Samuel Rutherford on the Covenant of Grace
May 12, 2016
Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) is often regarded as the finest Scottish theologian of the mid-seventeenth century. I’m not sure I entirely accept that. For me, at least David Dickson and James Durham were on a par with him, if not his theological betters. But Rutherford wrote more, and specifically wrote more on controversial topics, and therefore attracts a greater share of the acclimation/approbation. Despite the above, I’d happily acknowledge that Rutherford was a better theologian than John Owen…if you ask, maybe I’ll explain why!
All joking (sort of) aside, Rutherford is a towering figure in seventeenth century Reformed theology. Last time we saw what Obadiah Sedgwick said on the covenant of grace, and its conditionality or otherwise. This time we will look at Rutherford.
Both/And not Either/Or
For Rutherford the covenant of grace stood “as the only way under heaven, by which sinners may be saved” (The Covenant of Life Opened, Edinburgh: 1655, 215). This was as true for the Old Testament (for example the Mosaic covenant) as for the New (The Covenant of Life Opened, 57, 60-62, 63-64, 75, 80). Charles Bell correctly notes that in the covenant of grace sinners “are promised life ‘upon condition of believing in Christ’” (Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance, Handsell Press: 1985, 76). The parties to the covenant of grace are God and believers, where believers are those who have been chosen to life in Christ (The Covenant of Life Opened, 137). As the parties are only those chosen in Christ, Rutherford can say that “there is no ground at all, nor truth in what Arminians say, that the Covenant of Grace is made with all and everyone of mankind, as was the Covenant of Works” (The Covenant of Life Opened, 119). These two points, an unconditional election to salvation in Christ and faith as a condition of the covenant, are constant refrains in Rutherford’s explication of the covenant of grace.
Faith as the Condition
The unconditional element is “the principle property of the Covenant,” namely, “the graciousnesse and freedome thereof...it is made with sinners without hire or price...The whole Gospel is the word of Grace” (The Covenant of Life Opened, 216). Nevertheless, he insists that “the condition of the covenant [of grace] is faith...This do was the condition of the covenant of works. This believe, is the condition of this covenant; because faith sendeth a person out of himself…that in Christ he may have his righteousness” (Rutherford, Trial and Triumph of Faith, repr. Banner of Truth, 87; cf. The Covenant of Life Opened, 152, 311). Bell correctly comments that “Faith most certainly is required of us as a condition, and Rutherford will not yield the point” (Calvin and Scottish Theology, 76). In saying this, Rutherford did not believe that he was compromising the gracious character of the covenant: “the condition of the Covenant, to believe is a gift of grace” (The Covenant of Life Opened, 216-217). He also maintained that there was no “dependency” in the covenant of grace upon the action of sinners, as their belief did not cause their participation in the covenant of grace; rather, faith in itself was “caused by grace” (Rutherford, Christ Dying and Drawing Sinners to Himself, repr. T. Lumisden and J. Robertson: 1727, 585).
Thus, while Rutherford taught (in explicit contrast to those he labelled antinomians) that faith related to the covenant of grace as a conditio federatorum, non federis, he held that “conditions wrought in us by grace, such as we assert, take not one jot or title of the freedom of grace away” (Christ Dying, 587-588). Rutherford used to reasoning to explicitly distance himself from what he viewed as an “Arminian” or “Popish” use of condition (Cf. Trial and Triumph of Faith, 93). Thus Kim is correct in summarizing Rutherford’s understanding of the covenant as “‘unilateral in its initiation’ by God's sovereignty and ‘bilateral in its administration’ by God to humanity” (S.D. Kim, “Time and Eternity: A Study in Samuel Rutherford’s Theology, with Reference to his Use of Scholastic Method,” Ph.D. diss., University of Aberdeen: 2002, 289-290. Cf. Guy M. Richard, The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford, Paternoster: 2009, 140).
As we saw Sedgwick say last time, the conditionality of the covenant of grace is indeed an area of “great dispute." But not between Rutherford and Sedgwick. Both these significant figures held views that were remarkably similar.
For Further Reading on Rutherford
John Coffey, Politics, Religion and the British Revolutions: The Mind of Samuel Rutherford (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).
Guy Richard, The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2009).
Matthew Vogan (ed.), Samuel Rutherford: An Introduction to His Theology (Edinburgh: Scottish Reformation Society, 2012).
D. Patrick Ramsey, “Samuel Rutherford’s Contribution to Covenant Theology in Scotland,” The Confessional Presbyterian 5 (2009): 115–126.