Understanding the Confession: Ussher’s Body of Divinity
J. V. Fesko
James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion (1648; Birmingham: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007). Cloth. 467pp. $27.00
Many who confess the Westminster Standards perhaps do not know how the confession and catechisms were composed. At the time, a common practice in confession writing was to begin with an existing confessional document and proceed to edit, review, and build upon it. This practice was the case with the Westminster Standards. The divines were originally called by Parliament to review the Thirty-Nine Articles but later moved on to write the confession and catechisms. Hence there are some things the Standards have in common with Thirty-Nine articles. On the other hand, there was confession of faith for the Irish Protestant churches called, the Irish Articles, written in 1615 largely by James Ussher (1581-1656). There are certainly many parallels between the Irish Articles and the Westminster Confession.
For example, we can compare the following two statements:
God from all eternity did by his unchangeable counsel ordain whatsoever in time should come to pass: yet so, as thereby no violence is offered to the wills of the reasonable creatures, and neither the liberty nor the contingency of the second causes is taken away, but established rather (Irish Articles, no. 11)
God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established (WCF 3.1).
There are certainly minor differences, but the two statements are very similar. What this parallel illustrates is that though James Ussher was not a Westminster divine, he nevertheless exercised influence upon the assembly through his theological writings.
This historical fact makes Ussher’s Body of Divinity an excellent resource for understanding English Reformed theology of the middle seventeenth century. Though there is some debate regarding the authorship of this work, it likely was authored by Ussher. Scholars believe that it was Ussher’s private notebook, if you will. Hence, if we want to understand the mechanisms and gears behind the clock face of the Irish Articles, then Ussher’s Body of Divinity certainly can serve this function.
Ussher treats the full scope of theology under fifty-two chapters, including the doctrines of Scripture, God, the covenants of works and grace, the fall, redemption, a full exposition of the Decalogue, the Lord’s Prayer, ecclesiology, sacraments, and the consummation. Included in this edition of Ussher’s Body of Divinity are two catechisms, a shorter and longer, as well as a brief work on the incarnation of Christ, and advice to young ministers at their ordination. To say the least, this work is rich, and provides another window upon the theology of the Westminster Standards. Anyone who wants to understand the theology of Westminster better needs to read this book.