Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone

Iain H. Murray, Banner of Truth, 2016, 273pp, £13.92

A good biographer helps his readers to get under the skin of their subject so that you feel you get to know them, almost personally. A good Christian biographer will do more that that; as well as setting their subject against the background of their times and offering a convincing psychological portrait, they will give readers a glimpse of a soul in its communion with God and dealings with people.

Iain H. Murray has often pulled off this feat in his many biographies of Christian men and women, Jonathan Edwards, C. H. Spurgeon, Archibald Brown, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and Amy Carmichael among them. He has now done the same for J. C, Ryle.

Ryle was one of the most famous Evangelical Anglicans of his day. He became the first Bishop of Liverpool and his many tracts and books attracted avid readers all around the globe. Yet towards the end of his life and in the decades the followed, he was regarded as something of a dinosaur. His “old fashioned” beliefs and attitudes were dismissed as irrelevant for the times. 

In some ways Ryle was “a man born out of due time”; a staunch Protestant, he seemed more like a bishop from the days of Latimer and Ridley than a Victorian Churchman. The Church of England of that period was in a state of flux; Newman and Pusey of the Oxford Movement were seeking to pull the Church in a Rome-ward direction; theological liberalism was beginning to take hold, questioning the authority of Scripture in the name of the “assured results of modern scholarship”. 

Against these trends, Ryle dared to stand alone. He called the Church of England to remain true to its confessional heritage in the Thirty Nine Articles. But he was fighting a losing battle. When he became a bishop, Ryle found himself torn between the need to be an ecclesiastical statesman, trying to hold together all the various parties in his diocese, and his principled stand for Protestant beliefs. 

Ryle never wanted to be a clergyman. It was only because his father’s bank collapsed that he turned to the Church for employment. He was converted some years earlier when a student at Oxford University, but had no desire whatever to become a minister. The Lord had other ideas. All doors closed to him bar one – that of becoming curate of a parish church in Exbury, Hampshire. Thereafter he served churches in Winchester, Helmingham and Stradbroke, before being appointed Bishop of Liverpool. Just as his call to the ministry seemed a matter of financial expediency from a human point of view, so his becoming a bishop was a political fix on the part of Tory Prime Minister, Disraeli. The politician was keen to avoid his Liberal opponent Gladstone imposing a ritualist on the growing city.  

But whatever man’s motivations and machinations, there can be no doubt that J. C. Ryle was called by God to proclaim the good old truths of the gospel to the people of his day. And it is those truths, held by the Reformers and Puritans so beloved by Ryle, that have stood the test of time, for they are the mighty life-transforming doctrines of God’s Word. Few bother to read the “state of the art” works of nineteenth-century theological liberalism these days, but Ryle’s writings have been rediscovered and reprinted for a global audience. His Expository Thoughts on the Gospels are a model of straight-forward applicatory exposition; historical writings such as Christian Leaders of the Eighteenth Century have introduced readers to the mighty work of God that was the Evangelical Revival; his work on Holiness has helped to correct unhelpful emphases in evangelical teaching on sanctification.

Although Ryle was a somewhat reluctant pastor, he threw himself unstintingly into the work. He was a diligent visitor of his flocks and fully engaged in the life of the communities in which he served. He sought to preach with simplicity and verve, grabbing the attention of his people with lively illustrations. The preacher brought God’s Word to bear upon his hearers’ lives with punchy and direct application of the truth. In a day when Calvinism was rapidly going out of fashion, Ryle was not ashamed to identify himself with the Reformed faith, which he saw as essential for the life and witness of the Church. He seems, however, to have held to a “hypothetical universalist” view of the atonement, rather than the “definite atonement” view of full-blown Calvinism. 

Murray brings out the private trials and struggles of the public figure. A recently discovered memoir penned by Ryle for the benefit of his children has thrown new light on his early years. As a younger man, he was twice widowed and left in sole charge of small children. His time at Helmington was marked by tensions with the local bigwig who owned the living of the parish church he served. Throughout his long life he never really got over the shock and shame of his family losing everything when his father’s bank collapsed. Although Ryle could be a combative figure, he felt himself lacking in social confidence. The “man of granite” had his vulnerable side, which only served to make him a better pastor. 

Murray brings to the fore key aspects of Ryle’s teachings and considers what we may learn from him today. Ryle was a keen believer in the Establishment principle and believed that nations should recognise God and his law. He would have preferred Spurgeon as a Baptist equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury, rather than no Established Protestant Church at all. I trust Ryle’s Baptist contemporary would have demurred on the grounds of Baptist belief in the separation of Church and State! Ryle’s position in the Church of England made him a somewhat conflicted character, especially when he became Bishop of Liverpool. His hopes of bringing together a mainstream bulwark against Anglo-Catholicism and Liberalism were misplaced. The Church of England is no longer bound to uphold the Thirty Nine Articles that Ryle fought to maintain. His policy for recovering Anglicanism for the gospel didn’t work and cannot realistically be used as a model for today’s Evangelical Anglicans. 

Ryle was catholic-spirited enough to transcend denominational boundaries and had more spiritual affinity with Liverpool’s nonconformist leaders than many of the Anglican clergy over whom he presided as Bishop. His was a generous orthodoxy; valiant for truth, but without ever becoming sectarian. That is why his writings have a timeless quality that recommend themselves to a new generation of readers. Murray’s biography helpfully brings out the man, the grace-touched soul behind the impressive beard and many instructive books.

Guy Davies
Pastor, Providence Baptist Church, Westbury


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