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"
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 l5:14-15).
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
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, The Secretary, "Holme Regis," Old School Lane, Stanford,
Biggleswade, SG18 9JL.]