“To oppose tyranny is to honour God. The office of the magistrate demands our respect, but we need not blindly respect the ruler in that office.”
By BILL MUEHLENBERG JANUARY 13, 2022
A hugely significant figure in what is known as resistance theory is Samuel Rutherford, the Scottish theologian, pastor and political theorist. Especially of significance is his major contribution to political philosophy, Lex, Rex. This brief article will look a bit further at the man and the book.
- 1600 Born in Roxburghshire
- 1617-1621 A student at Edinburgh University
- 1627 Parish work in Anworth in Galloway
- 1636-1638 Exiled to Aberdeen
- 1639 Professor of Divinity at St Mary’s College, St Andrews
- 1643-1647 A Commissioner from the Church of Scotland to the Westminster Assembly
- 1644 Lex, Rex published
- 1651 Appointed Rector of the University of St Andrews
- 1661 Dies
The Scottish Presbyterian pastor and writer is famous for many things, including his Letters. Spurgeon once said of them: “When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere men.” Indeed, there are tremendous devotional gems to be gleaned from them. Various volumes exist with some of these terrific quotes, including:Advertisement
MacLean, Malcolm, ed., The Fiery Edge of Love: A Collection of Quotes From Samuel Rutherford. Christian Heritage, 2021.
Wilson, Jim and Bessie, ed., The Loveliness of Christ: Selections from the Letters of Samuel Rutherford. Community Christian Ministries, 1909, 2018.
But it is his vitally important 1644 volume Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince, that is so very crucial in the debate and discussions of what rulers are allowed to do under God, and whether resistance to them is ever justified. His title refers to the biblical truth that the law is king, and is under the law of God. Even the king is subject to the law. It offers a theory of limited government and makes the case for constitutionalism – a very significant work in the history of political philosophy.
The book’s 44 questions are answered in great detail, comprising some 600 pages in the edition that I have. All this detail cannot be properly discussed here, so let me offer some general overviews and summaries of the book. I begin with two paragraphs from my chapter in Augusto Zimmermann’s important work, Fundamental Rights in the Age of COVID-19 (Connor Court, 2020):
Very simply stated, Rutherford argued that there are limits to monarchies, since everyone, from kings to the common man, are subject to the rule of law – God’s law. When a king or magistrate violates God’s law, he loses his authority, and people may then have the right to overthrow this ruler. Tyrannical governments are immoral and can and must be opposed. Indeed, tyrannic government is satanic government, and the believer must resist it. To oppose tyranny is to honour God. The office of the magistrate demands our respect, but we need not blindly respect the ruler in that office.
His important book of course deals with far more than the place of revolution against unjust authorities. It is a comprehensive discussion of key issues such as the rule of law, the case against royal absolutism, the importance of constitutionalism and limited government, and the nature of political theory based on biblical law and natural law. The book was certainly a volatile volume, and was later burned in Edinburgh. But it was hugely influential, not only in refuting the then widely-accepted notion of the divine right of kings, but paving the way for resistance to government tyranny, most notably as found in the American Revolution.
Rutherford was of course not thinking and writing in a vacuum but draws upon the thoughts of others (others who I have covered or will cover in this series on resistance thinking). A few quotes on this will suffice. Donald Macleod for example says this of the book:
Prima facie, it was Rutherford’s reply to a Royalist treatise from the pen of John Maxwell, the deposed Bishop of Ross, but it also had the more positive object of providing justification to the Parliamentary and Presbyterian campaign in the English Civil War. We must keep in mind, however, that in propounding his theology of resistance Rutherford was drawing on a long Scottish tradition going back to John major, John Knox, George Buchanan, Andrew Melville and Alexander Henderson. He was also drawing on a significant body of continental thought in the tradition of Thomas Aquinas. . . . Beyond that, he drew substantially on such early church fathers as Tertullian and Cyprian, and on Classical authors, especially Aristotle…
Or as Douglas Wilson recently wrote:Advertisement
Rutherford held that the people were the “fountain-power” of political authority, and that they were the ones who delegated this authority to the magistrates. He also demonstrated that when such authority was abused, the people had the authority to rescind that delegation. This kind of thinking was evident in Book IV of Calvin’s Institutes, in Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, which was the work of “Junius Brutus” (a 16th century French Huguenot), John Knox and the Scottish Presbyterians, Oliver Cromwell and company, the English Puritans, and, of course, Samuel Rutherford.
One more quote on this. John Coffey reminds us of this background:
Although it is true that Lex, Rex repeated the familiar arguments of English writers like Parker, Goodwin, Prynne and Hunton, it was also the distinctive contribution of a Scottish divine, peppered with references to Scottish resistance, and marked by explicitly theological arguments. Even Prynne, who dealt with biblical and natural-law arguments in some detail, had focused primarily on legal and historical precedents, and Rutherford probably felt that the theological case needed a fuller treatment. Maxwell had written his book because he felt that it was appropriate for a divine to put the case for absolutism, since it had already been convincingly argued by eminent lawyers like Bodin and Barclay, and since it was so strongly supported by Scripture and Christian tradition. Rutherford clearly could not let this go unchallenged. The natural-law contractualism of the Scottish-parliamentarian alliance needed to be defended by a theologian.
These are not old and arcane debates for old times. They are quite relevant for today. Indeed, given the past two years, they are even more relevant. Francis Schaeffer was someone who was greatly influenced by Rutherford, and he devoted several chapters of his important 1981 book, A Christian Manifesto to him. In it he says this about his continuing relevance:
Rutherford held that a tyrannical government is always immoral. He said that “a power ethical, politic, or moral, to oppress, is not from God, and is not a power, but a licentious deviation of a power; and is no more from God, but from sinful nature and the old serpent, than a license to sin.”
Rutherford presents several arguments to establish the right and duty of resistance to unlawful government. First, since tyranny is satanic, not to resist it is to resist God—to resist tyranny is to honor God. Second, since the ruler is granted power conditionally, it follows that the people have the power to withdraw their sanction if the proper conditions are not fulfilled. The civil magistrate is a “fiduciary figure”—that is, he holds his authority in trust for the people. Violation of the trust gives the people a legitimate base for resistance.
It follows from Rutherford’s thesis that citizens have a moral obligation to resist unjust and tyrannical government. While we must always be subject to the office of the magistrate, we are not to be subject to the man in that office who commands that which is contrary to the Bible.
Rutherford offered suggestions concerning illegitimate acts of the state. A ruler, he wrote, should not be deposed merely because he commits a single breach of the compact he has with the people. Only when the magistrate acts in such a way that the governing structure of the country is being destroyed—that is, when he is attacking the fundamental structure of society—is he to be relieved of his power and authority.
That is exactly what we are facing today. The whole structure of our society is being attacked and destroyed. It is being given an entirely opposite base which gives exactly opposite results. The reversal is much more total and destructive than that which Rutherford or any of the Reformers faced in their day.
Much more can be said about this great man and this great book. But hopefully this short piece – and the books recommended below – will inspire the reader to pursue this further.Advertisement
For further reading
There is a huge amount of literature on all this, so I offer a very brief and selective bibliography here. Various versions of Lex, Rex are available. The one I have is from Canon Press (2020), with an introduction by Douglas Wilson. As to other books worth perusing, see these:
Coffey, John, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford. Cambridge University Press, 1997, 2002.
Cook, Faith, Samuel Rutherford and His Friends. Banner of Truth, 1992, 2013.
Hewison, J.K., The Covenanters, 2 vols. Banner of Truth, 1908, 2019.
Macleod, Donald, Therefore the Truth I Speak: Scottish Theology 1500-1700. Mentor, 2020, chs. 8-9.
Rendell, Kingsley, Samuel Rutherford. Christian Focus, 2003.
Published by Bill Muehlenberg
Bill is involved in a ministry of pro-faith and pro-family activism. He is head of an apologetics/ethics ministry called CultureWatch.