The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford (Richard)

Richard, Guy M. The Supremacy of God in the Theology of Samuel Rutherford. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.

Given that Samuel Rutherford is the most important Scottish theologian of all time, one must ask why there is so little written about him. The same question applies to his many yet-untranslated works.  John Coffey’s standard-setting biography did much to address the problem, but it didn’t deal with his theology in full depth. There are quite a few hagiographical works about him, but they do little in the academic realm.

Rutherford’s Examen Arminianismi function as a systematic theology, as he viewed Arminianism as an attack on the whole of Christian doctrine.  Some areas, like his focus on the doctrine of God and the human will, are beyond compare.  His supralapsarianism demands to be taken more seriously.  That’s not to say he is always fair to his opponents, nor does he always give an in-depth analysis.  Earlier, I had asked why there isn’t much work on or translated by Rutherford these days.  I think I might know the answer. Turretin is still the gold standard.  Regarding divine justice, John Owen seems to have given the definitive response to Rutherford–and most of Owen’s stuff is already in English.

Abbreviations

EA: Examen Arminianismi

Key Theological Terms

Archetypal: the infinite knowledge God has of himself (26).

Ectypal: the theology which is available to the finite capacities of humans.

Duplex cognito Dei: the distinction between the knowledge of God the creator and the knowledge of God the redeemer (33).

Theologia archetype et ectypa

Like the rest of the Reformed tradition, Rutherford holds to natural theology (Divine Right, 66)..  As Richard states, “For Rutherford, natural theology not only exists, but it serves at least two important functions as well, as we will see–it renders all people without excuse before the divine tribunal; and it acts as an instrument in apologetics” (32).

Arminius, by contrast, on Rutherford’s reading, collapses the natural knowledge of God back into the supernatural knowledge with its doctrine of prevenient grace (36). Indeed, “all knowledge of the divine is supernatural.” This means, in the Arminian view, men and women already have supernatural knowledge of God prior to grace.

According to Richard, Arminius “redefines the scholastic distinction between theologia archetype et ectypa.” This means he collapses “Deus abscondita into Deus revelaturs” (42).

Scripture and Causes

Efficient cause of Scripture: God himself.
Formal cause of Scripture: divine truth
Final cause of Scripture: to teach us God’s holiness
Material cause of Scripture: subject matter

Doctrine of God

Rutherford inherited and upheld the traditional model of divine simplicity.  He did so, however, as an adherent of the nominalist schola Augustina moderna. Doing so allowed him to give a new angle on the traditional problem of divine simplicity: given that God’s attributes are identical, how can we distinguish them?  Rutherford notes that they aren’t “real distinctions (different res), nor are they formal distinctions…but they are distinctions of reason” (81).

From this He makes several deductions:  1) God isn’t perfectible; 2) He has being from himself

Rutherford’s rebuttal of Arminius on the Trinity is highly illustrative for us today. Arminius said the Father is ‘the source of the whole Deity’ (WJA, II, 693). This sounds like the Greek East, but the Eastern Fathers made sure that they weren’t saying that the Father is the source of the Son’s essence, only of his hypostasis. Arminius’s view is subordinationist.

The Knowledge of God

God’s own knowledge is twofold

Knowledge of himself.

Knowledge of objects outside himself

Simple Intelligence.  This is his natural knowledge. Knowledge of possibles.

Knowledge of Vision. This is God’s knowledge of all actuals.

Both Arminius and Rutherford held to a loosely Thomistic framework.  Arminius, however, denied that God’s knowledge involved causality (92).

Rutherford’s problem with Middle Knowledge is “that it makes the creature or fate the first cause of all things and the divine will the second cause, because God looks out of himself to see what free creatures would do before he makes his decree” (92). 

The Voluntas Dei

Although Rutherford is a voluntarist, this does not mean that the will functions independently of the intellect (95). The divine intellect logically precedes the will.  The intellect, though, does not “make” the will do anything.

Voluntas ad intra et ad extra

Ad intra: the divine will in God
Ad extra: the divine will towards objects outside of God.

Potentia absoluta et ordinata

Rutherford makes a distinction between omnipotency and sovereignty.  Omnipotency refers to the potentia absoluta.  The latter refers to the potentia ordinata. Regarding his absolute power, God can do all that is logically possible.  His decree limits this.  God’s immutability “restrains his potentia.”  Richard highlights a difficulty with this: if God’s immutability limits his sovereignty ad extra, why can’t other attributes do the same (99)?  I think there might be a way for Rutherford to get around this.  Will and intellect are primarily faculties, not attributes.  Moreover, take an attribute like mercy.  It’s easy to understand how the will acts.  It’s not clear how mercy qua mercy would act. In fact, the will would have to act for mercy to act.

Voluntas beneplaciti et signi

The voluntas beneplaciti is “the decree of God by which he determines all things” that come to pass (103).  The voluntas signi is the revealed will. These aren’t contradictory. He doesn’t command x and non-x at the same time.  However, he can permit something be done by his voluntas beneplaciti that he does not approve by his voluntas signi.

Premotion and the Voluntas efficiens et permittens

There is one more distinction. This allows Rutherford to maintain the free decisions of creatures. The voluntas efficiens is “the first and highest cause of all positive existents” (105).  This is the doctrine of physical premotion.  Richard footnotes a useful diagram by Van Ruler (“New Philosophy to Old Standards).

Prime Cause
a / \ c
Secondary Cause – Effect
    B

Supralapsarianism

Richard argues that Rutherfold has a supralapsarian framework with infralapsarian language. With the supralapsarians, Rutherford says election is prior to every other divine decree, “but [he] says nothing about reprobation” (118). (This is in the context of an unpublished mss.: University of Edinburgh Library, La.II.394, p.5). With this established, the rest of Rutherford’s comments on election are fairly standard among the Reformed.

He does speak of reprobation.  It has two acts. God passes over and withholds “efficaciou grace” (120).

He does have a positive argument for supralapsarianism. With others like Twisse, Rutherford says the “end must be acknowledged both first in intention, and last in execution” (121). God first decrees those who are to be saved, and then he decrees the means.  It would make no sense “decreeing the means to accomplish salvation before decreeing salvation itself.” 

Rutherford anticipates the argument that Turretin makes against supralapsarianism: does it make sense to speak of a decree about possible men?  Rutherford responds that “everyone who believes in the traditional doctrine of creation ex nihilo also makes a non-entity the object of the divine decree” (127).

The Atonement of Christ

Rutherford argues God is not obligated to exercise divine justice towards his creatures (134). Divine justice is an attribute ad intra. God’s will is hierarchically prior to justice. In other words, nothing ad extra can force God to exercise mercy. Lest this sound too severe, Rutherford does concede that there is a “relative necessity for him [God] to do so [i.e., act mercifully]” (135). 

This raises the other controversial issue for Rutherford on the atonement: could God have forgiven sinners apart from the death of Christ?  In terms of potentia absoluta, he could have.  Nonetheless, he has decreed potentia ordinata to forgive sinners by the death of Christ.

John Owen, by contrast, sees the justice of God as “the universal rectitude and perfection of the divine nature’, which is antecedent to all acts of his will’” (Owen, Works, X, p.498, quoted in Richard 136). Divine justice, then, is “the totality of the divine perfections.”  Carl Trueman has convincingly argued Owen’s case.  For Owen, the acts of God’s justice must conform both internally and externally (Trueman 93).

Soteriology

The material on covenant theology is fairly standard, so only a few comments will suffice. The covenant of redemption is “the relational context in which the decrees are given” (146). Richard has a good section on the nature of human willing. Does God’s grace violate man’s will?  No. Grace doesn’t “compel the will to act against its desires. It changes its desires” (174).

Conclusion

This isn’t merely a book on Samuel Rutherford. It is also a primer on Reformed categories.

Trueman, Carl. “John Owen’s Dissertation on Divine Justice: An Exercise in Christocentric Scholasticism.” Calvin Theological Journal 33 (1998), 87-103.

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