Samuel Rutherford and Baptist Scholarship

John Coffey has filled in a woeful lacuna in Reformed historical scholarship:  the absence of a good, critical, and thorough biography of the Covenanter Samuel Rutherford.  In fact, Coffey goes on to say that there is not a decent biography of an Scot between John Knox and figures early in the 18th century.

Coffey, John.  Religion, Politics, and the British Revolution:  The Mind of Samuel Rutherford.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford Cover

In terms of scholarship the book is first-rate.  The bibliography alone is worth purchasing the book.  There is one problem, though:  Coffey is a baptist.  Now, I am not being mean or parochial in saying that.  Coffey himself admits it.  I bring that up because the Baptist worldview necessarily entails certain things about covenants, politics, and even how one views salvation.    Coffey himself admits this colors his conclusion somewhat (Coffey, xi).   At the end of the book Coffey will disagree with Rutherford’s worldview, but until then he does a wonderful job explaining it.   The book is divided into eight chapters, with six analyzing different aspects of Rutherford.

In terms of actual biography, Coffey stays to the main tradition and simply updates older scholarship. Of interest is his suggestion that Rutherford fornicated in his youth (37).  Coffey admits there isn’t decisive evidence for it, but suggests he did anyway.  Myself, I’ll stick with the evidence and just say, “I don’t know.”  In explaining his life Coffey points out how various religious communities have approached Rutherford.  Evangelical pietists (likely Banner of Truth) have focused on Rutherford’s letters and its warm piety.   Theonomists and the Christian Right in America focused on Lex, Rex, claiming Rutherford anticipated Lockean ideas of liberal democracy.   Thankfully, Coffey buries the Christian Right myth by pointing out, contrary to Francis Schaeffer, that there is no evidence that Locke or Witherspoon ever read Rutherford (12).

The Scholar

The chapter on Rutherford the scholar examines his academic upbringing.  Of particular note is the various strands of post-Renaissance and Reformation secular learning that was employed at various universities.  Rutherford will later synthezie Thomism and biblical law and the beginnings of the former regarding Rutherford are found here.  Coffey’s discussion of Ramism is intruguing.

The Pastor

Continuing with the more biographical strand, Coffey recounts the various troubles Rutherford got into as a pastor.   I won’t say more since this information is readily available elsewhere.

The Reformed Theologian

This is where the money begins.  Despite much of Coffey’s antipathy towards Rutherford, Coffey does a fine job explicating Rutherford’s high Calvinism.  He begins by burying earlier Calvin vs. the Calvinists theses, showing that they reflect more of Barth’s disciples than they do of Calvin.   Therefore, Rutherford can be seen continuing Calvin’s high predestinarianism within the framework of a covenant and using a different grammar than Calvin, but all the while staying faithful to the Reformed tradition.    First, we must see Rutherford’s foil:  Arminianism.

Arminianism:  divine election is based on foreknowledge of human choices. (this does touch on the Middle Knowledge debate, which will be discussed below).  Rutherford responds that this denies God as the author of second causes.  Arminians deny that grace determines the decision of free agency; claiming that both act together, this makes both “joint causes, the one not depending on the other…because second causes were denied, God was no longer master of events and altogether sufficient” (119-120). Even worse, Arminianism (and I will put all forms of full-syngerism and semi-Pelagianism under this umbrella for the moment) does not escape the problem of theodicy.  True, the Calvinist may have trouble explaining why God predestined some but not others, but the Arminian must explain why God created people whom he knew would reject him and burn forever (120).

Divine Premotion: in responding to the Molinists, Rutherford fell back on an old Thomist idea–God acts on secondary causes to produce actual effects (125).   Rutherford’s other views led to a supralapsarianism with its strengths and weaknesses.

Covenant theology:  This will come into play later in the section on politics, but I will deal with it now to show that Coffey misunderstands Rutherford on one key point (more on that below).  Coffey correctly places Rutherford in the line of John Knox, not John Locke.   Rutherford’s covenant theology also functions as a prism by which he will launch his political theology.   Coffey will later charge Rutherford with trying to force “Reformed Christian” rules on an ungodly Scotland.  Further, Coffey argues that this is inconsistent:  how can one force the covenant of grace on those who do not necessarily have grace?   There are many lines of response, but my main thought is, “So what?”   Anyone who’s spent more than fifteen minutes reading ethics knows that is does not always correspond to ought.  For example, I know unregenerate people in America might want to commit murder–they’ll never change.   Should I then, as a magistrate, not pass a law against murder?

Natural Law:  Coffey suggests that Rutherford forged an uneasy connection between natural law and biblical law.  Lex, Rex was written to justify resistance to the king.  Contra Locke, Rutherford argued that the fundamental unit is not the individual, but the covenant community.  The making of a king, therefore, has two dimensions:  his immediate authorization from God, and the mediate authorization through the covenant community.  Civil society, Rutherford would argue, is natural in radice and voluntary in modo.

Covenant and resistance:  The people (we will leave that term undefined for the moment) could resist an ungodly king if he broke the covenant.  Coffey suggests that Rutherford was embarrassed by the New Testament injunctions against rebellion.  I think Coffey is embarrassed.  True, the New Testament warns against lawless rebellion, but these ethical commands, like all ethical commands, have to be applied in day-to-day situations.  What about the numerous Old Testament commands to rebel against lawfully-ordained tyrants?  Did God change his moral standard?   Rutherford actually mentions these verses, but Coffey doesn’t deal with them

Coffey, however, is to be commended for calling to light some humorous comments from Rutherford.   One of the planks of natural law reasoning is the command to preserve our own life, other things being equal (interestingly, Jesus’ command to love others as ourselves is meaningless if the following premise is not granted).  Rutherford asks, “If an Irish criminal, who happens to be deputized by the king, is about to kill us, natural law requires us to unhorse him and then engage in reasoning.”  Rutherford does list a number of other situations where armed resistance is the only moral option:  if the deputy/king wants you to sodomize someone, violate a woman, etc., only a morally-diseased person will plead pacifism in that case.  That last line is from me, not Coffey.

Ecclesiastical Statesman: Coffey shows remarkable restraint on Rutherford’s presbyterianism.   There is not much to add to this chapter.

National Prophet:  This is where Coffey starts to get annoyed at Rutherford.  He suggests that Rutherford’s covenantal theology, which included the non-elect, was in tension with his ideas of a “purged and renewed Scotland.”  There is tension in how Rutherford applied it, and I think Rutherford can be justly criticized on those points, but I see no tension in the thesis itself.  Of interest is Rutherford’s exegesis of Isaiah 49, wherein he sees Scotland prophesied as one of “the isles.”  We may laugh at such exegesis, but I think there is something to it.  Rutherford’s point, though, is that Scotland had received and banqueted with Christ, and then her nobles forsook him.  Which leads Rutherford to his next point, judgment.

Apocalypticism.  Coffey has an interesting chapter on Rutherford’s apocalyptic language, but like all academics, he misses the larger point.  Not once does Coffey rightly identify this for what it is: historicist eschatology.  This is an old Protestant reading of Scripture and how Coffey, who has done thorough research on everything else, missed this point is beyond me.  Congruent with my own interests, though, is Rutherford’s awareness of that great champion of Protestantism, Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden (230, 239), whom Rutherford calls “a latter day Gideon.” (Coffey is somewhat smug in noting Rutherford’s dismay at Gustvus’ death, as though this disproved Rutherford’s eschatology.  I think there are answers here, but I won’t waste time responding to them).

Conclusion and Critique

In terms of thorough scholarship, this book is to be commended.  There are few modern (if any) biographies on Rutherford.  The price, unfortunately, will deter many from buying it.  The book has its imperfections, though.  Coffey criticizes Rutherford on the last page as pursuing the wrong causes.  He should have pursued an evangelical pietism instead (258).  This is ironic because Coffey earlier criticized pietistic readings of Rutherford.  We grant with Coffey that Rutherford faced a difficulty in applying the covenants to a largely unregenerate nation, but so what?  We must be faithful to the Lord regardless of what the situation looks like.  If the world and nation are dark and opposed to us, it is precisely at that moment that we press the Crown Rights.

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4 comments on “Samuel Rutherford and Baptist Scholarship

  1. DCF says:

    “but the Arminian must explain why God created people whom he knew would reject him and burn forever”

    Does anyone have to *explain* it to the satisfaction of our finite discursive reasoning? Also, how do you detach your supralapsarianism from ADS? And who would you reference in doing so? I am honestly asking.

    I recently read Hart’s “The Doors of the Sea” and thought it good (not great though). Then I accidentally stumbled upon Wilson’s critique of it. I was not impressed in the least–but I’m biased….At the end of the day Wilson seems to react to Hart’s criticism of Calvinism by retreating into it and just saying it is so.

    You mention the author’s baptist worldview being a problem in his treatment of Rutherford. This is a good line of argument in my opinion. I remember devouring Jordan’s book on baptist culture and debating it ad nauseum with my baptist brother in law. The “worldview” argument is something that I remember seeing in your old posts on Tsarlazar when you used to criticize protestantism and I wonder if you have “turned the corner” so much so to the point that you no longer “see” the points you used to make against protestantism. I am familiar with this “turning the corner” as I can no longer “see” my protestant arguments against Rome or Constantinople. We Orthodox certainly have our problems (in fact, I would say, pace St John Maximovitch and Fr. Seraphim Rose, that the various Orthodox jurisdictions are in various stages of “falling away”) but I can honestly say that if I wasn’t Orthodox I would be an agnostic or something.

    Regarding my last email–I’m serious.

    Also, regarding your last forays into the Ortho-bridge concerning the unwillingness of Orthodox to take seriously the less well known reformed scholars in favor of debating Driscoll, Piper, Sproul, et al, I would like to submit the following thought. Implicit in your concern (and I include in this your mentioning of bizarro Orthodox writers) is that our tradition is, like yours, primarily ideological and intellectual when it simply is not. The Orthodox tradition is *the Way, * it is a life lived according to the Church’s prescriptions for our salvation. Now, to the degree that an Orthodox person walks that path both physically, intellectually, and morally–that is another question. But it is a question that can be concretely answered by our bishops, priests, and ourselves. What is the “Reformed way”? What is the “protestant way”? It seems to me that the most honest answer to this is that the protestant way is deciding for oneself what books are inspired, deciding what the scriptures mean, deciding for oneself “how then shall I live”, etc. In fact, I think the fellow who is banned from every theological blog on the internet (you know who I mean) is the epitome of what it means to be a protestant. Alone and always correct. You have read Fr. Seraphim–shouldn’t you know this…Also, I know of no Orthodox person who does not love and venerate Fr. Seraphim. I was puzzled when you numbered him among the “controversial” in your comment there. By the way, I can barely stand that blog anymore. Although I have never seen an internet blogger with as much patience and kindness as RA.

    Forgive the length and the meandering as I figured this comment could just contain my thoughts having to do with my recent blog surfing. Perhaps you will be able to respond to some of it. Also, since you post Jay Dyer’s critique of Orthodoxy on the side bar, why don’t you link to his critique of Calvinsim/protestantism…just saying…;)

    • “Does anyone have to *explain* it to the satisfaction of our finite discursive reasoning? ”

      >>>Only if the Arminian uses the previous line on double predestination as a critique of Calvinism. If he doesn’t, then I don’t use the above line.

      “Also, how do you detach your supralapsarianism from ADS? And who would you reference in doing so? I am honestly asking. ”

      >>>I don’t see it as a problem. I am more and more thinking that the Farrellian line of ADS doesn’t really work on Reformed theology. Even some Orthodox guys admitted as much: once Farrell got out of Patristics his critiques got weaker.

      “The “worldview” argument is something that I remember seeing in your old posts on Tsarlazar when you used to criticize protestantism and I wonder if you have “turned the corner” so much so to the point that you no longer “see” the points you used to make against protestantism.”

      >>>I remember them. Sadly, I forgot the username and password to that site, so I can’t bring them up.

      ” Implicit in your concern (and I include in this your mentioning of bizarro Orthodox writers) is that our tradition is, like yours, primarily ideological and intellectual when it simply is not.”

      >>>I know. EO guys always rush to tell me out their tradition isn’t primarily intellectual, which usually ends the conversation for all practical purposes.

      ” What is the “Reformed way”? What is the “protestant way”? It seems to me that the most honest answer to this is that the protestant way is deciding for oneself what books are inspired, deciding what the scriptures mean, deciding for oneself “how then shall I live”, etc.”

      >>>Private judgment is unavoidable for anyone. Since I follow in the line of the magisterial Reformation and submit to the pedagogical and ministerial authority of the Confessions, that should be evidence that I am not simply making it up as I go.

      “Also, I know of no Orthodox person who does not love and venerate Fr. Seraphim”

      >>>Different experience here. I know the guys at Pious Fabrications couldn’t stand his works because he believed in creation, toll houses, etc.

      ” Also, since you post Jay Dyer’s critique of Orthodoxy on the side bar, why don’t you link to his critique of Calvinsim/protestantism…just saying…;)”

      >>>I might do that.

      • DCF says:

        >>>I don’t see it as a problem. I am more and more thinking that the Farrellian line of ADS doesn’t really work on Reformed theology. Even some Orthodox guys admitted as much: once Farrell got out of Patristics his critiques got weaker.

        I would have to see (I say this like you owe me something…) a serious essay or something on how Calvinistic thought can conceptually detach itself from ADS without giving away the farm, so to speak, on double predestination (dp). They seem pretty well bound up together. I think Farrell is off his rocker and I stopped reading his stuff. But his work on St Maximus and St Photius are nothing short of brilliant. And I think he has shown that dp is not so much an exegetical necessity as it is a logical one. I also think Kelley’s and Romanides’ stuff is applicable here. Which just reminded me to send you a pdf of “Empirical Dogmatics” by Fr. Romanides.

        >>>I remember them. Sadly, I forgot the username and password to that site, so I can’t bring them up.

        That’s a bummer, man. I would probably pay 50 bucks to get back on that site. I used to read it at work (when I worked nights and it was slow) when I was in Japan. It is not an overstatement to say that some of your stuff sped me along my path out of protestantism.

        >>>I know. EO guys always rush to tell me out their tradition isn’t primarily intellectual, which usually ends the conversation for all practical purposes.

        Doesn’t that tell you something? Isn’t that in itself instructive? We rush to say this because it is so darn true. It is one of the biggest transitions that a convert has to make. If he doesn’t, he won’t last in the Orthodox Church very long. Fr. Seraphim screamed this (figuratively of course) for over a decade and watched convert after convert walk out the back door when they realized that they could not impose their previous theological (read: intellectual) methods to the Orthodox life. They had to sit at the feet of the giants that came before them. It really does sort of end the conversation doesn’t it? When a protestant tells me that in order to critique such and such a doctrine I have to have read so and so I retort something like the following: “Fair enough. You do the Orthodox equivalent: spend at least three years attending all the services offered at your local parish, read nothing but biographies of the saints and follow a prayer rule given you by the parish priest.

        >>>Private judgment is unavoidable for anyone. Since I follow in the line of the magisterial Reformation and submit to the pedagogical and ministerial authority of the Confessions, that should be evidence that I am not simply making it up as I go.

        Here is where the rubber meets the road. On the private judgement issue we are agreed. It is not avoidable. Now, why do you CHOOSE to follow the magisterial reformation? And what happens when you disagree with an aspect of it? Can a protestant really have an answer besides: I chose the [insert protestant tradition here] because it is the most “biblical”? And do you think that is what converts to Rome or Constantinople do?

        I am quite sure that you are trying to be faithful to the teachings of your confessions. But why Westminster and not Augsburg?

        >>>Different experience here. I know the guys at Pious Fabrications couldn’t stand his works because he believed in creation, toll houses, etc.

        Is that guy still Orthodox? I look over there sometimes and he’s usually reviewing some early twentieth century historical work or liberal theological work. In our reliquary at our church, we have relics of Fr. Seraphim and I have a blessed icon of his and dirt from his grave in my family’s icon corner. Rarely does a Sunday go by our our parish where Fr. Seraphim and his works are openly and favorably discussed. I am sorry to hear that you have not had similar encounters.

        >>>I might do that.

        I would like to see a serious response to his “Calvinism does not exist” post.

        Lastly, I appreciate you letting me comment here. I trust that this thread is tucked away sufficiently so that no one else will read it. Perhaps you are “over it” concerning the Orthodox faith. Here’s hoping you aren’t.

      • I did a small post on ADS from a Reformed perspective last summer. I plan to utilize parts of it later. While it might seem like I post a lot, I really don’t have that much free time during the day. You are right. I probably do “owe” but it might be a few weeks or a month before I get to it.

        I stopped reading Pious Fabrications about 9 months ago. I take great pride in my blood pressure being as low as it is. I don’t want to ruin it. I still have most of the old Tsar Lazar posts in google reader. I will try to rescue them before Reader bites the dust in a week.

        I might respond to his Calvinism does not exist, but it wasn’t written by Jay. It was written by Mark Burns. Basically imagine someone more unst….never mind, I am not going to finish that thought. You get the idea.

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