Bitesize Rutherford Bio: Something to Chew On

bitesize_rutherford_cover_courtesy_publishe_1200x1200Hannula, Richard M. Samuel Rutherford: Lover of Christ. Bitesize Biographies. Darlington, England: EP Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-78397-018-6.

Richard Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford Bitesize Biography is an excellent brief introduction to Rutherford’s life, thought, and place in history. Suitable either as an easy point of entry into fuller study of Rutherford or as a quick standalone overview for the merely curious, the brief, easy-reading Samuel Rutherford provides more edification and instruction than its brevity and simplicity might lead one to expect.

Its structure is straightforwardly chronological, beginning with a brief Introduction (9-11) and Timeline (covering from the approximate year of Rutherford’s birth, 1600, through his death in 1661 and first publication of his letters in 1664), then proceeding through nine chapter spanning his life (17-132) and noting some key parts of his legacy (133-38). It closes with a listing of items “For further reading” (139-40), a listing that does not include Rutherford’s theological writings, which “are dense and daunting for all but the most intrepid of modern reader” (139), as one might expect given that “Condensing thoughts and brevity were not among Rutherford strengths as a writer” (102).

In addition to being a time when works of considerable “length and complexity,” such as Rutherford’s Lex, Rex, could find a wide readership (102), Rutherford’s era was one where someone who “was short, slight and preached in a high pitched voice…[that] some described…as ‘shrill’” could nevertheless become “known for his preaching” because (as Hannula explains it) he “vividly set Christ before his congregation, helping them to see Jesus Christ preaching, healing, bearing the cross, reigning in heaven and interceding for them” (32). This was definitely a time when substance trumped style, and reading Samuel Rutherford while aware of today’s culture might easily, were it not for the hardships and conflicts of the time, make one nostalgic for Rutherford’s day.

Many Christians today are comfortable simultaneously asserting that (1) salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, and that (2) individuals must, by an act of will, receive or accept that gift in order to be saved. In contrast, Hannula’s wording when describing how a busy Rutherford at one point “managed to write a scholarly book against the teachings of the Dutch theologian Jacobus Arminius” makes it clear that if salvation were in some way “dependent of man’s free will” then it would not be “wholly a gift of God’s free grace” (53). By implication, both Arminius’s teachings and today’s popular notion that “you must choose to receive the gift to be saved” contradict belief in salvation by grace alone. This implication will likely incline non-Reformed readers to judge Hannula’s wording biased, though to me both that wording and its implication appear sound.

Rutherford was clearly a believer in God’s sovereignty in salvation: “He taught that repentance unto life was completely a supernatural gift from God….Rutherford preached, ‘….No man can love Christ till He love him first, because our love of Christ is nothing else but an effect of His love to us….’” (36). In fact, “the irresistible grace of God in the salvation of sinners” was, in Hannula’s judgment, Rutherford’s “favourite theme” (117). He was also “well pleased with” the Westminster Standards (Westminster Confession of Faith, Shorter Catechism, and Larger Catechism), believing “that all three documents presented an accurate summary of the central truths of the Bible (102-3). Doubtless, then, Rutherford also believed in particular atonement (Christ atones only for those whom God has ordained will be saved, the elect). Even so, Rutherford’s own words make clear that atonement that is particular (atonement “limited” in application to the elect) is in no way of limited value: “‘Millions of hells of sinners cannot come near to exhaust infinite grace,’ Rutherford taught” (35). Since some segments of contemporary Christianity insist on misrepresenting what Reformed people believe on this count, that Hannula’s text makes this clear is another reason it is worth reading (or giving as a gift).

While chapter-by-chapter summary of a brief chronological text would hardly be worthwhile, review of select topics on which a reading of Samuel Rutherford can provide edification and instruction might prove useful to potential readers.

One such topic is how Christians should handle trials or hardships. Rutherford’s own life was full of trials, “punctuated with tragedy, suffering and loss”: he was persecuted by authorities for his faith (called twice to trial, forced thrice from his pastoral duties), struck by debilitating and finally a fatal illness (the latter sparing him execution), having only one of eight children survive childhood, and having his first wife die early in her twenties (10-11, 46). His consistently sound and biblical teaching on the subject prepared both him and those he shepherded to handle trials rightly and for greatest benefit.

He preached that “the ill roads, the deep waters, the sharp showers and the bitter violent winds that are in our face, are of God’s disposing. We will not get a better road than our Lord allows us. He has called us to suffering, and not a stone is in our way by chance” (40, quoting Rutherford). (Similarly, Rutherford was sure that “all our [Christians’] troubles come through Christ’s fingers” [64].) Confident that all trials believers face “are orchestrated by God for their good” (66), that “God use[s] difficulties for the good of his children to teach valuable lessons,” Rutherford “strove to find God’s gifts hidden in his trials” (47) and helped those he counseled do the same.

James’s teaching that the believer facing trials should “count it all joy” (James 1:2) Rutherford internalized in a way Christians generally would do well to imitate. “‘O what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus!’ Rutherford proclaimed. ‘Grace tried is better than grace, an it is more than grace. It is glory in its infancy. Who knows the truth of grace without a trial? And how soon would faith freeze without a cross!’” (67) This forging through trial was no doubt seen by Rutherford as central and indispensable to sanctification, which he deemed a greater demonstration of Christ’s love for his people than even their justification (38). This is just the attitude we today should strive to obtain; perhaps reading this text will assist us somewhat in doing so.

Also instructive is Rutherford’s handling of emotions.

My own experience and temperament has made me suspicious of, even biased against, more obviously emotional Christians. I also get uncomfortable when sermons get too emotional. (Guess I’ll have to pass on the tent revival meeting). The tendency in our day to substitute feeling for thought, demonstrated in everything from how politicians get elected and legislation gets passed to what content dominates popular entertainment, makes believers in primacy of the intellect leery of highly emotional types. In our day, I’m not sure anything is more rare than persons who have brought their emotions into agreement with (Scripture-informed) intellect, who manifest consistently rational and rigorously critical (Bible-directed) thinking while retaining intense (but rightly directed, Scripture-compliant) emotions.

If Rutherford is any indication, persons who largely (though, of course, never perfectly) approached this state were not nearly so rare in Rutherford’s day. Though he could be “highly emotional” in his preaching (33, 35) and prayer life (82), and though he “knew that every Christian’s relationship with the Lord should have a strong emotional element, he warned believers not to put too much stock in the ups and downs of their feelings. ‘Believe Christ’s love more than your own feelings,’ he advised a parishioner. Your Rock does not ebb and flow, though your sea does.’ To another he wrote: ‘Your heart is not the compass that Christ sails by’” (64, paragraph break removed).

A final topic, or interrelated pair of topics, that proves instructive concerns the Christian’s handling of government, civil and ecclesiastical. Here the instructive value owes to the book’s ability to prompt useful reflection, not to promotion of a viewpoint Christians today should necessarily wish to adopt.

Neither Rutherford nor those who shared his views were persons inclined to encourage rebellion or disorder or to defy laws that their faith commitments permitted them to obey. While unjustly exiled from the Anwoth parish where he was pastor, for instance, Rutherford called only for “honest and lawful means” to be used in returning him to his pastorate, asking “friends to undertake a letter-writing campaign to convince Presbyterian nobles throughout Scotland to petition the High Commission for his release [from exile in Aberdeen] and return to Anwoth” (60). This orderly response to unjust exile is a far cry from the prevailing attitude of our day, where a minister justly banned from the pulpit as discipline for immoral behavior might well resume that pulpit in disorderly defiance of his denomination.

Similarly, though the imposition of episcopal ritual practices upon the Church of Scotland (in 1635) had been effected through a “book of canons…formed and adopted” in a manner that “violated the constitutional principles of the Church of Scotland” (by King Charles I’s royal authority through obliging bishops like Archbishop Laud and “English prelates”) which saw the General Assembly, not bishops or kings, as “the highest church authority” (70), even those (Rutherford among them) who rejected calls to compromise did not suggest (so far as Hannula indicates) that the illegitimate manner in which the canons were imposed was itself sufficient reason to defy them (69-71). Rather, their focus was upon the need to defy the canons because they required practices contrary to (not authorized by) Scripture. From his exile in Aberdeen, Rutherford warned his congregation in Anwoth to reject “any unbiblical practices,” informing them, “You owe no allegiance to the bastard canons; they are unlawful, blasphemies and superstitions. The ceremonies that lie in Anti-Christ’s foul womb, the wares of the great mother of fornications, the Kirk [Church] of Rome, are to be refused” (71, quoting Rutherford). While many Protestants today, even conservative Reformed ones, would not join Rutherford in identifying the Roman Catholic Church as “Anti-Christ” or “mother of [spiritual] fornications,” preferring simply to identify its doctrines and practices as unscriptural and so in error and to be rejected, we can certainly agree with Rutherford that a government that imposes unscriptural doctrines or practices upon believers must be defied.

In modern America, where free exercise of religion is taken for granted, we may find it difficult to fathom why King Charles should in this situation have “declared that anyone who refused to submit to his mandate regarding worship would be branded rebels” (73). (After all, we wonder, did not religious permissiveness, provided social order was maintained, contribute greatly to Rome’s longevity?) Yet, “At that time, the leaders of both church and state on all sides of the controversy thought that the unity, peace and blessing of the nation depended on religious uniformity,” so that one action of the General Assembly that met in December 1638 was to ask “the Scottish Privy council to pass a law requiring every adult in the country to sign the National Covenant” (77), which “Covenant [dating to a day in February 1638, when it was signed by hundreds of ministers and laypeople] included the primary beliefs of the Church of Scotland and the errors that they stood against” while promising “to honor and defend the king, but resist anything imposed on the church” (73). (Signers of this National Covenants were called “Covenanters.”) Thus, the Scottish Presbyterians, in their response to the king’s effort to impose his and the bishops’ version of Christianity on all through government force proposed to themselves use government power to impose a contrary version within Scotland.

The preference for uniformity (and openness to coercion) extended to questions of church polity. Present in an advisory (non-voting but actively participating [90]) capacity at the later (1643-47) meeting of the Westminster Assembly, called for by the English Parliament to “reform the Church of England” (89), “Rutherford and his Scottish partners championed Presbyterianism….insist[ing] that unity in church government on a Presbyterian system was needed throughout Britain” (92). “Presbyterian” here means, not just rule by elders in the local church (which can often be found in otherwise independent or autonomous churches), but church government with “a hierarchy of church courts which included ministers and [other] elders” above the elder-led local churches (93). Rutherford, like other advocates of Presbyterianism, considered this order “biblical and the most likely to preserve peace and purity” in the churches (93). “To Rutherford and the other Scottish delegates,” Hannula relates, “Independency posed the greatest risk to Christ’s Church. They feared that if each congregation was independent and unaccountable to a larger body, then anarchy would reign” (93). Fear of a certain sort of disorder, of course, was the reason Stuart kings like Charles “abhorred Presbyterianism”—thinking it “contrary to monarchy” (92), in part “because of its association with the Republicanism of Geneva” (92)—and preferred a monarchy-like episcopal (rule by bishops) order in the church (“no bishop, no king,” as some said at the time).

In response to both Presbyterians and Episcopalians, today’s Independents might wonder: Can God, through Scripture and his Spirit, be trusted to guide independent churches to remain obedient to the truth? If not, is there any evidence that higher church courts, hierarchies of bishops, or even Popes have tended more often to oppose and prevent doctrinal and moral drift than to encourage and accelerate them? The ongoing exodus of Bible-believing Presbyterians from an increasingly apostate Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) does not favor a “yes” answer to this question.

Rutherford stayed true to his conviction that Independency was dangerous and that uniformity must be achieved, even if that required coercion. In fact, he wrote an entire book in opposition to Independency. “In his book, A Free Disputation against Pretended Liberty of Conscience,” Hannula writes, Rutherford “argued against the Independents’ call for liberty of conscience, claiming it would lead to the disintegration of civil society. Rutherford urged Parliament to impose the true Christian faith in a unified national church, using coercion if necessary” (99). “This,” Hannula adds, “was the widely-held principle at the time in Britain and the Continent” (Ibid.), though the Independency-minded Baptist (and contemporary American) in me can’t help but wonder how someone who had his own exercise of religion so interfered with by government force as Rutherford had could persist in believing government, even such constitutionally-constrained government as Rutherford advocated in Lex, Rex (99-102), could safely be granted any authority in this area. But, then, persecution of Rutherford and other Covenanters was at the hands of royal authority, not representative government. Still, representative government is rarely more good and trustworthy than those whom it represents, and trusting that those represented by Parliament should remain reliable supporters of the true faith in perpetuity might show a lack of foresight.

This, of course, is a pragmatic rather than principled objection to religious establishment. Even if one believes government might legitimately (in principle) coerce external conformity to some religious viewpoint or set of practices, does one really want to risk (in practice) granting government (at whatever level) power to engage in such coercion, given that the perspective it favors today may be quite other than the one it favors tomorrow? Though reflection might lead one to reject rather than embrace Rutherford’s approach, reading about that approach does prove instructive by bringing to consciousness an issue that many Christians in the “secular West” may never have thought merited reflection in the first place. Its ability to prompt reflection on this topic is another reason, then, to read and share Hannula’s Samuel Rutherford.

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