Was Samuel Rutherford A Mystic? -- By: Robert Arnold

Journal: Puritan Reformed Journal
Volume: PRJ 02:1 (Jan 2010)
Article: Was Samuel Rutherford A Mystic?
Author: Robert Arnold


Was Samuel Rutherford A Mystic?

Robert Arnold

Friedrich von Hügel identified the three elements of religion as the institutional, the speculative, and the mystical.1 Examples of institutional and speculative religion abound in Scotland, but historically, the classification of “mystic” has not been associated with Scottish theologians. However, Samuel Rutherford’s (1600-1661) poetic descriptions of Christ led Agnes Machar, in 1886, to publish an article entitled “A Scottish Mystic.” She concluded that Rutherford was “one of the most remarkable of truly [sic] spiritual mystics, whose burning words have awakened many a sleeping soul to its glorious inheritance in Christ Jesus.”2 This article was the first to apply the label of “mystic” to Rutherford, but since then various authors have followed suit. Adam Philip characterized Rutherford as a man “with mystical longings.”3 Biographer Robert Gilmour depicted Rutherford as one of Scotland’s “greatest scholastics and greatest mystics in one,”4 and,

as recently as 2005, Alison Searle classified Rutherford as a “Scottish Covenanter and mystic.”5

These descriptions prompt the question, “Was Rutherford a mystic?” This investigation will focus first on Rutherford’s Letters. While in Aberdeen, the High Commission forced Rutherford to assume a solitary, somewhat ascetic lifestyle, and his letters were his only contact with the outside world for months at a time. Significantly, this ascetic lifestyle was not a personal choice, but political events thrust it upon him. He spent only two years in isolation, but wrote a majority of his correspondence during this time. Consequently, the letters from Aberdeen may not accurately represent the entire man; they were indicative of only a brief period in his life. To compensate, this investigation will also examine Rutherford’s other works, many of which were written post-exile. In particular, this study will examine treatises that either described Rutherford’s view of the Christian life, or expressed antagonism toward sects that held to mystical theology.6 If Rutherford was a mystic, he was a Christian mystic and reflected Protestant, Calvinistic theology. He affirmed Chalcedonian Trinitarianism and acknowledged the divinity and humanity of Christ.7 Moreover, he anathematized heterodox se...

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