by Paul P. Enns, Th.D., Dallas Theological Seminary. Provost and Dean, Tampa Bay Theological Seminary, Tampa, Florida.
Charles Caldwell Ryrie was born on March 2, 1925, in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent his early years in Alton, Illinois. At the age of five he was led to faith in Christ by his father, a banker. Young Charles displayed academic prowess early, graduating from high school at the age of sixteen in January 1942. His father felt Charles needed further polish academically, so Charles enrolled in Stony Brook School on Long Island for one semester. Here young Ryrie became acquainted with headmaster Frank E. Gaebelein, son of Arno C. Gaebelein. Gaebelein had influenced Charles’s older brother to attend Haverford College, a Quaker institution in suburban Philadelphia, and Charles followed his brother’s path there. Attendance at regularly scheduled Quaker meetings with leaders like Rufus Jones and faculty member Douglas Steere was required at Haverford. During his college days in Philadelphia, Charles also went to hear the eloquent Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of the historic Tenth Presbyterian Church.
Ryrie majored in mathematics at Haverford, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He was intent on following family tradition by entering a banking career, but God had other plans for him. Through his maternal grandfather, who lived in the Ryrie household, Charles had earlier become acquainted with Lewis Sperry Chafer, one of the founders of the Evangelical Theological College, which later became Dallas Theological Seminary. The Chafers, both accomplished musicians, would sit at the piano in the Ryrie home and sing duets. The Lord was already working in Charles’s heart in those days to lead him to become a prominent theologian and articulator of evangelicalism and dispensationalism.
When Chafer came to Philadelphia for a speaking engagement, Charles made an appointment to meet with him. In a hotel on April 23, 1943, Chafer provided spiritual counsel, and Charles Ryrie dedicated his life to ministry for the Lord. Despite the fact that Ryrie had not yet completed his college program, he applied to Dallas Theological Seminary, was accepted, and enrolled in the summer of 1944. After attending Dallas for two years he petitioned Haverford to grant him his diploma on the basis of his studies at Dallas. (Haverford had made similar allowances for medical students.) Haverford agreed, conferring the baccalaureate degree in June 1946; and Dallas Seminary awarded him a Th.M. in May 1947. His master’s thesis researched “The Relation of the New Covenant to Premillennialism,” undoubtedly laying the foundation for Ryrie’s becoming a major spokesman for premillennialism.
That summer Ryrie’s teaching career was launched at the Midwest Bible and Missionary Institute (which later became part of Calvary Bible College). Ryrie had his sights set on studying that fall under the renowned Carl F. H. Henry at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, but when Henry left Northern to become a founding faculty member of Fuller Seminary in Pasadena, Ryrie found himself back at Dallas Seminary. In 1949 he graduated with high honors with a Th.D. degree; his dissertation was subsequently revised and published as The Basis of the Premillennial Faith.
In the fall of 1948 Ryrie had accepted an invitation to teach mathematics and Bible at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, but upon arriving he was appointed associate professor of Greek and Bible. A crisis occurred at Westmont in 1950 when the president was dismissed and the two-thirds of the faculty who attempted to force the board to reinstate him were told that their tendered resignations had been accepted! Ryrie’s responsibilities increased immediately. In addition to teaching Greek and Bible he became dean of men and chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies and Philosophy.
But further studies abroad beckoned. Charles enrolled in the University of Edinburgh, completing the Ph.D. program in less than two years. There he studied under Matthew Black, J. H. S. Burleigh, Thomas Torrance, and James Stewart, scholars who were genuinely liberal and tolerant of other viewpoints. They gave Ryrie considerable help —and even listened to him preach his conservative theology. Edinburgh proved a stimulating experience for Ryrie and sharpened his skills as a scholar and theologian. His dissertation was subsequently published as The Place of Women in the Church.
In 1953 Ryrie returned to Dallas to teach systematic theology. In 1958 he was invited to serve as president of the historic Philadelphia College of Bible. Finding this position a pleasant, enjoyable experience, he particularly looked forward to the Friday chapel services at which he would address the students. Some of these messages were later published under the title Making the Most of Life . In 1962 he went back to Dallas to teach systematic theology and assume the post of dean of doctoral studies, where he remained until his retirement in 1983.
Amid his many responsibilities Ryrie found time to deliver lectures at Bethel Theological Seminary, Biola University, Cedarville College, and Moody Bible Institute. Similar commitments carried him to Europe, Israel, the lands of the apostle Paul, South Africa, Mexico, Central America, Haiti, Argentina, and Brazil. Two of his books ( The Miracles of Our Lord and So Great Salvation ) received the Gold Medallion Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. And for his theological acumen he was awarded an honorary Litt.D. by Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary.
A Master of Communication
In the classroom as well as on the printed page Ryrie has proved to be a master communicator. His classes would frequently assume an unorthodox pattern as he would focus on one student in particular and ask for a theological definition: “Give me a definition of the hypostatic union of Christ.” After the student’s definition, Ryrie would ask, “What did you omit?” And then, “Try again, and this time include all the important elements and remove any extraneous words.” Back and forth the discussion continued until the student arrived at a precise and concise definition. It was an important lesson, not only in theology but in communication.
Ryrie’s senior-level course in theology was no different. To solidify the students’ thinking, he challenged them to defend their theological positions. Using Carl Henry’s Basic Christian Doctrines as a launching pad, Ryrie created situations that forced the students to justify their own views and to demonstrate acquaintance with contemporary theology. The classes involved considerable debate and dialogue with the professor, frequently to the chagrin of the students! Ryrie could communicate equally well in writing. Consider as proof the fact that some of his books have exceeded two hundred thousand copies in sales. One of his most recent works, Basic Theology, while a five-hundred-page compendium of his position, is not at all ponderous reading. It is an example of Ryrie’s unusual ability to state profound theological doctrines concisely but in a highly lucid fashion. Looking for greater detail, some may assume that something has been omitted, but upon reading and reflecting, it becomes apparent that Ryrie has explained doctrine thoroughly without using any cumbersome or extraneous words.
But Ryrie’s extensive writing ministry did not begin with theological tomes. His first published work was Easy Object Lessons (1949), which was followed by Easy-to-Give Object Lessons (1954). These volumes demonstrate not only Ryrie’s ability in communication but also his versatility. Written for Sundayschool teachers and anyone else wishing to improve their instruction with catchy object lessons, Ryrie’s simple and contemporary examples clarify basic biblical truths. Whether he was writing for Sunday-school teachers or reminding charismatics that they could not draw a distinction between being baptized “by” the Holy Spirit ( 1 Cor. 12:13 ) and “with” the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5) since the same Greek phrase ( en pneumati ) is involved, the style was always the same: lucid, concise explanation. The early volumes set the standard in communication skills that were to characterize Ryrie’s writings throughout the decades. And they no doubt reveal the reason for Ryrie’s popularity—avoiding technical theological jargon, he wrote for ordinary readers, enabling them to comprehend important biblical and theological truth. Ryrie’s works also reflect theological and biblical acuity. In responding to the double-talk of those who affirm plenary verbal inspiration but deny inerrancy, Ryrie suggests that it has become necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, unlimited inerrancy of the Bible.” 1 And of those who affirm limited inerrancy Ryrie asks, “Why not ‘limited errancy’? If the Bible has limitations on its inerrancy, then obviously it is errant, though not completely so. So limited inerrancy and limited errancy amount to the same thing. But why do the proponents of limited inerrancy not want to use the equivalent label ‘limited errancy’? One cannot be sure of the answer, but it could hardly be denied that limited inerrancy is a much more palatable label.” 2
The sharpness of Ryrie’s mind is equally evident in his response to proponents of the view that it is impossible to accept Christ as Savior without also making him the Lord of the whole of one’s life. Ryrie points out, for example, that they acknowledge that a moment of failure does not invalidate the genuineness of the disciple’s salvation. He then counters, “My immediate reaction to such a statement is to want to ask if two moments would? Or a week of defection, or a month, or a year? Or two? How serious a failure and for how long before we must conclude that such a person was in fact not saved?” 3 These are penetrating comments that pierce the heart of the subject and unmask the problems in the view of his opponents.
One highly admirable trait in Ryrie’s writing is his irenic spirit. In the foreword to Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today Frank Gaebelein remarks, “Although Dr. Ryrie has deep convictions about dispensationalism and the opposition to it, he has kept his temper and presented his case candidly and graciously. The last chapter is an eloquent and reasonable plea for tolerance.” In concert with this remark, Warren Wiersbe comments in the foreword to Ryrie’s So Great Salvation : “Dr. Ryrie writes with humility and compassion. He has not overreacted to what some extremists have written. Rather, he calmly and logically expounds the Word of God and seeks to bring clarity where there may be confusion, and gentleness where there may be harsh dogmatism. … He seeks to obey the words of 2 Timothy 2:24–25 : ‘And the Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition.’ ” Doctrinal distinctives aside, a similar spirit by those holding contrary views would foster Christian unity.
The Basis of the Premillennial Faith
First published in 1953, unquestionably one of the most important books Ryrie authored is The Basis of the Premillennial Faith, which sets forth the foundation and system of premillennial interpretation. In this volume, which is a revision of his Th.D. dissertation, Ryrie seeks to demonstrate that “premillennialism is a system of Biblical truth. It is not merely an interpretation of one passage in the last book of the Bible.” 4 That is, he seeks to dispel the notion that premillennialism is built solely on Revelation 20:4–6 . One of Ryrie’s arguments is that premillennialism is the historic faith of the church. Quoting liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack and church historian Philip Schaff, Ryrie contends that the Apostolic Fathers believed in the premillennial return of Christ. He cites, among others, the Didache, Clement of Rome, the Shepherd of Hermas, Barnabas, and Ignatius of Antioch. Justin Martyr wrote, “There will be resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned, and enlarged as the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah and others declare.” 5 Tertullian declared, “A kingdom is promised to us upon the earth … it will be after the resurrection for a thousand years in the divinely-built city of Jerusalem.” Ryrie concludes, “In the face of such overwhelming evidence, who can deny that premillennialism was the faith of the early church?” 6
But there must be a basis for defending premillennialism, regardless of whether it was held by the early church. Ryrie posits that basis in a hermeneutical system that presupposes plenary verbal inspiration and interprets the Bible literally, carefully considering the grammar of a passage, its context, and its relationship to the rest of Scripture. Any spiritualizing of Scripture (which to Ryrie is the same as allegorizing) is to be rejected. Contrasting allegorical (amillennial) and literal (premillennial) interpretation, Ryrie argues that “allegorical interpretation fosters modernism.” 7 On the other hand, “when the principles of literal interpretation both in regard to general and special hermeneutics are followed, the result is the premillennial system of doctrine.” 8
In interpreting the Bible literally, Ryrie focuses on the promises given to Abraham and David, which he contends have not been fulfilled, but will be at the return of Jesus Christ. For Ryrie, the Abrahamic covenant is the watershed between premillennialism and amillennialism. While amillennial theologians insist that the covenant promises to Israel were conditional, 9 Ryrie asserts their unconditional nature. The promises God made to Abraham concerning a land, a posterity, and a blessing were unconditional and have never been fulfilled. The conclusion? “Israel is promised permanent possession of the land and permanent existence as a nation. This is based on the unconditional character of the covenant. Since the Church does not fulfill the national promises of the covenant, these promises await a future fulfillment by the nation Israel.” 10
No less important here is the Davidic covenant ( 2 Sam. 7:12–16 ), promising a posterity to David as well as an eternal throne and kingdom. Ryrie cites various Old Testament prophets ( Isa. 9:6–7 ; Jer. 23:5–6 ; 30:8–9 ; 33:14–22 ; Ezek. 37:24–25 ; Dan. 7:13–14 ; Hos. 3:4–5 ; Amos 9:11 ; Zech. 14:4 , 9 ) to show that a future earthly kingdom is in view. But was not the kingdom inaugurated at the first advent of Christ? Ryrie explains that the kingdom was indeed offered by Christ, but it was rejected by the Jewish people. That did not, however, abrogate the kingdom promises to the nation. In fact, promises given after Israel’s rejection of the kingdom anticipate future fulfilment of the Davidic covenant ( Matt. 25:1–13 , 31–46 ; Acts 15:14–18 ). The church does not fulfil these promises. Instead, the Davidic covenant will someday find fulfilment on earth with the nation Israel, ruled by the personal presence of Messiah. 11
A Versatile Theological Writer
Ryrie’s theological versatility can be seen in two volumes published in the 1950s— Neo-orthodoxy (1956) and Biblical Theology of the New Testament (1959). Although Neoorthodoxy is but sixty-two pages, the volume crystalizes the theology of Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and H. Richard Niebuhr for the layperson—no small task indeed! What layperson would be prepared to tackle Barth’s Church Dogmatics or his Römerbrief ? In his summary critique Ryrie reminds the reader that “neoorthodoxy is an attempt—and an unsuccessful one at that—to reinterpret traditional Christianity in such a way as to make it more acceptable to the socalled intellectual advance of the age.” 12 In so doing, Ryrie argues, neoorthodoxy accepts the tenets of higher criticism, labels the creation story a myth, teaches that the Bible is not the Word of God but only an errant witness to the Word (Christ), and suggests that whether Christ rose physically and bodily matters little. Ryrie concludes: “Original sin is the truest thing in the world, but the account of it in Genesis is only a story [in neo-orthodoxy]. The resurrection of Christ is the truest thing in the world, but the Gospel accounts of it are ‘hopelessly garbled [in neoorthodoxy].’ Christ is the Bread of Life, but of course not one word of the Gospel of John is historical [in neo-orthodoxy]. Is it too strong a statement to say that neoorthodoxy is a theological hoax?” 13 In Biblical Theology of the New Testament Ryrie plowed new ground. Although biblical theology has become popular in the last several decades, Ryrie wrote before the subject began to interest conservatives (e.g., Donald Guthrie, NewTestament Theology , 1981; Gerhard Hasel, New Testament Theology , 1977; George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament , 1974; Leon Morris, New Testament Theology, 1986). Ryrie explains biblical theology as a systematization of theology that considers the historical circumstances and the progressiveness of revelation, but utilizes the Bible as its source. Accordingly, biblical theology must be exegetical—“historical-grammatical interpretation is the basis of all Biblical Theology.” 14
An example of Ryrie’s exegetical theology is his Grace of God, published in 1963. The subject intrigued Ryrie because “grace is the watershed that divides Roman Catholicism from Protestantism, Calvinism from Arminianism, modern liberalism from conservatism.” 15 Ryrie traces the meaning of the Hebrew and Greek terms for “grace,” and then proceeds to draw practical applications: How does one live under grace? What is legalism? What is liberty? These questions impinge on how people view the Christian life. Shall we live under a legalistic agenda? Can liberty turn into license? Ryrie identifies legalism as “an attitude. Although it involves code, motive, and power, it is basically an attitude. … A legalistic attitude is, of course, directed toward a given code. Its motivation is wrong, and its power is not that of the Spirit. … Legalism may be defined as a ‘fleshly attitude which conforms to a code for the purpose of exalting self.’ ” 16 Christian liberty, on the other hand, is restricted by love, which is identified as doing the will of God. Christian liberty “brings to the believer the freedom to be a slave of righteousness ( Rom. 6:18). Such liberty does not place a Christian in the position of being able to live as he pleases; it is not license. It does place him in the position of being able to live as God pleases, a freedom which he did not have as an unregenerate person.” 17
These statements, written three decades ago, are an adequate answer to those critics who, troubled by Ryrie’s view that it is possible to be saved without making Christ the Lord of one’s life, accuse him of leading believers into license through his emphasis on grace. Always one to simplify theology, making it accessible to laypersons, Ryrie has written, in addition to The Grace of God, several other volumes in Moody’s Handbook of Bible Doctrine series. The concise volume The Holy Spirit was published in 1965. It deals with controversial topics like efficacious grace, the baptizing work of the Spirit, and spiritual gifts. Ryrie distinguishes between the baptism by the Spirit (a ministry of the Spirit that began at Pentecost and occurs but once in the life of every believer—at the moment of salvation) and the filling of the Spirit (which is subsequent to salvation and repeatable for every believer).
An exponent of the noncharismatic view, Ryrie distinguishes those spiritual gifts that were foundational and therefore temporary (apostleship, prophecy, miracles, healing, and tongues) from those gifts that are permanent and appear in all generations. Ryrie argues for the cessation of tongues as a spiritual gift on the grounds that (1) the need for the gift ended with the completion of the canon, and (2) the middle voice of the verb “they shall cease” in 1 Corinthians 13:8 suggests that tongues “would die out of their own accord.”18
The name Charles Ryrie is synonymous with dispensationalism because of his association with Dallas Seminary, and also because of the publication of Dispensationalism Today in 1965. This work is the definitive source for contemporary dispensationalism. In it Ryrie seeks to allay many misconceptions.
In 1945 Oswald T. Allis had published Prophecy and the Church , which charged that “dispensationalism has been becoming increasingly in recent years a seriously divisive factor in evangelical circles. … [It is] a serious departure from the historic faith of the Church as set forth in the Scriptures. The result is a situation that is deplorable. It is more than deplorable; it is dangerous.” 19 Allis wrote “to expose the danger in [dispensationalism’s] teaching regarding things to come … and to prove it to be unscriptural.” 20 Daniel Fuller and Clarence Bass later joined the attack on dispensationalism. 21 In Dispensationalism Today Ryrie addressed these charges, howbeit in an irenic tone. Indeed, the last chapter is a plea for tolerance. Ryrie wrote Dispensationalism Today for two purposes: “(1) to try to correct the misconceptions about dispensationalism and thus to allay the suspicions about it and (2) to give a positive presentation of dispensationalism as it is being taught today.” 22
Of course, the primary question remains: What is a dispensation? 23 Ryrie defines a dispensation as “a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose.” By stressing that a dispensation is an economy rather than an age or a period of time Ryrie distances himself from C. I. Scofield, who defined a dispensation as “a period of time during which man is tested in respect of obedience to some specific revelation of the will of God.” 24 The key biblical word underlying the concept of dispensations is oikonomia, which means “stewardship.” Carefully analyzing the parable in Luke 16:1–13 , where the word occurs three times, Ryrie cites the following characteristics of a stewardship or dispensation: (1) there are two parties, the one in authority delegating responsibilities and the other obligated to carry out those responsibilities (v. 1 ); (2) there are specific responsibilities (v. 1 ); (3) the steward is accountable (v. 2 ); and (4) when the steward is unfaithful, a change in the system may be made (v. 2 ).
Ryrie explains a dispensation both from God’s view and from ours: “From God’s viewpoint a dispensation is an economy; from man’s it is a responsibility to the particular revelation given at the time.” 25 Each dispensation comprises a test, failure, and judgment. When humans fail the test, God judges and inaugurates a new dispensation. Ryrie charges covenant theology with failing to acknowledge the obvious: “Covenant theology with its all-encompassing covenant of grace glosses over great epochs and climaxes of history lest they disturb the ‘unity of Scripture’ and introduce something so new that a dispensation might have to be recognized.” 26
Ryrie identifies three essential tenets of dispensationalism: (1) Israel and the church are distinct; (2) Scripture must be interpreted literally (Ryrie speaks of the “normal” or “plain” meaning) without spiritualizing or allegorizing the text (allowances can be made for figures of speech); and (3) the underlying purpose of God in the world is not our salvation but his glory. 27 Ryrie also identifies at least three dispensations specifically mentioned in Paul’s writings: “In Ephesians 1:10 he writes of ‘the dispensation of the fullness of times,’ which seems to be a future period. In Ephesians 3:2 he designates the ‘dispensation of the grace of God,’ which was the emphasis of the content of his preaching at that time. In Colossians 1:25–26 it is implied that another dispensation preceded the present one in which the mystery of Christ in the believer is revealed.” Ryrie concludes, “ There can be no question that the Bible uses the word dispensation in exactly the same way the dispensationalist does .” 28 What are these three dispensations? Law, grace (or the church age), and the millennial kingdom. These are also the only three dispensations specifically identified in Dallas Seminary’s doctrinal statement. Although many dispensationalists tenaciously hold to seven dispensations, Ryrie believes that the number and names of the dispensations are “relatively minor matters.” 29
In responding to the charge of recency (viz., that dispensationalism was first formulated by John Nelson Darby and the Plymouth Brethren in the nineteenth century), Ryrie traces dispensational concepts to Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and even Augustine. French philosopher Pierre Poiret (1646–1719) developed a sevenfold scheme of dispensationalism in a six-volume systematic theology, L’Économie divine . In addition, John Edwards (1637–1716) and Isaac Watts (1674–1748) both developed sophisticated schemes of dispensationalism long before the Plymouth Brethren.
In comparing and contrasting covenant theology with dispensationalism, Ryrie points out that it is covenant theology that is recent; it is post-Reformation. 30 It is not found in the theology of the early church nor of the Reformation leaders. Nor, says Ryrie, does it have a basis in Scripture; rather, it is a deduction from Scripture. Moreover, he sees covenant theology as based on the faulty hermeneutic that interprets the Old Testament by the New Testament. “There is,” avers Ryrie, “everything wrong about imposing the New Testament on the Old.” 31 Ryrie also chides dispensationalism’s opponents for misrepresenting its position on the critical issue of the terms of salvation. He cites in particular John Wick Bowman and Clarence Bass. 32 Ryrie summarizes: “The basis of salvation in every age is the death of Christ; the requirement for salvation in every age is faith; the object of faith in every age is God; the content of faith changes in the various dispensations.” 33