion brought on by a public humiliation of the order that Rutherford endured. Beginning at this decisive moment and continuing throughout the remainder of his days, Rutherford's life becomes marked by a profound sensitivity to the sinfulness of his own sin. And this, in turn, ensured that his life would also be marked by a profound gratitude and an overwhelming appreciation for what Christ accomplished on the cross on his behalf. These two aspects of Rutherford's life--a profound awareness of his sin and a profound gratitude for Christ's finished work on the cross--will uniquely qualify and equip him to speak so powerfully to the souls of others.
   
Rutherford's Ministry in Anwoth
Sometime in mid-1627, Rutherford was called to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in Galloway, in the southwest of Scotland. The church building--the stone ruins of which still stand--is reported to measure 18' wide by 60' long. And, as those who have seen it will testify, it seems much smaller than that in actual fact. (Many churches today have Sunday School rooms that are bigger!) But as insignificant as Anwoth was in terms of its population, it had a geographical and a political importance that far outpaced its size: it was located on the highway between England and Ireland; and it was the parish of the Viscount Kenmure, whose wife Jane Campbell--one of Rutherford's closest friends and correspondents--was the sister of Lord Lorne (Archibald Campbell), who was later to become the Marquis of Argyle and the most powerful nobleman in all Scotland. When Rutherford accepted the call to come to Anwoth in 1627, however, these political factors had not yet materialized and were, thus, quite unknown to him at the time.
 
A Ministry of Humility
We see something of Rutherford's humility and his lack of earthly ambition in the fact that he accepted the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth in the first place and, in the second place, that he did so at a stipend that was significantly less than the average for his day (n.b., Rutherford's stipend was approximately 40% of the going rate for the day!). Perhaps because of his public scandal with his eventual wife, Rutherford felt unworthy of a larger parish with a larger stipend. But whatever the case may be, he still exhibits a selflessness and humility that is rarely seen today in the church. If the examples of prominent ministers today are any indication of the prevailing spirit, we can say without question that, in our day, ministers tend to look for the most significant calls they can with the largest salary packages they can get. Rutherford's humble and unassuming approach was an altogether different thing.
 
More interestingly, Rutherford not only chose to accept the call to the small, rural parish of Anwoth for an extremely low stipend, but he also chose not to leave once he got there. The General Assembly actually had to force him to leave in 1639, in order that the church might make better use of his talents and gifts as a professor of divinity at St. Andrews University. This is quite a contrast to the success-oriented, get-ahead-at-all-costs attitude that permeates Western society and is even present within the church as well. Rutherford did not play on his newly acquired political connections in Anwoth to seek wider fields of influence for himself or to magnify his own name. Nor did he seek to move on to greener pastures. He preferred to stay where God had placed him. Of course, one possible explanation for Rutherford's not wanting to leave Anwoth is that he did not want to be taken away from the political connections that he had so recently established there and that he wanted to capitalize on them for the propagation of the cause of Christ in Scotland. But, even if that is true, it does not change the fact that Rutherford's overriding motivations were not selfish but wholly selfless. In a way that is contrary to much contemporary thought, Rutherford placed a far lower value on himself and his own ministry than did the church at large.


 Guy M. Richard is Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.


"Samuel Rutherford for the 21st Century", Reformation 21 (February 2009)

 

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

 

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