Pastor, author, theologian, member of the Westminster Assembly, and political philosopher—that was the remarkable Scottish churchman Samuel Rutherford. Over the course of his career in the church and the academy, Rutherford made his way just about all over Scotland and contributed much to his world and the church.
Rutherford was born in 1600 and died in 1661. He studied at the University of Edinburgh and was installed as a minster at Anwoth, a congregation that would remain close to his heart throughout his life. Under the kings James I and Charles I, during the attempts to force the Scottish church to adopt more Anglican practices, Rutherford opposed the changes and found himself exiled from his beloved pulpit.
In 1638, with the signing of the National Covenant, Presbyterianism was restored in Scotland and Rutherford was installed as a professor of divinity at the historic University of St. Andrews. But he always deeply loved and longed for his congregation back at Anwoth.
One of the striking things about Rutherford is the letters he wrote. In our era, most people just don’t write letters anymore. Rutherford’s was an era when writing letters was how people kept in touch. And Rutherford’s letters to his friends and former congregants are full and extremely rich in pastoral encouragement, discipleship, guidance in living the Christian life, understanding how God’s Word is lived out, and how to engage the culture. These letters from Samuel Rutherford are treasures for us as we look back over the pages of church history.
Another thing about Rutherford is his love for Christ. It is worth tracking down his little book The Loveliness of Christ, published by the Banner of Truth. Those who heard Rutherford preach would say that this was a man who preached the gospel, this was a man who preached Christ. Christ was very dear to Rutherford, and he made sure that those to whom he ministered would also see the beauty and excellency of Christ.
A third contribution comes to us in the form of political philosophy. It is his book Lex Rex. The Latin title simply means “the law is king.” This was contrary to the opposite Rex Lex, “the king is law.” In this book, Rutherford argues for constitutionalism, meaning that the government should not be a monarchy or an oligarchy or a dictatorship, in which the nation is ruled by an individual or an elite few. Rutherford argued that a rule of law is what is best for the people. The book was published in 1644 and had a significant impact not only in that century but especially in the next century as modern nation-states took shape.
But I suspect it was not for Lex Rex that Rutherford would most like to be remembered. As we look to his tombstone and to the epitaph carved there at St. Andrew’s Cathedral by the North Sea, we see what was dear to Rutherford’s heart. On that tombstone, we read these words:
True godliness adorned his name,
He did converse with things above,
Acquainted with Emmanuel’s love
Most orthodox he was and sound
And many errors did confound.
Rutherford was above all a churchman and a pastor. He was committed to helping those who sat under his ministry to contemplate Christ and to be acquainted with Emmanuel’s love.