Who Was Ussher, and What Did He Usher In?

Have you ever heard of James Ussher? He was the Archbishop of Armagh for the Church of Ireland and Primate of All Ireland from 1625-1656. He was a brilliant theologian, Chancellor of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and eventually the Vice-Provost at Trinity College. I’ve visited these places and am very impressed, because I can’t think any higher honors for someone living in that time and place!  However, what really made him famous was his scholarly work in attempting to figure out the age of the earth from studying biblical genealogies in the Masoretic text and cross-referencing them with various events in history such as the deaths of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. According to his calculations, Adam and Eve were created by God around 4004 BC, King Solomon’s temple was built 3000 years from creation, and Jesus was born 1000 years later. Even the Bible I use today has Ussher’s calculations of time included at the top of each page, so I think his work is still considered the gold standard for most English-speaking students of the Bible who believe in interpreting the scriptures literally.

Many people today think of the Bible as simply a book of legends and myths, but I do not. I believe it is true and is the inspired Word of God. As the Apostle Paul wrote, the scriptures are “able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:  That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (1 Timothy 3:15-17).

Does this mean I believe that all we need to study is the Bible? Not at all! God has given us a vast world to explore and understand. However, I do believe the Bible is our textbook for how to live (and how to gain eternal life), and that it is accurate in what it says. I also resonate with Moses’s teaching in Deuteronomy 29:29, “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.” God has given us tiny windows into the universe—like a father explaining something vastly complex to his children—but what he says is true, albeit put in simple language that we can understand. And, this is enough for us. We can delve into the mysteries of the universe all we want and will never exhaust knowledge, but in the Bible, we have all we need to live lives filled with love, joy, peace, and goodness. It is enough. God is enough. Jesus is enough!

But, what about the age of the world? Is it really 6,021 years old? I’m not sure. I do believe that I’ve descended from Adam and Eve, whether or not I can “prove” it through genealogical research. I also believe in the Genesis account of creation, including “the evening and the morning were the first day” (Genesis 1:5). Sounds like a 24-hour day to me, and therefore I tend to hold with the “early creation” point of view. Tomorrow I want to share more on that subject, but for today, may I just end with the last words of James Ussher? “O Lord forgive me, especially my sins of omission.” Ussher ushered in an age of believing the world was nearing 6 thousand years of age and that the millennial reign of Christ would begin at the beginning of the 7th thousand (roughly AD 2000). Was he right, or did he omit something accidentally that made his calculations off?

When we get to heaven, we’ll know the truth about so many things, but in the meantime, can we humbly hold to our opinions without letting them break our fellowship? There are some things worth arguing, but I don’t personally believe that genealogies or how many days the earth has existed are among them. The only thing we’re exhorted to contend for in the scripture is true faith: “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3). God want us to believe and testify to true faith, and that faith is explained in the Bible.

But avoid foolish questions, and genealogies, and contentions, and strivings about the law; for they are unprofitable and vain” (Titus 3:9).

As I besought thee…that thou mightest charge some that they teach no other doctrine, Neither give heed to fables and endless genealogies, which minister questions, rather than godly edifying which is in faith: so do. Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned” (1 Timothy 1:3-5, emphasis mine).