I was not raised in the cradle of evangelicalism.
So, I was in for a confusing shock as a young person in college at a Bible study meeting. An engineering student next to me, wearing blue jeans, flannel shirt, and an old pair of sneakers, was puzzled over a passage of the Bible. To find an answer, he began to read from the notes of his new Charles Ryrie Study Bible. Across from the engineer sat a young brunette woman, dressed to the “nines,” propped up in her high heels and adorned with plenty of makeup. Though evidently they were friends, she nevertheless visibly glared at the engineer, as he spoke for about five minutes. Suddenly, this woman, who later told me, she was the daughter of an executive at Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), sat up straight in her chair and challenged the engineering student. “That is not what my Bible teaches! Who does this ,’Charles Ryrie,’ think he is?”
The atmosphere in the room had become so thick, you could cut it with a knife.
After a few minutes of rigorous back and forth, the casual engineering student and the dolled up brunette finally made peace with one another, but I sat there stunned. I had no idea what kind of mess I just found myself in. I had no clue what these folks were talking about. I had no idea who this ‘Charles Ryrie’ even was. But I was determined now to find out.
Charles C. Ryrie taught for years at Dallas Theological Seminary, best known for his amazingly popular Ryrie Study Bible, first published in 1978. Ryrie died on February 16, 2016, at 90 years old.
In the twentieth century, Charles Ryrie was among the most influential conservative evangelical Bible scholars on the American scene. I would consider him to be one of the last, great classic dispensationalist theologians. Before Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novel series overtook the church by storm, there was the Ryrie Study Bible. Classic dispensationalism championed ideas still commonly taught in many evangelical circles today, particularly the importance of a literal, futuristic interpretation of Bible prophecy, and the distinction between Israel and the church, as one of the primary interpretive keys for understanding the unity of the Bible. Is there a common thread of logic that unites the Old and New Testaments together, and the Bible’s vision of the future? Ryrie sought to tackle these type of grand questions.
Among Charles Ryrie’s mentors, dispensationalists commonly held a hard and fast distinction between the term “kingdom of God” and the similar phrase used in the Gospel of Matthew, “kingdom of Heaven.” Some even refused to utter the Lord’s Prayer as a part of corporate worship, believing that the Lord’s Prayer belonged strictly to a future dispensation. Charles Ryrie began to question such rigid, hyper-systematic interpretations of the Bible, that were originally intended to combat the prevailing liberal Protestant theologies of the early 20th century. But classic dispensationalism also rubbed against the mindset of those older conservative evangelicals who embraced covenant theology. The “iron sharpening iron” effect of these different schools of theology eventually caused the more conciliatory Ryrie Study Bible to supersede (pun intended!) the older Scofield Reference Bible that dominated previous generations in many Bible-believing churches.
Though largely relegated now to the world of late night, cable TV programs and “bible prophecy” websites, classic dispensationalism is lagging in evangelical Bible colleges and seminaries today. By the time one of Ryrie’s students, popular pastor and writer, Chuck Swindoll, became seminary president in the 1990s, even stalwart institutions like Dallas Theological Seminary had given themselves over to a less combative, and less systematically demanding form of progressive dispensationalism. In progressive dispensationalism, the place of Israel in prophecy is still on people’s minds, but the doctrine of vastly separate covenants between Israel and the church is questioned now.
Though recognized as a champion of a classic, yet more irenic, dispensationalism, Ryrie still managed to be in the center of some controversies, such as over “Lordship salvation” and the charismatic movement. On a personal level, students of Charles Ryrie remember him as being firm, academically rigorous, yet exceptionally gracious, with an impressive zeal for evangelism, actively demonstrating a love for people that they might enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ. The warm piety and personal integrity of Charles Ryrie, and his love for the Bible, were always highly respected and stood out even among those who disagreed with certain details of his systematic theology.
Young Millennial Christians have never heard of Charles Ryrie, and thus the Ryrie Study Bible has lost its popularity for the new generation. Nevertheless, the influence of this forceful and yet gentle scholar of the Bible remains within the evangelical church, his legacy encouraging believers today to grow in their knowledge, love, and obedience towards the Scriptures.