Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Rutherford Challenge

I've perused the "Christian Nation" debates for some time. And one oft-repeated claim I hear from the pro-Christian Nation side is that Samuel Rutherford's Lex Rex was extremely popular during the time of the Founding and that's where John Locke got his ideas from.

From my meticulous research, I've concluded the claim is false. But I'm open minded towards the evidence.

Rutherford anticipated some of Locke's ideas on resisting the magistrate. That might explain why America's Founding era Presbyterians were open to Locke's ideas. Rutherford, however, did not agree with Locke or America's Founders on religious liberty and in fact justified Calvin's putting Servetus to death.

Further, it could be that many ordinary Presbyterians knew and appreciated Rutherford and/or that the Presbyterian pulpit of the American Founding championed his ideas. There's just no extant evidence of this. The notable pro-revolt Congregational and Presbyterian sermons do not rely on Rutherford, but Locke. And few if any notable Founding Fathers cited Rutherford by name in favor of revolt. I know John Adams did nominally reference the name of some of the Calvinist pro-resisters. But he did so while citing an endless plethora of authority for why America was justified in revolting against Great Britain.

Finally I've heard it claimed, yes, they cited Locke, but Locke relied on Rutherford. But this is false as well. Locke doesn't cite Rutherford. From what I've seen there is NO connection between Locke and Rutherford other than *some* similarity in their ideas.

There is a reason why I entitled this post a "challenge." If I am wrong, show me the money.


King of Ireland said...

Much more germane is the Aquinas, Hooker, Locke, Jefferson link. See Tom's link to the New Jersey Social Studies lesson. Many of the men involved in this type of political theory had diverging positions on different issues. Nonetheless, they all seem to ground the case for resistance in convenant theory and rights grounded in imageo dei.

In other words, the most foundational aspect of the philosophy of our founding is solidly Christian. A crack in the foundation causes the whole building to come down.

Brad Hart said...

Good point, Jon. If memory serves me right, didn't Mark Noll make the same observation in his book, "The Old Religion in the New World"? I'll have to take a look and see if I can find that reference.

KOI, perhaps it is because I haven't yet gone to sleep (curse of the graveyard shift) but I'm not sure I am following you. Are you suggesting that Aquinas, Hooker, et al. based all of their conclusions on Christianity? I guess I am interested in where you are going and would like some further explanation (if you have the time).

Tom Van Dyke said...

Francis Schaeffer did bad history. Have at it.

However, John Adams credits Ponnet and the Vindiciae as instrumental in the Founding. Schaeffer-Rutherford-Locke is an unnecessary detour.

Joe Winpisinger said...


I think Tom hits it right here:

"Schaeffer-Rutherford-Locke is an unnecessary detour."

Jefferson ( or Adams and the Commitee) relied on Locke who took a good bit from Hooker who took a good bit from Aquinas. Solid link. The concepts I pointed out in the Ponet Locke comparison(not all concepts or thoughts I admit freely) are the same from the little I have read so far.

Tom provides a link on Jon's post on the Cato letters down aways to a Catholic Ed paper that makes some interesting a good points. One is that Luther is the one who was more responsible for "absolutism" than anyone and this was more than likely because he wanted the protection of kings from the Pope and in fact got it more than once.

The other side is that many of the interposition and resistance type arguments started during the investesture(too lazy to look it up for spelling) crisis in the time of Pope Gregory. Pope and King got the theologians to give intellectual weight to their cause. I think it would be same to say that some of the absolutist type ideas from this era made it to the Monk Luther.

Joe /King

Tom Van Dyke said...

To answer "The Rutherford Challenge," since I've never even leafed through Lex, Rex, some "skeptical" reservations:

1) From what I've gathered off the internet, Rutherford's Lex, Rex was extremely popular and widely read and/or discussed, especially since it fortified the Scottish Calvinist Covenanter opposition to the King during Britain's civil wars of the 1600s.

If it had indeed been that popular, or even moderately well-known, it's unlikely an intellectual like John Locke---and let's add Algernon Sidney---wouldn't have read it or at least been familiar with its arguments.

2) My Google tells me, Mr. Rowe, that you've been making this challenge---per our AC's friend Dr. Gregg Frazer---since at least 2008. An unverified "fact" has cropped up, that John Locke's father, if not both parents, were personally acquainted with Samuel Rutherford.

Even if not verifiable, it does appear to be a fact that although English, John Locke, Sr. was a Calvinist, not an Anglican, and fought on Oliver Cromwell [and Parliament's] side against the Crown.

One would have to argue that Lex, Rex was some obscure text unknown to the Calvinists who fought the crown and the Divine right of Kings, unfamiliar with its arguments.

Again, the internet suggests Lex, Rex wasn't all that obscure, and to the contrary, was influential. A more likely proposition is that Locke [1632-1704], either directly by reading it, or by osmosis through his society [if not through his father], would have been familiar with the ideas in Rutherford's 1644 text.

3) If neither Locke nor Sidney explicitly cited Lex, Rex,

a) Academic citations were seldom made back in that day as they're required these days as "intellectual property," or even courtesy; in fact, they often plagiarized entire sections from other writers without attribution.

b) Locke and Sidney were indeed interested in arguing outside the strict Christian/Calvinist context, although Sidney cites the Bible copiously as well. Locke in particular wanted to be taken seriously as a philosopher, which is why he never published his writings on natural law, which he couldn't reconcile with his philosophical/psychological thesis on the nature of man in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. [His incomplete notes on natural law were published in the 1950s; Leo Strauss wrote about it in WIPP.]

4) Therefore, one would actually have to pore through Lex, Rex,, which I admit I haven't, and deny there are echoes in Locke [or Sidney], addressing or even readdressing Rutherford's arguments. I did offer a URL to a paper that supports your [and Frazer's] argument that there's no connection between Rutherford and Locke, but that was out of helpfulness, not agreement, hoping you'd grow it. But I find the idea that Rutherford wasn't part of the revolutionary thrust as preposterous as denying that the Bible or Shakespeare are not in the very cultural air we breathe, rooting our presuppositions about this or that as to be inseparable from them.

Locke did not live in a vacuum; no intelligent man does, or can, and Locke was an intelligent man. He'd have had to work hard to avoid Rutherford's thoughts!

[Private note: Algernon Sidney on Romans 13: Joe or Jon, I'm just too busy right now. But it's all there.

and a historical analysis that says Sidney was more interested in Deuteronomy 17. Back up to page 100 or so.]

King of Ireland said...


Sidney basically makes the same arguments that Mayhew does about it being irrational to praise and honor evil men.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well--spotted, King. And Sidney might have borrowed it from somewhere else. A leaf through his Discourses shows he was well-acquainted with the Scholastic writers. Maybe he got it from Rutherford or one of the other Calvinist guys, I dunno. But all these ideas and arguments had been flying around for centuries, and they were there in the air for Mayhew and other Founding-era folks to grab and use, perhaps not even being aware of their origin.

Russ said...

Meh. Locke rarely cited anyone; what counts is the similarity of the ideas and their expression. Granted, Schaeffer claims far too much. But, there was certainly plenty of opportunity for Locke to be influenced by Rutherford. John Owen, chancellor of Oxford while Locke was a student, exchanged letters with Rutherford and held similar views (though Owen was more of a proponent of religious toleration than Rutherford). As for the time of the Revolution, it's all but impossible to imagine that John Witherspoon wasn't familiar with Rutherford.