Politics, Religion, British Revolution (Review)

By John Coffey.

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 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 synthesize 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.


About J. B. Aitken

Interests include patristics, the role of the soul in the human person, analytic theology, Reformed Scholasticism, Medievalism, Substance Metaphysics
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3 Responses to Politics, Religion, British Revolution (Review)

  1. Evan says:

    You really love the word lacuna. So much so that I am beginning to love it.


    • Jacob BA says:

      I forgot when I started using this word. I wrote this essay in 2012. I think I got it because everytime a peer review article sees a new book, it begins with “fills this lacuna.”


  2. Pingback: Sort of being nice to Covenanters | Outlaw Huguenot

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