Book Write-Up: The Soteriology of James Ussher

Richard Snoddy.  The Soteriology of James Ussher: The Act and Object of Saving Faith.  Oxford University Press, 2014.  See here to purchase the book.

James Ussher was a seventeenth Irish Reformed thinker, who had an influence on England.  Richard Snoddy has a doctorate from Middlesex University and has been a teacher and a fellow at London School of Theology.

Snoddy is addressing certain scholarly trends.  For one, there is a view that Ussher eventually repudiated his Reformed beliefs.  A lot of this book addresses Ussher’s ideas on soteriology—-the atonement, justification, sanctification, and personal assurance of salvation—-highlighting where Ussher changed his positions.  Ussher did come to accept that Christ died for all people, not only the elect, yet, in accordance with Reformed thought, he still maintained that the Holy Spirit enabled those whom God elected to salvation to believe.  Others held this position, too, but Ussher was significant because he had an influence on English Reformed thought.

Another position that Snoddy addresses is that of R.T. Kendall.  (By the way, this is the second scholarly book on the Puritans that I have read recently, and both books assert that Kendall’s conclusions are inaccurate!)  Kendall maintains that Calvinists after Calvin became highly introspective because they were departing from what Calvin believed.  According to Kendall, Calvin thought that Christ died for all people, not only the elect, so Christians could find assurance of salvation on the basis of Christ having died for them.  Calvinists after Calvin, by contrast, supposed that Christ only died for the elect.  Consequently, people wondered if they were saved and if Christ actually died for them, and they sought assurance of salvation from internal signs of grace.  Snoddy does not thoroughly dismiss Kendall’s model, but he believes that Ussher provides a counter-example to it.  Ussher, when he believed in limited atonement, had a more objective emphasis on assurance: believers could look at what Christ did for them and draw assurance from that.  When Ussher moved towards believing in unlimited atonement, however, he stressed believers trying to make their calling and election sure, seeking to move them away from easy-believism.

Others have probably written a better quality review than this one, but my goal here is to give my impressions of the book, and to leave a record of what I got out of it.

Those with a bare-bones understanding of Reformed theology will understand this book.  Those bare bones include predestination, penal substitutionary atonement, imputed righteousness, and Christ sanctifying whom he justifies.  At the same time, the book goes much deeper than that, as it highlights the diversity of thought about soteriology among Reformed thinkers, Catholic thinkers, and even within Ussher himself.  Among the questions that are touched on in this book: Why did Christ have to die to save people, if God had already chosen people unto salvation?  Are believers’ good works meritorious on account of Christ’s merit, or is there something meritorious in the works themselves, since they are inherently righteous?  Does justification precede or come after regeneration?  Is justification for past sins only, meaning one has to confess and repent to receive forgiveness of future sins, or is it for future sins, too?  Does God impute Christ’s active righteousness (obedience to the law) to believers?  How does one reconcile Paul and James?  Is James talking about believers’ justification before human beings rather than God, or is there a sense in which believers become internally and practically righteous, before God as well?  What exactly provides people with assurance of salvation?  Is it their faith, the object of their faith, the work of the Spirit on their heart, their remembrance of specific Christian propositions, or something that they gain as they proceed in their Christian walk, trying to make their calling and election sure?

Keeping track of who said what and where Ussher landed was a daunting aspect of this book.  Still, Snoddy did well to provide lucid conclusions to the chapters, a conclusion to the book itself, and a personal touch, as he shared biographical information about Ussher.  The book was highly nuanced, though, and not just in tracing Ussher’s soteriological positions.  The conclusion to the book highlights ambiguity in Ussher’s view on baptism, asking if Ussher treated baptism as a seal of faith, or as an institution that actually imparts grace.  There was also the question of whether Ussher wrote some of the things that are attributed to him.

On some things, I am scratching my head.  I can understand the anti-Calvinist argument that Calvinism makes us unsure about whom Christ died for, so how can we preach the Gospel to people when we do not even know if Christ died for them?  I am a little puzzled over the concern that Calvinism obviates the importance of Christ’s death in salvation, treating it more as a display of God’s justice and mercy than as an absolutely necessary means to atonement.  Could not God predestine to save certain sinners, and then effect that salvation by sending Christ to die for their sins?  On page 157, Snoddy states: “In 1546, the Council of Trent anathematised all who asserted that in baptism ‘all which pertains to the true essence of sin is not removed’.  The Tridentine fathers insisted that sin did not remain after baptism.”  What remains is concupiscence, which in itself is not sinful.  If Catholics believe this, however, why do they have a confessional?  Why do they insist that mortal and venial sins are challenges with which Catholics contend?  While Snoddy is writing for a scholarly audience, I wish he had defined what syllogism means, within the context of assurance of salvation.  I am also slightly unclear about what benefits Christ’s death brought to the non-elect, according to Ussher, and what the difference is between internal cleansing in sanctification and “habitual inherent righteousness,” which Ussher taught.

I am still glad that I read this book, however, as it exposed me more to the diversity of Reformed thought.

I checked out this book from the library.  My review is honest!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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