In his chapter on the origins of Dispensationalism Charles Ryrie states that “the fact that something was not taught until the nineteenth century does not make it wrong.”(Dispensationalism, p.70). Near the end of the chapter he makes another affirmative statement that even if Dispensationalism were relatively new, that does not, by default, discredit it. I agree. But between those two statements he goes to great length to show that “Dispensational-like concepts” predate John Nelson Darby (1830) and go back as far as some of the Fathers of the Church.
It seems to me – and I’m preempting my argument – that Ryrie knows how frail his argument for the historicity of Dispensationalism is, which is why he made sure to emphasize his two affirmative statements I just quoted. No scholar would be fooled by his “in-between” arguments. But perhaps seeking lay Christians may. And that, I think, is Ryrie’s hope. To get his readers to say “ah ha! Dispensational-like concepts did predate Darby and go back to the Church Fathers.” Ryrie himself knows this isn’t true. He says as much earlier in the book.
He begins by quoting Justin Martyr in a passage where Justin talks about how God managed his people before Abraham and later where Justin mentions the “present dispensation and it’s gifts of power.” (p.72). The second Father which Ryrie quotes is Irenaeus who wrote about the “four principle covenants given to the human race” (the first being under Adam, the second under Noah, the third under Moses and the fourth under the Gospel). The astute reader will notice that both of these statements align in perfect parallel with the covenants. In fact, Irenaeus explicitly refers to these periods of time as “covenants.” But they are also dispensations because a dispensation is understood as a period of time in which God governed humanity in a particular way. This is Ryrie’s justification for claiming that these (and other) Church Fathers affirmed “dispensational-like concepts.” He goes on to quote Clement of Alexandria, Augustine, Joachim of Fiore, Pierre Poiret, Jonathan Edwards, Isaac Watts all in the same vein.
All of these writers either explicitly used the word “dispensation” or spoke of how God uniquely governed humanity at different stages of time. Yet keep in mind that no one denies that God governs humanity in different ways under the different covenants. And if we are defining a dispensation as “a way in which God governs his creation during a particular period of time” then it is no coincidence that the different dispensations would correspond precisely with the covenants. Yet Ryries argument has effectively made all of us “dispensationalists” in a “dispensational-like” sort of way.
Ryrie seems to be implying that if someone uses the word “dispensation,” they are somehow affirming “dispensational-like concepts” which, he claims, Darby simply systemized.
What’s wrong with this argument? Why is it so misleading and why should Ryrie be taken to task for it?
Earlier in the book he mentions two recent covenant theologians, Hodge and Berkhof, who affirm four or five dispensations within their covenantal schema and remarks, “This points to the fact that recognizing dispensations does not automatically make a person a dispensationalist.” (p.51)
So acknowledging “dispensational-like concepts” before Darby can be used as an argument in favour of dispensationalism which Darby merely systemized. But acknowledging “dispensational-like concepts” after Darby “points to the fact that recognizing dispensations does not automatically make a person a dispensationalist.”
So what does?
The essence of dispensationalism, says Ryrie, are three-fold (p.51):
1. The recognition of a consistent distinction between Israel and the Church.
2. A consistent and regular use of a literal principle of interpretation.
3. A basic and primary concept of the purpose of God as His own glory rather than the salvation of mankind.
So it’s important to make a distinction between a word in regular usage on one hand, and a word as it has been endowed with special theological meaning on the other. By Ryrie’s definition just bulleted, no Christian writer prior to John Nelson Darby affirmed “dispensational-like concepts” because none of them made the kind of distinction between Israel and the Church which Dispensationalism does; none of them applied the word “literal” to interpretation the way Dispensationalism does; and all one has to do is point to John Piper to recognize that Ryrie’s #3 is not a Dispensational distinctive.
If Justin, Clement, Augustine and Edwards were told that Darby “systemized” their dispensational-like concepts,” a look of horror would have no doubt appeared on their faces. Especially on the amillennial face of Augustine and the postmillennial face of Edwards.
In no form whatsoever does Dispensationalism predate Darby. But this fact does not – in my opinion – discredit the view since the ultimate measuring rod for right doctrine must be scripture.
If Ryrie agrees with that – and he says he does – then why go so far out of his way to lead people to believe that “dispensational-like concepts” are found in the Early Church which Darby simply systemized?
I suspect it’s to win converts.