A Review of “Dispensationalism” by Charles C. Ryrie
Dr Charles Ryrie’s book Dispensationalism Today was something of a watershed when it was first issued in 1965. In it Ryrie attempted to provide both a defense and positive presentation of the main tenets of Dispensational theology, as well as a clear-cut definition of why those tenets are so. The book under review is a revision of the earlier work. It addresses some of the attack made on dispensationalism since the mid 1960’s, and also seeks to critique an mutant form of it called by it’s defenders, Progressive Dispensationalism. In a remarkable way Ryrie has succeeded in his task. This is due in part to his ability to put difficult themes in clear and succinct sentences. But it shows off Ryrie’s skill as a theologian too.
In reviewing this work we intend to first provide an overview of the basic plan and contents. From there we shall focus attention upon the major thematic issues covered in the book.
The book opens up with an introductory chapter which sets the stage for the ensuing discussion. Ryrie starts out by saying that Dispensationalism as a system has often been misunderstood and misrepresented by its foes (p.11). He notes that not a few covenant theologians have reserved some of their most intemperate language when criticizing the system (pp.12f.). The author feels compelled to ask his reader “[i]f dispensationalism has been called everything from a “dangerous friend” to a “sworn enemy”, is there any point in examining it? What do dispensationalists say for themselves that could make their teaching worth investigating? Could there be any help in that which is a heresy in the minds of some?” (p.16). Ryrie then spends a few pages briefly delineating some of the advantages to holding a dispensational view of the Bible. In the next chapter Ryrie provides real help in defining exactly what a dispensation is, and defending the usage of the term by his school of thought. Strangely though, he neglects to offer a definition of dispensationalism itself. This chapter also includes the indispensable aspects of this type of theology (it’s sine qua non). The most important of the three defining attributes he speaks to is the distinction between Israel and the Church (p.39). The third chapter runs over the elements of a Biblical dispensation and provides a fine rationale for the label “dispensationalist”. Then, in the fourth chapter, Ryrie addresses the origins of the theology, noting that its basic outlines predate John Nelson Darby in the work of Pierre Poiret (1646-1719), and the famous Isaac Watts (1674-1748).
One of the chief characteristics of the system is its stress on plain or literal interpretation. The author explains that this does not imply literalistic interpretations of obvious symbols and figures of speech (p.81). What it does mean is 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.” (p.80). He cites amillennialist Floyd Hamilton’s confession that if the prophecies of the Old Testament were taken in the literal sense it would lead to premillennialism (p.83. See also p. 86 where Allis makes the same admission). It is a strange feature of many criticisms of a literal hermeneutic that the term literal appears to be universally understood unless one is dealing with the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. Whatever may be added in that particular, it is a fact that any non-dispensational interpretations must employ at least two kinds of Bible interpretation; the one a literal, and the other a spiritual or even allegorical. On pages 88-89 Ryrie notes that the “complementary” hermeneutic of the Progressive Dispensationalist is a clear departure from standard dispensationalism. After this chapter is a very helpful addendum on the Sermon on the Mount. In it Ryrie that “Dispensationalists…believe that the full, non-fudging, unadjusted fulfillment of the Sermon relates in several ways to the kingdom of the Messiah, while at the same time not postponing the relevance of the Sermon to a future age.” (pp.100-101).
The sixth chapter on “Salvation in Dispensationalism” opens with of a detailing of the false charges of two or more ways of salvation which are commonly alleged against this theology. The author says that the major cause of the accusations are due to misconceptions on behalf of anti-dispensationalists. What is more, they themselves have sometimes given the impression that there have been more than one way of salvation (pp.106-107). Though Ryrie does concede that all parties “would do well to show in a systematic way how grace was displayed under the Mosaic Law, something that is not easy to do” (p.109. cf. pp.111-113). Ryrie’s argumentation in this chapter is one of the highlights of his book.
The next two chapters deal with ecclesiology and eschatology respectively. These are the traditional strong areas for dispensational theology, and the discussion here shows why the dispensational scheme is justified in its distinction of Israel from the Church, and the two programs of God within His grand purposes. The material on the so-called Progressive Dispensationalism which composes chapter 9 is one of the most comprehensive rebuttals of that position to have come from the pen of a normative dispensationalist. In it the author makes a good case that the “complementary hermeneutic” employed by these “progressives” is confused, and often fails to engage the text at the exegetical level (see esp. pp.176f). Ryrie implies (correctly in our view), that this new school of thought is inherently unstable and that it will inevitably merge into covenant premillennialism. At any rate, it makes enough changes of substance to be discounted as a dispensational system.
Chapter 10 is an overview of covenant theology, while chapter 11 focuses upon ultra-dispensationalism. Of covenant theology he writes that “The existence of the covenants [i.e. of works; of grace] is not found by an inductive examination of passages; it is a conclusion deduced from certain scriptural evidence.” (pp.189-190). The final chapter is a plea for integrity of scholarship and for fair representation of opposing views. The book is completed by a brief annotated bibliography and indexes.
2. Major Themes Discussed in the Book.
We are now ready to examine the main thematic contents within the book. We shall discuss these under the following headings:
a. Distinguishing Features
b. The Dispensations
d. Positive Contributions
e. Competing Systems
a. Distinguishing Features.
If a theological system is to have any validity it must have certain marks which distinguish it as a viable school of thought. These features become the rallying points for its friends, and, not unusually, the points of contention with those who oppose it. Ryrie did dispensationalist theology a big service when he detailed these distinctive ideas as they pertain to this system of theology. On pages 38ff. of the book Ryrie discusses the sine qua non or “absolutely indispensable part” of dispensationalism. As he lists them they are, i). A distinction between Israel and the Church; ii). A system of hermeneutics which is properly called “plain” or “literal”; and, iii). The glory of God being the underlying purpose of God in the world. What we shall here call “the doxological principle.”
i). A consistent distinction of Israel and the Church.
Ryrie writes, “This is probably the most basic theological test of whether or not a person is a dispensationalist, and it is undoubtedly the most practical and conclusive. The one who fails to distinguish Israel and the church will inevitably not hold to dispensational distinctions; and the one who does will.” (p.39). In another place he calls this “a vital part of dispensationalism” (p. 147). As this feature is universally reckoned to be the great delineation in this type of theology, we shall treat it at a little more length here, using Ryrie’s book as our guide.
The main reasons for drawing a distinction between Israel and the Church are:
Ÿ If, as Dispensationalists assert, Israel and the Church are distinct entities in Scripture (cf. 1 Cor. 10:32; Gal. 6:16; Rom. 9-11), then when God is dealing with one He cannot be dealing with the other. This is plain enough when one considers the nature and constitution of the New Testament Church (pp.124,127), and then remembers that the Seventieth Week of Daniel’s prophecy is yet to be fulfilled, and that it must be fulfilled upon literal Israel (Dan. 9:24).
Ÿ The Church is never called Israel (or “Jacob”) anywhere in the Bible. Everywhere those terms are used they apply to the Jews. Galatians 6:16, although often used to prove that they are the same, actually teaches a difference between “as many as walk according to this rule” and “the Israel of God.” (p.128).
Ÿ The Church did not come into existence until after the Ascension of Jesus Christ (cf. pp.123-125). Indeed, it could not (cf. Eph. 1:20-23; 4:7-11; Col. 1:18). It was on the Day of Pentecost that the Holy Spirit came to indwell believers and baptize them into the Body of Christ (John 7:39; Acts 1:5; 2:1-4 with 11:16).
Ÿ Although in the Church there is neither Jew nor Gentile, but God has made “one new man” out of believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:11-18), He has, nevertheless, “not cast away His people [Israel] whom He foreknew” (Rom. 11:2).
Ÿ The New Testament Church is liked to a chaste virgin in 2 Corinthians 11:2 (cf. Eph. 5:25f.), while the picture of Israel is of an adulterous wife (e.g. Jer. 3:14, 20; Hos. 1-2). They are not the same.
Ÿ Israel is addressed as a nation after the inception of the New Testament Church (Acts 3:12; 4:8,10; 5:21,31,35 etc.). And Paul says that to them belong “the covenants,… and the promises..” (Rom. 9:4). These include the irrevocable covenant made with Abraham in Genesis 15:8-21. (p.127).
Ÿ “The baptizing work of the Holy Spirit proves that the church did not begin until Pentecost.”(p.126). We know from Acts 11:15-16 that this did not happen until Acts 2 (cf. Jn. 7:39).
ii). Consistent Literal Interpretation.
Although the term “literal” always seems to raise the hackles of anti-dispensationalists, Ryrie is unashamed to employ it, citing it as “the strength of dispensational interpretation” (p.40). He also uses the synonyms normal, plain, and, most important in the technical sense, grammatical-historical (p.80). He also quotes some significant statements by covenant theologians to the effect that if a literal hermeneutic is used consistently across the breadth of Scripture, it would result in premillennialism (pp.83 [Hamilton], 85 [Berkhof], 86 [Allis]). It is the consistency with which the grammatical-historical interpretation is employed that makes one a dispensationalist (pp.20,40,82,84-85,146-147).
iii). The Doxological Principle.
In contrast to covenant theology, which, because of its slavish adherence to the “covenant of grace”, must view all things soteriologically, dispensationalists believe the over-arching plan of God is the promotion of His glory through multifaceted means. As the author puts it, “…covenant theology makes the all-encompassing means of manifesting the glory of God the plan of redemption.” (p.95. Emphasis his). But elsewhere he declares that, “The Bible itself clearly teaches that salvation, important and wonderful as it is, is not an end in itself but is rather a means to the end of glorifying God (Eph. 1:6,12,14).”(p.40).
b. The Dispensations.
Ryrie admits that some dispensationalists have placed “an incorrect emphasis on time” when defining dispensations (p.23). But he makes a good case for the fact that most of the dispensations are easily identifiable (p.47). Indeed, he shows that “at least three dispensations (as commonly understood in dispensational teaching) are mentioned by Paul.”(p.27). He cites Ephesians 1:10; 3:2; and Colossians 1:25-26. Although he never actually defines “Dispensationalism”, Ryrie states that a dispensation “is from God’s viewpoint an economy; from man’s, a responsibility; and in relation to progressive revelation, a stage in it.” (p.30). Notice that a period of time is not included in this description; this despite the frequent misrepresentations by covenant theologians. When identifying a new dispensation one is to look for a change in the way God is governing the world, and, a change in what God requires of men under that government. (p.33). A new dispensation can be easily recognized (p.47). The chart on page 71 is very helpful in this regard.
All too commonly dispensationalists are charged with teaching two (or more) ways of salvation (see pp.104-105). In times past this charge was perhaps understandable (cf. p.110), but nowadays there is no excuse for it. Besides, nondispensationalists have made unguarded statements regarding the Law, which if taken in isolation would teach two ways of salvation (p.107).
Belief in various administrations in man’s history does not mean one has to hold to differing ways of salvation. Part of the reason for this continued charge by non-dispensationalists is they cannot fathom how the dispensationalist can speak of a clear distinction between Law and Grace, especially when these words are used to designate major features of a particular administration (p.108). So Ryrie deals with the relation of law and grace, noting first that, “the giving of the law did not abrogate grace.”(p.110). He then shows how any system of theology must come to terms with the problem of how salvation was by grace under the Mosaic dispensation – including the purposes for the sacrificial system (pp.111-121). He notes that the Bible “does not always reveal grace in the same manner or in the same amount.” This ought to be evident from verses like John 1:17 and 1 Peter 1:10 (p.116). He further elucidates his meaning by asking how a person under the Law of Moses who was required to offer sacrifices and invest them with personal faith, could possibly be in any position to trust Jesus Christ. He writes, “For if he had sufficient insight, to the extent of seeing and believing on the finished work of Christ, then he would not have had to offer the sacrifices annually, for he would have rested confidently in what he saw in the prefiguration.”(p.119). This is a crucial point, and one which reveals the superiority of dispensationalism’s ability to cope with such questions compared with covenant theology. Thus, dispensationalism says that all people in all ages are saved by grace through faith by virtue of the crosswork of Jesus Christ. But the content of that faith does change depending on the progress of revelation.(pp.115,121).
d. Positive Contributions.
On page 76 the influential covenant premillennialist George Eldon Ladd is quoted as saying that, “It is doubtful if their has been any other circle of men who have done more by their influence in preaching, teaching and writing to promote a love for Bible study, a hunger for the deeper Christian life, a passion for evangelism and zeal for missions in the history of American Christianity.” Ryrie might well have added, “by their fruits you shall know them.” Nevertheless, this system of theology supplies the student with an orderly progressive revelation within which he can follow God’s strategy in history (pp.16-18). On this subject note the comment by Bernard Ramm recorded on pages 31-32. Ryrie concludes that only the dispensational system provides the unifying framework for the progress of revelation, while, at the same time delineating the phases of God’s dealings with man within that framework (p.32).
e. Competing Systems.
There is a great deal of space in the book given to competing non-dispensational systems; particularly covenant theology and progressive (better revisionist) dispensationalism. Included is also a brief refutation of ultradispensationalism.
i). Covenant Theology.
Throughout the book Ryrie interacts with covenant theology. Sometimes the interaction is negative due to the necessity of having to highlight certain caricatures (e.g. pp.12,61,210,212), and misrepresentations of dispensationalism from that quarter.
Leaving aside the caricatures, covenant theologians charge dispensationalists with teaching two or more ways of salvation (pp105-106). This has been addressed above, but suffice it to say here that the problem is in the minds of these men rather than an inherent quirk in dispensational theology. They further cite divisiveness as an unfortunate by-product (pp.72f.). In reply Ryrie points out that many leading covenant theologians have had to leave organizations which became corrupted by liberal ideas (p.73). Besides, “Schism and separatism are not synonymous concepts” (p.72). Ryrie frankly refutes this tag in the pages following. It might not be completely out of place though to say that, in general, many dispensationalist works do not show as much familiarity with the broad spectrum of theological opinion (including non-conservative), as those of Reformed theology. But even this, though it could be viewed as regrettable in cases, cannot be made into an identification of divisive tendencies.
Another criticism is that dispensationalism minimizes the cross, especially with its concept of the Church-age being an intercalation or parenthesis (pp.149-150). But Ryrie shows that this charge is baseless. First of all, “it is not based on quotations from dispensational writings.” (p.150). A forceful quotation from Chafer puts the false charge to flight (p.151). The burden of what Chafer says is that God has ordained many things based on what He knew a person or group would or would not do. Thus, He could offer the Kingdom at Christ’s first coming knowing full-well it would be rejected and the Church-age would commence. What is more, it is “particularly astounding that a Calvinist like Allis should stumble on this point when he would not even suggest questioning the sincerity of God in offering salvation to nonelect people.” (pp.151-152).
More false charges are recorded on page 35 (the compartmentalization of history); page 62 (novelty); page 91 (Bible disunity); and, pages 153-154 (despiritualizing the Kingdom). All of these charges are deftly met and debunked in the book.
As far as covenant theology itself is concerned, Ryrie notes that although they are forced to recognize at least two dispensations (and usually more), that these dispensational distinctions “are viewed as related to the theme of the unifying covenant of grace.” (p.16). He shows that the great unifying principle must perforce be soteriological (p.18), and that, because of this, the system is rigid in its approach to progressive revelation (pp.19,37,93-95). This slavish adherence to the covenant of grace means that covenant theologians must employ two kinds of hermeneutic; the one literal and the other spiritual or allegorical (p.84). Covenant theology comes to the Old Testament prophets with a determination to alter any prophetic statement, however plainly it is written, that threatens to conflict with their Covenant of grace; a covenant, moreover, that is not to be found on any page of the Bible. Ryrie devotes a separate chapter to covenant theology which sums up these and other matters.
ii). Progressive Dispensationalism.
Progressive Dispensationalism (PD) is the hybrid of concepts borrowed from both dispensation and non-dispensational schemes. The book refers to it in a number of places. For example, on page 18 it is noticed that PD includes the eternal realm in its concept of history. On page 88 Darrell Bock is quoted as declaring that progressives and covenant theologians (though not normative dispensationalists) share the same basic already/not yet hermeneutic. This means that they can no longer subscribe to the sine qua non of dispensationalism (p.89). The Church is not a parenthesis, so its distinction from Old Testament Israel becomes unclear to say the least (pp.134,174,178). In a chapter devoted to PD the author demonstrates the knock-on effects of the beliefs of this new movement. Among these effects are, redefining the concept of “mystery” so that it is not a truth previously unrevealed in former ages, but is instead a truth previously unrealized (p.132); by making the baptism with the Holy Spirit an Old Testament work (p.134). This has already led one PD proponent (David Turner) to call the Church the “new Israel” (p.135).
Finally, progressives think that Christ is now seated upon the throne of David (pp.135-136,142). In other words, the promised Davidic reign has already been inaugurated! These things considered, it is hard to see progressive dispensationalism as anything else but a more literal form of covenant premillennialism, and not a relative of dispensationalism at all.
The book, Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie continues to serve a vital purpose in our day. It presents an effective apology for and clarification of, the dispensational system of theology. It shows how the alternatives have major problems which are many times papered over with rhetoric. And it demonstrates that dispensationalists have nothing to be ashamed of when they seek to apply a consistent plain-sense hermeneutic to all parts of Holy Scripture.