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James Ussher and John Bramhall: The Theology and Politics of Two Irish Ecclesiastics of the Seventeenth Century.

Jack Cunningham. James Ussher and John Bramhall: The Theology and Politics of Two Irish Ecclesiastics of the Seventeenth Century.

Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007. xx + 234 pp. index. tbls. bibl. $99.95. ISBN: 978-0-7546-5566-4.

Jack Cunningham begins his book with an account of a puzzling comment made by John Bramhall in 1658 in reference to his great rival in the Church of Ireland, James Ussher. Addressing his relationship with the staunch Calvinist Ussher, Bramhall the staunch Laudian writes: "'we were like the candles in the Levitical Temple, looking one toward another, and all towards the stem'" (vii). What intellectual context, Cunningham asks, can help to explain this perplexing assertion of commonality? Surprisingly, Cunningham looks to a series of spiritual traditions derived from pre-Christian Hebrew belief and practice. As he describes these traditions, Cunningham proceeds to develop an ambitious slate of conceptual aims. By examining Ussher's and Bramhall's differences against a common religious background, Cunningham argues for an understanding of Protestant identity in seventeenth-century England and Ireland more fluid than that offered by the dominant historical narrative, which still presents Calvinist and Laudian as monolithic, vigorously opposed confessional categories. In making this claim through Ussher and Bramhall, Cunningham also joins historians such as Alan Ford in attempting to move the Church of Ireland in from the margins of seventeenth-century British studies. Finally, Cunningham's use of Hebrew spiritual tradition to provide a theological context for his work asserts for the study of Judaism a prominent place in the study of the Reformation.

In his discussion of this tradition, Cunningham views Judeo-Christian spirituality as vacillating continually between two philosophical motifs. The first of these is justice--typical of the Calvinist approach to religion--which for Cunningham connotes respect for divine law, an emphasis on God's word, human sinfulness, and dependence on God. The more characteristically Laudian motif is that of the numinous, which suggests a more optimistic view of human nature and a respect for human religious institutions. These traditions may conflict, but they are never fundamentally opposite or separate. In chapters on dogmatic and sacramental theology, Cunningham demonstrates that Ussher's positions do indeed reflect a leaning toward the justice motif while Bramhall's list in the direction of the numinous. However, because these motifs are Cunningham's interpretive tools and not Ussher's nor Bramhall's, the book has difficulty here showing how the two prelates might have considered themselves to be cut from the same theological cloth. This is especially evident on subjects such as the Eucharist, where Ussher's and Bramhall's views are most widely divergent. Cunningham is on firmer ground in his chapters on secular and ecclesiastical politics. Here, he identifies crucial links between the two bishops and generates excellent analysis. Throughout their episcopal careers, Ussher and Bramhall can be seen adopting political positions that seem to chafe against their theological inclinations. Cunningham shows that these occasional shifts in sympathy are due frequently to shared perceptions of the social roles of the monarchy and of the episcopacy. Both Ussher and Bramhall were conscious of the debt they owed to royal authority, and both proved capable of adjusting ecclesiastical policy in accordance with political exigencies.

The chapters on politics generate a momentum that seems to change the argumentative course of the book. In his conclusion, Cunningham appears to back away from his earlier claim that Judeo-Christian spiritual tradition provides the link between Ussher and Bramhall, stating that "the stem and base of Ussher's and Bramhall's Levitical candle was secular politics" (202). It is here that Cunningham's organizing motifs of justice and the numinous confront the limitations of their collective utility. The book does not need to look as far as the Jewish roots of Christianity to locate a context broad enough to include both Ussher and Bramhall. The earlier years of the Reformation in England provide a religious backdrop that is sufficiently rich to contain theologically diverse thinkers and individual thinkers capable of sustaining theologically complex--and nearly contradictory--positions, such as Richard Hooker. Moreover as Cunningham's work in this book demonstrates, there are other more immediate points of commonality that link Ussher with Bramhall and that may assist in making sense of their differences: both were royalists, both were political theorists committed to divine-right monarchy, both were Church historians, and both were bishops. The book commits itself to too much to deliver fully on its conceptual agenda, but where it succeeds it succeeds admirably.


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Author:Breen, Dan
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2008
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