Book Review: Dispensationalism by Charles C. Ryrie


Why this book?

I don’t consider myself a dispensationalist.  I’m not sure what I consider myself, but not a dispensationalist.  For one thing, I think dispensational premillennialism is a little silly.  It complicates the Bible’s teaching on the end times in an attempt to be clear.  Certain interpretations of Old and New Testament texts seem farfetched.  And I don’t think a “literal first” approach to hermeneutics is always the best way to interpret the Bible.

So why did I read this book?  One might assume that it was just to gain a better understanding of dispensationalism in order to further discredit it as a theological system.  But in truth, this was not the main reason I chose to read Dispensationalism by Charles C. Ryrie.  The largest factor contributing to my desire to read this book was the quote on the front cover.  It says, “No one, whether friend or foe of dispensationalism, can avoid consideration of this important work.”  And with that little bit of marketing, I thought I’d check out the theological system known as dispensationalism from one of its prime proponents, Mr. Ryrie.

It’s a Good Book.

I have to say that this is a pretty good book.  Ryrie’s explanation of dispensationalism clears up several misconceptions that I had been taught about the beliefs of dispensationalists over the years.  Ryrie does a good job of creating a level playing field upon which everyone can interact with dispensational teachings, whether for or against.  And that’s good because this is a family fight so to speak.  I don’t doubt for a second that normative dispensationalists are evangelicals and Christians.  And even if I disagree with them, they’re brothers.  So a level playing field is a good thing.

Central Teachings of Dispensationalism

To quote Ryrie, the three central teachings of dispensationalism are:

1. We believe in the clear and consistent distinction between Israel and the church.

2. We affirm that normal, or plain, interpretation of the Bible should be applied consistently to all its parts.

3. We avow that the unifying principle of the Bible is the glory of God and that this is worked out several ways – the program of redemption, the program for Israel, the punishment of the wicked, the plan for the angels, and the glory of God revealed through nature (247).

I disagree with Ryrie on all these points.

1. Truthfully I do see a distinction between Israel and the church, but not to the extent that dispensationalists do.  I think both groups will share the same future, not separate futures.  “The summing up of all things in Christ” seems in my mind to do more justice to the Old Testament’s prophecies and promises than does a future, earthly, millennial kingdom.

2. I don’t think that literal interpretation is always the method of interpretation that the text demands.  Sometimes an overly literal approach creates more confusion than clarity.  And it wasn’t the hermeneutical method always employed by the apostles.  I am by no means claiming to be an apostle, but I do think it’s suspect to say that they can interpret the Old Testament one way, but we must interpret it another way.

3. I think that the unifying principle in the Bible is the glory of God through Christ, not the glory of God through multiple means in the various dispensations.  I do see evidence for different dispensations, or periods of time, or economies within the Bible, but I think they all led up to, and were summed up in Christ.

I agree with Ryrie on Some Things

I agree with Ryrie that the extent to which the Old Testament saints understood that their salvation was through Christ was hazy at best.  However, my understanding of salvation in the “other dispensations” is still different from Ryrie’s.  He says that “Jesus Christ was not the conscious object of their faith, though they were saved by faith in God as He had revealed Himself principally through the sacrifices that He instituted as a part of the Mosaic Law” (139).  Conversely, I believe that OT saints understood that their salvation was a result of God’s ability to pardon sin based upon an individual’s faith.  Salvation was a result of faith in God’s ability to pardon, which was later shown to be through Christ (Rom 3:23-26).  Progressively OT saints did understood that this would be through the Messiah, but obviously they didn’t understand the part that the Messiah would fully play in this pardoning with equal clarity in all ages.  So I agree with Ryrie that the OT understanding of salvation through Christ was hazy, but I still conceive of it differently than he does.

I also agree with Ryrle that the validity of dispensationalism and covenantalism should be judged true or false based only upon the Bible, and not upon other factors.  Oftentimes both sides are disparaged due to false accusations and the use of straw-man apologetics.

Middle Ground

In the end, I think dispensationalism is short-sided.  It has a lot to teach us, but it is short-sided.  And by the way, so is really dogmatic covenantalism.  Both sides have things to teach us, but ultimately they both need to give a little bit and come towards the middle.  The “middle” is not sacred because it is the middle, but in this case the “middle” seems to be more Biblical, and thus better.

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2 Responses to “Book Review: Dispensationalism by Charles C. Ryrie”

  1. Farmer James July 7, 2012 at 1:45 am #

    I’m currently reading this book. It’s really hard for me to buy into dispensationalism, but my church and pastor is really serious about it and recommended it to me. I wish there wasn’t a dispensationalism vs covenant debate. It’s part of my church’s doctrine, which sometimes gets to me. I like your reply to #3. Thank you so much for this review.

  2. Adam June 18, 2014 at 10:07 pm #

    Just finished the book. I found it to be extremely helpful. Ben, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that even the Apostles did not always treat Scripture with a literal interpretation. Would you explain that? A good point Ryrie makes is that the prophecies of Christ’s first coming were fulfilled literally (born of a virgin, born in Bethlehem, etc). Why should prophecies of His second coming be treated differently?
    And your comment, “Truthfully I do see a distinction between Israel and the church, but not to the extent that dispensationalists do,” does not make sense to me. Are Israel and the Church the same or are they different? To say that they share the same future does not really answer the question, at least not in my opinion. They are different but share the same fate, is that what you mean? Help me out here.
    Why covenant theologians and non-dispensationalists lay so much stress on the fact that “there is only one people of God” does not make sense to me. Is there a sentence somewhere in Scripture I am missing? What do we do with pre-Israelite believers such as Enoch and Job? Can we really make a case that they were part of the “Church” in the Old Testament, if a case can be made at all? It sounds all well and good and clean to make the “one-people-of-God-and-that’s-final” statement, but is it truly biblical, or does it just make us happy? Ryrie, in my opinion, makes a great case for making distinctions.

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