Leithart, Peter. "Ussher's Soteriology." First Things. 15 May 2014. http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/leithart/2014/05/usshers-soteriology. Accessed 15 May 2014.
A recent addition to Oxford Studies in Historical Theology, Richard Snoddy’s Soteriology of James Ussher offers a detailed study of an important but neglected figure. If he is known at all, Ussher is known today as a chronologist. Snoddy’s is one of several recent works that shows the breadth of Ussher’s interests and work.
Ussher stands among the “hypothetical universalists” of English theology (on which see Jonathan Moore’s English Hypothetical Universalism), who rejected the notion of limited atonement and “advocated a general atonement” while believing that “its saving benefits were applied only through the workings of saving grace” (90). Snoddy’s aim is partly to challenge a simplistic “Calvin v. the Calvinist” paradigm of Reformed historiography that would link “moderate” doctrine with anti-scholastic methods. Snoddy emphasizes that, though Ussher was a “moderate” on the extent of the atonement he followed a “scholastic” method, cutting across the categories of this school of Reformed history.
Following Calvin and many Puritans, Ussher puts union with Christ at the center of his notion of applied soteriology (123). He insisted against Roman Catholic theology that faith was the instrument of justification, since faith was self-forgetful. But he argued that the real issue between Rome and the Protestant churches was not faith but the very possibility of justification: “the question between us and Rome, is not whether justification be by faith or no; but whether there be any such thing as justification or no. The doctrine of the Church of Rome is, that there is no such grace as this” (122) - no grace of justification, that is, defined in Protestant terms as forensic declaration based on imputation of Christ’s righteousness.
Ussher changed his mind regarding limited atonement, and he also changed his mind regarding assurance. Snoddy concludes that in his early years he believed that assurance was closely linked with the faith of justification: “So intimate is this connection . . . that one may reasonably infer that as a young man he held that assurance is of the essence of faith” (233). In later years, though, he became “a convinced experimental predestinarian, urging his hearers to make their calling and election sure, a spiritual director guiding them in reading the motions of the Spirit in their hearts” (234).
Again, this cuts through the Calvin-v.-Calvinist paradigm, according to which the question of the extent of the atonement marches in step with the question of assurance: limited atonement linked with assurance found in the evidence of grace, non-limited atonement with the view that assurance is the essence of faith.
Snoddy’s monograph is one of a growing number of books that helpfully demonstrates the complexity, variety, and subtlety of post-Reformation Reformed theology.