Chapter 46

Samuel Rutherford: Westminster Divine


All students of church history are agreed that from the time of the apostles to today the history of the church of Christ has never seen two greater assemblies than the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Assembly. It is a surprising thing that they were both held in the first half of the 17th Century -- indeed that they were held within 25 years of each other. The times must have been particularly important or dangerous for the church of Christ for God to give to His people two assemblies such as the world has never known. It was a remarkable age.

While God blessed the Westminster Assembly with many great men, one man is outstanding, and we choose to tell something of the Westminster Assembly by a sketch of this towering man of God, Samuel Rutherford.

His Early Life And Work

It is strange that more is known about the early life of some saints in the Middle Ages than about the early life of these men of God who were instrumental in the work of reformation in the church. But so it is also with Samuel Rutherford. His early life is lost in the mists of forgotten centuries.

He was born around 1600 in a small farming community near Nesbit, in the southern part of the Lowlands of Scotland, in the presbytery of Judburgh. His parents were farmers and he was one of three sons. How spiritually minded and God-fearing the family was remains a mystery. There is some reason to believe that Samuel did not receive much spiritual instruction and that his conversion took place at a later date. An old story, however, speaks of the fact that as a little boy he was barely saved from drowning in a well and that, in gratitude to God, his father dedicated Samuel to the service of Christ.

Even the details of his early education are lost in the past. He probably received early training in an ancient abbey in Judburgh, and went on, at the age of 17, to the College of Edinburgh. Three years later he graduated with a Master of Arts degree, and was hired by the College in 1623 as Regent of Humanity. This post was about the lowest post one could hold in the faculty. The teacher was responsible for teaching Latin to the students who entered the College, for all the instruction was given in Latin and the student, quite obviously, had to be thoroughly adept at Latin to gain an education.

There were four higher chairs of philosophy, and the professors in lower branches could apply for any of these four chairs when a vacancy occurred. And, at the first vacancy, four professors did apply, including Rutherford.

It is a measure of the emphasis placed on a classical education in those Reformation days that all four were required to talk for nearly an hour on a given Ode of Horace, a Latin poet of the 1st Century, and the one most able to do this was chosen. Rutherford won without difficulty. He was on his way to being a classicist without genuine religion. But God's plans were different.

His tenure did not last long, for in 1625 he was asked to resign for what was apparently a moral misdemeanor. This quite effectively put a stop to all his aspirations and hopes for a career in Scotland's universities. That he carried the burden of this lapse with him is evident from what he later wrote to a young man:

The old ashes of the sins of my youth are new fire of sorrow to me . . . . The devil . . . is much to be feared, . . . for in youth he findeth dry sticks, and dry coals, and a hot hearth-stone; and how soon can he with his flint cast fire, and with his bellows blow it up, and fire the house!

This lapse and dismissal must have made a profound impression upon Rutherford, and it appears as if the Lord used this folly to bring him to true repentance and conversion. He resolved to enter the pastoral ministry, and set about studying for it in the University of Edinburgh.

Ministry in Anwoth

In 1627 he assumed the pastorate of a small farming parish in the beautiful area of Anwoth in the southwest part of Scotland, where he ministered to a few farm families and a few nobility scattered throughout the area. John Welsh, a son-in-law of John Knox, had labored in this very parish up to 1600.

The story of John Welsh is itself a story of constant struggle between the faithful in Scotland and the Stuart kings. One incident, a kind of parenthesis in our story, will illustrate the whole matter. After Welsh had been imprisoned and later exiled to France, he was permitted to return to England. In 1621 his wife was admitted to the presence of James I. A chronicler of those days describes the interview.

The king asked her who her father had been, and she replied, "John Knox."

"Knox and Welsh!" he exclaimed; "the devil never made sic [such] a match as that!"

"It's right like, sir," she said, "for we never speired [asked] his advice."

He then asked how many of John Knox's children were still alive, and if they were lads or lasses. She told him that there were three, and that they were all lasses.

"God be thanked," cried the King, lifting up both his hands, "for if they had been three lads, I had never buiked [enjoyed] my three Kingdoms in peace."

She urged the King to let her husband return to Scotland and to give him his native air.

"Give him his native air!" said James; "give him the devil!"

But her wit flashed out with indignation as she rejoined: "Give that to your hungry courtiers!"

The King at last said that he could return if he would first submit to the Bishops. She lifted her apron, held it out, and made reply in her father's spirit: "Please Your Majesty, I'd rather kep his head there."

Rutherford's ministry in Anwoth lasted nine years and was greatly blessed. His fame as a faithful preacher of the gospel spread, and people came from great distances to hear him preach. But his ministry was also filled with great sorrows. His wife died after a long and painful illness. His mother who had come to stay with him also died in Anwoth. His two children were buried on the hillsides of Anwoth, and he himself was very ill for three months so that he had difficulty preaching even once on the Lord's Day.

Many visitors from the land passed through, especially travelers between Scotland and Ireland, for Stranraer, not far distant from Anwoth, was Scotland's nearest port of travel to Ireland. The famous Bishop Ussher, Bishop of Dublin, Ireland, was present incognito at a worship service, having heard the fame of Rutherford.

Exile in Aberdeen

But Rutherford had yet greater sorrows to face. He was a bitter opponent of prelacy and of the Arminianism that almost always accompanied it. He was summoned to be tried by the Court of High Commission in 1636 for a book he wrote against Arminianism. Found guilty, he was forbidden to preach or teach and banished to Aberdeen in the Scottish Highlands and a city which was a stronghold of prelacy.

In this exile in Aberdeen he was shunned by the good citizens of the city who feared the wrath of the king and his minions. But he willingly bore this reproach as from Christ, and wrote to a friend: "That honour that I have prayed for these sixteen years, with submission to my Lord's will, my kind Lord hath now bestowed upon me, even to suffer for my royal and princely King Jesus." The two years spent here were not idle years, however; during that time he wrote hundreds of letters, sent to all parts of the British Isles, now gathered into a single volume, and containing some of his best writings.

Professor at St. Andrews

After two years, with the resurgence of Presbyterianism in connection with the signing of the National League and Covenant, Rutherford felt free to leaven Aberdeen and to return to his beloved congregation in Anwoth. But after being there for but a short time, he was assigned the chair of Divinity at St. Mary's College in St. Andrews. He strenuously resisted, for his heart was not in teaching but in the pastoral ministry. But he had no choice in the matter, and he consented to go only if he would be permitted to preach in St. Andrews in addition to his teaching responsibilities. He told the Commissioners: "There is woe to me if I preach not the gospel, and I know no one who can go between me and that woe." This permission was granted him and he moved to St. Andrews, an influential parish at the center of church life in Scotland.

Here he married again, Jean McMath, but this marriage also was filled with much grief. Although his wife outlived him, he lost his children through untimely deaths. The first two died while he was away in London attending the Westminster Assembly; only one of the five more children given him lived. God, however, uses even a man's sorrow for the comfort of others. To one who lost a son he wrote: "Your Lord may gather His roses and shake His apples at what season of the year He pleaseth." And to another he wrote: "I know there is a true sorrow that is without tears; and I know there is a real sorrow that is beyond tears."

In St. Andrews Rutherford set about his new work with vigor and favor. He was to remain in this position the rest of his life, although he was to be of service throughout Scotland.

Work at Westminster

When the Puritans in England gained the ascendancy in Parliament in England, they determined to bring true Presbyterianism to the entire realm. In order to accomplish this noble goal they called together an assembly of divines from every part of Great Britain for this work. This assembly has become known throughout subsequent history as the Westminster Assembly.

It is not our purpose to give a detailed history of this Assembly. We are particularly concerned with the role played here by Samuel Rutherford -- and even that only briefly. Let it be clearly said however that, with the possible exception of the Synod of Dort, no greater assembly of orthodox theologians has ever been assembled; and, indeed, the Assembly set the confession, liturgy, and government for all true Presbyterianism throughout the world in all following generations. Its shadow has been long and universal.

To this assembly the Scottish Presbyterians were invited to send delegates. Samuel Rutherford was chosen, an indication of the high esteem in which he was held throughout the Scottish Churches.

For four years the assembly met in the Jerusalem Room of Westminster Abbey in London. Here in London Rutherford remained throughout the entire time, separated from his family. It is some measure of the devotion to the cause of Christ which these men possessed that during the four years' separation from his family he did not return home when the two children he had with his second wife died; he returned to a home without children and to a wife who had grieved alone.

Sitting alongside his good friend and fellow Scotsman, George Gillespie, Rutherford rendered inestimable service to the Assembly. The Assembly had to determine the type of church government which would prevail in England. Represented at the Assembly were not only Presbyterians, but also Independent Congregationalists and Erastians. The former proposed a form of church government in which no federation of churches would have any authority at all, but each congregation would be something of a law unto itself. The Erastians, on the other hand, favored a state controlled church in which ecclesiastical affairs would be regulated by the king. Rutherford fought long and hard for the Presbyterian form of church government which ultimately prevailed.

The Westminster Confession was the doctrinal product of this assembly. Its sound and virile orthodoxy, however, did not come about easily. No doubt the greatest threat to a soundly orthodox position was represented by Amyraldianism, which taught a hypothetical universalism in the work of salvation and the atoning work of Christ, and which insisted on a universal love of God and a desire of God to save all who hear the gospel. Again, Rutherford was adamantly opposed to such a perversion of the gospel and fought in the vanguard for the clear and biblically sound statements of the Confession as we have it today.

It was not until 1646 that Rutherford was able to leave London. So impressed was the House of Lords with his work that it sent a letter to the Scottish Churches at his departure which read in part: "We cannot but restore him with ample testimony of his learning, godliness, faithfulness and diligence, and we humbly pray the Father of spirits to increase the number of such burning and shining lights among you."

Declining Years

Upon his return to Scotland in 1648, Rutherford became Principal of St. Mary's College in St. Andrews, and in 1651 Rector of the University. His fame had by this time spread abroad and in 1648 Rutherford declined an appointment to the Chair of Divinity in Hardewyck in the Netherlands. The Dutch would have liked very much to have had him, and in 1651 he twice received the appointment to the Chair of Divinity in Utrecht. But his heart was bound to his fatherland, and both appointments were declined.

In the years following, Rutherford's life was once again filled with sorrow. Charles I had been defeated by Cromwell's armies on English soil and Charles had fled to Scotland. He was subsequently handed over to the English who beheaded him. But Cromwell's successes did not solve Scotland's problems and the Presbyterians in Scotland were bitterly divided over the question of the attitude which the Scottish Churches thought they should take towards Cromwell's forces. Presbyterians were split, many friendships were broken, and bitter acrimony and fighting followed in which Rutherford found himself in a minority position. It was no wonder that the Scottish were the first to welcome back to the throne Charles II, even though he was another Stuart.

Charles II came to the throne with solemn promises to observe the Solemn League and Covenant, but as was true of the Stuarts in general, lying came easy to him. No longer than his position was secure and he turned in fury against the Presbyterians and did all in his power to force prelacy on Scotland once again.

During the days when Rutherford was at the Westminster Assembly he had written a book entitled Lex Rex (The Law and the King) which had outlined carefully the position of Scottish Presbyterians towards tyrannical kings and had set forth what was the Presbyterian position on the relation between the people of Scotland, the Church in Scotland, and Scotland's king.

Quite naturally, Charles II hated this book with a passion for it argued forcibly against all for which kings stood. In September of 1660 the book was examined by the king's commissioners. It was condemned and the nation was ordered to turn in all copies by October 16. Those who refused to do this were declared enemies of the king. On October 16 all the collected copies were burned, with ominous implications, by the hangman in Edinburgh, and a few days later at the gate of Rutherford's own college in St. Andrews.

Rutherford was ordered to appear personally before the King's commissioners. This, however, he was unable to do because of his many infirmities and weaknesses. So he was tried, condemned, deposed from the ministry, and dismissed as professor in absentia. He was ordered to remain under guard in his own house until a further sentence could be executed.

It was indeed the "Killing Times." Rutherford's two colleagues were killed: Argyle was beheaded on the scaffold and Guthrie was hanged. Rutherford was next in line, but by the time his turn came around he was dying.

In fact, according to his own confession, he preferred a martyr's death: "I would think it a more glorious way of going home to lay down my life for the cause, . . . but I submit to my Master's will." And when he was ordered to appear in court to have the death sentence passed on him, he responded to the messengers: "Tell them I behove to answer my first summons, and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folk come."

It was the time when God's saints were called to "love not their lives unto death." Freely and joyfully they chose the way of obedience though it led across the dark scaffold, for it was for them the only way home.

Rutherford's Character

In many ways Rutherford was a man of strange paradoxes, paradoxes of character reflected in his writings. He was a man of easy anger and fiery temper before whose fierce fury bold men quailed. But he was also of infinite patience and kindness towards suffering parishioners, and they loved him for it. When Rutherford was exiled to Aberdeen from his humble parish church in Anwoth, many of his people went the entire distance with him, walking on foot 230 miles, only to have to return the same dreadful distance. And when they left him at the gates of Aberdeen, they wept as those whose hearts were broken.

His writings could be, and often were, long, tedious, monotonously argued, and filled with extensive and heavy metaphors which all but crushed his thoughts beyond understanding. He could, however, write beautiful poetry that soared with the eagles. In our home library we have a small book of his poetry that stirs the soul.

In like manner, his writings could be, and often were, bitter, angry, intolerant, filled with seeming malice -- especially when enemies of the gospel were the objects of his fury. But his letters, written from Aberdeen in the days of his exile, were warm, comforting to the sorrowing, encouraging to the discouraged, filled with the overflowing of a pastor's heart.

While often times his writings sank beneath the weight of heavy and ponderous arguments and high-flown and over-blown rhetoric, sometimes his statements could come like a rapier. To a would be professor in the University he said: "If you would be a deep divine [theologian], I recommend to you sanctification." And on his deathbed he died with the words on his lips from which many preachers could profit mightily: "I betake myself to Christ for sanctification as well as justification."

His forte remained his preaching. It is said of him that crowds were attracted to his preaching not so much by the persuasiveness of his argumentation, not because of the power of his oratory, not out of amazement at his exegetical skills, but because he preached Christ -- and did so with passion.

He lived a faithful servant of Christ and died escaping a martyr's death by a hair's breadth. His legacy lives on in that towering monument to orthodoxy, the Westminster Confession.