There are some books that are readable in an afternoon. I just finished one of those, actually—largely to break up what would have been an afternoon of uninterrupted studying. Then there are the books like Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which was rudely interrupted by the end of last summer, and which I haven’t yet picked up again (with apologies to the friend who started me on it). A month of reading only got me two-thirds of the way through, despite my initial goal of reading five chapters per day.
And then there are the books that take years to read. I began Samuel Rutherford’s Letters about four years ago. Granted, life rudely interrupted that reading, perhaps making my total reading time more like two and a half years.
In any case, I expect to finish the book after the presidential election—that is, the one in 2016. Yes, I lack initiative. But Rutherford also isn’t the sort of author that invites fast reading.
I believe it was Francis Bacon who wrote, “Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” Not being a fan of Bacon’s, I consider that statement living proof that no one is wrong 100% of the time. Because Bacon is right. Some books, like my read from this afternoon, aren’t worth spending a lot of time on. But a few others, if read too quickly, are robbed of their full value. And the Letters of Samuel Rutherford is unquestionably a book of the latter sort.
Samuel Rutherford was born in Scotland around the year 1600. His father was a farmer, and the Rutherfords lived in a village where religion wasn’t something that the people generally connected to their daily lives. Likewise, the young Rutherford showed no evidence of any serious religious commitment. He left his native region for Edinburgh, where he received a Master of Arts degree and served as Professor of Humanity. But after four years in that position, rumors began to circulate that Rutherford had committed some sort of misconduct, and he resigned.
It was at this low point in his life that he seems to have become seriously interested in spiritual things. Rutherford began studying theology and, two years after his resignation, entered the ministry. But the politics of the time were not exactly conducive to an easy existence as a pastor. It was in Rutherford’s time that the king began attempting to fuse the English and Scottish churches together, an attempt that Rutherford fiercely opposed. He was also fierce in his writings against Arminianism. Both positions combined to make Rutherford’s existence less than comfortable, to say the least. He was banished to Aberdeen at one point (where the clergy, in an expression of an unusually meek Christian love, began launching verbal assaults on Calvinism). He authored Lex Rex [Law Is King] during his time representing the Scottish church to the Westminster Assembly. That book, although written in the 1640s, came to the attention of a highly offended Charles II twenty years later, who ordered him to appear before Parliament to defend himself against the charge of high treason.
Unfortunately for the hangmen of Charles II, Rutherford was already dying. His message to the king stated that he had been called before a superior Judge. “I behove,” he wrote, “to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come.”
How Charles responded to Rutherford’s impertinent message, I do not know. In any case, Rutherford died at home. The hymn “The Sands of Time Are Sinking” contains his last words: “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land!”
I do not know enough about Scottish complicated history to have an informed opinion about Rutherford’s political involvement. I have not read his attacks against the Arminians, but, having grown up among Christians that were somewhere in between Calvinism and Arminianism, I doubt whether I would agree with all of his arguments. Yet, in reading Rutherford’s Letters, one fact shines through. Whatever the politics of his time, Rutherford never lost his focus on the most important thing—Christ. In the words of an English merchant: “[Rutherford] showed me the loveliness of Christ.”
Reading Rutherford’s Letters is humbling. Perhaps I could look down my modern nose at Rutherford, viewing him as an overly nationalistic Scot who refused to see the value of fellowship with certain kinds of Christians. But, whatever Rutherford’s mistakes were, I highly doubt that I love Christ as much as he did.
During his exile in an unfriendly Aberdeen, Rutherford wrote his friend Robert Gordon:
Oh, what do I owe to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who hath now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goeth through His mill, and His oven, to be made bread for His own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy. …Who knoweth the truth of grace without a trial? Oh, how little getteth Christ of us, but that which He winneth (to speak so) with much toil and pains! And how soon would faith freeze without a cross! How many dumb crosses have been laid upon my back, that had never a tongue to speak the sweetness of Christ, as this hath! When Christ blesseth His own crosses with a tongue, they breathe out Christ’s love, wisdom, kindness, and care of us. Why should I start at the plough of my Lord, that maketh deep furrows on my soul? I know that He is no idle Husbandman, He purposeth a crop. O that this white, withered lea-ground were made fertile to bear a crop for Him, by whom it is so painfully dressed; and that this fallow-ground were broken up!
Such faith was rare enough in Rutherford’s day, and no more common in our own. And so I inch through Rutherford’s Letters, envying (in this case, I’m not sure that it is a sin) his love for Christ, and longing for the day when a similar love will be mine.