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

By Karlberg, Mark W. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 1999 | Go to article overview
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Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford


Karlberg, Mark W., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford. By John Coffey. Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997, xii + 304 pp., $59.95.

For a superb analysis of the life and career of Samuel Rutherford t1600-61) and his impact on theology and political theory, this is the work to consult. I have reversed the order from that provided in the book title. Not only does theology have priority in Rutherford's thought-and, therefore, is the window for understanding his life and work-but the author himself has mastered his subject by virtue of his own command of theology, Reformation and modern. This book will prove invaluable for understanding this period in British ecclesiastical and political history, while at the same time providing the necessary background for understanding the American scene today. Coffey is to be commended for skillfully guiding his readers through difficult and complex issues in Calvinist political theory. He correctly sees the ambiguities and the complexities in Rutherford's thinking as grounds for divergent readings of Rutherford held by contemporary Reformed theologians, both Reconstructionist and non-Reconstructionist. Happily, Coffey's argument effectively calls into question the theonomist interpretation of God's law for civil rule.

After an opening introduction highlighting the contemporary relevance of Rutherford, Coffey proceeds to survey his life as scholar, Puritan pastor and theologian, political theorist, ecclesiastical statesman and national prophet. This fascinating and absorbing study is exceedingly well written. One almost forgets just how complex the issues addressed really are. In the course of discussion, Coffey helpful.ly identifies both strengths and weaknesses in Rutherford's work. By the end of the book the reader, hopefully, can better appreciate the daunting (if not impossible) task of constructing a Reformed/Protestant doctrine of natural law which would appeal to secular political theorists. Perhaps we theologians should be content "to render to Caesar the things that are Casesar's, and to God the things that are God's." I am not urging Christians to abdicate their participation in the public square, but rather reminding us to let the church be the church. We must not at any point or to any degree confuse the mission of the church with that of the civil magistracy. (The legitimate exercise of civil rule is itself a manifestation of God's common grace in the world.) This, it seems to me, is the lesson we must learn from the life and teachings of Rutherford.

Rutherford was a highly respected Scottish Covenanter, a delegate to the Westminster Assembly, and author of the influential treatise, Lex, Rex (1644), dealing with civil rule and the right of disobedience against ungodly magistrates. It is this writing which receives primary attention in Coffey's study. Although an articulate exponent of Reformed covenant theology, Rutherford, as Coffey convincingly argues, failed to attain a correct understanding of the relationship between church and state as defined in the Bible. His conception of a religiously-based, covenantal nation and natural law theory proved ultimately irreconcilable. Coffey rightly labels Lex, Rex as "a deeply Thomistic book" (p. 152), one which assumes "the compatibility of natural reason's conclusions and God's revelation in Scripture" (p. 153). (See further my "Reformation Politics: The Relevance of Old Testament Ethics in Calvinist Political Theory," JETS 29 [1986] 179-191.

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