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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

“Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition,” by Harrison Perkins

Published Thursday, December 3, 2020 By Eric Parker

It is said that during the Cromwellian Protectorate only one person received a state funeral using the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). That person was James Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh. The historical oddity of his funeral, honoring an archbishop with a Prayer Book funeral at a time when England’s bishops were living in exile and the Prayer Book was banned, is an indication of Ussher’s broad appeal. Harrison Perkins’ book shows that Ussher’s broad influence stemmed in part from his ability to utilize catholic (i.e., universal) Christian principles formulated in new ways to support an explicitly Protestant and Reformed vision for the Church. His use of a Reformed covenant theology is an example of his “Reformed conformist” mentality. Following the revisionist scholarship of Richard Muller, Stephen Hampton and others, Perkins sees Ussher as a “Reformed conformist,” that is, one who believed a rigorous Reformed theology conforms to the doctrinal standards of the established Church of England. This label describes a number of divines in the Stuart era who upheld a doctrine of double predestination agreeable to the Westminster Confession but also supported the divine right of the monarch and episcopacy. There’s almost no mention of Calvin in Perkins’ book because Ussher rarely mentions him. The old labels of “Puritan” or “Calvinist” simply do not fit the Irish archbishop.

Perkins sets out to show how Ussher utilized the covenant of works in both a catholic and Reformed way as a paradigm for viewing the interaction between Creator and creature (i.e., the imago Dei). The idea that God created humanity for something higher than the simple state of nature is found in Christian theologians from Tertullian to Thomas Aquinas. Ussher drew especially from the Intellectualist tradition promoted by Aquinas (via antiqua) rather than the Voluntarist school (via moderna) of William Ockham. It’s here that the catholicity of Ussher’s covenant of works doctrine lies. He saw the covenant of works as a “covenant of the lawe ingrafted in his [Adam’s] heart.” Ussher modified the concept of the “natural law” upheld by many of the church fathers and enlarged upon by Aquinas by speaking of it in terms of covenant. If Adam had obeyed God’s commandment perfectly using only the “covenant of the law”, that is, the powers of natural law – a perfect and uncorrupted natural law as a divine “connatural gift”, not secular reason – then he would inherit eternal life for himself and all humanity. This shows that the terms of the covenant flowed from human nature and were not arbitrarily imposed upon Adam by divine fiat. Ussher’s notion of the covenant of works ultimately had a major impact on the Westminster Standards. The Westminster Confession codified the doctrine of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, but Ussher’s Irish Articles of 1615 was the first Reformed confession to do so, and it was Ussher’s confession that the Assembly of Divines used as a primary source when writing theirs.

Perkins shows that the catholic idea of natural law expressed in terms of a covenant of works between God and humanity became an “integration of foundational doctrines” grounding other doctrines for Ussher. Predestination, Christology, and soteriology are each shaped by the idea of the covenant of works, of God’s intention to reward human obedience with a higher end than mere nature. Though the topic of predestination had become a contentious one in Europe post-Dort, Ussher continued to promote the doctrine of double predestination. Though he leaned supralapsarian, Perkins advises caution in using that label, since Ussher’s thought can be read in more than one way. Despite this, Ussher did mostly conform to Charles I’s ban on teaching and preaching predestination. Though he challenged the King’s ban in one sermon, he avoided the topic for the most part and encouraged his audience to avoid speculating on the nature of God’s decrees. But what does predestination have to do with the covenant of works? Ussher believed every event in history is predetermined by God, and that God’s “special providence” governing all human destinies is based on the covenant. The covenant of works upholds man’s responsibility for sin, and his violation of the covenant of works is the ultimate reason for his condemnation. The connection between predestination and covenant could have been treated at greater length than the two pages Perkins devotes to it.

In terms of Christology, Perkins demonstrates the Christocentrism of Ussher’s predestinarian doctrine of the covenant of works. Like Irenaeus before him, Ussher sees Christ’s work as a recapitulation of the original role of Adam in the covenant of works. He clearly did not see predestination as a “central dogma” upholding the entirety of his theological system, but Christ is the central doctrine and predestination must be seen in and through Him. Ussher was one of the greatest historians of his time, one of the first to prove the originality of the epistles of Ignatius, and so his idea of covenant is grounded in a thoroughly catholic and ecumenical Christology. Christ fulfilled the condition of the covenant of works as He offered full satisfaction to the Father for the sins of all humanity by His perfect obedience and sacrifice. Like John Davenant, Ussher was a “hypothetical universalist”, which means he believed Christ’s sacrifice was truly sufficient to save all humanity, although he argues Christ’s intercession, which is the application of His satisfaction to the souls of man, is only for the elect.

Ussher upheld the importance of both law and Gospel in his soteriology, Perkins shows. For the elect brought into covenant with God through Christ, they must maintain the conditions of the covenant that they were graciously brought into. Justification is by faith alone, but justification and sanctification are integrally connected. Justifying faith produces good works by necessity. Faith is the condition of the covenant of grace, but faith is not a purely meritorious condition. Rather, Ussher upheld a type of “merit by the covenant” idea, which recognizes the mixture of sin in all of man’s righteousness and so does not obligate God to give a reward beyond the grace promised within the covenant itself. 

Overall Perkins excellently reassesses Ussher’s covenant theology in light of recent historical revisions of early modern history and theology, showing quite convincingly that the Archbishop of Armagh upheld a catholic and Reformed notion of the covenant of works. Further interaction with Ussher’s contemporaries in the Church of England would have made the argument more convincing, especially in light of Perkins’ claim that Ussher’s “covenant theology may help explain the Laudian-puritan divide” (p. 251). Certain “avant-guard” conformists like Lancelot Andrewes and Henry Hammond upheld the covenant of works. How is theirs different than Ussher’s? Perkins argues Ussher’s difference from these Laudian conformists consists in his elevation of the preached word and internal conversion over the sacraments (whereas Laudians elevated the sacraments over preaching), but in what way does Ussher hold these ideas together? In his Body of Divinity, Ussher says, “if we were to make right use of it, we might learn as much at a baptism, as at a sermon.” Perhaps Ussher was one of the few moderating voices promoting both preaching and sacraments as essential. Perkins says an “individual’s experience of effectual calling” is the “only way to be assured of election” for Ussher. And yet Ussher (in the same work) says “all the benefits of the Gospel are exhibited” by the sacraments. Is assurance of election a “benefit of the Gospel”? Also, Perkins argues that the Laudian scheme of salvation speaks of a justification that can be lost and regained (participatory vs. forensic), but John Davenant and Samuel Ward also speak this way of infants baptized in infancy. There is perhaps even more broadness to the “Reformed conformist” identity than we see here (cf. Jay Collier’s work). It would be interesting to see how the “sacraments of the covenant” as Ussher terms them, relate to the covenant of works. Perkins affirms Ussher’s high view of the sacraments and ceremony (e.g., Ussher defends the priest’s consecration of baptismal water) and that this makes him difficult to categorize.

Today’s Anglicans have a theology of the covenant but not a covenant theology. What Perkins’ work demonstrates is that the covenant of works can be articulated in a way that is both biblical and catholic (there’s even an example of a Jesuit who upheld it!). The language can be updated to “covenant of nature” or “covenant of virtue” but the fact is, the use of covenant categories once spanned the divide of churchmanship, being utilized by Laudians, Puritans, and all. The academic language of the monograph and the cost of it will likely be prohibitive to most, but for academics and lay historians/theologians, Perkins’ work is an important read, especially today as so many of us navigate the difficult waters of church reform.

The Rev. Dr. Eric Parker (Ph.D. McGill) is the Rector of St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Lexington, VA. He is the co-editor of Nicholas of Cusa and the Making of the Early Modern World and the author of various academic and online articles. He lives with his wife & three children in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.

  • Eric Parker

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