Review of “Dispensationalism,” by Charles Ryrie

Summary

Just prior to Dr. Charles Ryrie’s recent passing, I thoroughly read through His book, Dispensationalism. In that work, Ryrie seeks to lay out a thorough explanation of the theological framework known as dispensationalism. Ryrie notes in the opening chapter that dispensationalism as a system has been often misunderstood and misrepresented by those who oppose it (pg. 11). He then defends the need to examine dispensationalism in light of the number of scholars who suggest that the system is “dangerous,” “unscriptural,” and “heresy” (pg. 16). Ryrie then delineates several ways in which dispensationalism is helpful in providing biblical distinctions, offering a coherent philosophy of history, and employing a consistent interpretive hermeneutic.

In the next chapter, Ryrie offers a helpful examination of the classic definition of a dispensation from Scofield, and offers his own definition of what exactly a dispensation is: “a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose” (33). This chapter also includes an introduction to Ryrie’s famous sine qua non of dispensationalism. Ryrie makes a crucial clarification that the essence of dispensationalism is not in the belief in dispensations, the number of dispensations, or a premillennial eschatology (45). Ryrie includes three characteristics without which Ryrie says dispensationalism is no longer dispensationalism: a distinction retained between Israel and the church (46); a consistent literal hermeneutic, which Ryrie also calls “normal,” or “plain” hermeneutics (47); the understanding that the overarching purpose of God in history is His own glory (48).

In the third chapter, Ryrie explains the elements of a Biblical dispensation. He then gives an overview of the dispensations according to his understanding, which include the dispensations of Innocency, Conscience, Civil Government, Promise (or Patriarchal Rule), Mosaic Law, Grace, and the Millennium. In the fourth chapter, Ryrie addresses the origins of dispensational theology, noting that various beliefs we would today categorize as “dispensational” predate John Nelson Darby in the work of men such as Pierre Poiret, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts, and even some of the church fathers (such as Papias, Tertullian, and Justin Martyr).

Ryrie then gives a helpfully clarifying discussion of the consistent hermeneutic employed by dispensationalism, which is one of the key characteristics noted by Ryrie as a sine qua non. Ryrie explains that this does not imply literalistic interpretations of symbols and figures of speech. He explains that “every word… would have the same meaning it would have in normal usage, whether in writing, speaking, or thinking. It is sometimes called the principle of grammatical-historical interpretation since the meaning of each word is determined by grammatical and historical considerations” (90). He also weighs the hermeneutical approach of traditional, progressive, and non-dispensational theologians, giving explanations of each.

The next chapter defends dispensationalism’s view of salvation against the charge of many that dispensationalism teaches multiple ways of salvation. Ryrie explains that this charge is due to the misconceptions of anti-dispensationalists. In fact, Ryrie points out that many non-dispensationalists themselves can at times give the impression that there has been more than one way of salvation.

The next two chapters deal with ecclesiology and eschatology respectively. These are the areas of strength for traditional dispensational theology (though they lack in their understanding that dispensational theology effects every area of systematic theology), and Ryrie’s discussion here definitively illustrates why dispensationalism is justified in its distinction of Israel and the church. In chapter nine, Ryrie gives one of the most comprehensive rebuttals of Progressive Dispensationalism to come from a traditional dispensationalist. Ryrie makes a strong case that the “complementary hermeneutic” employed by Progressive Dispensationalism is not helpful, and often fails to properly engage the text at the exegetical level. Ryrie implies that Progressive Dispensationalism is inherently unstable, and that it will inevitably merge into covenant premillennialism.
Ryrie gives a substantive overview of covenant theology in chapter ten, while chapter eleven focuses upon ultra-dispensationalism. In the final chapter, Ryrie gives an honest plea for integrity in scholarship and for the fair representation of opposing views.

Response

Overall, I believe this book is very well done, and worth reading. If anyone wishes to understand Revised, or Traditional, Dispensationalism, this may be the best book to reference. I especially thought that Ryrie interacted surprisingly well with Progressive Dispensationalism. While I did not finally agree with every one of his critiques, for the most part I found him to be fair, while also deftly pointing out hermeneutical and systemic flaws within Progressive Dispensationalism. Ryrie’s stated task, of explaining and defending the use of traditional dispensationalism in light of various criticisms, was, for the most part, well accomplished.

Critique

One weakness to note is that I did not find an actual definition of dispensationalism itself in the beginning of the book. There were several clear definitions of what a dispensation is, but this falls far short of providing a definition of dispensationalism itself. This may be because he hoped to use the sine qua non to provide his own definition. While that was a beneficial and convincing discussion, however, the book still seemed to lack a concise definition of dispensational theology in the form of a sentence or paragraph similar to his definitions of a dispensation.

While this is partly because of my own biases, I believe another weakness of the book is Ryrie’s over-emphasis of the dispensations themselves, while failing to articulate more clearly areas of key distinction between dispensational and non-dispensational theology. I believe the title “dispensationalism” itself may not be a helpful or wise title to use at all. By utilizing this title, we automatically, even if only subconsciously, are defining the system by the dispensations, when even Ryrie himself noted that the existence and number of dispensations are not the defining marks of the system. Not only is it an unhelpful title for dispensationalists themselves, but I think it may be unwise to use the term because of the rampant misunderstanding and misuse by non-dispensationalists of which Ryrie speaks in the opening chapter.

I believe defining dispensationalism by the dispensations runs the risk, and indeed, often becomes victim, of failing to recognize the primary distinguishing differences between dispensational and covenant (or any other variation of non-dispensational) theology. It seems that the foundational difference between dispensational and covenant theology is one of hermeneutics (a point with which I believe Ryrie would fundamentally agree). That is, the hermeneutic with which one comes to the Scripture will largely — primarily — determine whether the reader ends up holding to certain interpretations of Scripture which we categorize as “dispensational” interpretations, or whether he will arrive at interpretations we categorize as “covenantal,” or “progressive dispensational,” or any other title we call various groupings of interpretations. While I believe that Ryrie would, fundamentally, agree with this, he seemed to continue to emphasize the dispensations and various arbitrary differences between dispensational and non-dispensational theologians.

As I understand it, the primary area in which these differing hermeneutical approaches will affect one’s interpretation of Scripture is in the biblical covenants (I hope to write another short post about this specifically). For example, understanding the distinction between Israel and the church is a helpful way to summarize a dispensational distinction; but this results from the interpretive effect one’s literal hermeneutic has on the covenants — specifically, the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic. Ryrie’s (and my) disagreements with Progressive Dispensationalism primarily revolve around differing hermeneutical approaches to the Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants. Again, I believe Ryrie would largely agree with this. However, I believe he failed to properly bring out the distinctions of the consistent literal hermeneutic (which itself is primarily arrived at by observing how God gives and enforces His covenants) as the foundational element which leads to one’s interpretation of the permanence, extent, and relationships between the covenants, which then has drastic implications on one’s understanding of the nature of Israel and the phenomenon of the church.

Again, overall, I believe Dispensationalism is a worthy and helpful book. Having carefully read the book in its entirety for the first time, I found this work to have greatly benefited me in my understanding of traditional dispensational views. I found Ryrie’s discussion of the origin of dispensationalism, and his critique of progressive dispensationalism to be especially helpful. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to look further into the differences between dispensational and covenantal theology, as well as the differences between traditional and progressive dispensational interpretations of continuity, discontinuity, and the nature of the covenants. I would then urge the reader to continue to broaden his exposure to various dispensational authors, since the best way to arrive at your own systematized theology is by reading as much as you can, taking the best from each author, leaving behind the not-so-good parts (while respecting the author for what he does bring to the table), and mixing and formulating it all together into one consistent theology.

Happy studying!

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