J.C. Ryle’s Significance for Today
A paper given at the PRS Conference, August 2000
by David Samuel
‘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. So here we have two great, broad movements which 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.
For example, 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, there were those who 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, the other thing that endangered 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, he considered, alone could vindicate her if it were faithfully and consistently maintained.
First, Doctrine. 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’; and he continued,
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 unvarying 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, justification 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 unmistakable stamp upon it. The doctrines of the Articles are the only doctrines which are 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 it 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 consequences 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. 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, and 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 only been in existence for 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 ordinal 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.
Thirdly, Establishment. 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 it would not mean either the end of the Church of England; but it would impoverish it and lead to divisions. 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 producing these characteristics in a people than by encouraging, and fostering, and spreading, and teaching pure Scriptural Christianity?
Fourthly, indebtedness to the Reformation. In his paper Lessons from English Church History Ryle draws out the benefits that have accrued from the Reformation.
Whatever England is among the nations of the earth, as a Christian country, whatever political liberty we enjoy, whatever freedom we have in religion, whatever safety for life and property there is among us, whatever purity and happiness there is in our homes, whatever protection and care for the poor, – we owe it, in very great measure to the Protestant Reformation.
He argues that as Archbishop Laud’s want of sympathy with the Reformation and attempts to ‘unprotestantise’ the Church of England resulted in tragedy for the Church and nation, so Ritualism in 19th century England was a fresh departure from the principles of the Reformation, and a movement towards Rome, and that as such it endangered the very existence of the Church of England. Many, said Ryle, would argue that it is not a Romanising movement, but simply a desire to introduce more ornate ceremonial. ‘I have no sympathy with that opinion at all.’ Ritualism is a Romeward movement and leads to Popery. It is proved by the writings of the leading Ritualists of the day. ‘I believe that Ritualism has done and is doing universal damage to the Church of England, and that unless it is checked or removed, it will prove the destruction of the Establishment’.
At the conclusion of this paper he declares,
There can be no real peace while our church tolerates and fosters Popery. God forbid that we should ever sacrifice truth to a love of peace. What others think I do not know. My own mind is made up. I have come to one decided conclusion. I say, give me a really Protestant and Evangelical Established Church or no Established Church at all. When the Reformed Church of England renounces her Protestant principles and goes back to popery her life and her glory will have clean departed, and she will not be worth preserving. She will be an offence to God and not a resting place for any true Christian.
With those solemn words of warning ringing in our ears let us now trace out something of what has happened to the Church of England since they were uttered. Very many things have happened since Ryle’s death in 1900. To try to enumerate them all here would not be helpful and would only serve to confuse the picture. I shall confine myself simply to those movements which have gone on as a natural progression from those which Ryle himself castigated and condemned in his writings, and they are, in the first place, concerned with the drift towards Rome.
The Anglo-Catholic movement, which Ryle saw as threatening the very existence of the Established Church, soon after his death manifested the very signs which he feared of actively seeking reunion with Rome. In the 1920s an attempt was made with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Davidson, at a rapprochement with the Church of Rome, through the Malines conversations. Cardinal Mercier and some other leaders of the Roman Catholic Church met with Lord Halifax and several other Anglo-Catholics. The conversations were held from 1921 to 1926. After the death of Cardinal Mercier they broke down. Later it was disclosed by the Vatican that it had never envisaged the reunion of the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but only a rapprochement with Anglo-Catholics. This caused much astonishment at the time. However, the ice had been broken and the way prepared, despite the self-confessed duplicity of Rome, for further conversations, which came about after the Second World War when Archbishop Ramsey and the Pope set up The Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission in 1966.
This was a much more serious attempt than the Malines Conversations to seek unity, and it is evident by its fruits that it has made considerable progress towards the reunification of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches. In 1982 ARCIC, as this body is known, published its Final Report, which claimed substantial agreement between the two sides on Eucharist, Ministry and Authority. Major concessions were made by the Anglican side in the acceptance of the Lord’s Supper as a propitiatory sacrifice and in the nature of substantial change in the elements, though much of it was concealed in ambiguous and recondite language. The Report also affirmed the sacerdotal character of the ministry. It unashamedly uses the term hierus or sacrificing priest for the Christian minister, which is never used of ministers in the New Testament. Finally, the Report states, that ‘in a reunited church a universal primacy will be needed, and that primacy should properly belong to the Bishop of Rome’.
Would it not have been well with the Church of England if at all times she had heeded Ryle’s words, and ‘cultivated a godly simplicity in all her statements about the Lord’s Supper’? ‘There is’, he said, ‘no sacrifice in the Lord’s Supper, no real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine, no change in the elements, no grace conferred, no ex opere operato, no altar at the east end of our churches, no sacrificing priesthood in the Church of England’. A Godly simplicity is indeed required of us. Let your yea be yea, and your nay, nay – no shifts, stratagems and ambiguities – for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.
In a cleverly scheduled operation the Pope visited this country for the first time in 1982, just after the publication of this Report, was received by the Queen in Buckingham Palace, and took part in a service in Canterbury Cathedral. I do not think that Ryle, had he been able to witness these scenes, would have been altogether surprised. Had he not repeatedly warned of what would happen if the Anglo-Catholic movement were not checked? But he would nevertheless have been horrified at the apostasy of the national church.
But that is by no means all that happened. Following these unprecedented events, the General Synod, in 1985, debated the ARCIC Final Report, and approved it in several motions which were passed with significant majorities in all houses of bishops, clergy and laity. The following day The Times carried a report which stated,
“The Church of England, through its representative body, declared its willingness to take into its system the office of universal primate, the Bishop of Rome. That was a historic moment.”
And so indeed it was, for it meant an effective cancelling out of the Reformation in the Church of England. Warning had been given before the vote was taken, by Church Society, that it was not merely a motion for talks to continue between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, but, as the resolution stated, for the next concrete steps to be taken towards, the reconciliation of our churches.
However, the story does not stop there. The same resolutions were sent down to all the diocesan synods and were similarly approved by every one without exception. And, finally, in 1988 the same Report and resolutions came before the Lambeth Conference representing the whole Anglican Communion and were overwhelmingly endorsed by all the bishops present, save one. What would Ryle have thought of all this had he been there? But we must bring the story up to date.
Immediately following the approval of ARCIC by the whole Anglican Communion, Dr Runcie made arrangements to go to Rome to meet the Pope. He was going to Rome with the special mission to deliver up the Church of England and the Anglican Communion to the Pope, to bring him this glittering prize and to receive a reward for what he had done. But he returned a very disappointed man. The Pope was no doubt pleased with what had been done, but he made it clear that it did not by any means go far enough. The primacy of the pope that the Church of England must accept is not merely a primacy of honour, but of jurisdiction. Until that was forthcoming there could be no reunion. I saw Archbishop Runcie on television immediately following his return, and he was a broken man.
Since then the ARCIC process has continued with a view to educating Anglicans into full acceptance of the primacy of the pope. That is the significance of the latest statement of ARCIC entitled The Gift of Authority. The Rubicon has already been crossed, as I have shown; the primacy of the pope has been accepted by Anglicans, in principle; the only thing now for ARCIC to do is to show what that really means. It means a primacy of jurisdiction. The Gift of Authority declares: ‘Within his wider ministry, the Bishop of Rome offers a specific ministry concerning the discernment of truth, as an expression of universal primacy’ (para 47). And it goes on, ‘Anglicans must be open to and desire a recovery and re-reception under certain clear conditions of the exercise of universal primacy by the Bishop of Rome.’
This would have fulfilled all Ryle’s worst fears. Does not his ultimatum now come to have immediate relevance and force? ‘Give me a really Protestant and evangelical Established Church or no Established Church at all’?
But somebody may say, what about his words, ‘So long as the Articles and the Prayer Book are not altered, we are in an impregnable position’? Well, since then the Prayer Book has virtually disappeared, and as for the Articles, what ARCIC has done is not to alter or remove them, but simply to ignore them and go round them. Between the wars the French built a great line of defence against the Germans called the Maginot Line. They said it was impregnable, and I believe it was, for it was never breached. But when war was declared, the German army ignored it and pushed through the Low Countries, outflanking the Maginot Line and capturing Paris. ARCIC has outflanked the Thirty-Nine Articles. It has left them standing, but the operative doctrine of the Church of England now is no longer the Thirty-Nine Articles but the ARCIC Statements. The fact that the Articles remain unaltered is of very little significance,
The Church of Rome has had long experience of doing things this way. She has the Scriptures and the Catholic Creeds, but they are not determinative of her theology. They have long been overtaken by the tradition of the Church of Rome, by her Councils, especially the Council of Trent, and her doctrine is determined now not by Scripture, but by those traditions. What does the celebrated Bishop Hall say in his book, No Peace With Rome? ‘Look on the face of Rome and she is ours and God’s. Look on her back, and she is quite contrary, Antichristian…Rome doth both hold the foundation and deny it. She holds it directly, she destroys it by consequence…in that she destroys it, whatever semblance she makes of piety and holiness, she is a Church of Malignants’. And what coquetry and harlotry she has learned over the centuries, she is now teaching her little sister, who seems eager to learn and to imitate her.
What the Anglican Church is now doing is the same as Rome has done, putting in place a tradition based upon ARCIC which will supersede, indeed already has superseded, the Articles as the determinant of Anglican doctrine.
Before we leave this question of reunion with Rome, I must refer to a matter of great moment and that is the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. In his paper on The Fallibility of Ministers Bishop Ryle says: ‘There is no doctrine about which we ought to be so jealous as justification by faith without the deeds of the law’. It is clear that Ryle, like the Reformers, attached enormous importance to this great doctrine of Scripture. He refers to the incident at Antioch, when Paul ‘withstood Peter to his face, because he was to be blamed’. ‘ And what article of the faith had Peter denied?’ asks Ryle, ‘None. What doctrine had he publicly preached that was false? None. What then had he done? He had done this. After keeping company with believing Gentiles, he had publicly withdrawn from them. He seemed to think that they were less holy and acceptable to God than the circumcised Jews. He seemed to add something to simple faith, and to be saying in answer to the question, What must I do to be saved? not merely Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, but “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and be circumcised, and keep the law”.’
So this doctrine, which is so fundamental to the church, must be guarded jealously in all ages. There is no place here for sleights of hand, ambiguity or sloppy thinking. This doctrine of justification by faith alone, without the works of the law, is essential to true peace…It is the doctrine that Satan hates and above all seeks to overthrow… He is always trying to seduce churches and ministers to deny and obscure its truth. No wonder that the Council of Trent directed its chief attack against this doctrine and pronounced it accursed and heretical…The doctrine is gall and wormwood to unconverted hearts.
It is essential to the true success and well-being of the church. And Ryle added, ‘Its schools may be in every parish, its buildings may strike the eye all over the land. But there will be no blessing of God in that church, unless justification by faith is preached from its pulpits. Sooner or later its candlestick will be taken away’.
These, indeed, are solemn words. What would Ryle think of what is taking place today? When the ARCIC report on Salvation and the Church was published in 1986, I was invited to give a paper on it to the Church of England Evangelical Council. I pointed out that the statement on justification was deliberately ambiguous. Its intention was to make a bridge between the Roman and Protestant doctrines; to subvert the Scriptural teaching, namely that it is a declaration of the believing sinner as righteous, by combining with it the Roman teaching, that it is an inward infusion of righteousness. I was attacked by an evangelical bishop as uncharitable and wrong. I cannot remember that anyone came to my aid.
But since then we have had Evangelicals and Catholics Together – a further attempt to skew the teaching on justification in a Romeward direction. It has been signed by leading Evangelicals. What would Ryle have made of all this? I think the answer is quite clear. In his paper Apostolic Fears he wrote, ‘False doctrine is the engine Satan has chosen to corrupt and pollute the church. Unity is worthless if purchased at the cost of truth.’ In his paper Pharisees and Sadducees he wrote
We must not think that a man, once an evangelical, can do no wrong. Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, ie, false doctrine. He [the Lord] gave this as a perpetual warning to the church. There is no security against the doctrine of the Pharisees unless we resist it at the very beginning. [I fear that it has been allowed to run for too long now in the case of ARCIC to be remedied.] Beginning with a dislike to ‘evangelical religion’ as ‘old fashioned,’ ‘narrow and exclusive’ [precisely the epithets used about it at Keele] you may end up by rejecting every leading doctrine of Christianity – the atonement, the need of grace, and the divinity of Christ.
Again, in the same paper he says,
Let us beware of the insidiousness of false doctrine, the very small beginnings… Every heresy began at one time with some little departure from the truth. There is only a little seed of error needed to create a great tree…it is a little leaven that leavens the whole lump…Very striking is the vision in Pilgrim’s Progress which describes the hill Error as ‘very steep on the furthest side’.
I fear Ryle’s words of warning have not been heeded, and the Gadarene rush having once begun cannot be turned back.
In this paper Ryle goes on to speak words that are remarkably prescient.
To keep Gospel truth in the church is even of greater importance than to keep peace… The apostle Paul valued unity very greatly as we know, but here he runs the risk of all the consequences that follow… Why? Because he dreaded false doctrine. He feared the loss of truth more than the loss of peace. Many people have a morbid rear of controversy – They would have said, with Ahab, that Elijah was a disturber of the peace. They would have thought that Paul at Antioch went too far! To maintain truth in the church men should be ready to make any sacrifice, to hazard peace, to risk dissension. They should no more tolerate false doctrine than they would tolerate sin. (But, good Bishop Ryle, if I may so address his shade, now in the church is so desensitised that it can tolerate sin as well as false doctrine!) Peace without truth is a false peace; it is the very peace of the devil. Unity without the Gospel is a worthless unity; it is the very unity of hell. Let us never be ensnared by those who speak kindly of it.
Ryle thought that a man should leave his parish church if the doctrine taught there was false. He had no business going there at all.
The state of the times and the position of the laity in some parts of England require plain speaking. I am not ignorant of those magic expressions, the parochial system, order, division, schism, unity, controversy and the like… False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. But what is schism? Is it not false doctrine that rends the body of Christ? or can the body of Christ be rent? If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue rather than a sin…He is the schismatic who causes the schism.
Unity, quiet, order…give beauty, strength, efficiency to the cause of Christ. But even gold can be bought too dear. Unity which is obtained by the sacrifice of truth is worth nothing. It is not the unity that pleases God.
We have reviewed Ryle’s assessment of the Roman system and the dangers that it posed to the Church of England, especially from the infatuation of many of her clergy and lay people with it in one form or another. It is clear that the whole thing was utterly abhorrent to him, and his attitude may be summed up in his impassioned words in his paper on Idolatry,
To say that reunion with Rome would be an insult to our martyred Reformers is a very light thing; rather than be reunited with the idolatrous church of Rome, I would willingly see my own beloved church perish and go to pieces. Rather than become popish once more, she had better die.
I wish now to turn to Ryle’s view of what may broadly be termed Liberalism.
Ryle was fighting on two fronts. He saw not only the dangers that arose from the prospect of the Romanising of the Church of England, but also those which threatened from the growing liberalism and scepticism of the age. He warned not only of the doctrine of the Pharisees, i.e. formalism, tradition worship, and self-righteousness, but also that of the Sadducees, which he said may be summed up in three words: free-thinking, scepticism, and rationalism. The Sadducees did not deny revelation altogether. Many of them were priests. But the practical effect was to break men’s faith in revelation. Our Lord gave this warning as a perpetual one to the church. He knew that these would be the upper and nether millstones that would crush the truth. The spirit of the Pharisees and the Sadducees would live on amongst professing Christians. We see the one today in Romanism and the other in Socinianism. The doctrine of free-thought and liberalism does not work out in the open, but like leaven in the meal, it is hidden and works secretly.
In his paper The Wants of the Times Ryle declared that it was his conviction
that the professing church of the nineteenth century is much damaged by laxity and indistinctness about matters of doctrine within, as much as by sceptics and unbelievers without. Myriads of professing Christians seem nowadays utterly unable to distinguish things that differ. Like people afflicted with colour blindness, they are incapable of discerning what is true and what is false, what is sound and what is unsound. Popery and Protestantism, an atonement or no atonement, a personal Holy Ghost or no Holy Ghost, future punishment or no future punishment… nothing comes amiss to them; they can swallow it all, if they cannot digest it! Carried away by a fancied liberality and charity they seem to think everybody is right and nobody is wrong… everybody is going to be saved and nobody is going to be lost… They dislike distinctness and think all extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong.
These people live in a kind of mist or fog. They see nothing clearly and they do not know what they believe. They have not made up their minds about any great point of the Gospel and seem content to be honorary members of all schools of thought.
Elsewhere he describes this ‘creed’ as ‘Nothingarianism’.
This sort of thing, so common then as now, he ascribes to a sense of false charity. There are those who pride themselves on never pronouncing others mistaken whatever views they may hold.
Your neighbour, forsooth, may be an Arian, or Socinian, or Roman Catholic, or Mormon, or Deist, or Sceptic, or a mere formalist, or a thorough Antinomian. But the charity of many says that you have no right to think him wrong. From such charity may I ever be delivered!…True charity does not think everybody right in doctrine. True charity cries ‘Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they be of God, because many false prophets are gone out into the world’ I John 4:1.
Such ignorance and indifference to truth is due also, says Ryle, to an astonishing ignorance of Scripture.
In no other way can I account for the ease with which people are, like children, tossed to and fro, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, Ephesians 4:14. There is an Athenian love of novelty abroad, and a morbid distaste for anything old and regular, and in the beaten path of our forefathers.
The plague which, in Ryle’s day, was in the floor of the house and the skirting, is now in the walls and the roof. Broad liberal and agnostic views have spread through every rank and echelon the church. What would Ryle think today of a bishop who can deny with impunity the bodily resurrection of Christ? What would he think of a report commissioned by the Church of England which sanctioned such views? What would he make of an Archbishop so muddled and confused as to assert that ‘while we can be absolutely sure that Jesus lived, and that he was certainly crucified on the cross, we cannot with the same certainty say we know he was raised from the dead’. And what would he think of a church that meekly accepted such an extraordinary statement, and see nothing absurd or perverse in it? No doubt the Archbishop thought he was saying something very clever, but in fact he was saying something very foolish. For if we cannot know that Christ is raised ‘our faith is vain, and we are yet in our sins’. And, what is more, as the apostle Paul himself says, ‘we (the apostles) are found to be false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ, whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not’ (I Corinthians 15:14 & 15).
The leaven of the Sadducees is at work today in the church, no longer secretly, but openly, denying revelation in the scriptures, denying the resurrection of Christ and opposing itself to all supernatural religion. In opposition to all this Ryle stressed the importance of dogma. Indeed, there is no other way this evil can be countered.
In his paper of that title, Ryle explained that dogma is simply definite, ascertained truth. If there is no dogma there is no known truth. ‘Dogmatic theology is the statement of positive truths of religion’. He draws attention to the difference between dogma in science and religion. In the former it is presumption, in the latter it is a positive duty. Science has no revealed truth, only induction; we ought therefore to be modest in our assertions. In religion, on the contrary, we start with an infallible Book to guide us. With the Bible in the minister’s hands, there ought to be nothing faltering, hesitating and indefinite in his exhibition of the things necessary to salvation.
Compare this with the Church of England’s Doctrine Report (1987), which stands Ryle’s thesis on its head, and deliberately takes scientific method as the model for theology, and comes to the inevitable conclusion that theology is ‘tentative, provisional and incomplete’. Ryle was already aware in his own day of a growing dislike of all dogma in religion. He regarded it as a sign of the times. Hence, he said, arises the peculiar importance of holding and teaching it. He noted how newspapers praised Christian morality, but ignored Christian doctrine (now they no longer praise Christian morality, they condemn it). He noted the substitution of ‘earnestness’ for beliefs. He noted how the Broad Churchmen of the day wanted tabernacles for Socrates, Plato, and Mahomet, et al, as well as Christ, Moses and Elias. (Now multi-faithism is the order of the day. The current president or the Methodist Conference is a ‘born again’ Sikh, but he still attends the Sikh temple). But, Ryle said, there is nothing strange or new about this; ‘For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine’.
However, despite all this denigration of dogma that was going on at the time, Ryle said that there remained a catena of facts in support of dogma which it is impossible to explain away. ‘It is not enough’, Ryle contended, ‘to say simply, We believe the Bible. We must understand what the leading facts and doctrines of the Bible are, and that is exactly the point of creeds and confessions, and why they are useful’. He refers to the speech by Burke in the House of Commons, at the time of Archdeacon Blackburn’s petition, which sought to do away with subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, and substitute in its place subscription to the Bible. ‘Subscription to Scripture alone’, said Burke, ‘is the most astonishing idea I have ever heard, and will amount to no subscription at all’.
What was even more astonishing to me was that Evangelicals, at the time of the Keele Congress were advocating the same policy, and saying that we had no further need of the Thirty-Nine Articles. We could forget about them, for we had the Bible. But the teaching of the Articles is no more than the dogmatic teaching of Scripture. To drive a wedge between them is, in effect, to say that you do not wish to state dogmatically what the Bible teaches. You wish to leave the matter open. I think this is what is meant by the ‘open evangelicalism’ that has now come into fashion. Men (and women) do not wish to be tied down to any particular teaching. But as Ryle pointed out, when we turn to the whole history of the progress and propagation of Christianity, there has been no converting work done without the proclamation of dogma. ‘The victories of Christianity…have been won by distinct doctrinal theology. Christianity without dogma is a powerless thing. No dogma, no fruits.’
In conclusion, let all honest, true-hearted churchmen…stick to the old paths. Let no sneers, no secret desire to please, and conciliate the public, tempt us to leave the old paths. Let us beware of being foggy and hazy in our statements. Let us be specific in our doctrine. It was dogma in the apostolic age which emptied the heathen temples and shook Greece and Rome. It was dogma that awoke Christendom from its slumbers at the time of the Reformation and spoiled the pope of one third of his subjects. It was dogma which a hundred years ago revived the Church of England.
I desire to raise a warning voice against the growing disposition to sacrifice dogma on the altar of so-called unity… Peace may be bought too dear, and it is bought too dear if we keep back any portion of Gospel truth in order to exhibit to men a hollow semblance of agreement! Let us never compromise sound doctrine for the sake of pleasing anyone, whether he be Bishop or Presbyter, Romanist or Infidel, Ritualist or Neologian, Churchman or Dissenter or Plymouth Brother. Let our principle be, amicus Socrates, amicus Plato sed magis amicus veritas!
Well says Martin Luther: ‘Accursed is that charity which is preserved by shipwreck of faith or truth, to which all things must give place, both charity, and apostle, or an angel from heaven.’
Well would it have been if those who professed to be evangelicals in the Church of England had heeded those words and eschewed involvement in ecumenical dialogue and engagement with other traditions, and had not been ashamed to be dogmatic.
I come now to the conclusion of this paper. Ryle still speaks across the century that divides us from him. His voice is clear, his warnings plain. He was a man who lived in and by his faith. His faith was not some speculative intellectual system that he carried round with him, but which did not control and direct his life. Søren Kierkegaard criticised Hegel because, he said, in his speculative philosophy he had constructed a palace, but he actually lived in a hovel at the side of it. I think that is true of much contemporary evangelicalism. Men delight in it intellectually as a system, but they do not live by it, it does not control all that they do. Faith is not demonstrated by commitment to the truth.
There will be many addresses, no doubt, given this year on Ryle, and what a great man he was and what wonderful things he said, by those who have no intention of living out the faith he proclaimed and by which he lived. It will be an exercise in garnishing the tombs of the righteous, which our Lord so severely condemned in the Pharisees of his day. The acid test is not what lip service we pay to Ryle, but whether we live by the same principles and doctrines he upheld, and demonstrate the same spirit, by showing that we will have no truck with the compromise, shifts and mendacity of the present age as it is manifested both inside and outside the church.