PAUL BUTLER: From the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is a WORLD Radio Special Presentation.
Last week, Emily Whitten recommended The Loveliness of Christ by Samuel Rutherford as her Classic Book of the Month for December. In that segment, Emily interviewed Scottish professor and seminary president Ian Hamilton. We only used a small portion of that conversation on the podcast, so today, we present a longer version for your encouragement. Here’s interviewer Emily Whitten.
EMILY WHITTEN: I chose The Loveliness of Christ as our Classic Book of the Month weeks ago. I wanted to find a gift book, something poetic but substantive. A book men and women from different walks of life could pick up, thumb through, and immediately use to find encouragement and inspiration. Most of all, I hoped to focus our thoughts on Christ this Christmas season.
The LORD graciously provided all of those qualities in The Loveliness of Christ. He also provided wonderful insight into the book through this ZOOM discussion with Ian Hamilton. Hamilton of course shares Samuel Rutherford’s Scottish heritage. And over the years, Hamilton has often lectured about Rutherford, which means he brings decades of study to our conversation.
One final note before we jump in. The Christmas season is undoubtedly a season of joy, but for many people, it’s also a time when loss—old and new—can really hit home. As you listen to Ian Hamilton’s closing prayer, would you pray his words not just for me, but for all of God’s people, and especially us at WORLD right now? That we would come to treasure Christ more, and grow in our love for Him and one another. Thanks for that.
With that in mind, here’s Ian Hamilton.
HAMILTON: Samuel Rutherford is one of the greatest of gospel ministers raised up by God in Scotland from the time of the Reformation to the present day. I suppose people know Rutherford mainly through his letters. But Rutherford was a profound theologian. He was as much at home in abstruse Latinate philosophical theology as he was in writing these remarkable 365 letters—222 of which were written during his two year exile in Aberdeen in the northeast of Scotland in an Episcopalian heartland at a time when Presbyterianism was all but proscribed.
Born in the year 1600. Studied at Edinburgh University, remarkably gifted intellectually. At a very young age, he was appointed a professor. There was an apparent scandal about his life, which may or may not be true. It's difficult to say. But in 1627, he goes to the parish church of Anwoth in the southwest of Scotland. And really, it's at Anwoth that he begins to be taken note of.
He is a committed Presbyterian. He refuses to be ordained by the bishop—the Episcopal bishop—who turns a blind eye to his Presbyterianism. Becomes dearly loved by his parishioners. He preaches in such a way that people are almost overwhelmed by the Christo-centricity of his preaching. A new bishop is appointed, and in 1636, he's exiled to the northeast of Scotland. But during that exile, he writes 222 of the 365 extant letters. So if Satan sought to silence Rutherford, what he intended for evil, God turned for good.
In 1630, everything changes. Scotland rises up against Episcopacy. Church government mattered, and it mattered not because of politics as such, but who is the king and head of the church, if it's not Jesus Christ? If it's bishops, archbishops, and kings especially, you are derogating from the glory of God in Jesus Christ. That's why the Scots have taken church polity so seriously. The solemn League and Covenant is signed. Rutherford returns to Anwoth, but very quickly, the Scots realize his remarkable ability. He goes to St. Andrews, becomes professor of theology there.
He is one of the six ministerial appointees to the Westminster assembly in 1643. The Scots were non-voting commissioners, for two reasons. They didn't like the fact that parliament, the English Parliament, had called the assembly. And their first loyalty was to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, not to the Westminster assembly. So they were non-voting commissioners. But Rutherford had a profound influence. He was a divine right Presbyterian. Scripture taught that. We would not, he would say, move an iota from that. During that time, his wife and one of his children dies. He returns only three times in four years to Scotland. The assembly ends.
Rutherford continues his academic ministry. Seminaries in Holland ask him to come. But Rutherford is devoted to Scotland and even when Episcopacy is restored in 1660, Rutherford was heard to say, 'I will not leave my church in Scotland. It's a harlot. But she's my harlot.'
WHITTEN: Wow. (LAUGHS)
HAMILTON: Yeah. Sadly, Rutherford gets involved in a dispute. The Covenanters, those who were committed to the solemn League and Covenant and the National Covenant, they divided. There were those who felt they should give Charles, the king, the benefit of the doubt. Rutherford said he's a rascal. He'll do nothing for us. He'll promise us the earth and give us nothing. Well, Rutherford was right as history proved. But the divisions were tragic. Dear close friends...Rutherford became very acerbic. And he wouldn't even sit down at the Lord's table with David Dixon.
He called himself a man of extremes. And he knew that, you know, there was the seraphic letter writer, and there was the abstruse Latinate theologian. There was the preacher of Christ in terms that leave you stunned. And then he could be bitterly acerbic. He was a man of extremes.
When he's dying in 1661, news comes to him that he's been summoned to Edinburgh, and he knows it's a summons to the scaffold. And he simply says, 'Ere that day comes, I will appear before a higher King and a higher judicatory.' So they burn his book, Lex Rex—Lex is King—which was a condemnation of the divine right of kings, and he dies in 1661. But his legacy lives on, mainly in his letters, although he wrote other great works that are accessible. That you know folk can read.
WHITTEN: So let's talk about his letters. What is the legacy of his letters?
HAMILTON: Well, he was a pastor. One of the great notes of Scottish Presbyterianism is that all of its great theologians were pastors like Calvin and Luther, like John Owen. They became theologians to be better preachers. Which is why until recently, you couldn't teach in a divinity faculty in Scotland if you haven't, you hadn't been a proven pastor, preacher for five years. And now the academy rules the roost. I'm now president of Westminster Presbyterian Seminary in the Northeast of England—the only confessional seminary in England. And it's written into our bylaws, that if you're not a proven pastor, preacher, you cannot teach at this seminary.
So Rutherford brings tremendous pastoral warmth, pastoral insight, spiritual tenderness and sensitivity into his letters. He's writing to all kinds of people—bereaved mothers, troubled fathers. And although he is a brilliant, I mean, his brilliance cannot be understated. He is one of the truly astonishingly gifted philosophical, theological minds. He's able to identify with the poor widow who's just lost one of her children. He wrote—and this from memory—he wrote to one woman who had just lost a little child, 'Dear, dear sister in Christ, trust the good husbandman. He knows when to pluck his roses, whether at the first blush or in the full bloom.'
Because he's been there himself, he lost two children. And many of these insightful pastors who wrote—John Owen lost 10 of his 11 children in infancy. Thomas Boston, buried six of his 10 children. 'I do so,' he said, 'in the great hope that the covenant keeping God will keep my children.' Very, very moving.
So Rutherford writes engagingly, with language that is Song of Solomon on steroids. Sometimes he uses language that you think, 'Oh, goodness me, that's, is that not a little erotic perhaps?' And Rutherford isn't thinking about that. He's just taking the language of the Song of Songs. And he's expressing his own longings for greater intimacy with the Savior. And that's what he wants to convey to people. In whatever area he’s writing, he wants them to become better acquainted with the Lord Jesus Christ.
WHITTEN: So, one question just on a practical level, why were all these people writing him? Why did they think that he could help them?
HAMILTON: Well, his fame spread very quickly, actually. People got to know, there’s a preacher in Anwoth in the southwest of Scotland in the sticks. And he preaches Christ at a time when there was turmoil in the church, when Episcopacy had been imposed on the church by the king. And here was someone who refused to bend to the prevailing ideologies of the times. And his preaching, you know, word of mouth. A merchant would go from Anwoth up to Eyre or Glasgow, 30, 40 miles, 50 miles to the north. And you must come and hear our minister. And people would walk miles, sometimes for days to go to Communion seasons. Because there was something about Rutherford.
There's a famous story of an English merchant, you probably know this, who travels up to Scotland. And he goes round four different significant centers and he says, I heard a man in Irvine near Glasgow who preached the sovereignty of God and it was delightful. I went to Edinburgh and heard another man and he showed me the majesty of God and I was profoundly humbled. And then I went to Anwoth. And I heard a little fair man called Samuel Rutherford. And he showed me the loveliness of Christ.
Now, Rutherford could write and speak on the majesty of God. He was a supralapsarian, which did not endear him to some later generations. But there was something otherworldly about Rutherford and his preaching that attracted people. And people would write, and someone would write and say, he took the time to write back to me. And so someone else would write. And he would write to viscounts, dukes, ladies of great social eminence, but he would also write to whoever.
WHITTEN: The book that I'm recommending, just as a gift book that you can give is The Loveliness of Christ. So tell me, who would you give that to? And what would be the purpose or what would be the good of giving it to someone?
HAMILTON: I would give it to anyone. I would give it to anyone who had an appetite for the Lord. I would give it to anyone who wanted to know Christ better. I'd give it to anyone who was struggling, who was finding life hard. I'd give it to anyone who had experienced bereavement. I would actually give it to any professing Christian in the hope that reading it, they would either discover, 'I don't know who this Jesus Christ is, I need to get to know Him.' And it might awaken them to their need of Christ. Or at the same time, the Christian might realize, 'This is the Christ that I know, but here is a man who will help me to get to know him better.'
And Rutherford majors on the tenderness of the Savior, the sweetness of the Savior. He uses language that Augustine uses in the Confessions, that Calvin uses a bit more sparingly, John Owen actually uses—this word sweetness, dilecti, different Latin words for it. Jonathan Edwards I came across recently, Edwards uses the same language. They're all different personalities and temperaments. But Rutherford has a high view of the sovereignty of God.
So it isn't an anemic Christ he's presenting. It's a Christ who has all authority in heaven and earth, who's a cosmic Christ. But this cosmic Christ, can you believe it is sweet? He's tender, he’s gentle.
And I suppose for Rutherford, Matthew 11:28-30, 'Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened for I am gentle and lowly in heart,' that for Rutherford is prototypical of the Savior. He wants people to know that this glorious, majestic, regnant, cosmic Savior stoops down to them. He draws near to them. He carries his lambs gently in his arms, Isaiah 40. He wants them to know that they don't ever need to keep him at a distance because He will never keep them at a distance.
There's a great one of his early letters in 1637. He wrote to the Laird of Cally, a gentleman of social standing, 'Give Christ your virgin love. You cannot put your loving heart into better hands. Oh, if you knew him and saw his beauty, your love, your liking, your heart, your desires would close with him and cleave to him.' And then these words, 'Oh fair sun and fair moon and fair stars and fair flowers and fair roses and fair lilies and fair creatures, but oh ten thousand thousand times fairer, Lord Jesus.' And he’s saying to this man who is who is troubled, If you could but see how glorious your savior is, your troubles wouldn't disappear. But would be put in their proper perspective.
'Christ is a well of life, but who knows how deep it is to the bottom?' That's just Rutherford. 'Oh, what a fair one, what an excellent, lovely ravishing one is Jesus. Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises in one, it would be less to that fair and dearest well-beloved Christ.' I mean, people are reading this and thinking, goodness me, this isn't just someone teaching me the Bible. This is someone holding out to me Jesus Christ.
And he says in one of his letters, 'My greatest sorrow is that I cannot get Christ lifted off the dust in Scotland.' I think for me as a preacher, a pastor—although no longer pastoring a church—that's been a deep influence on me. That in all my pastoral ministry, my greatest need is to help people see how glorious, great, good, and gracious the Savior is. Now, there's lots of other things I want to say. But I want to say that at the heart.
WHITTEN: That's very good. Very good to hear. That's, um, that's the center, isn’t it?
WHITTEN: Yeah. One of the reasons I picked the book was because I felt that the language is almost poetry. It really is poetry. And the way that it's sort of laid out in that presentation, you don't really know the context of it, which is a lot like poetry. A lot of times it's evocative and you can sort of apply it to your own life. Would you say that's true?
HAMILTON: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You don't need to be the Laird of Cally or Lady Kilconquhar or the Earl of Glencairn to drink deeply of what Rutherford is saying. You're absolutely right. He has a poetic soul. And it’s interesting because Richard Baxter, the new lumia, wrote on one occasion, "Hold off the Bible, Mr. Rutherford’s letters are the nearest things to Scripture.”
HAMILTON: You know, I often think of Zephaniah three, where we read the Lord delights in His people and sings over them. And I sometimes think, Lord, what are you singing today? And I don't think we, I include myself. We don't really have that perspective of the Christian life of the Lord, delighting in his people, loving his people, sweetly singing over His people. But for Rutherford, that's what Christian life is. And John Owen’s the same. It's mutual communion.
WHITTEN: It's been a long week, there's been a lot of people that I know that are really struggling. And I'm just amazed that God picked out this book and picked you out for me to talk to you about it because the reality of Christ is, you know, that's the only hope. It's just, we live in a very broken and hurting world and even the leaders that we love are, they’re not Christ. But we do have Christ and they are, you know. They can point us to him and that's the whole point. It’s that He is the one we need. We can't, there's no substitute.
HAMILTON: Put not your trust in princes.
HAMILTON: Psalm 146. I've been vastly privileged, Emily. As a young man, I had no Christian background to my late teens. My mom was a lapsed Roman Catholic. My Dad wasn’t anything. I knew nothing about anything. I was privileged to have wonderful Christian models—Eric Alexander, and William Still, Sinclair Ferguson, James Philip in Edinburgh. I just thought every Christian had these examples and models and discovered, 'Oh, they don't.' I don't think there's a more privileged man in Scotland than myself. I've been so vastly privileged by the Lord and His kindness.
WHITTEN: Well, thank you so much for talking to me. And I hope that I will meet you again.
HAMILTON: Well, could I just pray for a moment before we go?
WHITTEN: I would love for you to do that. Yes, I would love that.
HAMILTON: Well, let me do that. Our Father in heaven, we bless you together that you have loved us in Christ with an everlasting love, with a love that will never let us go. Our love for you rises and falls, ebbs and flows. We’re ashamed of its shallowness. But your love for us is constant. And we thank you that you will perfect that which you have begun in us. And nothing will hinder you from that. And we pray, Lord, that You would take our lives and make them all that, by your grace, they are capable of being. Thank you for Emily, Lord, a dear sister in Christ. Bless her and watch over her through these difficult days. May she be deeply conscious that as for God, His ways are perfect. Remember all whom we love, Lord, near and far. Be gracious to each one. Forgive our many sins. We ask it in our Savior Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.
WHITTEN: Thank you so much, Ian.
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