Book Review: Charles Ryrie’s “Dispensationalism”

Recently, I was having a discussion with a friend at church about our favorite books, and in that discussion, I had mentioned the word “dispensationalism”. After finishing my thought, my friend asked “What is dispensationalism?” – to which I was taken aback. It was at that moment I realized I needed a refresher course on the subject. I knew what I meant in my scattered thoughts but I couldn’t provide a definition, let alone an explanation, of the concept. Before I could finished disgorging the word soup stirring in my brain, I resolved to do some studying  and come to a formal definition that I could easily remember.

God’s providence is an interesting thing, I noticed, as I looked through the bookstore and lo and behold, a book simply titled “Dispensationalism” by one Charles Ryrie. Ryrie, who actually just past away one year ago (Feb. 2016), is probably most well known for his Study Bible, which has sold more than 2 million copies, including more than 10,000 of his notes on the scriptures. In a memorial written by Dallas Theological Seminary staff (where Ryrie spent the majority of his career working), Ryrie is credited with the following acclaims (among others)

  1. “So many lives are the better because of his gifts and his faithfulness. Not the least of which is his significant role in promoting the racial integration of Dallas Theological Seminary.”
  2. “A giant of the faith.”
  3. “A master at biblical and theological synthesis. He had the unusually rare gift of being able to state complex theological ideas in succinct statements. All of us are indebted to his efforts to articulate and defend dispensational premillennialism.”

After reading Ryrie’s “Dispensationalism”, I wholeheartedly agree with the third claim.

In this post, I will briefly highlight 3 major points of this book, to both highlight Ryrie’s expertise on the subject matter, as well as his skill in writing succinct and yet rich arguments and explanations. My hope is that the reader of this post would seriously consider reading this book and benefitting from it as I have.

A) What is a dispensation?

In a length limited blog post, I can’t hope to treat a formal definition with the same detail and care as Dr Ryrie, but what I can provide is his own concise definition – “A dispensation is a distinguishable economy in the outworking of God’s purpose”. Ryrie goes on to provide a more detailed definition, quoted from Paul David Nevin’s dissertation –

“A dispensation is God’s distinctive method of governing mankind or a group of men during a period of human history, marked by a crucial event, test, failure, and judgment. From the divine standpoint, it is a stewardship, a rule of life, or a responsibility for managing God’s affairs in His house. From the historical standpoint, it is a stage in the progress of revelation.”

Dispensationalism, then, is the belief that human history has played out  over several distinct dispensations, or economies, of God, as told in the scripture, and for man, outlines a certain responsibility to God. Ryrie goes further and defines 3 sine qua non (or fundamental tenets) of dispensationalism –

  1. “The dispensationalists keeps Israel and the church distinct”
  2. “The distinction between Israel and the church is born out of a system of hermeneutics that is usually called literal interpretation.”
  3. “The underlying purpose of God in the world…[is]…the glory of God.”

Interesting to note what Ryrie does not consider a sine qua non of dispensationalism – the definition, number, or bookmark locations of the dispensations! He goes to great length to stress that while important to understand the bible and the precise economies of God and their traits, it matters not to the essence of dispensationalism to have a unified formal definition of the dispensations, nor does it indicate a weakness in the position!

Ryrie does, however, argue for 7 dispensations (which he deems the classic, normative dispensationalism) defined by the following –

  1. Innocency
    • Genesis 1:3-3:6
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Keep garden, Do not eat one fruit, Fill and subdue earth, fellowship with God
    • Judgment: Curses, and physical and spiritual death
  2. Conscience
    • Genesis 3:7-8:14
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Do good
    • Judgment: Flood
  3. Civil Government
    • Genesis 8:15-11:9
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Fill earth, capital punishment
    • Judgment: Forced scattering by confusion of languages
  4. Patriarchal Rule
    • Genesis 11:10-Exodus 18:27
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Stay in Promised Land, Believe and Obey God
    • Judgment: Egyptian bondage and wilderness wanderings
  5. Mosaic Law
    • Exodus 19:1-Acts 1:26
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Keep the law, walk with God
    • Judgment: Captivities
  6. Grace
    • Acts 2:1-Revelation 19:21
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Believe on Christ, walk with Christ
    • Judgment: Death, loss of rewards
  7. Millenium
    • Revelation 20:1-15
    • Man’s Responsibilities: Believe and obey Christ and His government
    • Judgment: Death, Great White Throne Judgment

B) Answering Objections to Dispensationalism

This book answers much more than 2, but for brevity, I provide 2 objections that are probably the most common, and Ryrie’s answers to them.

  1. Objection #1 – Dispensationalism teaches two ways of salvation.
    • Ryrie’s answer – “The charge of the covenant theologian that dispensationalism teaches two ways of salvation is often based on what he thinks ought to be the logical teaching of dispensationalism rather than what is the actual teaching of dispensationalism…Dispensationalism alone among theological systems teaches both the antithetical nature of law and grace and the truth of grace under the law (and, incidentally, law under grace)…If by “ways” of salvation is meant different content of faith, then dispensationalism does teach various “ways” because the scriptures reveal differing contents for faith in the progressive nature of God’s revelation to mankind. But if by “ways” is meant more than one basis or means of salvation, then dispensationalism most emphatically does not teach more than one way, for salvation has been, is, and always will be based on the substitutionary death of Jesus Christ”.
  2. Objection #2 – Dispensationalism is a recent development, and therefore untrue.
    • Ryrie’s answer – “The fact that something was taught in the first century does not make it right (unless taught in the canonical Scriptures), and the fact that something was not taught until the 19th century [as Dispensationalism was] does not make it wrong, unless, of course, it is unscriptural”. He goes on to use a quote from Calvin as applicable to this argument – “The charge of newness was leveled long ago at the doctrine of the Reformers. Calvin answered it with characteristic straightforwardness, and his answer is one that could be used to defend dispensationalism equally well against the same charge: “”First, by calling it ‘new’ they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty…that it has lain long unknown and buried is the fault of man’s impiety. Now when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claims to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery.””

C) Why is the dispensationalist system important to understand and believe?

In the opening chapter, Ryrie lays out what he thinks is the importance of the dispensational system – “[it], then, claims to be a help in supplying the answer to the need for biblical distinctions, in offering a satisfying philosophy of history, and in employing a consistently normal principle of interpretation. These are the basic areas in proper understanding of the Bible. If dispensationalism has the answers, then it is the most helpful tool in consistent biblical interpretation. If not, it ought to be minimized or discarded.”

It is with this last quote my own experience resonates. As a young believer, I read the bible in sheer confusion and disarray, often limiting myself to the Pauline epistles, as being “the most applicable” to my life. But as I matured in the faith, I realized that the claims that scripture makes about its holistic life transforming qualities (2 Tim 3:16-17) necessitate not only that I read, but that I come to understand what’s happening in the other 90% of my bible. Dispensationalism, for me, is a useful tool in helping to read and study the scriptures. It provides a lens with which I can consistently read and apply the word of God (yes, even in the Old Testament!) with a literal (or normal, or plain) hermeneutic.

My Review: Must Read!

Ryrie’s “Dispensationalism” (1995 updated version) was a dense read at times for a layperson like myself, but slowly working through it has been both an intellectual workout and a great help to further understand, and appreciate, the system of doctrine I was raised in (and wholeheartedly agree with!). I am realizing now, more than ever, it is important to have strict and formal definitions of things, as mankind becomes more and more postmodern, where even dictionary definitions of words are bent and mended for the user’s whims. All the more, in our theological understanding, to rigorously define terms, for our understanding of God, who He is, and what He has done for us, is germane to our growth in Christ. I encourage all to read this book – I consider it a “must read”!