Samuel Rutherford was born in Nisbet, Scotland in the year of 1600. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and appointed professor of Latin. Eventually, he became a minister in Anworth, Scotland. He enjoyed the quiet country life of a minister in Anworth where he loved the community and parish in which he served. His quiet life was disrupted after he published a book defending Calvinism of the Church of Scotland against the theological challenges of Arminianism.
He became recognized as a gifted theologian and scholar through the book which he published. Rutherford came under the scrutiny of Arminian Anglican bishops forced upon the church of Scotland by King Charles I.
In 1636, Rutherford was judged to be a Noncomformist by the Anglican High Commission. He was removed from his parish, barred from preaching in Scotland and was exiled to Aberdeen. The Presbyterian party gained control of the Church of Scotland in 1638. Scots vowed to defend the Reformed faith by signing the National Covenant. They sought to keep the Church of Scotland free from political intrigue and control. Rutherford became the professor of divinity at St. Andrew's University when the change occurred. Eventually, he became a member of the Westminster Assembly which wrote the Westminster Confession. Through diligent study and prolific writing; Rutherford became one of Scotland's greatest theological authors.
In 1660, the Anglican church was in-instituted in Scotland when the English monarchy was restored. Samuel Rutherford lost his teaching position and his written works were publicly burned. He was summoned to appear before Parliament in 1661 to answer charges of high treason. At the time, Samuel Rutherford was terminally ill and answered the high court with this response to Parliament:
“I have got a summons already before a Superior Judge and Judicatory;...and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folks come.”
Upon his deathbead, a friend asked Rutherford:
“What thin ye now of Christ?” He replied, “Oh, that all my brethren in the land may know what a master I have served, and what peace I have this day! I shall sleep in Christ, and when I awake, I shall be satisfied with his likeness. This night shall close the door, and put my anchor within the vail; and I shall go away in a sleep by five of the clock in the morning. Glory! Glory to my Creator and my Redeemer forever!...Glory! Glory dwelleth in Immanuel's land!”
Anne Ross Cousin developed Rutherford's last words in a poetic tract called “The Last Words of Samuel Rutherford.”
“The Sands of Time are Sinking” is a hymn developed from the poem.
George Gillespie attended the University of St. Andrews. He came to prominence in 1637 when he anonymously published “A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland." He sharply criticized the Episcopalian innovations which were imposed on the Church of Scotland by King Charles. He became the youngest of the four Scottish ministers selected to attend the Westminster Assembly. Throughout his days, he was referred to as the “Great Mr. Gillespie.”
Gillespie was a great orator and thinker of his age. He attended a debate concerning whether the church or state had the authority of excommunication. Samuel Rutherford called upon Gillespie his friend and colleague. Rutherford declared:
“Rise, George, rise up, man, and defend the right of the Lord Jesus Christ to govern by His own laws.”
At first, Gillespie summarized the position of his opponent; then skilfully broke down his opponent's arguments piece by piece. His reasoning and oration were so convincing, his opponent declared:
“That young man, by this single speech has swept away the learning and labor of ten years of my life.”
Gillespie became gravely ill from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-six. He received a letter from Rutherford at St. Andrews during his last days.
“Be not heavy: the life of faith is now called for; doing was never reckoned in your account; though Christ in and by you hath done more than by twenty, yea, an hundred gray-haired men and godly pastors. Believing now is your last. Look to that word, Galatians 2:20.”
The theology of Christianity explains the abnormality that is present in this age. This abnormality of man in terms of a flaw is explained by the historic space-time fall of mankind through Adam. Although mankind has noble attributes those attributes are vitiated by selfishness, cruelty, and vice. Mankind has a fatal infection of sin and rebellion against God. The atoning work of Jesus Christ is the remedy and answer to the abnormality. Though the symptoms and effects remain, the fatal infection of sin is cured through Jesus Christ. Man isn't perfected in this life but is substantially healed by Christ's finished work of redemption. The absolutes of the Bible are available to order and direct man's fallen nature. Mankind is accountable to his Creator for his behavior and thought life. The Bible declares absolute standards by which all moral judgments of life are measured. Hence, the Bible is the standard of measure concerning right and wrong.
The fundamental principles of the Reformation world view were passed on to the American colonies through the work of Samuel Rutherford author of Lex Rex or, the Law and the Prince which was published in 1644.
The divine right of kings was the fundamental principle of the seventeenth century political government throughout Europe. Rutherford's work Lex Rex challenged the doctrine that the king or state ruled as God's appointed regent. Scripture was seen as the standard. Yet it was believed that the king alone interpreted and embodies that standard. Rutherford asserted the basic premise of government and law must be the Bible. The Word of God rather than the arbitrary relative opinions of men was the foundation of law and government. All men, including the king were under the law of God and not above it. Rutherford's philosophic position is the reason for which he was summoned to appear before Parliament who charged him with high treason and heresy.
Lex Rex was banned in Scotland and burned in England. Rutherford, a Scottish Presbyterian commissioner at Westminster Abbey and rector of St. Andrew's Church was placed under house arrest. He was summoned to appear before Parliament in Edinburgh where he faced execution. Rutherford died before he could comply with the summons to appear before Parliament.
His theological world view profoundly influenced political thought of later generations. The fundamental principle of his presuppositions are based upon the absolutes of the Bible. Those presuppositions were realized through John Locke and John Witherspoon in colonial America. Presbyterian minister, John Witherspoon was educated at Edinburgh University and brought those principles of Lex Rex to America where he taught James Madison at Princeton University. John Witherspoon was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. He was an influential member of the Continental Congress from 1776 to 1779 and from 1780 to 1782. Witherspoon held a key role in various committees of the First Continental Congress. As President of Princeton University, his profound influence was realized through the students whom he taught. His students held positions of eminence at the Constitutional Convention and throughout the early years of American history. President James Madison was among his students. Furthermore, he taught vice president Aaron Burr, ten cabinet officers; twenty-one senators; thirty-nine congressmen; twelve governors, and other public figures.
Professor Richard B. Morris of Columbia University declared in his book Seven Who Shaped Our Destiny:
“Most influential in shaping Madison's...outlook was Princeton's president, John Witherspoon, a leading empiricist of his day...whose exposition of the doctrines of resistance and liberty quickly established him throughout the Continent as an imposing intellectual.”
James Madison has been labeled the “Father of the Constitution” but Witherspoon's influence upon Madison as his educator played a major role in the drafting of the Constitution.
The American colonists drew upon two principles enunciated in Rutherford's Lex Rex. Those two principles were important as the colonist's declared independence from Great Britain in 1776. The first principle is the concept of covenant and constitution between the ruler of a nation – God – and the populace. The covenant or constitution between the ruler – God – and the people could not grant the state absolute unlimited power without violating God's law. The American colonists asserted King George violated his covenant with God by transgressing the inalienable God given rights and liberties of the people.
Moses and Samuel were judges in the Old Testament. We find a biblical pattern for the judicial office in the Bible. In the era of Moses, judges resolved disputes among people at their request according the principles, and precepts of the laws of God. After a king for Israel was appointed; the judges interpreted and applied the law of the covenant and particular legislative acts. The prophet Samuel was a judge and guardian of the covenant which was made between God – King Saul – and the people of Israel. It was Samuel who actually drafted the covenant which set forth “the manner of the kingdom” and “the rights and duties of the Kingship” (I Samuel 10:25) It was Samuel Rutherford who presented the covenantal basis for government authority of which he speaks in Lex Rex or the Law and the Prince.
Furthermore, Rutherford asserted that all men are created equal. All men are born sinners in rebellion against God. Hence, Rutherford propagated the principle that no man is superior to any other man. It was Rutherford who established the principle of equality and liberty among men which was incorporated in the Declaration of Independence.
The phrase “all men are created equal” is but an echo of Samuel Rutherford's theological position he declared in his work Lex Rex written in 1644.
John Locke secularized the principles of which Rutherford wrote in 1644. Although Locke secularized the Reformed tradition, he drew heavily upon it. John Locke elaborated fundamental principles such as inalienable rights, government by consent, social compact (a constitution between the people and government), separation of powers, and the right to resist unlawful authority. There were men who formed the Constitution who were not Christian's in the full sense. Dr. Francis Schaeffer declared:
“..yet they built upon the basis of the Reformation either directly through the Lex, Rex tradition of indirectly through Locke.”
The political institutions of America have the principles of the Reformation as the base upon which the nation is founded and established. Unfortunately, the arbitrary nature of modern secularist civil “democratic” government reflects absolute monarchists who condemned the principles of Samuel Rutherford. Yet the monarchs of Rutherford's day acknowledged in theory the sovereignty of God. The Bible was held in high regard. For one such as Rutherford to challenge the monarch on biblical grounds was considered to be treason and heresy. In today's humanist materialistic culture, Lex Rex would probably be ignored and relegated to irrelevant Christian declarations.
Tragically, contemporary Christians of our era have embraced a naive acceptance of the belief that civil government is in the realm of God's providential rule. Christians enjoy representation and remonstration but are inclined to submit to obey all decrees of state authority. The principles set forth by Samuel Rutherford in his monumental work Lex Rex is diametrically opposed to this position.
Constitutional Attorney John W. Whitehead, in his most important work The Second American Revolution declared:
“Acts of the state that do not have a clear reference point in the Bible are considered to be illegitimate and acts of tyranny (ruling without the sanction of God), Rutherford argued.”
Hence, tyrannical government is always immoral and the work of Satan.
Samuel Rutherford declared:
“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.”
Tyranny is not legitimate even though a people contracted and agreed to be governed by an authoritarian tyrant. Whitehead exclaimed:
“Not so, argues Rutherford, for the people can never enter into a valid contractual obligation with a ruler when the terms of the contract are outside the Laws of God.”
There is a relationship of trust which arises from a constitution – a covenant – a contractual agreement between ruler (the state), the people, and Almighty God. In this covenant, the ruler agrees to rule the people according to the Word of God. Furthermore, the state has a covenant with God to obey his Word. The people agree to obey the state as long as the state continues to function according to the precepts and principles of the Bible.
“We give you a throne upon condition you swear by him who made heaven and earth, that you will govern us according to God's law.”
The people are “loosened from the contract” according to Rutherford if the state fails to rule according to the Law of God. Hence, the implications of the principles which Rutherford has gleaned from the Scriptures indicates that the vast majority of governments throughout the world are illegitimate!
Vindiciae Contra Tyrranos – Vindication Against Tyrants is a book which had a profound influence upon the American Founding Fathers. John Adams asserted that it was one of the most influential books of his generation. The work presents four basic principles:
“First, any ruler who commands anything contrary to the law of God thereby forfeits his rule. Second, we are rebelling against God when we obey a ruler who commands that which is against God's law. We are to obey God, not man. Third, since God's law is the fundamental law – and the only true source of law (neither king nor subject is exempt from it) – war is sometimes required in order to defend God's law against the ruler. Fourth, legal rebellion requires the leadership of lesser magistrates who can oppose the state. All these doctrines were basic to the colonial cause and were best expressed by Rutherford's Lex, Rex.”
Rutherford contends that tyranny is satanic and to fail to resist tyranny is to resist God. Furthermore, the ruler is granted power continually. Hence, the people have the power to withdraw their approval if the conditions of the covenant are not fulfilled. The civil magistrate holds his power in trust for the people. Hence, he is a fiduciary figure. Violation of the trust gives the people the duty and right of legitimate resistance. Rutherford established the right and duty of resistance to unlawful government. This principle is clearly exemplified in the Declaration of Independence.
Resistance to tyrannical unjust government is a moral obligation. The citizen must be subject to the office of the magistrate but not subject to the man in the office whenever he or she commands that which is contrary to the Holy Bible. To resist injustice in all spheres of life which includes civil government and not merely religious life is a fundamental article of Christianity.
Samuel Rutherford declared:
“...to obey God rather than man, as all the martyrs did, shall receive to themselves salvation.”
A ruler should not be deposed merely because he violated a single breach of the compact he has sworn to the people to uphold. When a magistrate acts in a manner in which the governing structure of the nation is being destroyed; the citizens have the privilege, right and duty to relieve the magistrate of his power and authority. The governing structure of the nation is understood to be the fundamental constitution or covenant of society.
In a fallen world it is to be expected that such a concept or proposed course of action can result in illogical consequences. The men of the Reformation clearly understood this problem. Yet, this problem must not deter the citizen from examining appropriate levels of resistance. When facing a growing totalitarian state compels the citizen to consider the principles of which Rutherford asserts.
Lex, Rex does not propose armed revolution as an answer to totalitarianism. Nor was Rutherford an anarchist. Samuel Rutherford set forth three appropriate levels of resistance in which the private citizen may pursue.
The first level of resistance is in defense of oneself is protest. Hence, protest in our contemporary society includes legal action, petition of redress of grievances, freedom of speech and press.
The second level of resistance is to flee if possible. This is exactly the course of action which David took when confronted with the intrigues of King Saul. Furthermore, the Pilgrims of Colonial America as well as other groups of religious affiliation sought resist tyranny by coming to North America.
The third level of resistance against tyranny is self defense through force of arms. Force should not be employed if one may save himself through flight. Flight should not be employed if self preservation can be achieved through protest and the execution of lawful means secured by the Constitution.
Flight is often impractical and unrealistic when the state deliberately commits illegitimate acts against a corporate body such as the duly elected state, local body, and the church. The community – or corporate body – has two levels of resistance against tyranny. Protest is the first remonstrance and if absolutely necessary force of arms in self defense. Samuel Rutherford made a careful distinction between lawless uprising and lawful resistance against tyranny.
Whenever the state perpetrates illegitimate actions upon a community; resistance must be under the aegis of duly constituted authority. Hence, the lesser magistrates and local officials have the authority and responsibility to resist illegitimate actions of the state. God has instituted government to restrain chaos and protect the citizen from wrongdoers. High state officials are NOT the only vicars of God who are entrusted with this responsibility. The local officials and magistrates are as much immediate vicars of God as high officials of the states. Both local and high officials are to respect God and bound to follow the commands of God in the Bible.
For example: If one were treated unfairly by a government agency; one should appeal to his or her congressmen who would deal with the federal agency to correct the problem. The need for representation by a duly appointed official is clearly emphasized by Rutherford who opposed anarchy. The individual citizen is NOT to take the law into his or her hands.
The historical record of the years prior to the American Revolution clearly indicate that this was the model followed by the Founding Fathers. After failing at several attempts to protest the actions of Great Britain, the colonists defended themselves through force of arms.
The clear emphasis of the Bible is that a true cultural revolution will occur by fulfilling the law of God without regard to personal consequences. Taking to the streets in armed revolution is NOT the model the Holy Scriptures advocate concerning Christian resistance to illegitimate actions by the state.
Rutherford's second level of resistance – flight – is not an option for the Christian in contemporary society. The world is constantly shrinking and there are no longer safety zones as Switzerland. Consequently, there are very few places in which the Christian may flee from tyranny.
The continued slide to totalitarianism MUST be resisted by Christians and protest is the most viable alternative in this era. Freedom still exists for the Christian to utilize the right of protest but protest can be a form of force.
When Peter was commanded by the Sanhedrin to no longer preach in the name of Jesus within the temple; he personally ignored the illegitimate command. He entered to Temple and preached the Gospel compelling others to listen to message they did not desire to hear.
When the Supreme Court rules that a state law permitting the posting of the Ten Commandments is unconstitutional; the state does NOT have to follow the orders the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court's decision was unbiblical for God desires that children know the Ten Commandments. Jesus declared: “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” There are various references in the Holy Scriptures concerning the manner in which God desires that children are to be taught the commandment of God.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court violated the federal covenant with the people and their covenant required by God. The definition of good and proper government is one where the Gospel of Jesus Christ is unhindered in a free society. The restriction against posting the Ten Commandments is an attack upon the basic principle that school children need to realize the importance of the commands of God.
The Supreme Court is powerless to execute its own decisions for the system depends upon the people following the dictates of the court. The time is near when local communities and states may disobey the Supreme Court and other federal and state agencies that act contrary to the principles of the Bible.
When all avenues of flight and protest have failed; there is a time when force in a defensive posture including physical force is appropriate. This principle is exactly the situation the American colonists experienced leading to the American Revolution with Great Britain.
Great Britain, through tyranny, was a foreign power invading America. Americans defended their homeland on this continent and did not cross the Atlantic to invade England. The Americans were actually counter-revolutionaries resisting the attempt of British revolutionaries to overthrow colonial governments subjugating them to arbitrary illegitimate covenant breaking will of Parliament.
The principles concerning resistance to tyranny through responsible representatives was taught in John Calvin's Institutes. Calvin's teaching on resistance to tyranny was cited by some twenty-eight Calvinists trailblazers before John Locke. Samuel Rutherford was among those pioneers who wrote Lex, Rex or The Law and the Prince.
Portions of the essay were gleaned from Constitutional Attorney John W. Whitehead's book The Second American Revolution.