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 Issues | Church History | Nicholas Ridley


Nicholas Ridley by G W Bromiley
Ridley - the Theologian

<< Chapter 2

The meagre quantity of Ridley's theological work has already been noted.  He wrote only three treatises of any size, the Brief Declaration of the Lord's Supper, the Piteous Lamentation, and the Treatise on the Worship of Images.  In addition to these there are a few shorter papers, notably an exposure of the divergences of Gardiner from orthodox Romanism, an answer to queries on the abuse of the mass, and a short statement of reasons why the Lord's board should rather be after the form of a table than of an altar.  The exiles of Mary's reign also succeeded in preserving fairly full copies of the various conferences, disputations and examinations of the prison period, and these were incorporated by Fox into his epoch-making Acts and Monuments.

The works were not only small, but they were almost exclusively controversial in aim.  This characteristic they shared with most theological writings of the period, for disputation by word or pen was the acknowledged form of theological expression.  The writers of the sixteenth century were not abstract or speculative theologians.  They dealt I with specific errors, and they were concerned to attack or defend this or that position.  Their works have in consequence an intensity and thoroughness which often escapes more constructive thinkers, but they cover only a restricted range of subjects, and they lack the consecutiveness attained by the less controversial writer.  Calvin's Institutes and Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity arc two superb exceptions which confirm the general rule.

The treatises of Ridley had all the characteristics of Reformation literature generally.  They were short and controversial, and they wholly ignored many of the great themes of the Christian faith: the Trinity, the Atonement, Original Sin, and even Justification.  Ridley dealt indeed only with the subjects which pressed, hut he treated these with a passionate conviction and an almost wearisome thoroughness.  The nature and meaning of the Supper was naturally the foremost topic, for it formed the chief point of contention between the reformed and the traditionalist parties.  Other themes dealt with included Holy Scripture (very cursorily), the Church, and the Worship of Images.  It would be as well, perhaps, to form some idea of his views on these less central issues before we study the all-important doctrine of the Supper.  As far as the Scripture was concerned, Ridley made only incidental references, but he reiterated and confirmed the basic Protestant principles.  Thus in the Piteous Lamentation he commended “the late order whereby ministers professed that they would teach the people nothing as doctrine necessary to attain eternal salvation, but that which is God's own holy Word, or may be thereof grounded without any doubt”.  Again, in his disputations he always appealed first to “the authority, majesty and verity of holy writ”, and although he was willing to consider the testimonies of “the ancient catholic Fathers”, he would not account “men's reports so sure as the canonical Scriptures”.  The Fathers had in fact no inherent authority of their own: they were to be studied chiefly for the purpose of arriving at the most exact interpretation of the Bible.

Upon the important relationship between the Bible and the Church Ridley made no definite pronouncements, but when summoned by the Bishop of Lincoln to allow contrary “probations from the Scriptures and doctors” to be submitted to the arbitrament of the Church, he refused to acknowledge any right of the Church to usurp that position of authority which rightly belonged to the Scriptures alone.  For Ridley as for all the Reformers the Bible itself was the supreme rule of faith, and both the Church as a whole and also individuals within it ought always to submit themselves to both its guidance and judgement.  As he himself put it in another place, faithfulness to Scripture was itself the final and surest test of the genuineness of a self-styled Church.

Ridley's statements with regard to the Bible are clearly reminiscent of the Anglican and other Reformed Articles.  Similarly in Ills doctrine of the Church he sets forward that basic Protestant position unequivocally asserted in the Anglican formularies.  Ridley granted that the highest language could be used of the Church, and that the Church ought to be believed and reverenced.  The marks of the Church were “the sincere preaching of God's Word and due administration of the sacraments”, together with “charity, and faithful observing of ecclesiastical discipline, according to the Word of God”.  With Luther and Calvin he could grant that “forth of this Church there is no salvation”.  To the objection that the Church as understood in this way was invisible only, whereas the Church of Christ was visible and known, Ridley replied that the Church could always be seen, first in its members, and second by its marks or tokens.

Ridley did of course distinguish in some sort between the so-called invisible Church and the Church visible.  The true Church was invisible, however, only in so far as in this world no final separation can be made between the external professor and the inward believer.  This invisibility was not emphasized by the Reformers; indeed, Ridley denied it altogether when he pointed out that true Christians always give to the Church a visible expression.  He agreed that the outward organization must not be identified with the Church-the true idea behind the concept of invisibility.  But he argued too that the organization has the constant duty of purifying itself according to the Scriptures.  It was presumption to identify the organization and the heavenly Jerusalem, the more so when the organization bore evident tokens of corruption.  But it was obvious folly to separate entirely the Church invisible and the Church visible, and Ridley - and indeed all the Reformers - carefully guarded themselves against any such nonsensical extreme.

To the question of images Ridley devoted rather greater attention.  He approached it as a practical issue, for he wished to secure the complete prohibition of the erection and worship of images in parish churches.  His treatise on the subject was not an academic exercise, but an address to die King by which he hoped to accomplish this aim.  In the first part of the treatise he gathered his proofs from Scripture, and his starting-point was naturally the Second Commandment.  He gave to this Commandment a specifically religious application.  He could grant that not everyone who did make a graven image would in fact be tempted to bow down and worship it, but the general possibility was so great that God had insisted upon the absolute prohibition.  The Jews had accepted its absoluteness, and it had been repeated in many passages of the Old Testament.  Being a moral enactment, it remained in force even under the New Covenant, and Ridley could find many New Testament passages which seemed to have a bearing upon the question: e.g. the simple advice of John; or the warning against causing a weaker brother to stumble.  Even allowing that images might have a slight value for the few, the peril involved in their use far outweighed the possible advantages.  As Ridley himself put it, “To allow a certain peril for an uncertain profit, and the greatest danger for the smallest benefit, is a tempting of God and a grievous offence.(1)

In the second part of the Treatise Ridley reinforced the proofs from Scripture with selected passages from the early Fathers.  It is not necessary to refer to these quotations in detail, but Origen, Arnobius and Zephyrinus all showed that the heathen had made it a complaint against the first Christians that they had no images, and Irenaeus attacked the Gnostics for carrying about a life-size image of Christ said to have been made in the time of Pilate.  Augustine and Epipanius, too, were outstanding witnesses to the peril and sin of idolatry.

In a short third part Ridley concluded his argument with a rapid survey of the Iconoclastic controversy, and of the “divisions and mischiefs” which had resulted from the introduction and defence of images.  The Church had been divided, “the Empire cut asunder and the gate opened to the Saracens and Turks, and infinite millions of souls had been cast into eternal damnation, without any record of any one soul ever being won to Christ by having of images.” He appealed to the King to take due warning, and to secure the abolition of images from the English Church.

The teaching with regard to images prepares us for Ridley's strongly reformed doctrine in relation to the Lord's Supper.  The bulk of his writing concerned this latter question, and it was primarily for his views on the Supper that he was finally condemned and martyred.  The most important documents in this connection are one or two smaller papers and the invaluable Brief Declaration.  Detailed arguments are contained in the Disputation, but their scholastic form and character make them heavy and even wearisome reading for the non-technical student.

A good starting-point is that statement of objections to the Mass which has been preserved in the record of his conferences with Lather.  Here Ridley argued that the use of a strange tongue destroyed edification.  It also prevented the proper showing of the Lord's death, a primary purpose of the sacrament.  There was not even the possibility of any true communion, for in most cases the altar was made into a private table.  The institution of Christ Himself was not observed, because for no genuine reasons the cup was withheld from the laity.  The doctrine of transubstantiation led to a “servile serving” of the sign rather than of the thing signified.  The sacrifice of the Mass “plucked away the honour from the only sacrifice of Christ”.  Finally, many abuses and superstitions had come to be associated with the Mass, notably “the conjuring of salt, water and bread, which was thought to endow them with spiritual powers and graces, to the detriment of the sole-sufficiency of Christ”.

These arguments were of course largely negative, but they did at least show that Ridley aimed at a doctrine and practice which were in accordance with the records and teaching of the New Testament.  In his Brief Declaration he went beyond this, for although he still exposed the Romanist errors, he now attempted to give a positive statement of his own conception of Christ's presence.  In his construction as in his criticism he took the Scriptures as his point of departure, and the Treatise opened with a brief summary and comparison of the evangelical and Pauline records of institution.  Only after he had laid this foundation did he turn to the immediate point at issue, the error of transubstantiation and the true teaching concerning the presence.

At the beginning of the doctrinal discussion, Ridley made an important assertion.  No one, he argued, denied the fact of Christ's presence or the reality of the partaking of His flesh and blood: for this reason Ridley condemned “those wicked Anabaptists, which put no difference between the Lord's table and the Lord's meat, and their own”.  The point under discussion was not the fact but the nature of the presence: whether it was a substantial presence under the form of the elements, or a spiritual presence represented by them.  Both these views called for miracles, but miracles of quite a different order: on the one hand, a miracle of magical change, for which there was no warrant whatever in the Scriptures ; on the other, a miracle of divine grace, wholly compatible with the records and promises of God's word.

As Ridley compared these two opinions, he argued con- stantly that the Scriptures alone must decide.  He rejected transubstantiation primarily because the scriptural proof of it was insufficient.  It could not be doubted that Christ did call the bread His body, but it could also not be doubted that the bread was “very bread”.  This was confirmed, first, by the words “Do this in remembrance of me”, and second, by the fact that both in Acts and 1 Corinthians the consecrated element is still referred to as bread.  In the case of the wine the matter was even more conclusive.  Even after the rehearsal of the words of institution Christ still spoke of the “fruit of the vine”, and in Paul's account the wine was not said to be the blood of Christ but the New testament in His blood.  The latter passage denied a substantial presence either way, for granting transubstantiation, the substance of the cup became that of the new testament, and denying it the word “is” acquired here and presumably elsewhere a figurative signification.  The text proved to us in fact that “all Christ's words were not to be strained to their proper signification”, and if it were objected that this led to confusion, Augustine had provided the answer in “divers learned lessons” of his Christian Doctrine (Book 3 chapter 16).

The mention of the cup led to a short digression upon various abuses of the Mass already mentioned, but Ridley returned quickly to his main theme, considering some of the more detailed arguments by which transubstantiation was defended.  He dealt first with “a vain quiddity” of Duns Scotus which contemporary writers had “stripped out of Dun's dusty and dark terms, and pricked out and painted in fresh colours of an eloquent style”(2).  More important were the attempts of the Romanists to decide which word or phrase was responsible for the actual change.  One school, including Duns, attributed the work to the word benedixit (He blessed), and for that reason they could not possibly agree that the word “this” referred to the bread taken.  The majority, however, thought that the phrase “This is my body” accomplished the miracle.  They could thus agree that the “this” referred to the substance bread, but they were compelled to give to the word “is” the force of  “is made into” or “becomes”.  As Ridley could point out, this was no more a proper signification than “represents”, and in the case of the cup, it led logically to the belief that the cup or its contents became the new testament.  Some writers had tried to hold both theories, but the two were obviously quite incompatible.

Ridley now moved on to a consideration of the Reformed alternative.  In doing so he claimed that this was no novel opinion, but the true teaching of “such ecclesiastical writers as lived prior to the wicked usurpation of the See of Rome”.  The claim is important, for it is in line with the whole contention of the Reformers, that they were making a return rather than a development.  Ridlcy knew the difficulty of his task, for “crafty wit, furnished with eloquence, can darken any saying, and wrest it quite from the true meaning to a contrary sense”.  He was confident, however, that properly understood the Fathers had been true witnesses and expounders of Scripture.  For his present purpose he chose out six representatives, Origen, Chrysostom, and Theodoret from the Greek Church, and Tertullian, Augustine and Gelasius from the Latin.

The passages cited are well worth studying, but for our present purpose it is more important to look at the position for which, as Ridley saw it, these writers contended.  These Fathers, he thought, taught plainly that there is no change of substance in the elements, but that the bread and wine represent sacramentally the body and blood of Christ.  They looked beyond the elements to the things signified, and thus in a figure they could give to them “the names of the things whereof they be sacraments”.  In His natural body, Christ is in heaven but “by His grace, by His providence, and by His divine nature” He is present also in the sacrament.  The presence, however, is a spiritual presence, real in the sense of true or genuine, but not in the sense of substantial or corporal.  Thus although the elements and Christ are related, the relationship is not fixed or automatic, nor is it dependent merely upon the words or actions of a human administrator.  The coincidence of sign and thing signified takes place only where there is faith, and faith and coincidence arc both the sovereign work of the divine administrator, the Holy Spirit.  Faced with the accusation that “he set by his own conceit more than is meet”, Ridley did not develop this teaching.  He cited his authorities and left it at that.  Yet, it was clearly for this dynamic alternative to transubstantiation that he contended, agreeing here with the teaching of Cranmer and Calvin rather than with Luther's consubstantiation, or the bare symbolism of the sacramentarians.

What then was the importance of Ridley's doctrinal contribution? First, and historically, he determined in large measure the sacramental theology of Reformed Anglicanism as stated later by his Elizabethan successors.  He did this in two ways : officially, by his influence upon the first draft of the Articles (the Forty-Two Articles of Edward VI) ; and personally, by the impact of his testimony upon the continental exiles, who at a later date were to have the responsibility of shaping the church settlement.  There is no great evidence with regard to the official influence, but the personal may be judged from the high esteem in which Ridley's words were held by the refugees.  The manuscript of the Brief Declaration and copies of the Disputation found their way overseas, and Grindal promised that all should be published, and the Treatise translated into Latin.(3)  The promise was kept, for the Treatise came out in English in the year of Ridley's death, and the Latin edition followed, the work being done by Whittingham at Geneva.

Second, and theologically, Ridley helped to direct the English Reformation into the Reformed rather than the Lutheran camp.  It has sometimes been suggested that the Edwardian period was an interlude of continental excess between the cautious reform under Henry and a final and moderate compromise under Elizabeth.  The reputation of Ridley amongst the exiles ought to warn us of the improbability of this thesis, the more so when we remember that Ridley was perhaps the outstanding native theologian of the period in question, and that he was not noticeably dependent upon any of the foreign teachers.(4)l But the complete unreality of the thesis becomes apparent when we find that this native leader lent all his effort towards the assertion of two specifically reformed positions, the illegality of images and the spiritual nature of the presence.  Ridley had little to say about these doctrines in which he could acknowledge Luther as pioneer and master.  He took up the work of reform at the point where Luther left off, and by his learning, his ability and his integrity he was able to win over the reforming party in England almost entirely to his standpoint.  Others, of course, were working in the same direction.  The foreigners Bucer and Peter Martyr contributed something.  Knox and Hooper were even more violently of the reformed school than Ridley.  Cranmcr, too, had a good deal to do with this decisive development.  Yet Ridley was surely the commanding figure, for the foreigners had after all only a restricted ecclesiastical influence, and Ridley was at once a greater scholar and more influential leader than Hooper and a more vigorous and forceful thinker than Cranmer.  The reorientation of English theology and practice may not incorrectly be described as in very large part the work of Ridley.

Finally, and again theologically, Ridley helped to fix that distinctive appeal of Reformed Anglicanism, not only to the authoritative teaching of Scripture hut also to the testimony of the most primitive period.  Like Turner and Cranmer of his own generation and Jewell and Hooker of the next, Ridley believed that the Romanists themselves were the innovators and the Protestants the true heirs of Apostolic and post-Apostolic truth.  The Continentals, too, made this appeal to antiquity, but in general they did not quote so extensively from the Fathers.  Ridley and Cranmer, however, while acknowledging the Bible alone as the absolute rule of faith, were quite content to argue their case from the “most ancient authors”.  The indefatigable Jewell later popularized this appeal with his famous challenges.

(1) Works, pp. 83-8.

(2) Duns had argued from the proposition that the word “this” in the words of institution had reference to a substance determined only by the word “is”.

(3) Works, p.288 - a leter of Grindal.

(4) Thus Ridley owed his doctrine of the Lord's Supper, not to the Continentals, but to an independent reading of Bertram's De corpore et sanguine Domini (Works, p. I 5 9).

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