The following post was written by guest contributor Rev. Hamilton Smith, Pastor and Planter of St. Thomas’ Anglican Church in Mount Pleasant S.C. Hamilton is currently pursuing his Doctor of Ministry, with a focus on J.C. Ryle’s Reformation theology for today.
As a pastor, church planter, evangelist, parent, and disciple, I get (and have) a lot of questions about Christianity. When confronted with such questions, I have a universe of resources to help me answer them: study bibles, websites, Christian blogs, Christian magazines, online theological journals, Biblical commentaries, Systematic Theology text books, books, etc., etc., etc. Accurate answers can be found in text books, but it usually takes a large investment of time and energy to get them. Large sections must be reviewed, translated to laymen’s terms (literally), summarized, and then shared. I don’t get answers quickly, and it’s difficult to give them succinctly.
Blogs and articles, however, can give me quick, short answers, but are they accurate? Are they in line with Biblical teaching? Are they based in the way Christians have wrestled with this topic for 2000 years? Are they coming from a Christian tradition that is compatible with Anglicanism? On top of all this, do these resources actually give me information that is practical? Are they useful to the person asking the question? Do they satisfy intellectual curiosity AND also warm the heart with God’s forgiveness and love?
So, where do I turn to get quick, succinct, accurate, and practical answers? My “go to” source: Knot’s Untied by J.C. Ryle (Copyright laws allow it to be published online for free). Why is this 139-year-old book by Victorian English Bishop my primary ‘go to’ when answering Postmodern questions? 5 Reasons:
1) It’s clear and to the point.
Though thoroughly theologically trained and ordained in the Church of England, Ryle’s audience in this book (and the other 10 published works) were lay people. He didn’t write to enter into ivory tower academic debates. He wrote to the average person (believer or not) to answer the questions that impacted their everyday life. His writings are full of examples and illustrations.
This goal is reflected in his very logical style. In a method that would make any high school English teacher proud, he starts with a question, answers with three or more points, and then concludes. He even formats his writing so his sections and subsections have clear demarcations between subjects. It’s a book in outline form.
Lets take the question of “what does it mean to be evangelical?” A question that the Rev. Rob Sturdy demonstrated is worth asking on his October 12th blog post. The first article is entitled “Evangelical Religion”, and Ryle’s goal in writing it was to define the term. He does so by outlining the three main topics (‘What evangelical religion is’, ‘What it is not’, and ‘What makes much religion not evangelical’), and then he breaks each section down to subsections. For example, to answer the first topic, he lists 5 marks that define “Evangelical” (go see for yourself!).
These quickly identifiable, easily accessed, and understandable answers save the reader time and energy.
2) It’s deep.
Please don’t confuse Ryle’s clarity and brevity with theological simplicity. Every answer he gives is rich with Biblical passages (that are true to their original context and intended message), references to historic and contemporary theologians, and the wisdom of 30+ years of ordained ministry.
For example, in Chapter 1 (“Evangelical Religion”), Ryle lays out 5 marks that define a true “Evangelical”. In the the six pages he dedicates to these 5 marks, he appeals to 10 Biblical passages, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the Anglican Catechism, the 39 Articles, the Nicene Creed, the Apostles Creed, Worldwide Church history, and English Church history. He even shares some of his own stories of the pastoral importance of these marks drawn from his own ministry.
The theological quality and depth of these answers gives the reader great confidence when sharing what they’ve learned.
3) It’s fair
Partisanship is not just a product of our current political climate. It was alive and very active in the Church of England of Ryle’s day. Three separate voices were competing for dominance in the Church: the Evangelical, the Anglo Catholic, and the Broad/Liberal. Each voice had differing positions on the majority of theological topics. Ryle (by his own admission in Knots Untied‘s introduction) was speaking form the Evangelical viewpoint, and he clearly argues against Anglo-Catholic and Liberal positions throughout the book. That being said, he never demonized or condemned the opposing voices, and he treated them with respect and humility.
After thoroughly arguing that the Evangelical “camp” is the most clearly aligned with Biblical Christianity, Ryle could have demonized his opponents. Instead, he brings civility and humility to the debate:
“I do not charge all clergymen who are not ‘evangelical’ with not being ‘Christians’. I do not say that the religion they teach is not Christianity. I trust I am not so uncharitable as to say anything of this kind. But I do say that for the reasons already assigned, they appear to me to reach that which is not Christ’s whole truth. In a word, they do not give full weight, full measure, and the prescription of the gospel accurately made up. The parts are there, but not the proportions.” (pg. 23).
What a refreshing example of honest debate seasoned with Christian love.
This aspect of Knots Untied (and all of Ryle’s writings) serves the reader by giving honest responses a graceful flavor.
4) It’s Anglican
For most of my life and ministry, I’ve looked outside of the Anglican Theological Tradition for Evangelical theology and viewpoints. Baptist theologian Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology helped me untie many of my own theological knots, but I always felt that he wasn’t as credible a voice because he did not engage with my own tradition. I was looking for a systematic theology from my own tradition.
Then I found Knots Untied. Though Knots Untied is by no means a systematic theology, it nevertheless serves as a wonderful theological primer on a range of important issues. Furthermore, the author, J.C. Ryle was an Anglican who drew from 350 years of Anglican thought and practice. In this one chapter alone he acknowledges Cranmer, Ridley, Jewell, Usher, Lightfoot, Davenant, Hall, Whittaker, Willett, Reynolds, Leighton, Owen, Hooper, Baxter, Manton, Hervey, Romaine, and Toplady.
I finally found OUR voice.
5) It’s Relevant.
Ryle is the pastor-theologian par excellence: every writing has a practical, pastoral application for it’s readers. For me, this is the “pay dirt” of Knots Untied. Ryle spends as much time showing the reader why these doctrines are important for the soul and the world as he does explaining the doctrines. Moreover, these applications are just as useful and relevant to the needs of the 21st Century as they were to the 19th. For example, he ends the “Evangelical Religion” chapter with three suggestions on how the reader can respond to his argument. These applications include practical ways to keep Evangelicalism in the Church’s theological conversations, but also why it’s loss will be bad for people’s souls. The applications still ring true today.
I have only touched on one of nineteen issues Ryle addresses in this book. They answer questions asked by contemporary believers and non-believers alike:
If you are a theologically minded Anglican (ordained or not), your library must include a copy of Ryle’s Knots Untied. While not an exhaustive systematic theology, it is an excellent resource for quick, rich, and relevant answers to these persistent questions.
Not only will you find other’s faith being strengthened by the answers it gives, but you will also find yourself drawn closer to the God of grace.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy