Review – J C Ryle

ryle-iain-murray-bio-cover-1J. C. Ryle, Prepared to Stand Alone

Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth Trust, 273 pp., hbk, £11.

 

Iain Murray is always a fluent and engaging biographer, and his latest work is a readable account of an important life. John Charles Ryle was a leading Evangelical minister of the Church of England in the nineteenth century, rising eventually to be appointed the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. He was also a significant Christian writer, especially on practical and devotional subjects, and many of his books, such as Holiness and Practical Religion remain widely available in print, and have benefited the Lord’s people of later generations. Either of these titles would be an excellent starting point for a young believer in reading good classic Christian literature, being personally challenging but not dense or theologically technical. Ryle’s books on church history are also good – stirring accounts of notable Christian lives of previous generations, well worth a thoughtful read.

In this biography, Murray brings out well Ryle’s extraordinary background, in an exceedingly wealthy but spiritually indifferent Cheshire banking family. He received the best education that money could buy, at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, and yet remained an utter heathen by his own admission. He neither prayed, read Scripture, nor gave thought to his eternal soul. Yet, marvellously, the grace of God began to work: through a passage of Scripture (Ephesians 2) being read in a public gathering; through the rebuke of his habit of swearing by a believing friend; through a time of severe illness in his last academic year at Oxford; through, ultimately, the sovereign grace of God at work in his experience.

He then had to face severe personal challenges, especially in attempting to maintain a Christian witness in his parents’ home in the face of their strong disapproval of this change in his life. Even worse, however, was the sudden and unexpected failure of his father’s bank, which completely ruined the family financially, and left Ryle burdened by his parents’ debts, which he would spend many years in paying off, although under no legal obligation to do so.

Under these circumstances, Ryle had to earn an income, and he accepted the offer of a curacy in Hampshire. He was thus precipitated into the ministry, without any training beyond his classical degree at Oxford. However, he plainly engaged very earnestly in the work of the ministry, pouring his energies into preaching, visitation and the writing of tracts, and later more substantial Christian books. From Hampshire, he moved to Suffolk, where he spent many years in the congregations of Helmingham and Stradbroke, before his final translation, to Liverpool.

He experienced agonising personal tragedy in the early death of his first wife, after a brief marriage, leaving him with an infant daughter. Only a few years later, his second wife also died, leaving him with five children to care for alone. Thankfully, he soon was able to marry for the third time, and lived with his new wife Henrietta into old age.

As an Anglican, Ryle ministered in a very broad Church. He was vigorously in sympathy with the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, reflecting her Reformation heritage, but found many of the trends in his day to be quite opposed to these convictions. In particular, there was a major trend in the nineteenth century towards ritualistic worship and a sacramental focus in Anglicanism, led by the so-called Tractarian movement. As a young minister, Ryle urged engagement and debate with those of opposing views, for example, at gathered Church ‘Congresses’. However, as a Bishop, he had to negotiate very challenging disputes with ministers introducing Romish innovations into worship in his diocese, and struggled with the breadth of opinion tolerated in Anglicanism. Truthfully, however, the development of more serious consequence was the modernistic Higher Critical movement that grew in the latter half of the nineteenth century, catastrophically undermining the confidence of the Church in the Bible. Sadly, Ryle’s own son Herbert became a distinguished academic, and was a leader of this destructive movement. As an elderly Bishop, he had to take the tragic step of removing his own son from his appointment as a chaplain in his diocese, knowing that he could no longer trust him to preach the truth.

The extracts from Ryle’s writings included as an appendix to this volume are exceedingly good, particularly in exposing the shallowness and evanescence of much that passed for religion in his day. In these extracts, he appears as a discriminating observer, and a faithful and rigorous preacher of the truth. Probably his writings are a greater legacy for the Christian Church than any other aspect of his own ministry.

As a biography, the book is readable and commendable, but not perfect. Murray could do with adopting a more robustly critical stance. We do not need hagiography in our day, and it is good to learn negative as well as positive lessons from those who have gone before us. Murray can have confidence that we as readers understand that no Christian writer is perfect, and that to acknowledge some defects in a writer is not to undermine the general recommendation of his works.

For example, in doctrine, Ryle apparently held to the Amyraldian position that Christ died in a hypothetical, although not effectual sense, for the whole world. This is reluctantly acknowledged in a very soft-focus footnote (p.76) that fails to explain where, in Ryle’s writing, the error is evident. Murray also tries very hard to defend the language of the Anglican prayer book that Ryle used from the charge of promoting the heresy of baptismal regeneration, arguing that it only left a deliberate ambiguity on the point, as a stepping stone towards the further Reformation intended. Whether, historically, this is so, the language as it stands certainly favours the heretical interpretation; it is unsatisfactory that Ryle did not seek revision of the prayer book on this point. He also expressed Erastian principles on occasion: for example, in his own attendance at public worship, he deferred to the monarch’s establishment of an Episcopalian church in England, and a Presbyterian church in Scotland. As a father, Ryle’s own conduct in sending his sons to Eton would seem indefensible as a fulfilment of his baptismal vows, given his own early life there as an unchallenged ‘heathen’; the results of his parenting were two sons who lived without any apparent Christian profession, and Herbert, whose liberalism was discussed above.

Do these observations undermine the recommendation of J C Ryle as a devotional and historical writer? Of course not; they show that he was a sinner, had blind spots, and weaknesses, and yet found grace. Our only hope is that we may do likewise, and undoubtedly many have found help in the path of grace through reading Ryle. Both his own works, and this life by Murray, are highly commended to Christian readers.

 

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