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Ryle Re-Examined

Category Articles
Date November 24, 2001



That two good books on J.C.Ryle (1816-1900) should appear within a year of each other is a reminder of how the influence of faithful Christians can abide long after their death. Both books are by clergy of the Church of England. Russell’s work is largely biography, with some material on Ryle’s beliefs well interspersed. Farley’s is the reverse: his pages arc mainly exposition of his subject’s thinking, with less (though valuable) biographical detail. Russell will be more popular and writes for the general reader; Farley makes more demands and cannot henceforth be overlooked by any serious student of Ryle. Russell identifies himself as an evangelical; Farley writes in a more objective style for the world of scholarship, but his sympathy is clear nonetheless.

No biography of Ryle appeared until nearly fifty years after his death. By that time any personal papers had all disappeared and to date nothing of that nature has been rediscovered except the short autobiography he prepared for his family (J.C. Ryle A Self Portrait ed. P. Toon [Reiner, Swengel, Pa., 1975). But the story first told by Guthrie Clark (1947), has been gradually filled out, particularly by Marcus Loane (1953 and, revised, 1983), and Peter Toon and Michael Smout (1976). Russell knows all these sources and has added a few more of his own. His attractively written account may well hold first place as the Ryle biography for many years. It will certainly have appreciative readers. Yet Farley has demonstrated that the full story has not yet been told. In the area of Ryle’s thinking, he breaks new ground both by a close sifting of his writings (which are helpfully all listed in order of their appearance) and by drawing upon new information from contemporary newspapers. By these means the bishop’s work in Liverpool is viewed in depth and much that comes out remains of relevance and importance today.

Both authors deal with Ryle’s views on how evangelicals should regard the unity of the Church of England. He did not regard it as a place where no clergy should be regarded save those identified with the evangelical party; at the same time, for him, comprehensiveness had definite limits. Although different groupings of churchmen might be characterized by their own beliefs and practices, they are united on the essential doctrines of faith, love the same Bible, subscribe to the same Articles, believe the same creeds, use the same Prayer-Book’ (Russell, p. 174). Accordingly he encouraged a wider participation in the life of the denomination by his own party. But in this regard his hopes and policy failed. The reality was that too many clergy gave a different answer to the question, What must I do to be saved?’ A majority, adrift from the authority of Scripture, were willing to have no doctrinal limits, and by 1885 Ryle was writing, ‘We are practically in a state of anarchy about ecclesiastical discipline.’ The question of discipline, he warned, four years before his death, ‘is one of life or death: the English church must either have doctrinal “limits”, or cease to exist.’

One thing is very clear (although the point is too muted in Russell). Ryle would never have sought to make common cause with Anglo- and Roman Catholics against the tide of rationalism and unbelief within the Church of England. He saw reunion with Rome as ‘the worst disaster that could befall our Church’ and preferred that it should be ‘broken in pieces’ rather than suffer such an end.

Ryle was a man of his times and Russell and Farley both exercise the liberty of criticizing him at various points. This can be helpful, but with some of their observations we would disagree and believe that they represent the influence which our times have had upon their own thinking. The Ten Commandments, for example, meant more to Ryle than comes out in either author. In wanting to emphasize the place of joy, Farley even goes as far as saying that Ryle ‘believed in grace, not law’ (p.237). The bishop surely believed in both. Russell mentions Sabbath observance and worldliness as two issues that Ryle saw as important and which today are ‘regarded as dated and irrelevant’ (pp~ 210-1 1). That is in no small measure connected with contemporary disdain for law. Antinomianism has got within evangelicalism today.

Neither author, strangely, refers to the astonishing large and world-wide readership of Ryle at the present time. Certainly Ryle is being read and published afresh today to a degree that would never have been thought possible fifty years ago. This is indeed a hopeful sign, and both Russell and Farley are a valuable help towards further work on urgent issues which remain before the churches today.


1. A review article in the December 2001 Banner of Truth magazine on Eric Russell, “That Man of Granite with the Heart of a Child: A New Biography of J.C.Ryle” (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2001), 247 pp., £750, and Ian D. Farley, “J.C.Ryle. First Bishop of Liverpool” (Carlisle: paternoster Press, 2000), 258 pp., £19.99).

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