J.C. Ryle: How laxity in doctrine damages the church

20 12 2011

Thanks to Bruce Geary for passing this along

“I cannot withhold my conviction that the professing church of the ninetheenth century is as much damaged by laxity and indistinctness about matters of doctrine within as it is by sceptics and unbelievers without. Myraids of professing Christians nowadays seem 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. If a preacher of religion is only clever and eloquent and earnest, they appear to think he is all right, however strange and  heterogeneous his sermons may be. They are destitute of spiritual sense, apparently, and cannot detect error. Popery or Protestantism, an atonement or no atonement, a personal Holy Ghost or no Holy Ghost, future punishment or no future punishment, high church or low church or broad church, Trinitarianism, Arianism, or Unitarianism, nothing comes amis to them: they can swallow 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, every clergyman is sound and none are unsound, everyone is going to be saved and nobody is going to be lost. Their religion is made up of negatives; and the only positive thing about them is that they dislike distinctness and think all extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong! “

JC Ryle Holiness





What does it mean to be a Reformed Christian part IV

20 12 2011

A good friend in Charleston recently asked the question “What does it mean to be Reformed?” That question sparked this most recent series on AwakeningGrace which I suspect will go on for several weeks if not months.

Access Part I 

Access Part II

Access Part III

In my last post I noted that there are many sources from which the Christian can learn about God.  The Christian can learn about God from his pastor, from friends, from thoughtful Christian writers, and of course from the Bible.  The Bible then is but one of many sources we can go to in order to learn about God.  What then differentiates the Bible from these sources?  In the last post I cited the Apostle Peter who writes that in the Bible we have something “more sure” than anywhere else.  He goes on to say that only in the Bible do men speak “from God” (2 Pet 1.19-21).  This is essentially what distinguishes the Bible from all other sources.

What are we then to make of those other sources?  The answer of the Reformed Christian is complex, however I will try and distill my answer to three easy headings.  In short, those extra-Biblical sources which speak about God are (1) helpful, (2) flawed, (3) need to be tested against Scripture.

Helpful:

Extra-Biblical sources can be helpful in learning about God.  If one were to look to certain sources over others, historically the Reformed Church has shown a preference for the early church fathers and the ecumenical councils as particularly helpful sources of guidance in understanding the Scriptures and learning about God.  For example John Calvin writes:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all (Inst IV.IX.I).

So too, John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University (1652-1659) writes:

they (the fathers) loved not their lives unto death, but poured out their blood, like water, under all the pagan persecutions, which had no other design but to cast them down and separate them from the impregnable rock, this precious foundation.  In defense of (Christ) they did conflict in prayers, studies, travels, and writings against swarms of seducers by whom they were opposed.  (Owen’s Works, Vol I pg 6)

Owen goes on to show the high esteem by which he held the early church fathers by claiming to confirm his writing by their testimony, which he does by citing the fathers extensively (Over 50 references to the fathers in the first 10 pages).

The point I’m eager to make here is that the early Reformed had a very high view of tradition and its importance.  They didn’t see themselves in discontinuity with historical Christianity, but in continuity with it.

Alongside tradition, the early Reformed had a high regard for the voice of the gathered church.  It was for this reason that Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury pleaded for an ecumenical council in London, where the Protestant Churches of Europe could gather together to seek God’s will for the reformation of the church.  Though this large ecumenical gathering never occurred, small gatherings such as those at Dordt, Westminster, Heidelberg and many others produced a “common mind” on several important theological issues.

The modern Reformed continue to look to the early church and the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries as excellent extra-Biblical sources.  Reformed Christians at their best have recognized the helpful contributions of fiction, poetry, music, art, philosophy and science as good tools for reflecting on God and humanity as well.

Flawed:

I venerate them (the fathers and the councils) from my heart, and desire that they be honored by all.  But here the norm is that nothing of course detract from Christ.  Now it is Christ’s right to preside over all councils and to have no man share his dignity.  But I say that he presides only when the whole assembly is governed by his word and Spirit. (Inst IV.IX.I).

The full quote from Calvin above indicates that while Calvin had a high view of the fathers and the councils, he nevertheless placed limits upon their authority.  This is fairly typical of the Reformed approach to tradition, as Article XXI of the Church of England’s Articles of Religion makes clear:

Councils…may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

Here we are reminded that it is in Scripture alone where it is believed that words are uttered “from God.”  All other words uttered about God are subject to the words uttered from God.  The two quotes above indicate that sometimes the former fails to measure up.

The caution expressed towards councils in the above quote from the Thirty-Nine Articles accomplishes two things.  First, it forces the institution of the church to take on a posture of humility.  After all, if we are ready to admit that the great Christians of the past may have made mistakes, what will prevent us from making mistakes as well?  This is why the Reformed Christians long ago adopted the slogan Semper Reformanda or “always reforming.”  When this becomes more than a slogan, when it becomes a deeply held principle, it ideally works humility and introspection at an institutional level in the life of the church.

The second thing that the above quote accomplishes is that it works humility and introspection within the life of the individual Christian and makes us aware of our need for the larger Body of Christ.  If great theologians, gathered in prayer and study of scripture can make mistakes, then surely it is more than a possibility that I will make mistakes as well in my private Bible study!  In the awareness of my own weak grasp of scripture, and the fallibility of my mind and heart, I’m driven towards the church and its councils not away from it.  Far from “it’s just me and my Bible,” I’m driven to say me, my Bible, and the church of God!

Must be tested against Scripture

If extra-Biblical sources are helpful, and yet can be flawed, how then are we to use them?  The short answer is that all sources must be measured against the bar of Scripture.  This means that Christians must endeavor to become more familiar with the Word of God than they are with words about God.  J.C. Ryle compares the person who spends more time reading words about God than God’s words to a ship without ballast, “tossed to and fro, like a cork on the waves” (Practical Religion pg 135).  So extra-Biblical sources must be read in such a way that their claims are continually brought before Scripture.  However, I would hasten to add, that extra-Biblical sources must be approached with the charity of mind that the author, not yourself, may have something admirable to contribute to your understanding of God.

Historically, the received tradition of the Reformed have been contained in the historic creeds (Apostles, Nicean) and Ecumenical Councils as well as the confessions of the Reformation.  A nice summary list with links can be found here.

If you’re wondering what extra-Biblical sources may prove helpful to you, I humbly offer the following.  The list below is not meant to be exhaustive.   I simply wanted to give a little head start without being overwhelming.  Also, by and large I wanted the works to be accessible and devotional in nature.  As best as I can remember, I’ve endeavored to put these in chronological order, although I make no promises:

Early Church

Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to the Romans:  Note that this is not a commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans, but is actually a letter from Ignatius to the Church in Rome.  Utterly humbling.  Written on the eve of his martyrdom, Ignatius has given himself over to the glory of Christ.  He instructs his church not to rescue him and rob him of the martyr’s crown.

Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word:  Perhaps one of, if not the most important work of the early church on Christology.  Not the best start for the beginner but definitely worth working up to.

Ambrose On Repentance:   A beautiful, devotional work that is both memorable and highly accessible for the lay person.   It is also relatively short!  This was personally helpful to me as I was struggling with sin after conversion.

Augustine, Confessions:  What can I say?  I’ve read, re-read, and re-read this worship inspiring work of Augustine.  One of the few works of the early church that I have memorized large portions of.

Middle and Medieval:

Anselm Why God Became Man:  At times a bit tedious for the beginner, it is nevertheless worth digging into for its novel understanding of how Christ satisfies our debt to God.

Dante Alighieri The Inferno:  Undoubtedly his most famous, this is nevertheless part one of his three part Divine Comedy.  As I read this the first time I could not help but notice it is highly Augustinian in its approach to salvation, which makes it a striking precursor of the Reformation several hundred years earlier than expected.  You must put this book on your “bucket list.”

Pearl:  The name of the author is unfortunately lost to us.  This medieval poem is highly complex, touching on issues of grief, grace, redemption, and reward.  In one memorable scene, the narrator resists the idea that God’s grace freely and equally rewards all who receive it.  All in all a tremendous read from this period.

Reformation:

Martin Luther Commentary on Galatians:  Accessible, Gospel centered, offensive, over the top, amazing!  Read, re-read, re-read.

John Calvin Institutes on the Christian Religion:  It will take monumental effort on your part to wade into this heavy, two volume theological masterpiece.  It was the number one bestselling Christian book of Reformation Europe.  I’ve been compelled to memorize large portions of this as well!

John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress:  It is embarrassing to admit that I read this for the first time only recently.  If my memory serves me correct, it is the best selling book of all time apart from the Bible.  You should pick it up and see what all the fuss is about.  I couldn’t put it down and this Citadel grad found himself fighting back tears at the end of Christiana’s journey.

Post Reformation:

John Donne The Complete English Poems:  O.k., some of the poems in this volume are XXX rated and you shouldn’t read them unless you have a bucket of cold water handy.  However, towards the end of this volume you will encounter his Divine Poems, which make my heart ache for God.  Apparently Donne underwent a conversion experience that turned his intense passion for women to an intense passion for the Triune God.

John Milton Paradise Lost:  If nothing else read it for your own good!  I re-read this in 2008 for the 400th anniversary as I’m sure you all did.  If you haven’t bought a copy, make sure you get the edition with C.S. Lewis’ preface and accompanying essays.

Modern:

G.K. Chesterton Orthodoxy:  A wonderfully engaging book that admirably defends the Christian faith against the growing secularism in Europe.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer Discipleship:  Though not personally my favorite Bonhoeffer book, I think it is the most easily recognized.  I cannot recommend it without a word of caution.  I’ve known many Christians who have picked this book up as a call to Discipleship, thus turning it into a tool for legalism.  Read the first chapter more closely, you’ll see that only the Lord himself can call disciples, thus discipleship is always and can never be anything more than a gracious gift from Jesus Christ.

C.S. Lewis The Space Trilogy:  O.k., perhaps I’m not playing fair.  I listed Bonhoeffer’s most popular book but failed to do so with Lewis.  Oh well!  I listed the Space Trilogy because I find it terribly engaging.  The second volume of Lewis’ three volume trilogy is essentially a reflection on Gen 1-3.  You will learn much about God, yourself, and the devil by reading these books.  They are highly neglected in my opinion.

I’m afraid to go further I would have to list living authors and theologians.   I’ve already broken my rule by listing theologians who were alive in the past three hundred years so I must stop now.  The point of this post ultimately is to get you in the Scriptures but also engaging with God glorifying extra-Biblical sources that I have found personally helpful.  To that end, I hope I accomplish my goal!





J.C. Ryle on the many voices of Scripture

20 12 2011

Stumbled upon this little gem while preparing to preach…

“The waters of the sea have many different shades. In one place they look blue, and in another green. And yet the difference is due to the depth or shallowness of the part we see, or to the nature of the bottom. The water in every case is the same salt sea. The breath of a man may produce different sounds according to the character of the instrument on which he plays. The flute, the bagpipe, and the trumpet, have each their peculiar note. And yet the breath that calls forth the notes is in each case one and the same. The light of the planets we see in heaven is extremely various. Mars, and Saturn, and Jupiter, each have a individual color. And yet we know that the light of the sun, which each planet reflects, is in each case one and the same. Just in the same way the books of the Old and New Testaments are all inspired truth, and yet the aspect of that truth varies according to the mind through which the Holy Spirit makes it flow. The handwriting and style of the writers differ enough to prove that each had a distinct individual being; but the Divine Guide who dictates and directs the whole is always one. All are inspired. Every chapter, and verse, and word, is from God.

Oh, that men who are troubled with doubts, and thoughts about inspiration, would calmly examine the Bible for themselves! Oh, that they would take the advice which was the first step to Augustine’s conversion, “Pick it up and read it! Pick it up and read it!” How many difficulties and objections would vanish away at once like mist before the rising sun! How many would soon confess, “The finger of God is here! God is in this Book, and I did not know it.”

-J.C. Ryle, “Bible-Reading” in Practical Religion pg 99





J. C. Ryle: Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing

20 12 2011

The mainline denominations in North America are in systemic decline.  Why?  J.C. Ryle, long dead Bishop of Liverpool has some thoughts on the matter that might be worth investigating.  ”Christianity” he says, “without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing.”  I think it is powerless for two reasons.  First and foremost, I do not believe the Holy Spirit will be present in power to assist the proclamation of the Gospel when it is not the Gospel that is presented to us in Scripture and handed down for centuries  in the church.  Second, from a purely practical perspective, when the borders of an organization are not clearly drawn people have a very difficult time discerning what the organization is, why they should join it, or even if they have already joined it!  The mushier doctrine becomes in a denomination the more rapidly it will decline.  God will not bless it, nor will people take the time to investigate it.

“Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply cut, doctrinal religion. If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing. The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology, by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice, by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross and His precious blood, by teaching them justification by faith and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour, by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit, by lifting up the brazen serpent, by telling men to look and live, to believe, repent and be converted. This, this is the only teaching which for eighteen centuries God has honoured with success, and is honouring at the present day both at home and abroad. Let the clever advocates of a broad and undogmatic theology — the preachers of the gospel of earnestness and sincerity and cold morality — let them, I say, show us at this day any English village or parish or city or town or district, which has been evangelized without ‘dogma’, by their principles. They cannot do it, and they never will. Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. There is no getting over facts. The good that is done in the earth may be comparatively small. Evil may abound and ignorant impatience may murmur, and cry out that Christianity has failed. But, depend on it, if we want to ‘do good’ and shake the world, we must fight it with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to ‘dogma’. No dogma, no fruits! No positive evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!”

J.C. Ryle Wants of the Times, from a sermon preached at St Margaret’s church, Ipswich, 11 June 1879





An Online Puritan Reading List

19 12 2011

This list was principally composed by Adam Townsend.  Adam is a really fine young man and good soldier of Jesus Christ.  Below is a list of puritan works that you can find online.  If you can get over the false caricature of the puritans and spend some time in these books, you will find their faith had far more joy, pleasure, and delight in it than much modern Christianity.  I’ve read many of these over the past few months and they have brought an enormous amount of joy into my life.  Take some time and read one or two.  You won’t be sorry you did!

The Christian’s Great Interest by William Guthrie

The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs

A Sure Guide to Heaven by Joseph Alleine

The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

The Mystery of Providence by John Flavel

The Godly Man’s Picture by Thomas Watson

Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks

Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ by John Bunyan

The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter

The Great Gain of Godliness by Thomas Watson





C.S. Lewis: on the importance of lay people studying theology

19 12 2011

This topic is of particular interest to me as more and more of the people I pastor begin to pick up serious works of theology and report back the tremendous blessing that their theological studies have brought them.  In the words of one person, “Studying theology helps me know God better and I find the better I know him the more I love him.”

Everyone has warned me not to tell you what I am going to tell you in this last book. They all say `the ordinary reader does not want Theology; give him plain practical religion’. I have rejected their advice. I do not think the ordinary reader is such a fool. Theology means ‘the science of God,’ and I think any man who wants to think about God at all would like to have the clearest and most accurate ideas about Him which are available. You are not children: why should you be treated like children?

In a way I quite understand why some people are put off by Theology. I remember once when I had been giving a talk to the R.A.F., an old, hard-bitten officer got up and said, `I’ve no use for all that stuff. But, mind you, I’m a religious man too. I know there’s a God. I’ve felt Him out alone in the desert at night: the tremendous mystery. And that’s just why I don’t believe all your neat little dogmas and formulas about Him. To anyone who’s met the real thing they all seem so petty and pedantic and unreal !’

Now in a sense I quite agreed with that man. I think he had probably had a real experience of God in the desert. And when he turned from that experience to the Christian creeds, I think he really was turning from something real to something less real. In the same way, if a man has once looked at the Atlantic from the beach, and then goes and looks at a map of the Atlantic, he also will be turning from something real to something less real: turning from real waves to a bit of coloured paper. But here comes the point. The map is admittedly only coloured paper, but there are two things you have to remember about it. In the first place, it is based on what hundreds and thousands of people have found out by sailing the real Atlantic. In that way it has behind it masses of experience just as real as the one you could have from the beach; only, while yours would be a single glimpse, the map fits all those different experiences together. In the second place, if you want to go anywhere, the map is absolutely necessary. As long as you are content with walks on the beach, your own glimpses are far more fun than looking at a map. But the map is going to be more use than walks on the beach if you want to get to America.

Now, Theology is like the map. Merely learning and thinking about the Christian doctrines, if you stop there, is less real and less exciting than the sort of thing my friend got in the desert. Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map. But that map is based on the experience of hundreds of people who really were in touch with God-experiences compared with which any thrills or pious feelings you and I are likely to get on our own are very elementary and very confused. And secondly, if you want to get any further, you must use the map. You see, what happened to that man in the desert may have been real, and was certainly exciting, but nothing comes of it. It leads nowhere. There is nothing to do about it. In fact, that is just why a vague religion-all about feeling God in nature, and so on-is so attractive. It is all thrills and no work; like watching the waves from the beach. But you will not get to Newfoundland by studying the Atlantic that way, and you will not get eternal life by simply feeling the presence of God in flowers or music. Neither will you get anywhere by looking at maps without going to sea. Nor will you be very safe if you go to sea without a map.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Macmillan 1977) pg 135-135