A body of divinity
or, The sum and substance of Christian religion
A BODY OF DIVINITY
or, The Sum and Substance of Christian Religion
By James Ussher, Bishop of Armagh
Church Society. 614 pages. £30.00 (post free in UK)
William Shakespeare died in 1616, some of his greatest dramas flowering in the previous decade; King Lear around 1605. A year later, Bishop Ussher of Armagh is asking, ‘What say you to interludes and stage plays?’ He notes their wantonness, filthiness, abuse of the body, and sin made a spectacle of laughter.
This is the world we enter here; look at modern theatre, and does he have a point (pp.196,355)? Yet there is something magnificently, pithily Shakespearean about the man’s very style; in those days they knew about words.
To attempt any major doctrinal work is an act of faith; so is the decision to re-publish after centuries of neglect. First printed posthumously, this masterpiece from the tireless pen of the Dublin-born theologian has been unavailable for too long.
But who has missed it? If we have not, does it matter? Duncan Boyd’s six-page Preface claims its timeless merits as scriptural and Calvinist, and its contemporary relevance to the moral law (including ‘the Christian Sabbath’), the historical veracity of Genesis, and the evils of popery.
Of A Body of Divinity itself, a quarter expounds the Ten Commandments in shrewdly practical detail (an early Thomas Watson?); the Lord’s Prayer takes 30 pages. The doctrine of one Triune God is meticulously defined, with due warnings against classic errors. The author is, of course, Anglican on baptism, excellently heart-warming on the Lord’s Supper (p.535) and intolerant of other pretended sacraments. If some sections seem dry, on Christ’s work for and in us (p.250 onwards), Ussher is gloriously lyrical.
But what makes such solid theology readable is the simple question-and-answer device; no page looks indigestible, no section interminable. The vital Scripture references are not (as in the ‘Westminster’ and some other Reformed confessions) stuck on with chewing gum afterwards so that some are indeed ‘proofs’, many simply illustrations, and some quite irrelevant. Ussher, by contrast, generally integrates the Scripture text with his own and leaves no doubt as to which has priority.
His most cryptic question enquires if the elect angels benefit from Christ’s human nature; apparently not. His shortest answer deals with placing statues in churches; is it lawful? ‘No’! And while much quaintness and some antique vocabulary survive (did Moses really write Numbers 12.3?), we also find concern for human rights, fair wages and animal welfare, the exposure of price-fixing rings and opposition to the enclosure of common land — guess which commandment? ‘Good Lord!’ and ‘Good God! (p.305) were popular blasphemies then as now; we too may wish the removal from the clergy of ‘all loiterers and tongue-tied ministers’, and from congregations of ‘all irreverent and unbeseeming gestures’. But a definition of marriage is assumed; slavery must wait for others to fight, and on pp.348 and 584 ‘just wars’ make their brief but unchallenged bid for the all-time moving-goalposts award. (What makes a war just? If we are fighting it!)
We do not expect to find much about global evangelisation here, so are not disappointed. Nor about cultural pluralism, other faiths, or the acute dilemmas raised by scientific and medical advances. Despite the Preface, this suggests a volume for the library reference shelf rather than a primary resource on the pastor’s desk. Some small misprints have crept into the book’s final third.
Here is a bravely fascinating enterprise by bishop and publisher alike. It asks whether we are neglecting enough things for God. And after all (p.34), biblical doctrine ‘is such as could never breed in the brains of man’.