Foundations: No.82 Spring 2022

Book Reviews

Freedom from Fatalism: Samuel Rutherford’s (1600-1661) Doctrine of Divine Providence

Robert C. Sturdy, V&R, 2021, 357pp, £100 (Blackwell)

Samuel Rutherford’s name is known to many from his unforgettable letters and sermons. Many too are aware of Rutherford’s important role as a commissioner of the Church of Scotland at the Westminster Assembly between 1643-1647, debating with antinomians and independents. But even readers of this journal may be less familiar with the works that made Rutherford’s name across Europe, and which led to the celebrated Dutch theologian Gisbertus Voetius attempting three times to bring Rutherford to the continent (71). During his lifetime, Rutherford’s European-wide reputation rested on two large Latin treaties on divine providence (a third was published in the Netherlands shortly after his death). The great blessing of this well-organised and clearly-written volume is that in it Robert Sturdy has provided English speakers with accessible overviews of Rutherford’s doctrines of God and divine providence, and his answer to the thorny question of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom.

In doing so, Sturdy is consciously participating in the recent scholarly trend that seeks to tap into the scholastic expressions of post-Reformation Reformed theology in a more “sympathetic” and “patient” manner than previous generations (23, 25). As the title of the volume hints, Sturdy is particularly working within the general approach of the Dutch “Classic Reformed Theology” research group which was responsible for the influential collection Reformed Thought on Freedom (2010), which has received critical engagement from Paul Helm, and, more sympathetically, from Richard Muller. Grounded as it is in textual and contextual study, Sturdy’s book offers a useful contribution to these ongoing and important debates.

In the first overview chapter on Rutherford’s life, Sturdy gives special attention to examining Rutherford’s education at Edinburgh. He rightly notes that although on paper the curriculum at Edinburgh remained as it had been created under the influence of the heavily Ramist Andrew Melville and Robert Rollock, there is little evidence of Ramism in Rutherford’s writings, and Rutherford should be seen as part of a broader move in British universities at this time away from Ramism and back to medieval scholasticism (44). Sturdy also looks at the one surviving published work of Rutherford’s theological teacher, Andrew Ramsay, a sermon preached at the reception of a former Jesuit into the Church of Scotland, and uses it to point out the “self-conscious Catholic nature of seventeenth-century Scottish Reformed theology” (53). We should note, however, that while Rutherford was certainly adept at drawing on a very wide range of sources from the wider tradition, Rutherford himself disclaimed the label of “Reformed catholic”.

After the overview of Rutherford’s life and education, Sturdy offers four chapters on Rutherford’s doctrine of God’s being, knowledge, will and power. These provide the essential foundation for the doctrine of providence proper. Sturdy very effectively shows how Rutherford was concerned at every turn to maintain the Lord’s absolute independence in the face of some very sophisticated theological efforts to resolve the question of God’s sovereignty and human freedom that, in Rutherford’s view, ended up undermining both divine and human freedom. The most obvious of these was the Jesuit Luis de Molina’s doctrine of God’s “middle knowledge”, which underlay Arminius’ views of divine grace. To put it very roughly, on this view, God acted something like a computer does today, running in eternity a vast range of alternative scenarios and only then selecting from this range of possible futures those he would choose to actualise. To give an example, on the middle knowledge view, God necessarily knows prior to his decree that “if the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon were to see Jesus’ miracles then they would repent”. God’s sovereign decree is thus limited to God’s choice of whether he will in fact allow the inhabitants of Tyre and Sidon to see Jesus’s miracles, in the event choosing not to (Matt. 11.21). While this might seem like a reasonable way to reconcile divine sovereignty and human freedom (or at least it did to many within the Reformed tradition in the seventeenth century), Rutherford thought that it made God subject to a kind of fatal necessity. It made God no longer the sole and absolute cause of all things but conditioned by some things.

Sturdy shows that the cornerstone of Rutherford’s defence of God’s independence was the doctrine of divine simplicity, the teaching that the Lord is “one”, without body, parts or passions. For example, Aristotle’s most fundamental logical and metaphysical principle is the principle of non-contradiction, which holds that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not be (at the same time and in the same way, cf. Metaphysics, book 4, ch. 4). Responding to Jesuit ideas, Rutherford argued even the principle of non-contradiction is not something external to God, or to which God is subject. Rather, the principle is itself grounded in a deeper principle: ‘the same is the same’ (idem est idem). And this principle is itself grounded on perhaps the most basic truth of all, the simple truth of God’s perfect simplicity, that God is what he is, as revealed in Ex. 3:14 (82, 111, 133). “Hence the simplicity of God is the ultimately the explanation for a logically coherent universe as we experience it” (133).

The same idea can be reached from a different angle. What determines what God creates? Rutherford held to an idea found influentially in Aquinas, but older than him, called the doctrine of divine ideas. This says that the things which God creates (cats, dogs, mice, men), represent the variety of different ways in which God’s infinite essence can be imitated by finite creatures. The divine ideas thus form a palate of possibilities from which God selects what to create, including things that God does not in fact create (unicorns). As Rutherford picked up this doctrine, and its use among Jesuit and Arminian theologians, he was wary of giving the impression that the divine ideas in some way conditioned or limited God. As Rutherford explained things, the number of these divine ideas is essentially infinite, being only limited by the principle of non-contradiction. The divine ideas are all the distinct ways in which the divine essence can be imitated in finite beings, without contradiction. If we recall that for Rutherford the principle of non-contradiction is grounded in divine simplicity, we can say that the principle of difference is ultimately grounded in God’s own personal unity and is unimaginable without him. This means that it is not so much that God sees various possibilities with a certain degree of distinct existence prior to his choice, as in the middle knowledge model. Rather, “God only knows possibility and actuality as radically dependent upon himself” (135). One way of expressing what Rutherford was driving at is to say with the late medieval defender of God’s grace, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, that “things are impossible because God cannot do them”, rather than “things are impossible therefore God cannot do them”. While the difference may seem subtle, in the first statement God remains the cause of things, whereas the second formulation makes “things” the measure of what God can or cannot do (111, 179). Sturdy shows how such reflections underwrote Rutherford’s responses to the issues of God’s foreknowledge and the claims of Arminianism.

Not all of Sturdy’s book is quite this abstract – indeed one of the strengths of the volume is the way he brings in more poetic statements about God’s “omnipotence” from Rutherford’s letters and sermons to highlight the way this thinking way linked closely with Rutherford’s piety. Unfortunately, space prevents us from engaging here with Sturdy’s final two chapters, on the relation between God’s will and human will, suffice it to say that in Sturdy’s view, Rutherford does not fit neatly into any of the current labels of “determinism”, “compatibilism” or “libertarianism”. Rutherford described his own position as one of “subordination of powers”. God has dominion over his creatures’ affairs, but not in a binding or restraining way. The creaturely will does truly have – and must have – dominion over its own acts, otherwise these would be acts of nature, not will, but this does not exclude its dominion being established by a superior power (204-5). While debate over the exact nature of Reformed orthodox views of freedom and divine sovereignty will continue, Sturdy has offered some evidence suggesting that the views of the Dutch school are not to be dismissed lightly. While Sturdy allowed this reviewer to press more deeply into the way God preserves the freedom of the will, even while determining it to a particular choice, as the author acknowledges, in the end, this remains mysterious.

Overall the author is to be commended for an exceptionally clear and accessible exposition of Samuel Rutherford’s highly technical but deeply pious doctrine of divine providence – teaching that was greatly prized in its own day, and which deserves greater attention in our own.

Sam Bostock
PhD candidate in historical theology at Union Theological College, Belfast, where he is researching the development of the doctrine of the covenant of redemption.


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