James Ussher - A Protestant Controversialist
The name of James Ussher (1581-1656) is today mainly associated with a scheme of biblical chronology, which forms the basis of the chronology in the King James Bible. In ecclesiastical history his name stands high as a former Archbishop of Armagh. Neither description does full justice to a man who was once a prince of his particular church and of the whole church. He is a figure whose importance must not be lost to us today.
Ussher was loyal to the crown, a strong advocate of episcopacy, and on cordial terms with Archbishop Laud (1573-1645), who on visiting him at Drogheda found no 'holy table' in his chapel, 'which seemed to me strange', said Laud, 'no bowing there, I warrant you'. At the same time he was a Calvinist, and stood in favour with Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), who at the time of his death gave him a state funeral in Westminster Abbey. He was held in respect by all classes of men: by the Puritans for his Calvinistic theology, by churchmen for his reverence for antiquity and tradition, and by the royalists for his steadfastness for King Charles I. Even Roman Catholics unwarrantably claimed him for themselves for his alleged 'conversion' to Romanism at the last period of his life.
It was Ussher who drafted the one hundred and four Articles of Religion, known as the 'Irish Articles', so named because they were adopted by the Irish Episcopal Church in 1615 at its first Convocation. Ussher was then head of the faculty of theology at Dublin. The Articles are more Calvinistic than the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England (1563). They teach absolute predestination and final perseverance, affirm that the Pope is the Antichrist and make no mention of a threefold ministry or of the necessity of episcopal ordination.
Ussher held that at the Reformation the essential principles of the Christian faith had been recovered. The Reformation did not create a new church, but restored the New Testament Church. He could affirm:
We preach no new faith, but the same Catholic faith that ever hath been preached; neither was it any part of our meaning to begin a new church in these latter days of the world, but to reform the old; a tree that hath the luxurious branches lopped off, and the noxious things that cleave to it taken away, is not by this pruning and purging of it made another tree than it was before; neither is the church Reformed in our days another church than that which was deformed in the days of our forefathers, though it hath no agreement for all that with popery.Works, Vol. 2, p. 497, Errington-Todd, Dublin-London, 1847-64
In full accord with the Continental Reformers, Ussher judged the Church of Rome to be no true Christian church, because she had lost every rightful title to it through errors. He regarded her errors as so fundamental as to disqualify her from claiming to be a Christian church. For him, the growth of the papacy was Satan's device for the ruin of the Church. He maintained the identification of the Pope with the Antichrist all his life. So, too, did several of his episcopal colleagues, like George Downham, Bishop of Derry, who in 1603 published A Treatise Concerning Antichrist, in which his conclusion is quite clear:
The Church of Rome is not a true visible church of Christ but the whore of Babylon, an adulterous, idolatrous and Apostatical church, which once was Rome ... once the church of Christ, now the synagogue of Antichrist.p. 129
When the Puritan divine Walter Travers (c. 1548-1635) was made Provost of Trinity College, Dublin in 1594, Ussher was among his first students. He early distinguished himself as a theologian and controversialist. Ussher perceived that an effective answer to Romanism could only be made by meeting Roman Catholics on their own ground. They appealed to history and those who refuted their claim required a knowledge of the Fathers and an ability to check and correct the quotations made by Roman apologists. To fit himself for this task he set himself to read all the available writings of the Church Fathers. In view of the extent of the material, and the absence of satisfactory editions, this was a lengthy and exhausting task. These studies confirmed his antipathy to the Roman system and throughout his life he used all his power to counter Roman claims.
He read voraciously and had a remarkable memory. His erudition was phenomenal. His appetite for books was insatiable. He knew the works of all the major Fathers, such as Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Jerome and Gregory of Nazianzus, and the lesser-known figures such as Ephraem Syrus, Euthymius and others.
Ussher's historical studies were usually pursued with a view to defending his church. In 1625 he published An Answer to a Challenge made by a Jesuit in Ireland (vol. 3, Works). Dr D. B. Knox refers to this treatise in the following way:
A work setting forth what he held to be conclusive proof of the novelty of many Roman Catholic doctrines, and, quite apart from the cogency of his arguments, this work displayed a phenomenal range of reading; he drew evidence from sources spanning all the centuries of the Christian era, quoting from three hundred and fourteen authors and forty liturgical texts, and he also referred to Jewish and pagan writers, and in addition, there were ample references to contemporary Protestants and Roman Catholic writers.
Through his study of ecclesiastical history Ussher came to know the Waldenses, whom he praised and admired greatly. He often stated that the Waldenses had been the heroic custodians of the light of the gospel in dark times. He helped them in a very practical way, sending them £488 on behalf of his church. He was a devout reader of John Foxe's Book of Martyrs, a book which made him full of sympathy for those persecuted brothers, the French Huguenots, whom he helped to settle in Ireland. In addition, he corresponded extensively with leaders of the Reformed churches on the Continent.
He was well aware of the many differences among the Reformers themselves and the disputes which these gave rise to, but his deep knowledge of the history of the church and his prophetic insight into the dangers of Romanism made him interested in the preservation of a united front in the face of Catholicism. To divert the energies of Protestantism away from the struggle with Romanism was to him foolishness. In this, as in his intense concern to defend Protestant orthodoxy from the standpoint of solid and thorough learning, he has much to teach us all today.