Westminster Seminary California
Understanding the Confession: The Covenant of Life Opened by Samuel Rutherford
J. V. Fesko
Understanding the Confession: The Covenant of Life Opened by Samuel Rutherford


Book Review

Samuel Rutherford, The Covenant of Life Opened (1654; New Lenox: Puritan Publications, 2005). 513pp. Paper. $39.99.

Samuel Rutherford (1600? - 61) may not be a household name in our own day, but in the seventeenth-century Rutherford was a theological giant among the Lilliputians. Rutherford was one of the Scottish advisors to the Westminster Assembly, as they were sent to give counsel and participate in the debates but were not allowed to vote. Minutes of the Assembly show that Rutherford participated in a number of the discussions and debates, hence exploring his Covenant of Life Opened serves as an excellent window into the mind and theology of one of the Westminster Assembly’s key contributors.

Like many books of the day, Rutherford’s work had a number of titles. The main title is: “The covenant of life opened or a treatise on the covenant of grace.” Of course, the extended title is a bit prolix, but it does give the reader a fuller picture of what the book is about: “Containing something of: the nature of the covenant of works, the sovereignty of God, the extent of the death of Christ, the nature and properties of the covenant of grace: and especially of: the covenant of suretyship or redemption between the Lord and the Son Jesus Christ, infant’s right to Jesus Christ, and the seal of baptism: with some practical questions and observations.” Wow! Seventeenth-century theologians were not that concerned with market-friendly titles. Nevertheless, it does give the reader a good survey of the subjects treated therein.

There are a number of fascinating things about Rutherford’s work that deserve mention. First, Rutherford interacts with a number of patristic, medieval, contemporary, and non-Christian sources in the course of his work. Patristic authors include Tertullian, Ambrose, Cyprian, Augustine, Jerome, and Hilary of Poitiers. Medieval authors include Thomas Bradwardine and Anselm. Surprisingly, Thomas Aquinas is not mentioned. Non-Christian sources include Rabbi Solomon, Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero. In a word, seventeenth-century Reformed theologians were very well studied and read and incorporated a broad swath of learning in their theological works.

But what is perhaps the most interesting aspect of Rutherford’s dialogue partners are the contemporary names he mentions. By taking note of his contemporaries one can determine what issues were considered the greatest threat and concern to the church. In this category we can place Jacob Arminius, Faustus Socinus, Simon Episcopus, Robert Bellarmine, and the Racovian Catechism. Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, and Socinianism (a seventeenth-century version of Open Theism) were perceived as the greatest threats to the truth. On the other hand, the names and documents that Rutherford positively mentions are also quite interesting.

Because the popular name of the Reformed tradition is Calvinism, originally a term of derision created by the opponents of Reformed theology in an effort to label Reformed ideas as sectarian, many assume that Calvin’s theology is normative for the tradition. In other words, that Calvin functions much like Luther does for the Lutheran tradition. To be sure, Calvin is mentioned approximately four to five times, but there are also a host of other names mentioned positively: Heinrich Bullinger, Theodore Beza, David Pareus, Andreas Hyperius, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Thomas Hooker, John Cotton, Richard Baxter, Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, Richard Sibbes, Johannes Maccovius, John Davenant, Franciscus Gomarus, William Twisse, John Diodati, Wolfgang Musculus, Johann Piscator, Augustine Marlorat, and David Dickson. This host of witnesses shows how many different theologians, even those outside of the Reformed tradition, positively contributed to the development of Reformed theology and our tradition’s understanding of Scripture.

Another noteworthy feature of Rutherford’s work, among many, is his explanation of the Covenant of Redemption, the pretemporal covenant among the Trinity to plan and execute the redemption of God’s people. This doctrine has been criticized by those both within and without the Reformed tradition. However, I suspect that few have wrestled with the mountain of biblical texts that one like Rutherford brings to the table. All will not agree with the way in which he exegetes some texts, but on the other hand it is fascinating to watch Rutherford exegete the whole of Scripture—it is instructive to see Scripture interpreting Scripture and the doctrinal conclusions that arise from the text.

All in all, Rutherford’s work is certainly a worthy read for those interested in understanding the theology of the Westminster Confession; The Covenant of Life Opened also serves as a terrific book to help the student of Scripture understand God’s covenantal redemption of his people.