The Athanasius of Our Century: Thesis Proposal

I just found out today that my thesis proposal for the master of theology program at Toronto Baptist Seminary was accepted. I will defend it (DV) in either late March or early December. My supervisor is Michael Haykin and hopefully Crawford Gribben and Dennis Ngien will be readers. This is all very exciting!

“The Athanasius of Our Century”: An Evaluation of James Ussher’s Immanuel In Light of Patristic Christology

Though he is relatively unknown today, James Ussher (1581-1656), Archbishop of Armagh was one of seventeenth-century Britain’s most influential figures. If in the twenty-first-century Ussher is known at all, it would largely be due to his famous chronology Annales veteris et novi testamenti (1650-1654), a work of immense learning for its day and still popular amongst young earth creationists for its dating of the world’s creation at 4004 BC. If Ussher is to be remembered only for this singular writing project and not for his other important contributions to the academy and the church, the annals of history have played him a bad card. Ussher was nothing short of a prodigious scholar and committed churchman and it is this reputation that should be retained.

As an academic, Ussher was one of the most respected in Britain and the Continent. His recent biographer, Alan Ford, has catalogued accolades that were showered upon Ussher in his lifetime. What follows is only a smattering of examples: John Selden said that Ussher was “a man of the highest piety, singular judgement, and learned almost to a miracle”; Pierre du Moulin called him a “rare ornament non [sic] only to Great Britain and Ireland, but also to the whole Christian world”; and Alexander Morus nominated Ussher as “the Athanasius of our century.”1 The nineteenth-century collection of his Works consists of seventeen volumes, including a biography and collection of letters.2 He wrote on a variety of subjects, from early British and Irish ecclesiastical history to the Septuagint, from British political theory to catechetics and confessional theology.

Much of his writing was controversial, written with an eye to the Roman Catholics of his day. His academic concerns were shaped largely by his love for the church and the desire to see her purity maintained. From his earliest days and throughout his life Ussher defended Protestant orthodoxy against Jesuit intrusion. As a young scholar he debated the famous Oxford philosopher Henry Fitzsimon (1566/69-1643/45) over whether the pope was the antichrist. His professional career was marked by an apocalyptic concern over the papacy. Even to the end of his life he continued to spar with Roman Catholics. For instance, two days before his death he debated a Jesuit in the home of Lord Mordant, the Earl of Peterborough. As a result of Ussher’s victory, Mordant was converted.

Ussher’s love for the church was not merely academic and polemical. He was the Archbishop of Armagh (1626), which at his time made him the primate over all of Ireland. Ussher was thus deeply involved in politics and had a close connection with the religious and political leaders across the sea in England. Ussher maintained correspondence with Archbishop William Laud (1573-1645) and had the ear of both James I (1566-1625) and Charles I (1600-1649). His consistent desire was to see the Church of Ireland reformed according to the orthodoxy of the Genevan settlement. Soteriologically Ussher was a Calvinist and though he defended episcopal government, he had sympathies with Presbyterianism as seen in his later work on a limited episcopacy.3

Due to his towering intellect and his role as a churchman, Archbishop Ussher is a worthy subject to study. The church in the twenty-first century that has by and large forgotten him can profit both from his learning in matters of history and theology as well as from his love for the church.


In recent decades scholarly interest in James Ussher has developed in some measure, seen not only in recent publications,4 but also in Trinity College Dublin’s The James Ussher Project headed by Elizabethanne Boran. However, in spite of the growing interest, Ussheriana remains a field largely unharvested. One crop waiting a scythe is his patristic writings.

Ussher was an historian par excellence, especially with regard to early church controversies. At the age of twenty he embarked upon an eighteen-year study of the church fathers (1601-1619). Amongst a host of historical topics, he examined the Roman Catholic claim to antiquity, the debate between Augustine and the Pelagians and Gottschalk of Orbais’ (ca. 804-ca. 869) work on predestination. However, as broad as his historical interests were, the study of Ussher’s patristic writings typically goes no further than his work on the middle Ignatian recension (1644). Here Ussher determined the veracity of six of the seven letters written by Ignatius of Antioch (ca.35-ca.107) now confirmed by scholars as authentic.5 While this text-critical discovery is of great importance, other avenues of Ussher’s patristic expertise need to be further explored.

Therefore, the purpose of this proposed thesis is to study a small, yet important, aspect of Ussher’s work that was influenced by his patristic studies. In 1638 he wrote a tract entitled Immanuel, or The Mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God. It was published individually eight times in Ussher’s lifetime with revisions to each edition.6 It was also published in tandem with A Body of Divinitie four times, all of which were in London.7 Immanuel has continued to be published after his death, even as recently as the edition appended to the reprint of A Body of Divinity.8 It is also located at the end of the fourth volume of his collected Works published in the mid nineteenth-century.

The uniqueness of Immanuel to the Ussherian corpus is its non-polemical character. Ussher was a fierce defender of Protestant orthodoxy against Roman Catholicism and later Arminianism and his writings are more often than not coloured with polemical intent. Even his seemingly innocuous work on Gottschalk (ca. 804-ca. 869) was subversive in its Calvinistic undertones.9 Immanuel, on the other hand, is notable for the absence of any reference to contemporary theological debate. Instead Ussher offers a clear, orthodox, catholic, dogmatic exposition of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

Immanuel locates Ussher well within the pale of catholic orthodoxy – in particular its western expression – as it concerns the person and work of Christ. Anyone with even a casual understanding of the Christological debates of the early church will recognise the Chalcedonian language in its pages. Dogmatic terminology such as “person,” “nature” and “substance” that were so furiously fought over by Athanasius (ca. 296-373), Cyril of Alexandria (378-444) and Leo the Great (d. 461), are used with ease by the Primate. This thesis will attempt to trace the patristic influences on Immanuel, displaying the comfort and ease that Ussher had in utilising them.


This essay will present a two-fold schema of elucidating patristic Christological influences on Ussher’s Immanuel. It will do so first, by tracing its core argument and second, by offering a critical edition of the work in its twelve editions. To fulfill this purpose the following method will be observed.

First, a scholarly essay will be written to introduce Immanuel, setting it in its historical context. This will be an attempt at what John Spurr has called “horizontal” historiography.10 Was there an occasion for writing? Who was Ussher’s intended audience? Under what conditions did Ussher write, whether political or theological, in Ireland and England? These and other such questions will be explored. As well, the argument in Immanuel will be outlined noting its theological and devotional character. Particular attention will also be paid to the specialised theological terminology that Ussher inherited from the early church. The background of the key Christological terms will be provided demonstrating the meaning behind Ussher’s words as well as an evaluation of how he used the relatively few sources that he cited (Anselm, Augustine, etc). The greater context of Ussher’s Christological writings will also be compared. For instance, articles twenty-nine and thirty in the Irish Articles (1615); the eleventh head of divinity in his A body of divinitie (1645); relevant sections in The Principles of the Christian Religion (1654) and sermons nine, ten and eleven in his Eighteen Sermons Preached at Oxford in 1640 (1659) will be consulted. Second, a critical edition of Immanuel will be produced with a reprinting of its last edition serving as the foundational text. The variants between this edition and those previous to it will be footnoted with explanations for the rationale behind the changes.

A study such as this will be of value to the general Christian reader because Ussher offers a faithful theological exposition of the doctrine of the Incarnation – a key piece of Christian dogma that is foundational for understanding the person and work of Christ. This will also be of value to students of early modern religious history in general and Ussherian studies in particular because it demonstrates the way the post-reformation period received theological terminology and ideas from the early church. There has been a development in reception history amongst historians over the past number of years and an examination of Ussher’s work will be a solid contribution to the field inasmuch as it goes to the heart of the debates that were of prime concern to patristic theologians.11

Survey of Current Scholarship

The most recent biography of James Ussher is that by Alan Ford, professor of theology at the University of Nottingham, entitled James Ussher: Theology, History, and Politics in Early-Modern Ireland and England.12 This work is now the standard intellectual biography of the Archbishop.

James Ussher is in many ways based upon an earlier monograph by Ford, The Protestant Reformation in Ireland, 1590-1641.13 Both are concerned to set Ussher in the broader context of the Irish Reformation, the former work especially. There has been a tendency amongst historians dealing with early-modern Europe to neglect to draw a link between religion and politics. Ford remedies this by his in-depth study of Ussher and the strong connection between his religious and political roles in the Reformation. He traces Ussher’s involvement in academic, ecclesiastical, and political debates, the application of his scholarship to specific problems, and the resultant influence that he had on Ireland and England. Ford is also concerned to examine the broader context of Irish protestantism’s self-identity.

Regarding the role of patristic theology in Ussher’s thought, Ford probably offers the most information out of all of the Ussher works herein cited, but it only amounts to twenty-two non-consecutive pages of discussion. Ford focuses particularly on Augustine and Pelagianism as it related to Ussher’s own Calvinistic theology. He also gives some discussion of Ussher’s role in determining the correct Ignatian recension.

Published in the same year as Ford’s biography is Jack Cunningham’s comparison of the theologies of Ussher and his Laudian counterpart John Bramhall (1594-1663) entitled James Ussher and John Bramhall: The Theology and Politics of Two Irish Ecclesiastics of the Seventeenth Century.14 This is a reprint of his doctoral dissertation.15 The work is a curious piece of history writing in that Cunningham seeks an alternative method of categorising the different schools in the post-reformation period. His proposal suggests a discarding of standard taxonomies of low church/high church, Calvinist/Arminian. Instead he seeks to offer nuance to those emphases by connecting them with the Old Testament motifs of “justice” and “numinous” drawn from the Israelite reformation’s notion of yir’ath Yahweh, “fear of the Lord.” According to Cunningham the older distinctions that historians have normally used to understand Protestantism are cut and dry and offer too many dichotomies. Categories like Calvinist, Anglican, Puritan, Presbyterian and Protestant elude precise definition.

In spite of the spurious nomenclature, which falls into the trap of offering yet one more polarized dualism,16 Cunningham nonetheless offers a useful comparison between two important characters in Irish church history. He evaluates the theological and historical perspectives of each, noting the similarities and differences in their dogmatic and sacramental theologies, their historical writings and involvement in politics. While the book is an important contribution to Ussher studies and is worth citing, some of the author’s perspective is skewed: he writes with an obvious favour for Bramhall over Ussher that taints his scholarship. There are also a significant number of typographical errors in the book. While small mention is made of individual church fathers, no discussion of the early church and its influence on either Ussher or Bramhall is offered.

In 2003 Crawford Gribben of Trinity College Dublin published The Irish Puritans: James Ussher and the Reformation of the Church.17 Gribben’s academic interest in Ussher began with his doctoral thesis published as The Puritan Millennium: Literature and Theology 1550 –1682,18 in which the third chapter deals with the apocalyptic undercurrents of Ussher’s controversial writings. Written with the layperson in mind, The Irish Puritans is a helpful introduction not only to Ussher but also to the ecclesiastical and political setting in Ireland. Gribben writes with a degree of sympathy for those who sought to bring the gospel to the Irish. His frustration with some of the reasons for the Reformation’s ultimate failure is at times apparent. According to Gribben, were it not for the importing of English culture with the gospel, the Reformation may have taken deeper root. Very little in the way of Ussher’s theology is discussed and there is no mention at all of the patristic period or any patristic writers. Gribben’s ultimate focus is on the Reformation of the church in Ireland and Ussher’s role in it.

Before Ford, the standard modern source of Ussher’s life was James Ussher: Archbishop of Armagh by R. Buick Knox.19 At first blush Knox’s work appears to be a biography of his subject, given the title. However, the overarching theme of the work is Ussher’s ecclesiology. The opening chapters do pay attention to matters surrounding Ussher’s life, but for the most part the work is taken up with examining such issues as Ussher’s role as primate, his understanding of the doctrine of the church, how the church should be organised governmentally, the relationship between church and state and Ussher’s relation to presbyterianism. Thus the overall picture is narrower than a typical biography and is more specifically a study of Ussher as churchman. Any discussion of Ussher’s writings and theology predominantly focuses on questions of ecclesiology. There is very little discussion of the church fathers. At the most Knox briefly discusses Ussher’s work on Ignatius.

These four works are the only monographs currently available that deal with Ussher exclusively. None are as ample as the seventeenth- and nineteenth-century biographies by Nicholas Bernard (1656), Richard Parr (1686) and Charles Elrington (1847) and each deal with particular themes. While helpful, certain areas of importance are neglected, in particular Ussher’s patristic writings.

Alongside book-length treatments of Ussher, there are a number of scholarly articles that help to fill out the picture. Once again, though, none of them deal with Ussher as a patristic historian. Of the numerous articles and chapters that have been written in the last century a number are worth briefly noting.

The work of The Worth Library, Dublin’s Elizabethanne Boran is significant for the insights that she gives to Ussher’s own academic life, particularly in reference to library studies and educational development. Her article comparing Ussher’s library with that of one of his colleagues is helpful towards understanding Ussher’s own theological influences.20 As well, her short piece on Ussher’s “Directions for Reading Theology” sheds light on his own understanding of Scripture and theologising within a community.21 His “Directions” were drafted to instruct young ministers on how to properly read Scriptures and transmit them to the public.

Alongside short biographical entries in such works at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,22 Alan Ford has written a number of articles on Ussher and the Irish Reformation. His journal article in Archivium Hibernicum traces the cordial, albeit tedious, relationship between Ussher and William Laud.23 This discussion is expanded upon in his biography. Ford’s chapter in a 1998 book on British identity deals with Ussher’s role in the creation of an Irish ecclesiastical and political identity.24

Amanda Capern did her dissertation on Ussher in Australia and her article in The Historical Journal is related to it topically.25 In the article she takes issue with Kevin Sharpe and Julian Davies and their views on the relationship between Charles I and the religious policies of Archbishop Laud. She tests their views by looking at Laud through the eyes of Ussher.

Crawford Gribben evaluates Ussher’s Calvinist theology, specifically his particularism in relation to the doctrine of the atonement.26 Gribben’s piece is a complement to the later work of Jonathan Moore who studied Ussher in relation to John Preston, both of whom are categorised as hypothetical universalists. Gribben analyses Ussher on a literary level, noting the “plain style” that was a hallmark of Puritan writers was lacking in Ussher’s more concealed theological vision.


The importance of the patristic period to post-Reformation thinkers cannot be overstated. Though the Reformed orthodox debated ferociously against their Roman Catholic counterparts, they shared with their interlocutors a common understanding of the person and work of Christ that was hammered out in the fires of the first five hundred years of the church. James Ussher’s professional life was marked by controversy and debate, but his Christological tract Immanuel is conspicuous for its lack of polemic. Instead, it is a piece rich in theological language inherited by the great fathers of the church, particularly Athanasius and Cyril of Alexandria and the maxims of the Chalcedonian Definition. A study of this tract, drawing out the influences of the earlier theologians, can provide insight into how Ussher and those of his sort received the theology of the early church. This can, in turn, be a lesson for Christians today, especially Protestants who are wary of tradition, so that the value of the patristic authors can again be recaptured for the cause of the gospel. May James Ussher, “the Athanasius of our century” be of service to that end.



Filed under church history, james ussher, me, patristics, puritans, tbs

3 responses to “The Athanasius of Our Century: Thesis Proposal

  1. Ian,

    I would be happy to read it before you submit.


  2. Congratulations. Looks promising.

  3. Keith Lozom

    You really got my attention, looking forward to the final thesis. Dios te bendiga.

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