The Doctrine of Perseverance and the Church of England


J.C. Ryle (1816-1900), first Anglican bishop of Liverpool

In the following extract J.C. Ryle convincingly argues that the Perseverance of the Saints is the old doctrine of the Church of England.

By J.C. Ryle

There are few subjects about which English people are so ignorant as they are about the real doctrines of the Church of England. Many persons know nothing of the theological opinions of the English Reformers, and of all leading English Divines for nearly a century after the Protestant Reformation. They call opinions old which in reality are new, and they call opinions new which in reality are old.

It would be a waste of time to inquire into the causes of this ignorance. Certain it is that it exists. Few people seem to be aware that those doctrines which now are commonly called evangelical, were the universally received divinity of English Churchmen throughout the reigns of Queen Elizabeth and James I. They are not, as many ignorantly suppose, new-fangled views of modern invention. They are simply the old paths in which the Reformers and their immediate successors walked. Tractarianism, High Churchism, and Broad Churchism are new systems. Evangelical teaching is neither more nor less than the old school.

The proof of this assertion is to be found in the Church history of the reigns of Elizabeth and James I, and in the writings of the divines of that period. Far be it from me to defend all the sayings and doings of theologians of that date. The student will find in their writings abundant traces of intolerance, illiberality, and bigotry, which I would be the last to defend. But that the vast majority of all Churchmen in that day held doctrines which are now called Calvinistic and Evangelical, is to my mind as clear as noon-day: and upon no point does the evidence appear to me so clear as upon the doctrine of perseverance.

(1) Is it not a historical fact, that in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, in the year 1595, the University of Cambridge compelled Mr. Barret, of Caius college, to read a public recantation and apology in St. Mary’s Church, for having denied the doctrines of final perseverance and election?—The Church of England’s old Antithesis to new Arminianism by William Prynne, page 56.

(2) Is it not a historical fact, that the Articles drawn up by the Vice-Chancellor and heads of the University of Cambridge, against the above-mentioned Barret, conclude with the following words? “This doctrine, being not about inferior points of matters indifferent, but of the substantial ground, and chief comfort and anchor ground of our salvation, hath been to our knowledge continually and generally received, taught, and defended in this University, in lectures, disputations, and sermons, and in other places in sermons, since the beginning of her Majesty’s reign, and is so still holden; and we take it agreeable to the doctrine of the Church of England—Edwards Veritas Redux, page 534.

(3) Is it not a historical fact, that in the same Queen Elizabeth’s reign, in the same year, 1595, the Lambeth Articles were drawn up and approved by Archbishop Whitgift and Bishop Bancroft (afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury); and that they contain the following proposition: “A true living and justifying faith, and the Spirit of God who justifies, is not extinguished, falleth not away, vanisheth not in the elect, either finally or totally.” These articles were not added to our confession of faith; but Fuller’s words nevertheless are perfectly true: “The testimony of these learned divines is an infallible evidence what were the general and received doctrines of England in that age.”—Fuller’s Church History. Tegg’s edition. Third volume, page 150.

(4) Is it not a historical fact, that in the year 1604, in James the First’s reign, this doctrine of perseverance was considered at the Hampton Court Conference. The Puritan party wished the Lambeth Articles to be added to the Thirty-nine Articles. Their request was not granted: but on what grounds? Not because the doctrine of perseverance was objected to, but because King James thought it better “not to stuff the book of Articles with all conclusions theological While even Overall, Dean of St. Paul’s, whose soundness on this point was most suspected, used these remarkable words: “Those who are justified according to the purpose of God’s election, though they might fall into grievous sin, and thereby into the present estate of damnation, yet never totally nor finally fall from justification, but are in time renewed by God’s Spirit unto lively faith and repentance”—Fuller’s Church History, third volume, page 181.

(5) Is it not a historical fact, that the first exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles, published after the Reformation, contains a full and distinct assertion of the doctrine of perseverance, in the part which treats of the Seventeenth Article? I allude to the work of Thomas Rogers, Chaplain to Archbishop Bancroft, to whom the book was dedicated, 1607.—Rogers on the thirty-nine Articles. Parker Society Edition.

(6) Is it not a historical fact, that in the year 1612, King James the First published a declaration written by himself, against one Vorstius, an Arminian divine, in which he calls the doctrine, that the saints may fall away, “A wicked doctrine, a blasphemous heresy, directly contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England.”—Prynne. Church of England Antithesis, etc., page 206.

(7) Is it not a historical fact, that the same King James the First, in the same year 1612, wrote a letter to the States of Holland, in consequence of a Dutch divine, named Bertius, having written a book on the Apostasy of the Saints, and sent it to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this letter, the King speaks of Bertius as “a pestilent heretic,” and called his doctrine “an abominable heresy,” and in one place says, “he is not ashamed to lie so grossly as to avow that the heresies contained in the said book are agreeable with the religion and profession of the Church of England.”—Prynne. Church of England’s Antithesis to Arminianism, page 206.

(8) Is it not a historical fact, that the same King James the First, in the year 1616, visited with severe displeasure a clergyman named Sympson, a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, for preaching before him at Royston, that true believers may totally fall away?—Fuller’s History of Cambridge, page 160.

(9) Is it not a historical fact, that in the Synod of Dort, in the year 1619, the doctrine of final perseverance was strongly asserted? Now several English Divines were formally deputed to attend this Synod and take part in its proceedings, and amongst others, Bishop Davenant, and Bishop Carleton. And is it not notorious that however much they differed from the conclusions of the Synod in the matters of discipline, they “approved all the points of doctrine?”—Fuller’s Church History, vol. 3, page 279.

(10) Last, but not least, is it not a historical fact, that all the leading Archbishops and Bishops in the reigns of Elizabeth and James the First, were thorough Calvinists in matters of doctrine? And is not a notorious fact that the final perseverance of the saints is one of the leading principles of the system that is called Calvinistic? Heylin himself is obliged to confess this. He says, “It was safer for any man in those times to have been looked upon as a heathen or publican than an anti-Calvinist.”—Heylin’s Life of Laud, page 52.

I lay these ten facts before my readers and ask his serious attention to them. I am unable to understand how any one can avoid the conclusion which may be drawn from them. To me it appears an established point in history, that the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints is the old doctrine of the Church of England, and the denial of this doctrine is new.

Source: John Charles Ryle, Old paths being plain statements on some of the weightier matters of Christianity, (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1977), pp.518-520.


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