Bishop RC Ryle on “Jellyfish Christianity”

The consequences of this widespread dislike to “dogma” are very serious in the present day. Whether we like to allow it or not, it is an epidemic which is just now doing great harm, and specially among young people. It creates, fosters, and keeps up an immense amount of instability in religion. It produces what I must venture to call, if I may coin the phrase, a “jelly-fish” Christianity in the land: that is, a Christianity without bone, or muscle, or power. A jelly-fish, as everyone knows who has been much by the seaside, is a pretty and graceful object when it floats in the sea, contracting and expanding like a little, delicate, transparent umbrella. Yet the same jelly-fish, when cast on the shore, is a mere helpless lump, without capacity for movement, self-defence, or self-preservation. Alas! it is a vivid type of much of the religion of this day, of which the leading principle is,“No dogma, no distinct tenets, no positive doctrine.” We have hundreds of “jelly-fish” clergymen, who seem not to have a single bone in their body of divinity. They have no definite opinions; they belong to no school or party: they are so afraid of “extreme views” that they have no views at all. We have thousands of “jelly-fish” sermons preached every year, sermons without an edge, or a point, or a corner, smooth as billiard balls, awakening no sinner, and edifying no saint.—We have legions of “jelly-fish” young men annually turned out from our Universities, armed with a few scraps of second-hand philosophy, who think it a mark of cleverness and intellect to have no decided opinions about anything in religion, and to be utterly unable to make up their minds as to what is Christian truth. Their only creed is a kind of “Nihilism.” They are sure and positive about nothing. And last, and worst of all, we have myriads of jelly-fish worshippers,respectable church-going people, who have no distinct and definite views about any point in theology. They cannot discern things that differ, any more than colour-blind people can distinguish colours. They think everybody is right and nobody wrong, every-thing is true and nothing is false, all sermons are good and none are bad, every clergyman is sound and no clergyman unsound. They are “tossed to and fro, like children, by every wind of doctrine;” often carried away by any new excitement and sensational movement; ever ready for new things, be-cause they have no firm grasp on the old; and utterly unable to “render a reason of the hope that is in them.” All this, and much more, of which I cannot now speak particularly, is the result of the unhappy dread of “dogma” which has been so strongly developed, and has laid such hold on many Churchmen, in these latter days.

I turn from the picture I have exhibited with a sorrow¬ful heart. I grant it is a gloomy one; but I am afraid it is only too accurate and true. Let us not deceive ourselves. “Dogma” and positive doctrine are at a dis¬count just now. Instability and unsettled notions are the natural re-sult, and meet us in every direction. Never was it so important for lay-men to hold systematic views of truth, and for ordained ministers to “enunciate dogma” very clearly and distinctly in their teaching.

–Anglican Bishop JC Ryle, Principles for Churchmen (London: William Hunt+Co, 1884), pp. 97-98 (my emphasis)

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