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Packer on Ryle

Category Articles
Date October 1, 2000

Bishop J. C. Ryle was The Puritan Bishop, that is the Puritan Bishop par excellence, said Dr. James I Packer, Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver, speaking in Liverpool on 9 September at a meeting chaired by the present Bishop of that city. His subject was “J. C. Ryle, the Puritan Bishop”. Dr. Packer asked, “What is a Puritan?” His answer was that a Puritan was a type of Evangelical believer, British and Anglican, whose time of greatness was the 16th century. Because of the Great Ejection we think of the Puritans as nonconformists but they were not and did not want to be. Dr. Packer said that the standard Evangelical between about 1600 and 1900 was Anglican, adding that, “The Church of England will never be healthy, save as this type of Evangelical is found in its fellowship once more. Recovery of the Puritan type of Evangelical I maintain is necessary for our church’s health” Ryle’s Achievements Ryle was the last outstanding representative of this type of Evangelical. He had the three marks of a great man; (1) Achievement, notably the remarkable way he took over an area without institutions and turned it into a diocese. Also, his undisputed leadership of evangelicalism in the second half of the last century; (2) Impact, much of it through his brilliant, forceful, vigorous writings and (3) Universality, as proved by the blessing he has brought to subsequent generations, seeming to be speaking directly to us today. Dr. Packer discussed the characteristics of Victorian society and the terrible wound and humiliation that his father’s sudden bankruptcy inflicted on John at the age of 25. Ryle’s Five Features of Evangelicalism Dr. Packer reminded his audience of the five leading features of Evangelical religion as proposed by Ryle;

  1. The absolute supremacy it assigns to Scripture – Analogous only to our Lord Jesus Christ in that it is 100% Divine and 100% human, the two perfectly united.
  2. The prominence it gives to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption, for which the blood of Christ and the grace of God are the only remedy.
  3. The paramount importance it attaches to the person and saving work of Christ and the need only for a simple childlike faith.
  4. The high place it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
  5. The importance it attaches to the outward walk, from the work of grace in the heart of man.

Dr Packer added, “It is my Evangelicalism and I hope it is yours.” Ryle’s own Puritan priorities Ryle’s ministry was marked by Puritan purposes and priorities with four leading emphases;

  1. The evangelisation of English people. His tracts and sermons were Christ-centred and all ended by pointing people to Christ, the Saviour they need.
  2. The purification of English religion from the spirit of Pharisaism and Sadduceeism. He saw the ritualists as Pharisees who focused on externals so exclusively that the heart was being neglected grievously. Sadduceeism was illustrated in ‘Essays and Reviews’ published in 1850 questioning elements of Christianity which had been held as basic certainties. Ryle maintained that the most dangerous people were not outspoken opponents of truth but those who quietly insinuated doubt, who said that we must not think men wrong who differ from us, that we must not condemn anyone lest we betray lack of charity, that God is simply love, that all men may be saved and that great minds must always be respected. It was a mark of these dangerous men that they harp on the difficulties of inspiration and calmly sneer at what they call label ‘old fashioned views’, ‘bigotry’ and ‘lack of charity’.
  3. The uniting of English Christians, that is Anglican Evangelicals who were prepared to stick to the 39 Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the rules. He sought to he a constitutionalist rather than sectarian.
  4. The maturing of believers. He was an evangelist but did not believe in leaving the newborn to themselves and to this end he wrote books.

Ryle’s literary legacy His legacy is fourfold. His books were marked by their declaration of Evangelical belief; the model they set for Evangelical meditation (particularly his Expository Thoughts on the Gospels); their vindication of Evangelical churchmanship (Knots Untied, Principles for Churchmen and Ryle’s historical works); and his vision of evangelical vitality (especially in his description of the Evangelical revival). During the course of the subsequent discussion, Dr Packer agreed that younger Evangelicals in the ministry seemed not to be strong on theology. He attributed this to their preoccupation with keeping congregations together and making things interesting in the face of outside distractions. Also, to the false idea that the Bible does you good and theology drains you. As regards inter-faith activities he said he would talk to other faiths to explain where he stood, as a form of evangelism, but that he thought that joint worship of an undefined god was off bounds. In answer to another question, Dr. Packer spoke of Ryle’s attempts to promote fellowship with nonconformists and his fondness for reading Spurgeon’s sermons, caricatured in a limerick; There was once a preacher named Spurgie, Who hated the English lit-urgy, But his sermons are fine I use them as mine, And so do the rest of the clergy The position today Dr. Packer concluded, “I don’t want anyone to despair of the Church of England just because it is officially so loose in doctrinal matters. The Bible is still the Bible and documents testifying to the contents of the Bible still are what they are and it seems to me that if the ideal for the church is that its teachers should teach only truth, then the moral authority of the Bible and the Articles remain exactly where they were. “The constitutional question is not the primary one. The primary one is what should be our ideal as Anglicans for ministry, for belief, for the quality of our Evangelical living in the Church today and it seems to me that we are no further behind the lines as the mainstream minority than we were in Ryle’s day.” As reported in the English Churchman Fridays October 6 & 13, with permission

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