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

POLITICS, RELIGION AND THE BRITISH REVOLUTIONS – The Mind of Samuel Rutherford by John Coffey (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), xii + 304pp., £40.
also now in paperback.

This review originally appeared in the Reformed Theological Review, April 1998.


Samuel Rutherford (1600-61) was a complex character known chiefly to later generations through his much-admired Letters still in print in several languages. These evince a piety that has enriched the devotional life of evangelicals ever since. Yet this Scottish Presbyterian minister and commissioner to the Westminster Assembly was also a writer of polemical treatises which seem worlds apart from the Letters. To dip into the 618 pages of his book about the sectaries, A Survey of Spiritual Antichrist (1648), is to appear to enter another world. And if one thinks that his most famous book Lex, Rex lays the basis for individual civil rights and modern democracy, his A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience (1649) looks in another direction.

Rutherford has been misunderstood because he lived at the end of the era of respublica christiania which the modern period was soon to supplant. Later ages took over what they liked in his work and created something of a caricature of the real Rutherford. It is the great service of Dr Coffey’s book that he puts Rutherford in his historical setting and lucidly discusses the main themes of the man and his work. The page header gives the title ‘Politics, theology and the British revolutions’. The cover title is apt enough but the page header reminds us that we will find theology in these pages, and the discussion is excellent.

After a useful introduction Coffey provides a 31 page biography of Rutherford. In this he does not dismiss or extenuate Rutherford’s pre-nuptial fornication with Euphame Hamilton in 1625. Indeed, he sees Rutherford’s recognition of the power of and struggle with sin as shaping his own high Calvinist theology. He next treats of Rutherford as a scholar, showing the influence of Aristotelian scholasticism, humanism and Ramism. Ramism was not particularly influential on Rutherford but Coffey is right to emphasise that scholasticism and humanism, which were major features, are not to be polarised but could and did happily co-exist. In discussing Rutherford’s approach to Scripture he rejects as ‘hardly credible’ the claim of J.B.Rogers and D.K.McKim that Rutherford was a kind of Barthian before Barth (p. 78).

Next we have a chapter on Rutherford as a Puritan pastor which helpfully illustrates his deep spirituality, especially as seen in his use of richly metaphorical language and his effective relationship with Christian women, numbers of whom were his correspondents. This chapter easily shows that Rutherford is not the austere cleric some might suppose.

Chapter 5 considers his eight theological works amounting to 4,000 printed pages. Apart from The Trial and Triumph of Faith, few have had more than one edition although some were translated into Dutch. Coffey again interacts very expertly with current discussions concerning the relationship between Calvin’s Christocentric theology and the alleged preoccupation with predestination among the later Reformed theologians. Coffey agrees with Richard Muller that the differences have been greatly exaggerated. Certainly Rutherford was a supralapsarian, but so was Beza, as Calvin was aware. The question of covenant theology and definite atonement is then taken up and the allegation of discontinuity with Calvin alleged by such as R.T.Kendall, J.B.Torrance and Charles Bell is considered and rejected. ‘Like the Reformer, Rutherford was concerned to do justice to both God’s grace and God’s law, to divine sovereignty and human responsibility.’ (p.138)

Rutherford was agnostic about monarchy as the best form of government. His book on political theory was published in 1644. Lex, Rex or The Law and the Prince has a complex structure and blends secular and religious arguments so that Coffey can say that ‘although written by a Calvinist, it was in some ways a deeply Thomistic book.’ (p.152) The discussion of about 40 pages provides a very helpful overview of the content of the book in the context of the times. It brings out the tension between Rutherford as a natural-law constitutionalist in favour of popular sovereignty and resistance to tyrants, and Rutherford as the proponent of a godly nation in covenant with God. This tension leads readily into a consideration of Rutherford as the ecclesiastical statesman, concerned for a pure church – pure in the sense of doctrinal and ecclesiastical order so that he defends a strict view of the regulative principle, and yet rejecting schism and accepting all the community as members by baptism through his distinction between the outer and inner covenant. Yet with the division between Resolutioners and Protesters, after 1650 Rutherford was in the minority Protester group and in effect in revolt against the system of government he advocated.

In the final chapter before the Conclusion, Coffey writes of Rutherford as ‘The national prophet’. Rutherford had an optimistic vision which was qualified by realism concerning human sin. For one who believed in the possibility of reading the mind of God through providence, Rutherford was deeply affected by the rejection of his vision after 1650. As he was dying in 1661, Parliament was sweeping away the acts of the Covenanters. He expressed regret at aspects of the policy of his party and thought that the nation had been divided when ‘We might have driven gently, as our Master Christ, who loves not to overdrive but carries the Lambs in his Bosom.’ It was a valid point although if it had been applied we cannot be certain what the outcome would have been.

Dr Coffey has given us an honest, sympathetic and lucid account of one of the leading figures of the Civil War period. He handles the issues expertly so that it is an intellectual treat to read, and provides a detailed Rutherford Bibliography. Only a few small errors have been noted: The reference to Origen (p.85) should be to the 3rd century not the 4th; Rutherford wrote of the covenant of redemption before David Dickson’s Therapeutica Sacra was published not afterwards (pp.137-8); the acceptance of the Westminster Form of Church Government was in terms which (a) did not prejudice further consideration of the one point on which the Scots had not secured agreement and (b) maintained the Second Book of Discipline (p.211).