Dispensationalism continues to be a topic of conversation amongst conservative scholars. I am often asked the question by church members, “I’m new to the conversation. What should I read? Where should I start?” I find myself tongue-tied at these questions because I do not know of a book on dispensationalism that I could recommend as an initiation into the conversation.
Ryrie’s writings, and particularly Dispensationalism Today, and its second edition Dispensationalism, are certainly a place to start. The more I read them and think about them, the more I am apt to offer them up for the task. First of all, Ryrie is always accessible. What I mean by that word “accessible” is that he is understandable by just about everyone. Ryrie has always had a remarkable way of making complex issues in theology easy for the person in the pew to understand. Dispensationalism is no exception.
Another advantage is the way in which Ryrie approaches the topic of dispensationalism. He states in the preface that he has two goals in mind. Not only are these two goals clearly articulated, but they are both quite obvious when reading the book. The two goals are 1) to clarify misunderstandings by those who would oppose dispensationalism, and 2) to present the position positively, from the horses mouth as it were. Thus, Ryrie opens with a discussion of the definition of dispensations and a description of each. Then he moves through common points of discussion such as the doctrine of salvation and the unique nature of the church.
Yet, even with a book such as this, there are caveats to be given. Ryrie has spent a lifetime teaching and writing on dispensationalism. By the 1990s, he is not saying anything he has not already said at other times and in other venues. Thus, someone new to the conversation can easily get confused or lost along the way. Ryrie assumes a certain amount of knowledge on the part of the reader, enough so, that the reader who is lacking this knowledge will find that Ryrie is terse and not often explanatory. The reader thinks, “What is this? Why is this important?” It’s like walking into a room where a few friends have been having a good long conversation. It’s difficult to follow because you spend all of your energy trying to catch up.
The second caveat is that throughout the book is a string of quotations from authors, both for and against dispensationalism. Someone again walking into the conversation may not understand why Ryrie is quoting them. In fact, if one does not know the reason he is quoting them, one might think it a matter of weak argumentation. This is not the case at all, however. The book is only striving to reach its two goals: 1) clarify the position against opponents who misrepresent it, and 2) present it. It doesn’t seek to defend, to argue, or to analyze at any great depth.
A word about hermeneutics is also in order. One of the sine qua non of dispensationalism that Ryrie lists is a consistent, literal hermeneutic. That is, the Bible should be interpreted with plain, normal principles for understanding any text, and that those principles should be applied consistantly throughout the Bible. Both of these things must be true. Both covenant theologians and progressive dispensationalists attempt to apply their hermeneutical principles consistently. But those principles are not the same as the dispensationalist’s. The hermeneutical question that Ryrie does not answer is that the New Testament authors (inspired writings just like the Old Testament) sometimes seem to have different interpretations than the plain meaning in the Old Testament. How does one deal with these differences?
Moreover, it must be stated that Ryrie does not seem to understand the current hermeneutical debate. He believes objectivity means coming to the Bible with a clean mind, with no presuppositions about the interpretation of a passage. Even if Ryrie is correct, he does not answer the contemporary criticisms of his modernist notion. In either case, due to brevity and the claim to objectivity, the chapter on Hermeneutics can become a hinderance to those students who have been introduced to these hermeneutical questions.
Nonetheless, Dispensationalism is a good place to start the conversation because Ryrie lays out the primary categories and defines the main terms. It presents the basic details of dispensationalism. The reader, then, needs to branch out and read through the other sources, keeping in mind that he needs to come back to Dispensationalism at some point. A second reading will grant him the understanding to see where Ryrie is coming from, and what he is accomplishing.