Monday, August 11, 2014

"Practical Religion" by J. C. Ryle

Amazing how the pressures of a new job can just mount up!  I've been more than a little tardy in following up on my promised delving into the wisdom of the ages regarding Christian Care, but much has been needed to be done around here.  But the age of excuses is over, and it is time to start at the beginning: "Practical Religion" by J. C. Ryle.

The broader field of Christian Care and ethics has received a lot of attention in recent times.  It goes, I believe, with a re-engagement on the subject of Mission and a desire among younger evangelicals to reach the Culture they find themselves in.  New questions are being asked and the critiques of the age can bite hard, so many are rightly asking What Are We Doing and How Can We Make A Difference.  As such, a plethora of new works are now available to help the Disciple Of Christ be guided in caring for those in need and giving strong theological outlines as to why they should do so.

If that is the case, why start with the Old?  Why engage with a writer who is so removed from the contemporary discussion about the nature of Christian Care.  Well, leaving aside the obvious response that Distance can add Perspective, I would like to share a number of things that I have gained from reading Rev Ryle and why I think his was a solid place to start my personal reading.

Ryle approaches issues of practical faith from an unashamed Evangelical and Anglican position.  Ryle is strong on his theological convictions and generous in his heroes, including those in the nonconformist tradition.  Yet it is clear throughout that he is operating within a framework of the ministry of the Established Church.  For anyone whose theological or pastoral experience lies outside this tradition this might not mean much, but for those who do have convictions as both Evangelical and Anglican it is important to recognise that voices from the past have also held this position.  It reminds us that to be an Anglican who is concerned about practical matters of faith and charity is not an aberration in our faith tradition but is someone who is joining with an established pattern of faith and action. 

The author's preface introduces the book as "a series of papers about 'practical religion', and treats of the daily duties, dangers, experience, and privileges of all who profess and call themselves true Christians."  Less of a Grand Treatise, in other words, than a series of theological vignettes on the outworkings of everyday faith.  As such, the book can be a slightly frustrating read - Ryle's topics do not always naturally flow on from each other.  Yet I’ve come to consider this a strength of the book as it reflects the reality of Christian life – much is jumbled up together and we cannot isolate growth of personal holiness from matters of communal worship or practical love for others.  For Ryle, it seems to be all part of the one bigger question: how should we now live?

Ryle wrote this work to combat the various “false” Christian paths that marked his age.  His concern was not primarily with doctrinal principles (though I’m sure that he could have had a lot to say on those points also) but with the lack of zeal, attentiveness, and dedication that was meant to be indicatives of disciples of Christ.  Ryle claims that at that point (late 19th Century England) there had never been more gospel preaching and public worship available to the common person and yet the spirituality of the day was astonishingly fruitless.  There was more concern over the display of piety rather than the application of faith to everyday life.  In this he rebukes the Evangelical as much as the Anglo-Catholic.  Ryle longs to see a revival of action, both personal and public, that would declare as loud as any words that the gospel of Jesus truly Makes A Difference in the world.

Perhaps the greatest contribution that Ryle makes in this work is his connection between growth in personal piety and growth in practical love.  Ryle desperately wants his readers to be committed to Bible reading, prayer, and frequent communion with the saints.  Further, he seems to expect that rather than isolating the Christian from the World this will throw them back into it with renewed zeal.  The one who is devoted to loving God wholeheartedly will be dedicated to loving his neighbour as himself.  The dichotomy is occasionally made between Practical Christians and Piety Christians.  Ryle expects no such distinction.

Helpfully, Ryle does not expect all of his readers to be “on the same page” spiritually, and each chapter ends with various points on What To Do Now depending on who is reading it.  I believe (and perhaps someone will correct me) that Ryle uses the same pattern in some of his other works.  This was also a refreshing change from what is seen in so many modern Christian books, which usually pitch their approach exclusively to either the Committed Christian or the Perfect Pagan.  Ryle seems to expect a much broader readership than that, and because he is so strong on explaining gospel points as related to his topics as he goes along you could easily put this book in the hands of a non-Christian and expect them to benefit from it (so long as they could deal with the slightly antiquated style).

Overall, a cracking read!  I shall return to Ryle’s work in the future and seek out more of his books.  Very uplifting and invigorating for the soul – just as Ryle would wish.

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