Rutherford for the 21st Century (Part I)

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. 

Letters has been in print ever since its original publication in 1664, passing through some 100 editions and translated into at least four languages. Letters has been treasured by Christians the world over and across time for the manifest fragrance of heaven that lingers on its pages. Meanwhile, 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. Many historians regard it as one of the most important contributions to political science in any age, and it is still read and discussed in university classrooms today.

You may know all this already—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 all of his 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, totals 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not know that when we add to the Rutherford corpus a commentary on Isaiah, which has tragically been lost, and several unpublished manuscripts and sermons, we have a literary output that clearly rivals that of John Owen.

Despite all this, Rutherford has received and continues to receive very little attention, especially when compared to other English Puritans like Owen. In this series, I hope to change that 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. Much more could be said, 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 was probably Rutherford's closest disciple and the author of the first biographical account of his life, states that he was "a Gentleman by extraction." Some 20th-century scholars, however, 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. 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, as university lectures at that time were given entirely in Latin (the lingua franca of that 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. The years ahead looked promising for young Rutherford, and they would be—though not necessarily in the way he would have expected. 

Guy M. Richard is Executive Director and Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Atlanta. He formerly served as Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.

This article was originally featured on reformation21 in February of 2009. Stay tuned next week for part two!