J. C. Ryle as Model Churchman

I first encountered J. C. Ryle in a seminary course. It was David Jones’ basic ethics course. That class changed my trajectory for seminary and also introduced me to an outstanding author.

Ryle’s Holiness is one of the most overlooked Christian classics. It deserves to be continually in print, widely read, and often referenced. The book is a means of grace; the biography of the man who wrote it helps explain why.

Iaian Murray, co-founder of Banner of Truth Trust, has published a number of volumes on church history including several biographies. Every book of his that I’ve read has been well done. J. C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone is no exception.

The volume contains thirteen chapters, which progress through Ryle’s life from childhood to the influence of his work after his death. Throughout his life, Ryle’s character is revealed in a way that helps explain the power behind his plainspoken writing.

Ryle was the son of a wealthy man and member of parliament who went bankrupt do to some bad decisions. The blessing of the bankruptcy was that it pushed J. C. Ryle into ministry to support himself. However, according to Murray, the elder Ryle’s debts were source of moral burden to the son, who tried to repay his father’s creditors, even on a meager salary.

The portrait of J. C. Ryle that emerges from these pages is one of a churchman. He was ordained into the Church of England and eventually rose through the ranks to become the first bishop of Liverpool.

However, Ryle’s rise was not due to politicking and compromise. In a time when liberalism was rampant within the Church of England and factions within the state church were attempting to reunite with Rome, Ryle vocally opposed both liberalism and ritualism.

In fact, Ryle was a conservative combatant in an era that, according to comments by Ryle, sounds much like our own day. In a collection of sermons, Home Truths, Ryle wrote:

“It is not Atheism I fear so much in the present times as Pantheism. It is not the system which says nothing is true, so much as the system which says everything is true. It is the system which is so liberal, that it dares not say anything is false. It is the system which is so charitable, that it will not allow everything to be true. It is the system which is so scrupulous about the feeling of others that we are never to say they are wrong … What is it but a bowing down before a great idol speciously called liberality? What is it all but a sacrificing of truth upon the altar of a caricature of charity? Beware of it if you believe the Bible.”

Ryle was a churchman in the best sense of the word. He took his pastoral responsibilities seriously, visiting many of the homes in his sprawling parish regularly. He preached to the people, not over their heads. He saw writing as an important part of his ministry, but not one that would allow him to forgo his local responsibilities.

As Ryle wrote in Charges and Addresses, he was leery of “a growing disposition throughout the land, among the clergy, to devote an exaggerated amount of attention to what I must call the public work of the ministry, and to give comparatively too little attention to pastoral visitation and personal dealing with individual souls.”

This meant that preaching was important and public polemics were important, but pastoral ministry was paramount to Ryle. There was no room for the celebrity pastor in Ryle’s worldview.

Part of Ryle’s story must include the death of those close to him. Ryle was single when he began his ministry, which, of course, makes getting married that much more difficult. He lost his first wife after a few years to a lingering illness and had to board his child elsewhere. He would remarry two more times, each time outliving his wives due to illness. Ryle’s life was one that witnessed to suffering and yet found the joy of the Lord within that experience. The power of his sermons and books was shaped by the pain in his life and the goodness of God through that pain.

Murray’s biography of Ryle is a worthwhile read. It synthesizes the bits of biography we have about Ryle and brings them to light for our contemporary era. Murray shows what made Ryle useful to God. While our calling may not be identical, and the circumstances may have changed, there is much in Murray’s portrait of Ryle that deserves attention and mirroring by current or future pastors.

Read Murray’s book. After you do that, read Ryle. It will be worth your time, without a doubt.

J.C. Ryle: Prepared to Stand Alone
By Iain H. Murray

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Martin Luther - A Children's Biography

October 2017 will mark 500 years since Luther published his famous 95 Theses, which are often said to have kicked off the Protestant Reformation. A recent children’s biography on Luther by Simonetta Carr provides a delightful way to introduce the early German Reformer to children.

This volume is the latest edition in the series, Christian Biographies for Young Readers, which is published by Reformation Heritage Books. It is a beautifully illustrated, full color volume, that is likely to delight the reader even as it instructs.

Often children’s biography falls into the trap of hero worship. Obviously, a publisher like Reformation Heritage views the Protestant Reformation in a positive light. Thus it stands to reason they would celebrate Luther’s life and contribution to Church History. Carr, however, manages to avoid the pitfall of hagiography by presenting Luther’s story with its good and bad points.

This book critiques Luther for his coarse language and diatribes against the Jews later in his life, but it does not let those real, yet unfortunate failings diminish the impressive and exciting story of the monk turned Reformer. Roman Catholics or others who view the Protestant Reformation as a tragedy, and thus see Luther mainly negatively, will likely balk at the generally positive view Carr presents of his life and work. However, for most Protestant Christians, this volume strikes the proper note.

In recounting the life of Luther, Carr celebrates the recovery of the gospel from the twisted medieval traditionalism espoused by the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. Unlike many histories, this volume rightly argues that indulgences were the presenting problem, but the deeper issue was the loss of the gospel in the regular teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. That is why Luther’s ministry was so important; he was not dividing the universal church, he was seeking to preserve the gospel and was subsequently attacked by the traditionalists who elected to remain in error.

Some biographies work best if told as a story. Because of Luther’s wide range of activities and overall significance, Carr chose to tell his story in roughly chronological, but mostly topical chunks. There are seven chapters with 4-7 pages each. The chapters discuss his early life, clerical training, desire for reform, alienation from Roman Catholicism, attempts at Reform, marriage and family life, and broader ministry. The volume also includes a timeline, a collection of interesting facts about Luther, and a selection from Luther’s Short Catechism. Even young readers will walk away with a sense of the importance of Luther and an understanding of his life and work.

Much like other biographies in this series, Carr’s book about Luther is full-color throughout. Carr combines new illustrations from Troy Howell with historical engravings and paintings, along with photographs of some of the sites as they appear now. This breaks up the text and makes the book as a whole a feast for young eyes. (Older eyes will appreciate it, too, and may have to be reminded this book is for the kids.)

Whether you are looking for a gift for a child, seeking a volume for homeschool history, or simply building your library, this volume is worth purchasing. It is historically accurate, delightfully illustrated, with an appropriately critical tone. It represents both a celebration of the recovery of the gospel with a recognition of the pervasiveness of human sin, even among our heroes. Reformation Heritage Books should be applauded for continuing the series and publishing excellent children’s volumes like this one.

NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher through Cross Focused Reviews with no expectation of a positive review.

The Adventure of Christianity

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things. – Thoreau, Walden

If Thoreau is right, and some have argued so, then many people walking the earth and living their lives routinely with no hope of change. We dream great dreams and long to do great things, but often allow ourselves to be satisfied with our normal responsibilities.

A Trip to Antarctica

Recently I had reason to reconsider an adventure that I have long dreamed of taking. I’ve always wanted to make it to the South Pole.

Antarctica, by Ronald Woan. Used by CC license. http://ow.ly/YQUSY 

Antarctica, by Ronald Woan. Used by CC license. http://ow.ly/YQUSY 

This weird, masochistic idea was birthed by my reading of Mind over Matter by Ranulph Fiennes when I was in high school.  He and a partner crossed the Antarctic continent in 1992-93 without any outside support. They hauled sledges that started at nearly five-hundred pounds each for more than 1,000 miles.

Unless you are still in high school, you will likely wonder why someone would attempt this, much less why they would actually follow through with it.

In the case of Fiennes and Stroud, the answer is a resounding “Because.”

The reason they wanted to undertake such a grueling and miserable trip was simply because it had never been done before. They did raise quite a bit of money for people suffering from MS, but one does not simply cross Antarctica to raise money. There has to be something else in play to get someone to do that.

But for Fiennes, the answer really seems to be that he wanted to do something no one had ever done before. The book is a detailed account of how that adventure took place.

I had reason to think about this journey again, twenty years after I first read about it because I was looking for something to read. Since I am rather tied up in normal human responsibilities in addition to my dissertation, reading about adventure is about as close as I can get to it.

My body tells me, however, that it is highly unlikely that I will ever attempt anything as grueling as a trip across Antarctica. There are too many grinds, bumps, and creaks in my joints. When I get up and move around they get louder.

Longing for Adventure

Although I may not have an opportunity for such a lavish adventure in this life, I appreciate that some people have. But reading the book, including the account of the absolute misery of the trip, it makes me consider why adventure is so appealing.

Most people that have adventures did not set out to have them. It is one thing to be swept into an adventure and another to seek one. It seems to me that having adventures is good, while seeking adventures is a bit vain. Perhaps I am experiencing early onset curmudgeonity.

Of course, from a Christian perspective, even a life of quiet desperation is one of great joy. It may be that we simply do not require adventurous thrills to feel fulfilled. As Christians, we have the hope of the resurrection and the knowledge of the significance of our actions even in the mundane things of life.

However, setting aside that vision of grandeur for a moment—and it may be helpful to do so, as a thought experiment—we can see that most of us do live in a rather routine sort of way and rarely do we do something truly adventurous. It is good occasionally to consider adventure and what may come of it. According to Bilbo, they tend to make one late for dinner.

Christian Adventure

When I read Christian biographies, as I often do aloud to my children for their benefit and to myself for my own edification, I am often struck by the fact that many Christian heroes got sucked into adventures while simply trying to live for Christ.

Corrie Ten Boom got taken to the Nazi concentration camps because she was faithful in being hospitable to her fellow humans who happened to be Jewish. William Carey started a university, a printing press, and did many other things in India because it was how God allowed him a platform to preach the gospel. Francis Schaeffer lived in the mountains of Switzerland for decades and welcomed hundreds of young people into his home because it was the simple task that God gave him.

Indeed, while Carey may have called for his audience to attempt great things for God and expect great things from God, his adventure was built around living faithfully for the Lord by fulfilling his vocation. In other words, he didn’t seek radical adventure, though he embraced what came his direction.

This sort of faithfulness, I think, is the way we Christians ought to live our lives. We should be joyful in the mundane. Faithful in everything. In the end, who knows what adventures will come our way.