Remembering Archbishop James Ussher

Arcbishop James Ussher (1581-1656)  is one of the most eminent, learned, and holy saints of church history.  Although he is often remembered for his dating of creation at 4004 B. C., he was much more than a historian.  It has been said that in his day, if all the Presbyterians had been like Samuel Rutherford, all the Congregationalists like John Owen, and all the Anglicans like James Ussher, they would have been able to find a way to be united in one fellowship.  All three were great friends and closer doctrinally than they were divided by the political matters that buffeted their day.  He’s a review I wrote of one of his most important doctrinal works a few years back:

Review of A Body of Divinity by Archbishop James Ussher

by

Riley Fraas

March 20, 2010 Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion, Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007. This short, 450 something page systematic theology book comes with impressive accolades.  A. A. Hodge regarded it as the most important book for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly, noting that it was available to all of the Westminster divines.  I can easily see why one would say this.  Ussher’s doctrine as expressed throughout the book reminds me greatly of the Westminster standards, including its main points of emphasis, its ordering, its language and terminology, and its style.  This is an invaluable resource for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly for all of us who look back to the Westminster Assembly as a formative event in the doctrine of the church (especially we [who are among the] Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.)  Although Ussher did not attend the Westminster Assembly due to his political loyalty to the King as primate of the Church of Ireland, he was invited more than once. The book is a question and answer format which enthralls the mind and begs not to be put down.  This format reminds me of the Larger Catechism.  It is very readable.  At the same time, it is absolutely packed with sound doctrinal truth in such a way that instead of making for hard reading (like some other theologians who are too concise and do not explain their points thoroughly,) Ussher makes theological points easy.  Yet he says much in a few words.  His phrases strike to the root of matters which he addresses and make deep truths appear self-explanatory.  I find Ussher’s quality of making hard doctrines simple for the reader similar to the effect I felt when I first read Calvin’s Institutes. Ussher’s theology is warm and overflowing with praise to God.  It has a devotional quality to it which elicits true piety rather than simply engaging the mind in a scientific fashion.  One of his strengths is that he expertly provides the biblical basis for nearly all of the doctrines he asserts, going to great lengths not only to assert points of doctrine but to show that they are based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  Therefore this book is very useful to explain the biblical basis for the doctrines expressed in the Westminster Standards, which echo Ussher’s theology but only provide a few proof texts as references without illustrating how those Bible texts prove the doctrine which they express.  A high point in Ussher is his discussion of the external and internal evidences that the Holy Scriptures are God’s inspired word.  This section has the effect of fleshing out and proving the truth of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s most magisterial summary of the evidences of God’s inspiration of the Bible. Ussher has an experiential emphasis which applies the system of doctrine taught in Scripture to the main duties of the Christian life.  He answers not only what a Christian is to believe, but what he should do in light of these beliefs.  He therefore gives a lot of coverage to practical matters of the church and the Christian life, explaining in greater detail those Christian duties which are set forth in the Larger Catechism. This book deserves to be considered a must-read by all Reformed Christians who have attained a little more than the most basic understanding of the truths God’s word, along with Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  I am almost inclined to think that this book would be even better than A. A. Hodge’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith as a text for elder training in churches.  It is not strictly speaking a commentary on the Westminster Confession, since it predates the Westminster Assembly by a few decades.  However by reading this book one would get an excellent grasp of the theology in the background of the Westminster Assembly which became framed in the great confessional documents which that body produced. One assertion which has been made about Ussher is that he was a “hypothetical universalist” in the vein of Moise Amyraut or Richard Baxter.  However, Ussher’s Body of Divinity proves that this assertion is false.  For example, in speaking of Christ’s office of priest, p. 150 reads, “What is his Priesthood?  It is the first part of his Mediation, whereby he worketh the means of Salvation in the behalf of Mankind; and so appeaseth and reconcileth God to his Elect”, and on p. 153 we find, “What profit cometh by his Sacrifice?  By his most painful Sufferings he hath satisfied for the Sins of the whole World of his Elect, and appeased the Wrath of his Father.”  Without a doubt Ussher places the decree of Christ’s Mediatorship logically after God’s decree of election, so that God’s intention in Christ was to save his elect and no one else.  That Ussher asserts on the other hand that Christ suffered “the whole Wrath of God due to the Sin of Man[1]” is a common understanding in Reformed orthodoxy.  Expressed in other words it is to say that Christ’s death was sufficient to expiate the sins of all of humanity, but effective only for the elect, as Heppe notes, “That the satisfaction of Christ would be sufficient to atone for sin-guilt in all men, if the Father would let it benefit them all, is generally recognized.  Cf. e. g., Riisen (XXII, 11): ‘…the satisfaction of Christ might be said to be sufficient for the redemption of one and all, if it had seemed good to God to extend it to the world[2].’”  Ussher is manifestly in line with Reformed orthodoxy both before and after his time on this point, and so the assertions that he was a hypothetical universalist are unfounded. Ussher’s Body of Divinity is recommended with heartfelt thanks to Solid Ground Christian Books for making it yet again available to the general public (notwithstanding one or two disagreeably baptistic footnotes by the editor who takes issue with Ussher on the usual predictable subjects.)  Please do pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Buy Ussher’s Body of Divinity here.  [Currently 5$ in hardback!]

[1] Ussher, p. 153.
[2] Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, London: Wakeman Great Reprints, 477.
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