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J. C. Ryle’s Significance for Today

Category Articles
Date March 1, 2001

J. C. 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 skepticism 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, skepticism, 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 skeptics 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 Skeptic, 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” (1 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 of 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’ (1 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 of 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 as 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,’ he said, ‘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 he 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,’ he said, ‘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. Soren 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.

The above is part three of Dr David Samuel’s assessment of J. C. Ryle which have appeared in the last issues of The Gospel Magazine, March-April 2001

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