Book Write-Up: Dispensationalism Today, by Charles Ryrie

Charles Caldwell Ryrie.  Dispensationalism Today.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1976.

In Dispensationalism Today, dispensationalist Charles Ryrie addresses what he believes are unfair misconceptions about dispensationalism.

Here are some items:

A.  Let’s start with a definition of dispensationalism.  On pages 211-212, Ryrie highlights three areas of disagreement between dispensationalists and non-dispensationalists:

(1) We believe in the clear distinction between Israel and the Church; (2) we believe that normal or plain interpretation of the Bible should be applied consistently in all its parts; and (3) we avow that the unifying principle of the Bible is the glory of God and that this is worked out in 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.

For more information about characteristics of classic dispensationalism, see my posts here and here.

B.  An argument against dispensationalism is that it is relatively new on the Christian scene.  It supposedly originated in the nineteenth century.  If it is the truth, critics inquire, then why did previous generations of Christians not believe that way?

Ryrie responds to this argument in a variety of ways: new does not mean untrue, and dispensationalism’s rival Covenant Theology is also relatively new on the scene.

One argument Ryrie makes, though, is that we see dispensationalist-like statements throughout Christian history.  For example, Ryrie quotes Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho 92.  Justin Martyr was a Christian thinker who lived in the second century C.E.  In that passage, Justin Martyr notes that Enoch, Noah, and Noah’s sons pleased God without being circumcised or observing the Sabbath.  By contrast, according to Justin Martyr, “those who lived between the time of Abraham and of Moses [were] justified by circumcision and the other ordinances—-to wit, the Sabbath, and sacrifices, and libations, and offerings…” (whatever translation Ryrie is using).  For Justin Martyr, God worked in different ways at different times, which is what dispensationalists allege.

I have two points to make.  First of all, were Israelites between the time of Abraham and Moses justified by circumcision, as Justin Martyr says?  Paul in Romans 4 stresses that Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised, which means that Abraham was not justified by circumcision.  When Justin Martyr says “between the time of Abraham and of Moses”, does he exclude Abraham from that?  Does that technically mean the time right after the time of Abraham, up to and including the time of Moses?

Second, Ryrie could have made this chapter better by addressing what church fathers believed about Israel and the church.  That, after all, is a crucial issue in controversies about dispensationalism.  Did church fathers think that the church was the new Israel, which runs contrary to classic dispensationalism?  To what extent did they believe that God still had a plan for physical Israel?  There were some church fathers who had a physical, literal, earthly conception of the millennium (i.e., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus), like dispensationalists do.  Irenaeus arguably believed that God still had a plan for physical Israel in that millennium, and that belief would overlap with classic dispensationalism (Against Heresies V, Chapter 35).  At the same time, Irenaeus also differed from classic dispensationalism: he believed that the church would suffer during the end times rather than being raptured to heaven before the Tribulation; he thought that the land promises that God made to Abraham (Genesis 15) would ultimately be for the church, unlike classic dispensationalists, who think that they are for physical Israel (Against Heresies V, Chapter 32).

C.  Ryrie argues against the idea that dispensationalism believes people were saved by works under the Old Covenant.  For Ryrie, people have always been saved through the blood of Christ.  They have also been justified by faith, but that means faith in what God has revealed to them.  Like many classic dispensationalists, Ryrie rejects the idea that people in Old Testament times clearly knew and placed their faith in the truth that Christ would come and atone for their sins.  For Ryrie, their “faith” was their response to God’s revelation to them at that point, not belief in the Gospel as Christians understand it.  As Ryrie asks, if the Old Testament saints truly believed that the blood of Christ was what atoned for their sin, why would they continue offering animal sacrifices for atonement?

Ryrie mentions John 8:56 when discussing the view of Covenant Theologians that Old Testament saints did have a clear understanding of what God would do in Christ.  That passage affirms that Abraham saw Christ’s day and was glad.  Unfortunately, Ryrie does not offer an alternative interpretation of that verse, one that would be compatible with his dispensationalist position.  Could one legitimately conclude that Abraham may have foreseen Christ’s day, while not knowing all of the details about Christ’s atonement for the sins of the world?  Dispensationalists may have a point when they contend that Old Testament saints did not fully understand God’s plan.  Paul refers to mysteries that were unknown up to the time of the first century (i.e., Romans 16:25; Ephesians 3:3-5, 8-10; Colossians 1:26-27).  That invites the question of how much Abraham could see when he foresaw Christ’s day.

Ryrie believes that grace did exist in Old Testament times; yet, he also thinks that the New Testament took that to a whole new level.  Why else would John 1:17 say that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ?  There does appear to be a contrast between the two.

Yet, Ryrie also seems to divorce the law under the Old Covenant from Old Covenant salvation.  The law, according to Galatians 3, did not nullify God’s promise to Abraham concerning justification by faith but was added because of transgressions: the law did not nullify grace, but it placed Israel under a system of discipline until Christ came.  Ryrie also appears to argue that the Old Testament sacrifices were unrelated to (or inadequate for) personal salvation but had more to do with restoring a sinful Israelite’s position in the ancient Israelite theocracy.  These arguments may suggest that, for Ryrie, the law had more of a this-life focus and was unrelated to eternity or the afterlife.  But was the law unrelated to whether one enters a good or bad afterlife?  If so, then why does Paul argue throughout Romans that Christ redeemed people from the condemnation of the law?  That seems to suggest that, for Paul at least, the law was relevant to eternity, not just this-life.  If the law was unrelated to one’s eternal destiny, what exactly was Christ redeeming people from?

D.  Ryrie addresses the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Heaven.  For Ryrie, Jesus offered the Kingdom to Israel: Jesus would restore the Davidic dynasty and inaugurate a time of paradise, if Israel would accept him.  Israel did not accept him, and so the Kingdom has been delayed.  Now, according to Ryrie, we are in the time of the church.

Ryrie still believes that the church is relevant to the Kingdom of God.  Believers, after all, will rule the earth during Christ’s millennial reign.  The church is not the Kingdom, as some Christians believe, but the church will participate in God’s kingdom, which is God’s larger plan for the world.

Yet, Ryrie has to deal with passages that appear to suggest that the Kingdom is still a reality during the time of the church, after it has been supposedly delayed.  Paul in Romans 14:17 says that the Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.  Colossians 1:3 affirms that Christians have been transferred from the realm of darkness to the realm of God’s son.

Ryrie argues that there are two kinds of kingdom, when it comes to God: a spiritual kingdom of God’s rule that has long been around, and the earthly Davidic kingdom that Jesus was offering Israel.  The latter, for Ryrie, is the kingdom that the prophets predicted.

In my opinion, Ryrie makes good points about the Kingdom.  I agree with him that Jesus probably was offering Israel something that was new, rather than something that had always been around.  I just wonder, though, if Ryrie is being too one-sided in associating the Kingdom Jesus preached primarily with the restoration of Israel and the Davidic monarchy.  Could the church be experiencing eschatological Kingdom blessings in the here and now?  Could the Kingdom relate to the subordination of the demonic, or conversion, not just Israel’s earthly blessings?

Ryrie also argues against the claim that dispensationalists believe that the cross of Christ would have been unnecessary for atonement, had Israel accepted Jesus’ kingdom offer.  For Ryrie, dispensationalists believe that the cross would have still been necessary for atonement, even had Israel accepted the Kingdom.  Ryrie was not overly specific about how this would have played out, though.  If Israel accepted Jesus, would Jesus have still been put to death (i.e., by the Romans, without support from Jewish religious authorities)?  Does Ryrie believe that the apostles were offering the Kingdom to Israel again after Jesus died and rose again, which some hyper-dispensationalists believe is going on in Acts?

E.  Ryrie argues against hyper-dispensationalism.  For Ryrie, the church began at Pentecost.  Hyper-dispensationalists, by contrast, have tended to argue that the age of the church began sometime later in the Book of Acts.  They also believe that Paul’s prison epistles are the only parts of the Bible that are directly relevant to people today.

Ryrie made important points.  For example, Ryrie notes that the church was around in Acts prior to the various points that hyper-dispensationalists propose as the beginning of the church age (yet, as he points out, hyper-dispensationalists differentiate that church from the church of the church age).  Hyper-dispensationalists see Paul as the one who introduced and inaugurated the church age and the revelation of mysteries accompanying it.  Ryrie argues, by contrast, that Paul’s Gospel was consistent with the Gospel that the other apostles were already preaching (Galatians 1); that Paul says that the mystery of Christ was revealed to the apostles and prophets, not just himself (Ephesians 3:5); and that the mystery of Christ in you was something Jesus discussed with his apostles much earlier than Paul, in John 14.  (There are hyper-dispensationalists, by the way, who do not believe that John 14 is relevant to now.)

I have been reading Cornelius Stam’s Things that Differ.  Ryrie includes Stam among the hyper-dispensationalists.  Stam is not always that rigid.  For example, in my reading of Stam today, Stam was saying that Peter, in preaching to the Gentiles prior to the time of Paul, was actually anticipating the coming church age.  Stam believes that Paul was the main figure of the church age, perhaps even the administrator of that dispensation and the inaugurator of it.  Still, Stam acknowledges some precursor to it.

Ryrie’s book is informative, but sometimes I wanted more information.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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