Post 36, From Archbishop Ussher to Ellen White

With a name like Patrick, my readers will understand why I have some affinity with the millions of Americans and Australians who identify genetically or affectionately with the Emerald Isle. So I have a soft spot for the Irish prelate and long-time archbishop of Armagh, James Ussher (1581-1656). Ussher was born in Dublin, became famous as a scholar and fellow of Trinity College (Dublin), chancellor of St Patricks, professor of divinity, privy councillor for Ireland, and so on. After 1640, Ussher the Irishman lived in England and was deemed worthy of burial in Westminster Abbey.

Why another blog about Creation (see “Thanking God for Scientists That I Know,” 3 December 2012) on this website about Adventist Studies? Because, if one reads such publications as the Adventist Review (see, for instance, the issues dated December 8 and 15) and the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide, the subject is attaining increasing importance as we near the General Conference Session slated for 2015.

It is remarkable that Archbishop Ussher exerts a continuing influence on more than sixteen million Adventists in general, and in particular upon our current General Conference president, Pastor Ted N. C. Wilson.

The world may have largely forgotten Ussher as one of the many archbishops of Armagh had he not been a prolific writer. One account of his life notes: “Of his numerous writings, the best known is the Annales Veteris et Novi Testamanti (1650-54), which propounded a long-accepted chronology of Scripture which fixed the Creation precisely at 4004 BC.”

Now, of course, traditional Adventists may not believe the precise date (4004) is absolute, but in general the majority of us follow the mode of thought that Ussher popularised so effectively.

Take the “Big Bible” story, in its historical context, as a case in point. The narrative has had countless retellings, one of the most impressive (in my memory) was that Pastor Arthur L. White gave us in the first-ever Seminary Extension School held in Australia (December 1957 through January 1958). Remember the illustrations derived from the incident, when well-known athletes and little known college and high school students were invited to hold a similar weight on an outstretched arm? The gist of the story is briefly recounted by Dr. Herbert Douglass, Messenger of the Lord, page 146.

What is seldom mentioned any more is that many such nineteenth-century Bibles carried, in their margins, the dates that people like Ussher popularised two centuries earlier. Recent studies of the chronologies of Genesis indicate that we have seriously misunderstood the purpose of these Scriptures, reading them through Western rather than Eastern eyes. (See, for instance, the doctoral dissertation that Colin House, an Australian, completed at Andrews University).

The punch line is plain indeed. When Adventist pioneers, including Ellen White, wanted to know when a biblical event happened, they quite naturally turned to the margins of their Bibles. The message was there without equivocation: Creation happened 4004 Before Christ. The impact of this process struck me forcibly last week when, as a pastoral volunteer in the College Church office, I took down from the bookshelf a very big Bible that carries introductory notes by the Reverend John Brown, “Minister of the Gospel at Haddington.”

Brown was born in the county of Perth, Scotland, in 1722; he died on 19 June 1787. As a preface to the text of the Scriptures, Brown gives “An Introduction to the Right Understanding of the Oracles of God” on pages i to lxxxii, including Chapter V, which is entitled “A Chronological Harmony of the Scripture Histories, and of the Fulfilment of Its Predictions.” Under “Year of the World,” year 1 is identified as 4004 “Before Christ,” with this description: “God created all things; covenanted with mankind; Adam fell into sin, and his posterity in him; God published salvation by Christ, but denounced troubles and sorrows in this life, Gen. i.-iii.; Exod. xx.11, Ecccl. vii. 29; Rom. v. 12-21; 1 Cor. xv. 22.”

On page lxxxi Brown predicts that in the “Year of the World” 6900, or “about 150 years later” there will be “The general judgment of the world, and the renovation of the earth will take place.”

Almost two centuries after Brown’s death, Adventism’s greatest archaeologist of the twentieth century (Dr Siegfried Horn) wrote a significant article pointing out that beyond the time of Abraham, no biblical date can be established with any sense of certainty.

In Century 21 we need to distinguish between the well-meaning chronology of Archbishop Ussher and what the Bible actually says and does not say. It will require several more blogs to begin to unpack some of the relevant evidence. Let us not downgrade Ellen White because she read well (and believed) the margins as well as the text of her Bible.

Arthur Patrick, 26 January 2012