When I heard yesterday that Charles Ryrie had died at the age of 90, it felt as if a close relative had passed away. Literally. For there was a time in my life when I was good friends with Charles Ryrie.
To begin the story, I should start with my upbringing. I was raised in a home which held the Ryrie Study Bible in very high esteem. Sort of how the ESV Study Bible is (mistakenly) considered a mark of spiritual maturity by some today, my family looked at the Ryrie Study Bible as a tool for “serious” Christians. I can still see my dad carrying around his dog-eared, well-worn copy of the Ryrie Study Bible which was held together with packaging tape. In high school, my dad bought each of his children their own, leather-bound copy of the Ryrie Study Bible and this was the Bible I used (and filled with notes) during my years in Bible College.
With Ryrie in Israel
My first in-person interactions with Dr. Ryrie came in college as he happened to teach a couple of classes at the particular Bible College I attended, including 1 Corinthians and eschatology. I remember being surprised by his soft-spoken and genteel demeanor. I guess I assumed a great theologian would be some sort of roaring lion behind the lectern, but that was certainly not Dr. Ryrie. He was far more like an old-fashioned Southern gentleman. I remember sitting in class and literally being startled by his careful exegetical precision, logical persuasion, and uncanny clarity, something I can’t say for every professor I’ve sat under.
My personal relationship with Dr. Ryrie commenced around 1998 when he happened to be the Bible teacher for a trip to Israel my father and I took together. We’d travel around Israel in tour busses, stop at various locations mentioned in the Bible, hop out, and then Dr. Ryrie would teach some relevant passage of Scripture. This really was an opportunity of a life-time that I did not fully appreciate then. I wish I could go back in time and do it over again, for alas, I did not pay good attention to either the teaching or the sites.
Well, I was about 20 years old at this time and, if I remember correctly, in the providence of God I was the only person on this particular tour of Israel under the age of 50. I think this made me stand out as a bit unusual and somehow Dr. Ryrie took a liking to me. (I learned later that he was something of a kid at heart and always had a great love for college students). We found ourselves chatting together regularly at different historic sites. He wasn’t too limber, and at times he’d walk with his hand on my shoulder, using me as a sort of human cane. I can still see us standing together, arms around one another’s shoulders, for pictures at the Western Wall of Jerusalem. I wish I could find those pictures now.
At the conclusion of the trip, as we were about to depart for our flights home, Dr. Ryrie invited me to keep in touch. So that’s exactly what I did. This was before the rise of email, so we’d write one another true letters and mail them through the post office. We became pen-pals and wrote one another about once a month for around eight years. What strikes me most today is how he never failed to respond to one of my letters, not even once. I have a stack of a few dozen personal letters in my files, some of them handwritten, by Dr. Ryrie on all manner of theological topics: inerrancy, propitiation, Bible translation issues (I’m fairly sure Dr. Ryrie was the last living member of the original Committee on Bible Translation which created the NIV), the New Covenant, progressive dispensationalism, etc. As of yesterday, they are now among my most treasured possessions.
After our tour of Israel, I saw Dr. Ryrie in person only occasionally. He’d return to my college or seminary periodically to teach and we’d catch up over a cup of coffee. Around the year 2002 he spoke at a conference at my seminary, and I had the privilege of being his personal chauffer, a privilege I hope never to forget.
Convictional differences…and regret
This brings me to one of my great regrets in life. As I grew older and as my own personal theological convictions developed, I found that I was coming to different conclusions than Dr. Ryrie espoused in his books and study Bible. Due mostly to peer-pressure and the influence of celebrity preachers on the internet, for a time I thought it was “cool” to be anti-dispensational. It was frankly nothing more than pride, but I began to assume that Dr. Ryrie had nothing more to teach me. Consequently, I let our pen-pal relationship evaporate. The last letter I ever received from him comes from 2004 in which he wrote “it’s good to know of your whereabouts” (I had just begun at a new church). I never wrote him back after that or had any more personal contact. This is truly one of my greatest regrets, and it seems so incredibly foolish today.
A man of godliness
Despite whatever convictional differences we may have had, I will say that Dr. Ryrie was one of the godliest individual I’ve ever known. I say that emphatically without any sentimental hyperbole whatsoever. In my lifetime of growing up in the church, years in Bible College and seminary, now over a decade of pastoral ministry, Dr. Ryrie was one of the holiest men I’ve ever met. He was always gentle, humble, and gracious, patient with foolhardy college kids (and willing to ride a camel with one), he never spoke ill of another individual including theologians with whom he disagreed, profoundly committed to his friends and his church, a happy, unashamed evangelical, and from all my interactions with him, the perfect model of a Christian gentleman. Even if you profoundly disagreed with something he may have taught, I imagine once you got to know him most of us would be deeply convicted by our relative lack of godliness.
I thank God for Dr. Ryrie and the opportunity I had to know him. He will always be among Christ’s gifts to the church (Ephesians 4:11). And I sincerely hope he’s a teacher not quickly forgotten.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.