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Know Your Historical Evangelicals: Samuel Rutherford

February 12th, 2011 | 5 min read

By Kevin White

Name: Samuel Rutherford

Born: c. 1600, Nisbet, Scotland
Died: March 20, 1661, St. Andrews, Scotland

Bio: Samuel Rutherford was appointed minister in 1627 of the parish church of Anwoth, a village near Galloway in southwestern Scotland. He worked hard at that obscure rural post and maintained several active correspondences. He quickly landed in legal trouble for defying the Articles of Perth, which codified the high church theological and ritualistic policies of James VI/I of Scotland and England, and his son Charles I. Rutherford’s first wife died in 1630; he remarried in 1638. He was removed from his post for nonconformity in Anwoth in 1636, banished to Aberdeen, and forbidden from exercising Christian ministry. Two years later, after a rogue General Assembly rejected the king’s religious policy, Rutherford returned to Anwoth. That same year, he was appointed Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews. In 1643 he was appointed one of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster Assembly. (He was not involved in the execution of King Charles; the English Parliament did not consult the Scots when they executed the king shared by both kingdoms.) Rutherford kept his position at St. Andrews through that tumultuous period, until removed in 1660 after Charles II returned to the throne. In contrast to Charles’ policy in England, the restored king offered no amnesty to Scottish rebels. In 1661, Rutherford was charged with treason for his book Lex Rex, but died before he could stand trial.

One of the most notable themes in his letters and sermons is the loveliness of Christ. This quotation from his letter to theology professors in Ireland:

I can with the greatest assurance... assert (though I be but a child in Christ, and scarce able to walk but by a hold, and the meanest, and less than the least, of saints), that we do not come nigh, by twenty degrees, to the due love and estimation of that fairest among the sons of men. For if it were possible that heaven, yea, ten heavens, were laid in the balance with Christ, I would think the smell of His breath above them all. … [My] testimony of Him is, that ten lives of black sorrow, ten deaths, ten hells of pain, ten furnaces of brimstone, and all exquisite torments, were all too little for Christ, if your suffering could be a hire to buy Him. And, therefore, faint not in your sufferings and hazards for Him.

For Rutherford, the beauty of Christ is a cause for comfort, for inspiring good deeds, and as a support those suffering for Christ.

His Lex Rex is an important contribution to the history of political thought. He develops the contrast between the Rule of Law and the arbitrary Rule of Men as a counter to the novel theory of Divine Right of Kings advanced by King Charles I and his father King James VI/I. It is a common misconception that Divine Right was the common medieval political theory. In fact, Divine Right theory was invented by Jean Bodin (1530-1596), whose writings were introduced to Scotland and England by King James. English critiques of Divine Right were generally rooted in the distinctly English Common Law tradition. Rutherford took a more philosophical and theological approach, arguing for rule of law and limited government from natural law and from the Scriptures. He works from a framework of covenantal theology and draws heavily from the Old Testament histories for examples and principles.

Impact on Evangelicalism: He predates the evangelical movement, but he is an important precursor in theology and piety. As a member of the Westminster Assembly, he had a hand in shaping the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, both of which had a profound impact in the history of evangelicalism. His letters were highly popular among 19th century evangelicals, with Spurgeon praising them as “the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men."

Recommended Works:
Letters (Selected letters, standard collection)
The Loveliness of Christ (gleanings from the letters)
Lex Rex
Christ Dying and Drawing of Sinners

Writings Online:
Letters, Bonar edition
The Covenant of Life Opened

Informative Links:
The Rutherford Memorial in Anwoth
A Short Life of Samuel Rutherford

Previous Historical Evangelicals:
Thomas Goodwin

Edited: All those passes through the text, and yet the original posting skipped the "minor detail" that he was a Scotsman...

Kevin White