In the preface to his celebrated Study Bible, Charles Ryrie wrote, “The Bible is the greatest of all books; to study it is the noblest of all pursuits; to understand it, the highest of all goals.” On Feb. 16, after a lifetime of studying and teaching the Scriptures that he loved so well, Dr. Ryrie slipped quietly into the presence of their Author. He was 90 years old.
Charles Ryrie was born on March 2, 1925, to John and Elizabeth Ryrie, and raised in Alton, Illinois. He was a fifth-generation attendee of First Baptist Church of Alton. At a very early age, Charles trusted Christ as Savior under the influence of his father. Although banking was his profession, John Ryrie had a passion for teaching the Bible and served his church as Sunday School teacher and superintendent. Clearly, this passion rubbed off on young Charles, who would later become the most iconic dispensational theologian of his generation.
After graduating as valedictorian of his class in 1942, Ryrie spent a semester studying at Stony Brook boarding school under Frank Gaebelein, and then enrolled at Haverford College. He expected to follow his father into the banking industry, and so declared mathematics as his major. God, however, had other plans for Ryrie’s life. In April 1943, Ryrie had an opportunity to visit with Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder and president of Dallas Theological Seminary. During that visit, Ryrie felt a decisive pull toward full-time Christian ministry. In a 2012 interview with Paul Weaver, he reflected on this pivot point: “That night I felt a call to ministry. . . . We talked and prayed. I date that night as two things, a dedication of life and call to Christian service.”
Ryrie left Haverford College and enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary, graduating with a ThM in 1947 and a ThD in 1949. (Although he did not complete his undergraduate work at Haverford, the college did confer a baccalaureate degree on Ryrie in 1946, partially on the basis of his graduate work at Dallas.) He later pursued a second doctorate at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with his PhD in 1953. Throughout his studies, he excelled academically and consistently distinguished himself as a sharp thinker and indefatigable student.
Charles Ryrie is remembered chiefly as an educator, writer, and theologian. During the course of his career he taught Biblical studies and systematic theology at Dallas Theological Seminary, Word of Life Bible Institute, Westmont College, and Criswell College. He also served as president of Philadelphia College of Bible (now Cairn University) from 1958 to 1962. Veteran Regular Baptist minister and educator David Wilcox recalls his studies under Ryrie with fondness:
When many academics loved the obscure, Dr. Ryrie taught me to take the complex details of theology and communicate them in an understandable way. Without any question, as the champion of dispensational truth he stands head and shoulders above all others in our generation. My wife and I were part of a small group at the Dallas home of Dr. and Mrs. Wendell Johnston and Dr. Ryrie was there too. He and I sat alone in the living room while all the others gathered in the family room in another part of the house. I will never forget his gentleness, humility and kindness as he credited the Lord with all praise and glory for anything that he may have accomplished in his life. I love the man. He was a master teacher and a gentleman.
As a writer, Ryrie produced an impressive body of work, the variety of which is staggering. He wrote on Biblical theology, systematic theology, spiritual maturity, isagogics, pedagogy, and theological method. He produced a perennially popular study Bible. He wrote commentaries on Acts, Revelation, and the Thessalonian epistles. His many published articles covered a whole host of issues, including controversial social concerns like capital punishment, civil disobedience, divorce and remarriage, and the problem of poverty. In the academic realm, characterized as it is by specialization and fragmentation, such a varied output is exceedingly rare. To cover this much ground with the competence, comprehensiveness, and clarity that characterized all of Ryrie’s writings is even rarer.
It was in his capacity as a theologian, however, that Ryrie truly set himself apart. As a spokesman for traditional dispensationalism, Ryrie was utterly unmatched. Prior to the publication of Dispensationalism Today, many works had been written from a dispensational perspective, but relatively few had been written to explain the essence of the dispensational system itself. Ryrie’s work rectified this. It provided a careful exposition of the dispensational system, and also furnished a powerful apologetic for why Bible-believing Christians should prefer it over competing theological systems. Ryrie argued persuasively that dispensationalism springs naturally from the consistent use of a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic, and that the literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic itself is rooted in a proper understanding of God’s character:
If God is the originator of language and if the chief purpose of originating it was to convey His message to humanity, then . . . it must follow that He would use language and expect people to understand it in its literal, normal, and plain sense. The Scriptures, then, cannot be regarded as some special use of language so that in the interpretation of these Scriptures some deeper meaning of the words must be sought.
His work on premillennialism (the topic of his ThD dissertation at Dallas) deployed a similar argument. Ryrie acknowledged that premillennialism was the accepted view of the early church, but this alone was not enough to settle the matter. More importantly, he argued, Christians should accept premillennialism on the basis of God’s faithfulness:
Altogether they [the Biblical covenants] form an harmonious whole and an unshakeable basis upon which premillennialism rests. And underlying it all is the very nature of God Himself in that what He has plainly spoken He will do, and what He has assuredly promised He will perform. This is the basis of the premillennial faith.
Ryrie’s theological influence also extended to other controversial topics. He was an important critic of the charismatic movement, neoorthodoxy, neoevangelicalism, lordship salvation, and Reformed theology. And yet, despite having taken strong stances on so many controversial topics, Ryrie always displayed an irenic spirit. He was never quarrelsome or mean-spirited, and he judiciously refrained from ad hominem arguments. Reflecting on this, Mike Stallard, professor of systematic theology at Baptist Bible Seminary, writes, “In my presence, I never heard Dr. Ryrie make a disparaging mark about anybody. Disagreement, yes. Disparagement, no. He was a quiet and unassuming man.”
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Ryrie was his fervent desire to make Scriptural and doctrinal truth accessible to the layperson. Although he was a gifted scholar in his own right, the bulk of his work was not directed to the academy. It was directed to the average churchgoer. In this, he was a true servant to the Body of Christ. “When I was working on the Study Bible,” Ryrie told the Baptist Bulletin in 2008, “I thought of the people in home Bible classes.” The same was true of his theological work. “Theology is for everyone,” Ryrie wrote in the introduction to his magnum opus Basic Theology. “Indeed, everyone needs to be a theologian.” So he wrote theology, not just for the seminarian and philosopher, but for everyone. And in framing the task of theology, he was very careful to insist that theology should not be studied merely for its own sake; the true purpose is relational and Christ-centered: “To conform our lives to the image of Christ is the ultimate goal in studying theology. Yet in the final analysis no book can do that. Only God and you can.”
With the passing of Charles Ryrie from this world to the next, the Christian church has lost a spiritual giant. Countless scores of people have come to know Christ, have developed an appetite for sustained Biblical and theological study, and have grown stronger and deeper in their relationship to Jesus Christ, all because of the tireless work of Charles Caldwell Ryrie. Heaven’s gain is truly our loss. Well done, good and faithful servant.
David Gunn is managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin.