Essay / Theology

Ryrie The Communicator

The name Charles Caldwell Ryrie calls to mind a very conservative theologian who has specialized in dispensationalism, insisted on inerrancy, and gotten involved in theological dust-ups like the one between “lordship salvation” vs. “free grace.” One could easily get the image of hard-headed fundamentalist fighter. I’ve never met Ryrie, and don’t know anything about his personality. But when you review Ryrie’s publications, what really stands out about him is that he’s a born communicator.

His first publications were 1949’s Easy Object Lessons and 1954’s Easy-to-Give Object Lessons, and his most recent publication is 2005’s Ryrie’s Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine. If those are the bookends of his writing career (so far), his basic mission is evident: to explain, expound, describe, and apply basic Christian doctrine in an accessible manner. In the 56 years between those publications, Ryrie has published a series of books that are in keeping with that fundamental orientation. Unless you put all his work under the banner of clear and popular doctrinal instruction, you run the risk of misinterpreting his goal.

Ryrie is now 85 years old, and still doing some teaching, as far as I know (here’s a 2007 shot of him teaching pastors at Philadelphia Biblical University). According to Paul P. Enns’ entry on him in Elwell’s Handbook of Evangelical Theologians, he attended Frank Gaebelein’s Stony Brook School on Long Island, a boarding prep school founded on evangelical convictions. He graduated from Haverford College in Philadelphia in 1946 with a math major, Phi Beta Kappa. Lewis Sperry Chafer, a friend of his family, had already talked him into pursuing full-time Christian ministry, and by 1947 he had a ThM from Dallas Seminary. He wrote his ThM thesis on “The Relation of the New Covenant to Premillenialism,” so his dispensational credentials and his interests in large-scale theological systematics were already in place.

There are a few surprises in the next stage of Ryrie’s educational path, surprising at least for those who have Ryrie tucked away mentally in the “conservative dispensational” cubbyhole. First, he aspired to study with Carl Henry for his PhD, but this was exactly when Henry was on his way from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary to the brand new Fuller Seminary in California. So Ryrie returned to Dallas Seminary to complete a ThD by 1949 with thesis on “The Basis of the Premillenial Faith.” Then he ended up in California after all, teaching at Westmont College for two years, and even chairing the department of Biblical Studies and Philosophy after a faculty shake-up. Finally, he headed off to Edinburgh for a PhD, studying with the extremely Scottish trio of Matthew Black, JHS Burleigh, and Thomas Torrance. Most people probably don’t think of names like Carl Henry, Westmont College, and T. F. Torrance when they think of Charles C. Ryrie.

The remainder of his career, though, is what forms his enduring image as a theologian: decades of teaching systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, plus years as president of Philadelphia College of the Bible. He’s written a Biblical Theology of the New Testament (1959), popular works on the Grace of God (1963) and The Holy Spirit (1965), and the defining Dispensationalism Today (1965, then updated for subsequent “todays”). His 1969 Balancing the Christian Life became the subject of the “lordship” controversy in the 80s, and he wrote So Great Salvation (1989) to extend and clarify his position.

In 1972 he published his Survey of Bible Doctrine, and then 1986 he brought out Basic Theology, which is a simpler and more popular presentation of the main points of Christian theology. It is indeed a remarkably clear and straightforward presentation, useful in congregations and at levels that the average systematic theology could never reach. With very few lapses, it is written in simple English with no theological jargon. Ryrie the communicator is not shy about teaching his readers some new and formidable words, but he doesn’t presuppose any technical vocabulary for the beginner. This is my favorite Ryrie book. Though I don’t agree with everything in it, and even the things I agree with I would say rather differently, Basic Theology succeeds admirably at a task very few professional theologians are even attempting: communicating to ordinary Christians.

The book that has probably carried Ryrie’s influence farthest is the Ryrie Study Bible which premiered in 1976. Ryrie must have grown up on the Scofield study Bible, but what he produced is certainly not a bigger, updated, or more systematically dispensational version of Scofield. Instead, Ryrie tried to make his explanations more clear, and his notes briefer and more directly exegetical. As Enns points out, even charismatics, whose views Ryrie argues against elsewhere, have found the Ryrie Study Bible a reliable companion for Bible study.

That’s Ryrie the explainer. From Easy Object Lessons to his Practical Guide to Communicating Bible Doctrine, the man has spent a lifetime making Christian doctrine clear.

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