A BODY OF DIVINITY: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion
James Ussher was one of the most influential theologians of the early Protestant world, and his Body of Divinity (1645) was Puritanism's earliest and most important volume of systematic theology. Ussher was born into a well-connected and highly-respected Dublin family in January 1581. His early education was supervised by two Scottish refugees, James Fullerton and James Hamilton, whose emphatic Calvinism had caused them to be driven from their native church. They exercised immense influence on their student, and, when Ussher entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1593, one year after its opening, they were among the college's teaching staff. The atmosphere of the college was vigorously theological, with a strong bias towards Puritanism, and Fellows educated their students within the parameters of Reformed orthodoxy. Ussher made rapid progress. He gained his B.A. in 1598, his M.A. in 1601, and in 1603 was appointed Chancellor of St. Patrick's Cathedral. In 1607 he graduated with a B.D. and was appointed Professor of Divinity. In 1613 he was awarded his D.D. and was appointed Vice-Chancellor. But Ussher's influence transcended the narrow limits of college life. In 1621 he was appointed Bishop of Meath, and four years later, only days before the death of King James, Ussher was appointed Archbishop of Armagh.
Ussher's installation as primate of the Irish church was the climax of a meteoric career, and a position he maintained until his death in March 1656. It was as Archbishop of Armagh that Ussher became recognized as the doyen of the puritan movement. Today, Ussher is best-known for his interest in the chronology of Scripture, a reputation consolidated by the inclusion of his dates in the margins of numerous editions of the Authorised Version. This reputation, though it certainly reflects one part of his scholarly interests, was gained posthumously. Ussher's publications on chronological subjects occupied only the latter years of his life, which the aging Archbishop spent in scholarly seclusion in England. The Annales Veteris et Novi Testamenti appeared in 1650; its English translation, The Annales of the World, and his definitive chronology, the Chronologica Sacra, were published after his death. In his own lifetime, Ussher's reputation was based on his status as one of the leading theologians of the Protestant world, a status reflected in his commitment to a generic Reformed theology and to a pan-Protestant irenicism. This reputation was justified by Ussher's substantial theological contribution. In 1615, while still a professor, Ussher oversaw the composition of the Irish Articles, the confession of faith of the Church of Ireland which clearly reflected the puritan ethos that had been disseminated by the college's first tutors. As the first confession of faith to identify the Antichrist as the Pope, and the first to be obviously structured around a system of covenant theology, the Irish Articles became a major influence on the development of Protestant scholasticism in the later seventeenth century. But Ussher's emphasis on irenicism was also well known. Preachers from across the theological spectrum--from Presbyterians to Baptists--hailed the Archbishop with delight. Ussher also exchanged ideas and books with scholars across the Roman Catholic world. Despite his vigorous opposition to the Roman Catholic Church, Ussher remained on good personal terms with numerous Catholic scholars.
In the last fifteen years there has been a remarkable recovery of interest in Ussher's life and ideas. Of course, Ussher has always been highly regarded in his own college. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was two Trinity academics who put together the 17 volumes of his Whole Works (1847-1864). At the beginning of this century, the college's prize-winning new library building was given his name. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Trinity also hosts the most important contemporary Ussher project, which is compiling the substantial corpus of Ussher's correspondence. Dr Elizabethanne Boran, who leads the project, also hosts an Ussher website, which includes a comprehensive bibliography of literature related to her subject. At the University of Nottingham, in England, Professor Alan Ford is building on his many years of Ussher scholarship by preparing an intellectual biography, which is due to be published by Oxford University Press. But interest in Ussher has also revived outside the academic world, and particularly among evangelicals. The Annals of the World has been re-set into modern English and presented with updated textual apparatus in an impressive new edition. Similarly, the present author published The Irish Puritans: James Ussher and the Reformation of the Church (2003), a brief history of the religious cultures of Ussher's Ireland which includes a rare reprinting of the Irish Articles. Interest in Ussher has revived in the church and in the academy, and in both contexts, the republication of the Body of Divinity will be central to the ongoing re-consideration of his importance.
Nevertheless, some readers of the Body of Divinity will be surprised to learn that the book was not included in the 17 volumes of the Whole Works. There are a number of interesting reasons for this omission. Ussher himself never claimed to be the author of the text, and when the volume appeared in 1645, it did so under his name but without his permission. This pirated edition has been the source of controversy ever since. Its unofficial status makes it difficult to date, or to properly assess. It appears that Ussher had prepared the text for private use as a kind of scrapbook of theological ideas. Richard Parr, Ussher's earliest biographer and confidante, claimed that the Body of Divinity 'was not intended ... to be published, being only some Collections of his, out of several modern Authors, for his own private use, when he was a young man', but this comment significantly underplays the novelty of the text. John Downame, who edited and introduced the text in 1645, claimed that it represented a collation of ideas from Ussher's reading 'above thirty yeares' earlier, in the mid-1610s, around the same period that the Irish Articles were being composed. Downame also indicated that these ideas, 'collected long since out of sundry Authors', had been 'reduced ... to one common method'--a significant step forward in puritan divinity. But Ussher appears to have been keen to play down his puritan links. By the mid-1640s, when the Body of Divinity appeared, Ussher found himself in the middle of the English civil war, and his commitment to support the king made him wary of appearing too close to more radical Puritans on the side of Parliament. He wrote to Downame to downplay the significance of the Body of Divinity-- he argued that it was no more than 'a kinde of common place book' --but Downame's claim that the manuscript can be dated to the mid-1610s confirms other evidence that links the text to Ussher's early theological development. Perhaps it is significant that those closest to him to him believed that it represented Ussher's opinions. After Ussher's death, Parr defended its statements and identified them with the Archbishop's continuing convictions. The Body of Divinity therefore demonstrates Ussher's redaction of important themes in early puritan thought, and shows that this collation and organisation represents a significant advance in the development of the Protestant dogmatic tradition. The structure and organi-zation of the Body of Divinity undermine any claim that it was merely a careless scrapbook of theological maxims. Ussher may have drawn the ideas from sources throughout his wide reading, but he gathered them together into a coherent whole that has all the concurrence and integrity of a truly systematic theology.
The coherence and integrity of the Body of Divinity has been linked by a number of scholars to the most important theological statements of the seventeenth century. In his lectures on Evangelical Theology (1890), the Princeton theologian A. A. Hodge argued that the Body of Divinity
had more to do in forming the [Westminster] Catechism and Confession of Faith than any other book in the world; because it is well known that ... this book, which he compiled as a young man, was in circulation in this Assembly among the individuals composing it. And if this is true, you could easily see how much of suggestion there is in it which was afterward carried into the Catechism--the Larger Catechism especially--of that Assembly.
And, if that is the case, then Ussher's influence stretches far beyond the boundaries of Anglicanism or Presbyterianism, for the Westminster Confession also provided the framework for subsequent confessions of faith by Congregationalists (the Savoy Confession, 1658) and Baptists (the Second London Confession, 1677 and 1689). The Body of Divinity is therefore one of the foundational texts in the construction of pan-Reformed orthodoxy.
Ussher's world was very different to our own, but the struggle to articulate the truth was as difficult then as it is now. Ussher's balancing of scholasticism and irenicism provides a model of theological engagement that has much to teach Christians today. In the seventeenth century, as much as the in twenty-first, Christian people had to remember the apostolic injunction to 'speak the truth in love'. Ussher shows that irenicism can go hand-in-hand with scholasticism. If the Body of Divinity shows us nothing else, it shows us that we too can combine unwavering commitment to maintaining the complex balance of truth and love. Moladh go deo leis.
Dr. Crawford Gribben