Charles Ryrie has spent the last 60 years teaching the Bible. While on the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary, he taught hundreds of the pastors and teachers who have led our movement. Now retired, he has lived long enough to see his ideas embraced by his students and, in turn, their students.
But he has never been an “ivory tower” seminary professor—his teaching and writing ministry has always been aimed squarely at the congregation. “When I was working on the Study Bible,” he explains, “I thought of the people in home Bible classes.”
The Baptist Bulletin was grateful to interview Dr. Ryrie when he was on the campus of Baptist Bible Seminary, where he spoke at the recent Barndollar Lecture Series and participated in the Council on Dispensational Hermeneutics.
Tell us a bit about your life in Alton, Ill.
I grew up at First Baptist Church of Alton, which was Northern Baptist—American Baptist. I was the fifth generation from our family in that church.
My father taught Sunday School there, after beginning with home Bible classes. Many of the people who came to the house were schoolteachers, mostly women. My father would occasionally teach Scofield’s Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. One time I was able to sit in on that series, if I promised to keep quiet and be still. I still remember some of that.
Dr. Ryrie recalls this Bible study as the first time he studied the ideas of dispensationalism, though he did not yet know the term. He graduated from Alton High School in January 1942, just six weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Though he modestly avoided the fact during our interview, Ryrie was always a gifted student. The Alton Evening Telegraph reported his 96.8 grade average in bold print under the front-page headline “Charles Ryrie Valedictorian at Alton High.” No one had to remind the graduates of the growing world turbulence. The girls’ chorus ignored the ill-timed sentimental songs printed in the graduation program (such as “Within a Dreaming Harbor”), and instead sang a medley of patriotic tunes. The high school music teacher wore his newly issued army uniform and shipped out two days after the ceremony.
A gifted pianist, Ryrie played Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat just before the diplomas were awarded. Today he calls himself a “past tense” pianist, though he still has a piano at home and occasionally sits down to play favorite hymns such as “Marvelous Grace” and “Like a River Glorious.”
Following the ceremony, Ryrie left for Stony Brook School on Long Island, where he studied for an additional semester with Frank E. Gaebelein. Ryrie then entered college with the intention of studying math and music—and with the expectation that he would follow his father into the banking industry.
What changed your career path toward ministry?
Lewis Sperry Chafer is the reason I am in the ministry and the reason I went to seminary. That happened when I was a junior in college. At the time, I went to Haverford College in Pennsylvania, a Quaker school. Chafer was holding meetings in the area. I went to one of the meetings and said to him, “I should like to talk to you.” He said, “I’ll let you know after I check my schedule.” So eventually he sent—this will tell you how old I am—he sent me a telegram. There were no phones in the Haverford dorms at the time. He said, “I can meet you at a certain time and a certain place at a hotel.” And during that meeting is when I feel I was called to the ministry. (I still like the phrase “called to the ministry.”) And from there I went to the seminary, where Chafer was teaching all of those years.
Prior to that, Chafer was a friend of your family, a friend of your parents.
Yes, it started back with my grandfather. My grandfather was a widower, so he lived with my family. Chafer would come to St. Louis to a Brethren Assembly to speak—at least that’s the one I remember—my parents kind of dragged me along, you know. Yes, I had known him for some time before we met in that hotel room.
I thought about this once in a while, when seminary students asked to meet with me. I was sometimes tempted to think, “I don’t have time for you.” But then I would think of Chafer, who took time for me, and not just because I was a potential seminary student—because I wasn’t at that time.
Soon after you finished your first degree at Dallas, you were ordained. Didn’t your parents leave your home church soon after this?
I was ordained at First Baptist . . . sometime just after Noah came out of the ark. 1947. Ancient history. So when my folks thought they couldn’t stay [at First Baptist] any longer, it was a big deal. It wasn’t really a church split—they just left. They joined Brown Street Baptist Church, and by that time I was in seminary, so I never belonged to Brown Street, but that’s where I attended when I went home.
In 1941, at the height of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the Northern Baptist Convention, Milton Heights Baptist Church began fellowshipping in the GARBC. John and Elizabeth Caldwell Ryrie joined the church soon after it moved to a new building on Brown Street in 1949.
“His parents were leaders in a Sunday School class here at church,” says Clint Bonnell, a retired ABWE missionary who is still a member of Brown Street Baptist Church. “This was often referred to as ‘the Ryrie class.’ It was a ladies’ class—for teachers, businesswomen, professionals.”
“When the Ryries left First Baptist, they brought their whole Sunday School class with them,” says Clint’s wife, Dorothy. “Not all of them ended up joining Brown Street, but many did.”
John and Elizabeth Caldwell Ryrie spent the rest of their lives ministering at Brown Street Baptist, even donating a piano to the church. By this time Charles Ryrie had joined First Baptist Church in Dallas, befriending the pastor, W. A. Criswell, and regularly teaching a Sunday School class there. He returned to Brown Street Baptist several times for prophecy and dispensationalism conferences; though he had had a full teaching and writing ministry, he continued to minister to people in local church settings.
Do you think the average person understands dispensationalism as well as it was understood 20 or 30 years ago?
Probably not. Part of it is a general decrease in Bible knowledge in our conservative evangelical churches. And part of it is that you don’t have the prophecy conferences today, which are kissing cousins to dispensationalism. We just don’t have them that much anymore. We have every other kind of seminar, but not prophecy. I think that’s a contributing factor.
How would you advise a young pastor who wants to teach dispensationalism to his congregation?
Do a teaching series. I went to a church in Oklahoma last fall where the pastor had taken Wednesday nights to talk about dispensationalism. Then on the last night he asked me to come up as a guest. The church was filled—three or four hundred people there, many from outside his church.
I don’t think you have to teach dispensationalism every Sunday. I think if a church or a denomination has a doctrinal statement, then the pastor should go over that with the congregation in some kind of cycle. New people are coming in, and the older people have stopped thinking about those things. And I also think he should go over it meticulously with the leadership.
Take all the layers away, and it is ultimately leadership by a board—deacons, elders, whatever your polity is—it is ultimately their responsibility where the church goes. Unless we keep feeding and teaching the leadership, not just the members of the congregation, I think we’re in trouble. And the same carries for our schools—if the boards of trustees are not spiritually alert and mature, anything could happen. I think the faculty is extremely important, but ultimately the board of the church or the organization holds the responsibility for doctrinal truth.
Can you tell us what led to your work on the Ryrie Study Bible?
It started one year on the way to my first Christian Booksellers Association meeting in Cincinnati. On the bus going in, a publisher who had published a book of mine said, “I want to talk to you.” He wanted me to edit a multiauthor volume of some sort, I don’t remember now, a dictionary or something. I said, “No, thank you! I am no good at riding heard on a hundred authors, making deadlines, and all that.” So in return he said, “Propose something to me.” I thought about that a while. There weren’t many study Bibles available then. The Scofield Bible had just been revised. The Pilgrim Bible was good, and used. There was a Lutheran New Testament Study Bible, and the Open Bible was maybe out by then. . . . I’m not sure of the dates. So I told him, “I think evangelicals need another study Bible. Not like the Scofield—there’s nothing wrong with it—but more interpretive.” I tried to write something with exegetically standard notes. I would say that the Scofield notes are more thematic, a synthesis of things. (I like the Scofield, that is not a criticism, believe me.) So I proposed this to him, and he agreed.
So we agreed on a New Testament. That’s all they wanted to take a chance at. But by the time I finished my part, that publisher had been sold to a larger conglomerate. The man came back to me and said, “I don’t think we’ll be able to publish your Bible for years, because we’ve got so much going with this merger. So you have the right to do whatever you want with it.”
And ultimately I went with Moody. One reason was that at that point, Moody was pretty sure they could get rights to the New American Standard, which had just come out. (I had written the notes using the King James.) But they did get the New American, so the notes were adapted to that, and later to other translations as well. That’s how it came to be.
Many of us admire your writing for its famously spare, crisp explanations of complex issues.
Writers can’t always do that easily. It’s not easy. When I was working on the study Bible, I thought of people in home Bible classes, and I would sometimes ask, “Would they want a note on this verse or an explanation of this doctrine? Simply?” These people were my make-believe audience. Actually, they weren’t make-believe, they were real people.
The Ryrie Study Bible was released in 1976 as a New Testament, with the complete Bible finished in 1978. Dr. Ryrie also prepared a significant revision in 1995. “The expansion had about 2,000 more notes, more in-text helps, charts, diagrams, that sort of stuff,” Ryrie says. He recently traveled to Hong Kong for the release of a Chinese version of the study Bible, which had previously been translated into Spanish and Portuguese. “I think someone is talking about a Hindi version, but I don’t know what stage that is in,” Ryrie says.
A representative of Moody Publishing estimates they have sold about 2.5 million copies of the Ryrie Study Bible.
“Well, they are probably about right,” Ryrie comments. “I don’t keep a running total! The Evangelical Press Association started giving a platinum medallion if you have any books over a million copies. I have one of those, and it was already at a million and a half before they started.
“But I really don’t like to parade those figures. . . . I just don’t like that.”
With your study Bible in several translations, which translation do you prefer to use?
I do use the New American Standard, and one of the reasons is I feel more secure with it. When I’m traveling, people will ask for a question-and-answer session. I feel if I need to quickly look something up in the New American, I can be more secure that the verses are translated more accurately.
The New International is good for reading, but it takes some liberties, especially the new one, the Today’s New International Version—the gender neutral one.
Which of your books has been the most influential?
Well, excluding the study Bible from my answer, I would say the Lord has . . . well, the variety of my books amazes me. Object Lessons for teachers is one. Dispensationalism is one. Basic Theology is one. And of the older books, Balancing the Christian Life comes up once in a while. I’ve had people here today talk about reading that as new Christians.
When I studied with Myron Houghton (one of your former students), he referred to you as a Baptist theologian. Do you think that is a fair label?
I’m not ashamed of the fact that I’m a Baptist! I’ve never been anything else in church affiliation.
How did you develop your ability to explain things in simple language that a layperson can understand?
On one side, that’s God’s gift to me. Or to be more technical, it’s the way the gift of teaching or exhortation is worked out in me: conciseness.
On the human side, I think it is because off and on through the years, I’ve taught children. If you want to advise your writers to write more clearly, tell them to go host a Good News Club somewhere, and teach it!
Do you still teach Bible study classes for church members?
Everywhere I’ve been, not all the time, but in every place I have been located, I’ve tried to teach home Bible classes. And I’m teaching one now, about 15 people in the Dallas area. I think that’s a good size. If you teach—not quite one-on-one, but on a small group basis—if you want them to learn something, you have to put it at their level. Do you remember the Sunday School Times? Philip Howard was the editor for many years. Many years ago he came to speak, and I went up to him afterward. (This was a big thing for me. I’m shy, I really am.) I said, “Dr. Howard, how do you learn to write?” I wasn’t a writer yet, I hadn’t written anything, but I guess I had some latent interest. He said to me—at the time, I was probably a sophomore in college—he said, “Have something to say and say it clearly.”
You can’t improve on that.
Do you have any more books you would like to write?
If you have an idea for one, you can tell me, but I don’t have any guarantees now!
You are still keeping a pretty lively speaking schedule.
I’m very thankful to the Lord for both the ability to do things and to have something to do. I’ve seen people, not as old as I, who not only don’t do anything, they don’t want to do anything. They seem glad to get out of the swim of things. I understand that, but there’s still lots to do, and occasionally I have to turn down some requests.
Traveling is not easy anymore, but I’m glad I can do it. The only quarrel I have with the Lord on this matter is that He doesn’t spread out the opportunities. They all seem to come at once. Sometimes I still get overextended.
Tell us a little bit about your family.
All three of my children live in Dallas. I also have three grandchildren. Now this is an interesting thing . . . early in the summer, I baptized two of my grand-children. One was 12 [Matthew], and the older one [Stephen] wanted to be baptized on a certain date in September. It was his birthday, his 16th birthday.
What do you think are some of the core issues that people in the pew need to know and understand now?
It’s hard to say what is most important for them without knowing each one and where they stand spiritually. The most important issues are always about what you believe. What you believe will determine what you do. If what you believe is good, healthy doctrine, you will have healthy actions and practices. But you can’t have good practice if you don’t have good doctrine.
Interview by Kevin Mungons, managing editor of the Baptist Bulletin. Photos by Darrell Goemaat, director of photography. Photo courtesy Dallas Theological Seminary Archives.