Discussing the Continuing Relevance of J.C. Ryle

While there are dozens of stellar accounts of the life of J.C. Ryle in print today, Bennett W. Rogers’ A Tender Lion will no doubt take its rightful place as the definitive biography of the 19th century Bishop. Dr. Rogers was kind enough to dialog with me about his important new book:

Messer: How did you first get interested in Ryle?

Rogers: I stumbled into J. C. Ryle almost by accident. I first encountered his writings while preparing for a sermon on the penitent thief of Luke 23 while in seminary. I pulled volume two of Ryle’s Expository Thoughts on the Gospel of St. Luke off the shelf and turned to his commentary on that passage, and I was blown away by what I read. His exposition was theologically robust. His practical applications were pastorally sensitive and yet appropriately direct. And his style was clear, forceful, and memorable. I can still remember one of those memorable comments almost fifteen years later. He said of the two dying men: “One thief was saved — that no sinner might despair. But only one was saved — that no sinner might presume.” I didn’t know it at the time, but that was vintage J. C. Ryle. After making a copy of his commentary, I re-shelved the book wondering why I hadn’t heard about him before.

My appreciation for Ryle grew over the following years, and I decided I wanted to write a dissertation on him. I initially wanted to focus on Ryle as a controversialist – it certainly seemed like a more manageable project than something like an intellectual biography. But as I began to get more familiar with the secondary literature, I realized that Ryle has basically been ignored by the academic community. Much of the work that has been done on Ryle has focused on certain aspects of his ministry or treated the whole more generally. As a result, some aspects of Ryle’s life and work have never been discussed in detail, and others have never been discussed at all. So I have attempted to present J. C. Ryle’s thought, life, and ministry in its fullness and in context.

Messer: Can you give us a brief biographical sketch of Ryle?

Rogers: J. C. Ryle was born and raised in a wealthy but unspiritual home. He distinguished himself academically and athletically at Eton and Oxford. He experienced an evangelical conversion in his final year at university, the account of which has achieved a semi-legendary status among evangelicals – a testimony to the power of the public reading of the Scriptures. Shortly thereafter, his father’s bankruptcy ruined the family, ended his political career before it started, and forced him into the ministry of the Church of England. Although he initially became a clergyman because he felt “shut up to it,” Ryle quickly gained a reputation for being a powerful preacher, diligent pastor, popular author, and effective controversialist. He rose through the evangelical ranks to become the undisputed leader and party spokesman—the first to hold that distinction since Charles Simeon (1759–1836). He became the first Bishop of Liverpool in 1880 at an age (64) when many clergymen contemplate retirement, and served as the chief pastor of the second city of the British Empire until his death in 1900.

Ryle is probably best remembered as a writer of tracts, commentaries, and devotional works, and deservedly so. His tracts continue to be distributed. His commentaries on the gospels – Expository Thoughts on the Gospels – are still read by pastors and laymen alike. His practical writings, such as Old Paths, Practical Religion, and The Upper Room have remained popular with evangelical readers for well over a century. And Holiness: Its Nature, Hindrances, Difficulties, and Roots has become a modern spiritual classic.

Messer: Describe the British religious and social milieu in which Ryle ministered. How did he affect both?

Rogers: It is difficult to appreciate just how much Ryle’s world changed during his own lifetime. He lived through the passage of three monumental Reform Acts, the full flowering of the Industrial Revolution, the Irish Potato Famine, the pax britannica, multiple armed conflicts, major financial crises, and the publication of The Origin of the Species and The Communist Manifesto. The religious changes of Victorian Britain were equally revolutionary. Relations between Church and chapel reached all new lows midcentury, which culminated in a series of disestablishment crises and the eventual disestablishment of the Church of Ireland. The Oxford Movement and Ritualism divided the Church of England and led to a series of legal prosecutions. New scientific theories shook the faith of many Victorians, and critical views of the Old Testament – some imported from Germany, others homegrown – began to undermine faith in the Bible. Evangelical churchmen, like Ryle, found themselves fighting on multiple fronts, and the party suffered from its own internecine conflicts.

Not all the developments were negative, even from the Evangelical point of view. There were a number of spiritual renewal movements, including the Second Great Awakening and the Keswick Convention. The looming specter of disestablishment became the impetus for many Church reform initiatives. And the Tracts for the Times, which championed the “Catholic truth” of the fathers, sparked a counter movement that promoted the theology of the English Reformers.

Ryle took a leading role in every issue – religious and political – that affected the Evangelical party from the 1850’s to the 1890’s. He was a staunch defender of the establishment, the champion of English Protestantism, and a popular and pastoral – as opposed to academic or scholarly – opponent of higher criticism. He also promoted a series of sweeping Church reforms aimed at making the Church of England more pastorally effective. He repeatedly attempted to unite the “rope of sand” that was the Evangelical party throughout his ministry.

Messer: The book’s title, Tender Lion, points to the paradox that was Ryle. You skillfully show that we was stern yet loving, traditional yet progressive, etc. Describe how he was viewed by his contemporaries and how he’s since been understood by historians. What made him so important in his day, and why does he remain important?

Rogers: Ryle’s contemporaries would have largely viewed him based on their own theological commitments. To Ritualists, he was public enemy number one. To Broad Churchmen, he was an intellectual fossil. Dissenters commended his outspoken evangelical Protestantism, but condemned his churchmanship. Evangelical churchmen recognized him as their champion and leader, but he was no mere “party man,” and he ran afoul of his brethren on more than one occasion. Estimates of his episcopacy tend to follow suit. However, by the end of his episcopacy he seems to have won the respect of most – if not all – of his clergymen.

More sympathetic biographers hold Ryle up as an exemplary evangelical minister, but they tend to ignore his commitment to the Church of England, and thus amputate the ecclesiastical limb of his body of divinity. Others err in the opposite direction. They present Ryle as an ‘icon of unbending traditionalism’ – a theological fossil – a fifteenth century man who is out of place in the modern world. Such estimates often reveal more about the historian than his subject. To be sure, Ryle wasn’t carried away by the spirit of the age [theological drift] that swept through mid to late Victorian Britain. From an ecclesiological and theological perspective, he was definitely a 16th and 17th century man. But his commitment to the theology and spirituality of the Reformers and the Puritans was rooted in a more fundamental commitment to God’s Word. “Here is rock,” Ryle would say, “all else is sand.” His commitment to the scriptures, interpreted by the Reformers and applied by the Puritans, may help explain something of Ryle’s remarkable staying power. After Charles Spurgeon, Ryle’s Baptist counterpart, no Victorian clergyman has remained so widely read and deeply loved.

Messer: What of Ryle’s Anglicanism do you think would be beneficial for the broader evangelical world to consider? 

Rogers:The broader evangelical world has much to learn from Anglicanism, more generally. The Anglican formularies that Ryle loved so dearly – the Thirty-Nine Articles, Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer (1662) – are filled with rich statements of Protestant and evangelical theology. The Church Calendar and Lectionary Readings can provide needed structure to busy, distracted, or aimless spiritual lives. And the Church’s Liturgy is unrivaled in terms of its beauty, simplicity, and extensive use of Scripture.

Ryle’s own particular brand of Anglicanism has much to commend itself as well. The parish system of the established church – as opposed to the voluntary system of dissent – invariably shapes the pastoral theology of its ministers, and Ryle was no exception. It was his “bounden duty” to provide spiritual oversight and access to the means of grace to everyone in his parish. He is most well-known for doing this through his powerful preaching ministry, which always drew large crowds. He was also a diligent pastor. He was a tireless pastoral visitor, and for the first two decades of his ministry he visited every home in his parish once a month. I find this aspect of his ministry particularly impressive since Ryle admits that he was naturally shy, somewhat introverted, and a bit socially awkward. Even though it grated against the grain of his personality, Ryle the pastor was in his parishioners’ homes, reading and praying with his people, and discussing tracts he lent out. In addition to providing needed pastoral care, these visit helped Ryle get to know his people better, hone his skill of application (in preaching), and ultimately led Ryle into publishing. The genesis of Ryle’s tracts, commentaries on the Gospels, and hymnbooks was not his preaching ministry but his visiting ministry, which I believe was rooted in a philosophy ministry promoted by the parish system.

The broader evangelical world could definitely learn from Ryle the pastor. Sadly, actual contact between shepherds and sheep is becoming more and more rare. Church members no longer have to attend church to hear the Word preached – sermons can be watched, streamed, or downloaded remotely. In fact, the advent of multi-site church has made it possible to sit under the ministry of a man you have never met. All of these new developments, coupled with the same old problem of absenteeism more generally, make diligent, parish-style pastoral work all the more needful.  

Messer: What of Ryle’s evangelicalism would be beneficial for the Anglican Communion to consider?

Rogers: Though my knowledge of the Anglican Communion of 2019 is limited, I think Ryle’s agenda for his beloved diocese as outlined in his farewell address is remarkably relevant today. Ryle charged his clergy:

Let me, then, charge all the clergy whom I am about to leave behind me never to neglect their preaching. Your districts and population may be comparatively small or large. But the minds of your people are thoroughly awake. They will not be content with dull, tame sermons. They want life, and light, and fire, and love in the pulpit as well as in the parish. Let them have plenty of it. Never forget that a lively, Christ-exalting minister will always have a church-going people.

Ryle was a man of short, pointed, and powerful statements, and I believe his word to his ecclesiastical heirs would undoubtedly be ‘never neglect your preaching.’ I think he would remind Anglicans that their Church was never more honoring to God and useful to men than when Christ-exalting gospel sermons were clearly proclaimed from her pulpits. The English reformers, puritans, and leaders of the Great Awakening all emphasized the centrality of the preached Word for the life of God’s people. And, consequently, the Church of England in those ages was filled with life and light. And a renewed emphasis on preaching may, under God’s blessings, breathe new life into the Anglican Church.   

The closing of his farewell address Ryle turns from his clergy to lay churchmen. He charges them to:

Cling to the old Church of England, my lay brethren, cling to its Bible, its Prayer- book, and its Articles. Let no charitable institution suffer. Consider the many poor and needy. Support missionary work at home and abroad. Help the underpaid clergy. Never forget that the principles of the Protestant Reformation made this country what she is, and let nothing ever tempt you to forsake them.

The italicized sentence – ‘never forget the Reformation’ – was Bishop Ryle’s last pastoral exhortation. Within months he would be dead. In many respects, this final charge sums up his life’s theological agenda. He argued that evangelical Protestantism is the doctrine of the Church of England, and, more importantly, the doctrine of the Bible. Therefore, the churches of the Anglican Communion ought to proclaim it and be reformed by it. A renewed emphasis on Ryle’s Protestant principles has the potential to reinvigorate Ryle’s Church and promote greater usefulness to Christ’s cause.

Messer: Thank you for your time, Dr. Rogers!

Rev. Dustin Messer ministers at All Saints Dallas and teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, TX. Additionally, Dustin serves on the board of directors at both the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA) and the Center for Christian Civics in Washington, DC. Before starting his doctoral work at La Salle University, Dustin graduated from Boyce College and Covenant Theological Seminary and completed a fellowship at the National Review Institute.

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