J. C. Ryle’s Significance for Today – Part 1

May 2016 marks 200 years since the birth of J. C. Ryle. Soon to be released is Iain H. Murray’s new biography of the first Bishop of Liverpool, entitled J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.1

Ryle’, says Marcus Loane, ‘marked out a path for evangelical churchmen in days when much of the Church of England was drifting on the tides of liberalism and Tractarianism.’ Therein lies J C Ryle’s significance for us today. But such a statement needs a great deal of unpacking, since times and circumstances have changed very significantly, and we need to trace out the connection between the path he marked out and where we stand today.

The two great movements that Ryle set himself to oppose, liberalism and Tractarianism, must both be interpreted widely. The liberalism that Ryle resisted shaded off into scepticism and infidelity. It was, in effect, all one to him in its opposition to the gospel. Likewise, Tractarianism could not be dissociated from Romanism, for the one led inevitably to the other. These two great broad movements threatened the very existence of the Church of England, and, in the providence of God, Ryle was the man called forth by God to meet them and to embody for later generations the essence of the struggle against them.

In the introduction to Principles for Churchmen, Ryle stated that the position of the Church of England was ‘critical’. The church was in great danger, and the nature of that danger was twofold. First, some wished to ‘unprotestantise’ the Church of England, to get behind the Reformation, and to reintroduce practices that ‘even Laud at the height of his power never dared to enforce’. If that movement were continued, ‘sooner or later it would be the ruin of the established Church of England, for the object of the ritualists was ‘finally to bring about reunion between the Anglican Church and the Church of Rome’. Secondly, also endangering the Church of England was ‘a spirit of indifference to all doctrines and opinions in religion . . . Everything, forsooth, is true and nothing is false, everything is right and nothing is wrong, everything is good and nothing is bad, if it approaches us under the garb and name of religion.’
‘It is fashionable now’, he declared, ‘to say that all sects are equal, that the state should have nothing to do with religion, that all creeds should be regarded with equal favour and respect, and that there is a substratum of common truth at the bottom of all religions whether Buddhism, Mohammedanism or Christianity . . . Everybody is going to be saved and nobody is going to be lost.’ Such people ‘have a morbid dread of controversy . . . and an ignorant dislike of party spirit, and yet they cannot define what they mean by these phrases’. This led to indifferentism.

In the Church of England the call is, every man is to be allowed to hold and teach and do what he likes . . . No one is to be called to account . . . This is one of the greatest perils of the Church of England . . . It must end in the Church of England being broken to pieces. It looks very specious, it suits the temper of the times. What is more likely to provide peace and stop quarrelling than to declare the Church of England a kind of Noah’s Ark, within which every kind of opinion and creed shall dwell safe and undisturbed, and the terms of communion shall be willingness to come inside and let your neighbour alone? I must, however, confess my utter inability to understand how the policy could ever be carried out without throwing overboard all Articles and creeds, without doing away with subscription, in short, without altering the whole constitution of the Church of England.

If the Church of England long survived such a chaotic state of things, it would be a miracle indeed. When there are no laws and no rules there can be no order in any community. When there is no creed or standard of doctrine there can be no church, but a Babel . . . The end of the Church of England, unless God interferes, will be either Popery or infidelity.

This was the twofold danger facing the Church of England as Ryle saw it, at the end of the nineteenth century and at the end of his long ministry. His remarks have an astonishingly modern ring to them.

Let us then consider Ryle’s understanding of the Church of England, its doctrine, ministry, establishment, and indebtedness to the Reformation, which he set in opposition to both these views which were gaining currency at the time, and which alone, he considered, could vindicate her if it were faithfully and consistently maintained.


Ryle was of the opinion that the genius and character of the Church of England had been settled by divine Providence at the Reformation. It had, as a result, been given an identity which, if denied and effaced, must result in its ruin. The character of the Church of England is defined by its doctrine, by the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. In his paper The Church’s Distinctive Principles, he declares, ‘The principles I am going to consider are the principles of the Reformed Church of England, which was emancipated from Rome three hundred years ago.’ He continues:

When I speak of the ‘distinctive principles of the Church of England’ I do not mean for a moment its distinctive episcopal government, or its distinctive liturgical mode of worship. No! the distinctive principles of the Church of England which I have in view are those mighty doctrinal principles which have been its strength and stay for 300 years . . . once let those principles be forsaken and repudiated, and our church will decay and die . . . Now where shall we turn in order to find out these great distinctive principles? I answer unhesitatingly, to the Thirty-Nine Articles.

He then goes through the distinctive tenets of those Articles. 1) ‘an un¬varying reverence for Holy Scripture. It always recognises the supremacy and sufficiency of God’s Word written as the only rule of faith and practice’ (Lambeth Synod, 1878); 2) its doctrinal evangelicalism, by which he means all the Articles on original sin, free-will, the need for God’s grace, justifi¬cation by faith, etc.; 3) its clear, outspoken testimony against the errors of Rome: 4) its rejection of any sacerdotal or sacrificial character in the Christian ministry; 5) its wise, well-balanced and moderate estimate of the sacraments.

All these, Ryle considered, defined the nature and character of the Church of England and gave it not only a distinct identity, but also a destiny. The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion had set an unmistakeable stamp upon it. The doctrine of the Articles is the only doctrine which is life and strength and health and peace. ‘Never be ashamed of them, and be very sure, that these doctrines are the religion of the Bible and of the Church of England.’

In answer to those who pleaded the comprehensiveness of the Church of England, he responded by saying that the Church of England is only as broad as her Articles, and that the church which regards Deism, Socinianism, Romanism and Protestantism with equal favour or equal indifference, is a mere Babel, a ‘city of confusion’ and not a church. The national church, he acknowledges, is not a sect. A sect can afford to be narrow and exclusive. A national church ought to be liberal and generous. But there must be clear limits to such comprehensiveness. ‘Destroy these limits, or refuse to maintain and enforce them and our candlestick will be removed . . . the English National Church must be Protestant, and have doctrinal “limits” or cease to exist.’
With regard to the co-operation between different schools of thought within the church, Ryle considered that co-operation ought to be possible for ‘temporal objects’, e.g., for the relief of poverty, for maintaining the union of church and state, and resisting infidelity. But co-operation in spiritual matters, the saving of souls, etc., ‘seems to me’, he said, ‘to be impossible.’
Can men from different traditions preach in each other’s pulpits? An unreflecting mind may say ‘Yes’. But I answer, on the contrary . . . Some have called for co-operation in foreign missions. A beautiful thought, no doubt! But utterly chimerical and impractical. It will not work . . . I can imagine no scheme more sure to fail as the scheme uniting all schools of thought in a kind of joint-stock board to carry it on. The certain conse¬quences would be either helpless feebleness or a scandalous quarrelling, and the whole result would be a disastrous breakdown of the movement.

Some will undoubtedly say that Ryle’s views were simply circumscribed by the time in which he lived and that today he would see things differently. But on the contrary, Ryle’s views arose out of the principles he held, not the time in which he lived. Were he alive today and holding the same principles, he would inevitably come to the same conclusions. It is departure from principle rather than the passage of time that makes some contemporary evangelicals see things differently. And have not events, in fact, borne out the truth of what he said? For the Church of England, adopting the views which he condemned, has progressed from scandalous quarrelling to helpless feebleness, just as he foretold.

The concluding words of his paper on this subject are prophetic. ‘Do not underestimate the importance of unity in doctrine. A house divided against itself cannot stand. A self-governing church, unchecked by the state, with free and full synodical action, divided as much as ours is now, would most certainly split into sections and perish.’ Synodical government has been in existence for only a short time, but already there is before the Church of England the prospect of a severe disruption. I refer, of course, to the impending ordination of women bishops.


Secondly, with regard to the ministry of the Church of England, Ryle states that it is a most wise and useful provision of God. ‘For the uninterrupted preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments, no better plan can be devised than the appointment of a regular order of men who shall give themselves wholly to Christ’s business.’ But he quickly proceeds to a warning: ‘Never is a land in worse condition than when the ministers of religion have caused their office to be ridiculed and despised. It is a tremendous word in Malachi, “I have made you contemptible and base before all the people according as ye have not kept my ways”’ (Mal. 2:9).

Ryle says it is important to fence the ministerial office, as the Thirty-Nine Articles do, with cautions. The Christian minister is not a mediator; he cannot give grace; he is not a confessor; he is not infallible; he is not a sacrificing priest. What then is the chief work of a minister?

To preach the Word of God, this is the main and principal task, but of course all the other duties mentioned in Scripture and the original are to be undertaken also. The minister is to be a trumpeter to awaken to danger, to show the soldiers their duty, to recall the troops together. He stands by the commanding officer. The proportion of Scripture should be observed in the carrying out of his duties. The Lord’s Supper is mentioned but a few times. But about grace, faith, justification, etc., there is line upon line.
The ordination service is principally about preaching. The minister is to declare the whole counsel of God and keep nothing back. If he does not know how to preach his work is vitiated before it is begun.

Today preaching is fallen into desuetude, and what little there is largely lacks the scriptural, dogmatic content that Ryle thought it required to be effective and to fulfil its object. It was said in The Times obituary of the late Robert Runcie, that he elevated the place of the sacraments and did not like the preaching side, which is generally true, I suppose, of the Anglican clergy these days. Humphrey Carpenter, his biographer, also said that he did not write his own speeches and addresses, and that there was no acknowledgement of those who did, which Carpenter considered was ‘fundamentally dishonest’. What an enormous contrast with the first Bishop of Liverpool!


Disestablishment was a burning issue towards the end of the last century, when Ryle was at Liverpool. In a paper given to his diocesan conference, he discussed the pros and cons. He considered that it would not, in fact, benefit dissenters at all, as was often imagined it might; and though it would impoverish the Church of England and lead to divisions, it would not mean its end. It would, however, do great harm to the state.

God rules everything in the world; national decline and prosperity are ordered by him. If we believe this, it is absurd to say that governments have nothing to do with religion, and that they may safely ignore God. The government that refuses to recognise the place of religion, in order to save itself trouble, and to avoid favouring one church more than another, may think it is doing a very smart and politic thing. But I believe its line of procedure is offensive to the Most High and eminently calculated to draw down his displeasure.

Again, reason itself points out that the moral standards of a nation’s subjects is the grand secret of its prosperity.

Gold mines, and manufactures, and scientific discoveries, and eloquent speeches, and commercial activity, and democratic institutions are not enough to make and keep a nation great. Tyre and Sidon, Egypt and Carthage, Athens and Rome, Venice and Spain, and Portugal, had plenty of such possessions as these and yet fell into decay. The sinews of a nation’s strength are truthfulness, honesty, sobriety, purity, temperance, economy, diligence, brotherly kindness, charity among its inhabitants. Let those who deny this dare. And will any man say there is any surer way of pro¬ducing these characteristics in a people than by encouraging and fostering and spreading and teaching pure scriptural Christianity?

(to be continued)


Centenarians remembered
A number of readers will be aware of the fine work done by Pilgrim Homes, who for nearly two hundred years have run homes for elderly Christians. The organisation is based on a distinctly Protestant and Calvinistic basis of faith and through these long years has preserved its spiritual vision along with care for the aged. In its publication, The Quarterly, we are reminded of other centenarians besides the Queen Mother.

John Field, for instance, who lives at the Wellsborough Home, reached his 100th birthday last year. When he was younger he set himself to deliver 30,000 tracts to houses throughout his home town of Nuneaton. Much more recently, he posted a letter and tract to everyone he found in U.K. telephone directories with his own surname. His wife, who was also a resident in the Pilgrim Home, passed away over twenty years ago, and for a while Mr Field did not think he could stay there himself. However, it was the books he found in the home’s library, housed in Wellborough’s old chapel, which gave him a new field of service. He committed himself to maintaining and mending these books, and many subsequently benefited from his hard work.
Also at the Wellsborough Home are Mr and Mrs Frederick Hodges, both of whom are over 100 years old and have celebrated their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. In the spring of this year they came to the home for temporary respite care, but sitting next to another centenarian and meeting friends, they decided to stay permanently. Mr Hodges is of Huguenot stock and served on the Western Front in 1918.

Readers may obtain a copy of The Quarterly by writing to Pilgrim Homes, 175 Tower Bridge Road, London SE1 2AL.

    • Cover image for "J.C. Ryle" by Iain Murray

      J.C. Ryle

      Prepared to Stand Alone

      by Iain H. Murray

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      May 2016 marks 200 years since the birth of J. C. Ryle. Soon to be released is Iain H. Murray’s new biography of the first Bishop of Liverpool, entitled J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone.1 Ryle’, says Marcus Loane, […]

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