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

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Puritanboard Clerk
This book, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History), is a landmark treatment of Samuel Rutherford, if not always an accurate or fair one. 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.

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 he claims that his 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. I won't spend time on every chapter because parts of them will be common knowledge.


Coffey nicely points out how each group reads Rutherford according to certain paradigms, and necessarily skewers some of Rutherford's theology. The American Right sees him as a more Christian version of John Locke and useful in rebutting the coming secular tyranny. The problem with this position, as Coffey persuasively argues, is that there is no evidence from the writings that Locke and Witherspoon actually read Rutherford. And if they did, Gary North has persuasively argued that they heavily "de-covenantalized" him. Classical Liberals see Rutherford as a key force for religious liberty. The problem, Coffee counters, is that Rutherford was a theocrat who wrote the most sustained critique of religious toleration!!!! The Banner of Truth crowd simply focus on his Letters, missing the larger theocratic and Presbyterian thrust of Rutherford.

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.

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. I am currently reading Lex, Rex right now. Rutherford lists a couple dozen (I stopped counting) instances where God's people defy by force the legitimate civil magistrate--with the narrative's explicit or implicit approval. Ehud, anyone?

Apocalypticism. Coffey has an interesting chapter on Rutherford's apocalyptic language, but like all academics, he misses the larger point. Not once does Coffey correctly 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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