The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3b): God’s Character In Christian Theology

December 13, 2013 | By: 12 Comments

The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3b): God’s Character In Christian Theology

Thanks for checking out this series exploring the work of Gary Black in his book, The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. See these other posts in the series…

Introduction – The (Missional) Theology of Dallas Willard
Part 1 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard: Context
Part 2 – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard: An Evangelicalism for Kingdom Disciples
Part 3a – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3a): God’s Character In Christian Theology

I left off in the last post having explored how, in chapter three of Black’s book, the centrality of God’s character – the essentia Dei – shapes Willard’s pneumatology, anthropology, and theo-ontology. Here, I return to the final two categories of that chapter, Christology and Ecclesiology – actually, this post got long, so to keep it manageable, we’ll save ecclesiology for next time 😉


Given as he is to “doing theology” from a vision of God’s character, it is no surprise that Christology is central for Dallas’ theological project. It is in Jesus that Willard understands the character of God to be most fully revealed. For Dallas, as Black elucidates, Jesus is the ultimate…


Those who are not genuinely convinced that the only real bargain in life is surrendering ourselves to Jesus and his cause, abandoning all that we live to him and for him, cannot learn the other lessons Jesus had to teach us. They cannot proceed to anything like total spiritual transformation. Not that he will not let us, but that we simply cannot succeed (123, quoted from Renovation of the Heart, 66).


This may strike us as a curious way to some at the issue of Christology. The point Black seeks to make is that Jesus demonstrated “mastery of both the spiritual and physical realms.” Thus, in him we see God’s basic intention for “how the human being is to live and interact with the synergy of the spiritual and physical realms” (123). Perhaps the most significant upshot of this aspect of Dallas’ Christology is that he presumes that in advancing as Jesus’ apprentices, we don’t simply become more ethical or humble, but begin to gain a capacity to operate within God’s intention for the intersection of the spiritual and physical worlds we inhabit. That is, a “proper Christology” entails becoming more Christlike in both character (who we are) and competency (what we do).


In Dallas’ view, “Jesus provides the best answers to the most important questions of human life” (124, quoted from Willard, Beyond Moral Bewilderment). Thus, Jesus is not merely a “spiritual savior,” or even a “Cosmic Lord,” though he is indeed fully and truly both of those. He is actually the smartest and wisest person who has ever lived. He provides moral knowledge that is unparalleled and yields kingdom-laden benefit for all who would seek to live according to it.

Virtuous One:

Indeed, building on the above, “Willard suggests the unique moral knowledge Jesus offers is specifically directed toward human flourishing” (125). More, he…

advocates the careful, yet active comparisons of Jesus’ moral imperatives and the reality such impositions produce, against any and all alternatives in order to properly gauge their effectiveness. The lack of attention to such comparisons in much of modern evangelical theology and practice today Willard suggests, is in part due to the disappearance of moral knowledge in society overall… He sensed that modern education tends to leave students with the information about such matters [what is good, ethical, best, and true] without ever teaching what is required to either be good or how to become a person who does what is good, ethical, best, and true (127).

Truthfully, I’ve always had a great interest in this aspect of Dallas’ theological vision and will post my own question to Gary in the comments below to get his take.


“Throughout Willard’s work, the most consistent and common description or vision he provides for Jesus is as a teacher of life and living. He laments the loss of the overarching perspective of Jesus as a master teacher within more conservative streams of modern evangelicalism today” (129). According to Black, Dallas was captivated by the fact that…

unlike much of our contemporary education, Jesus is not primarily concerned with the transmission of information. Rather, Jesus teaches in such a way that those who are driven to seek for he truth and benefits of his teachings, and are equally willing to apply these lessons to their daily lives, must demonstrate the strength of will to hear, see, pursue, and apply such knowledge. The pursuit of knowledge becomes as essential as its attainment. This affects the internal character of the student, which is both built and revealed in the quest for knowledge itself (130).

For anyone acquainted with dominant expressions of evangelical Christianity, it will be immediately recognized that this aspect of Willard’s Christology is virtually anathema. In many ways, evangelical Christianity could be accused of a neo-gnosticism, where faith, indeed salvation itself, is largely, if not exclusively, predicated on the “knowledge” that one claims to possess. Not so for Dallas, who understands faith and salvation is inescapable bound up with the posture and effort (not earning!) we display and put forth toward learning and conforming our lives to the person and teaching of Jesus – and all this by the grace of God.

See 128-132 for additional descriptions of Jesus as “Logician” and “Guide.”

  • What do you think about Dallas’ Christology?
  • Where do you see it as connecting to or diverging from how evangelicals typically think of Jesus?
  • For those who have been impacted by Dallas’ understanding of Jesus, what is its practical import?
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JR Rozko JR has spent most of his working life serving simultaneously in local churches as a pastor and in theological education as a program developer and instructor. His main interests and passions revolve around helping the Western Church develop missional perspectives and instincts, especially through a greater awareness and engagement with Church leaders in the Majority World. Helping to create new networks, partnerships, conversations, and resources that embody and advance the good news of God’s mission of reconciliation is at the center of JR’s personal sense of call. JR has a Doctorate in Missiology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He, his wife Amy, and their two daughters, Aubrey and Junia, live in Elgin, IL and are part of Life on the Vine Christian Community where he serves as an Elder.

Categories: Theology

  • MarkHendrickson

    In regards to the practical import of Dallas’ understanding of Jesus, I
    would like for Gary Black to interact a little more with the idea that “Willard
    understands Jesus as presenting himself as a competent guide” (p.130) Most
    people in evangelical circles perceive of discipleshiptoday as a only a human
    activity involving human
    relationships between a “disciple-r” and a “disciple-e”. Apart from Dallas, I
    don’t hear much about Jesus continuing his role as “discipler” of modern day people,
    or that there is such a thing as a divine
    aspect to discipleship that runs parallel to human-to-human discipleship. After all, Jesus ascended to heaven and sat
    down at the right hand of God. So is it not true that Jesus has, sort of, “retired”
    from disciple-making and passed the discipleship baton on to his followers?
    To state it another way, is it possible for a believer today to have the
    same qualitative personal relationship with Jesus in the 21st
    century that Peter, James and John had in the 1st century with the
    obvious exception of course that interaction with Jesus is today is Spirit-to-spirit
    rather than physical person-to-person, yet it is every bit as real?A few months ago I suggested to an elderly
    Christian lady that this type of relationship with Jesus is possible today; she
    thought the idea was impossible and preposterous! Does her view reflect the
    majority of Christians?
    If I understand Willard correctly he seems to be teaching that this
    relationship is not only possible, but that it should be normative (John
    15:7-8). A disciple enters into this conversational mentoring relationship with
    Jesus when he seeks to put into practice what Jesus said. When you do that you are
    His disciple and he will actually mentor you via the Holy Spirit. That is why Jesus
    said it was better for us that he left the earth, so that he could continue to
    make disciples. In the Divine Conspiracy
    Willard taught that Jesus (see Acts 1:2) after his resurrection and before his
    ascension coached is disciples in this new type of “bodiless” communication so
    that they would get accustomed to hearing his voice without his physical presence
    once he was gone.

  • chaplaineliza

    I am afraid that I have not rubbed shoulders much with “evangelicals” lately, although I consider myself as coming from that stock. What I remember from attending Moody Bible Institute in the 1980’s is that a thorough knowledge of God/Christ/the Bible is something to be not only hoped for, but attained. (whatever a “thorough” knowledge is . . . ) 
    I am interested in this open acknowledgement that some (many?) evangelicals today tend toward neo-Gnosticism. In other words, “My God-Knowledge/Theology is Right! My God-Knowledge/Theology is Better than yours!” (whatever “mine” and “yours” may be)
    As a God-follower, I am striving to pray on a regular basis. My Advent devotional today incorporated an excerpt of C.S. Lewis from _Mere Christianity_, where he mentions that pride “is the complete anti-God state of mind.” Prof. Lewis’s point was that some people are in competition with others because pride “is competitive by its very nature.” I see certain people who claim this evangelical God-Knowledge/Theology as having overweening pride. Not the good kind of pride, but the sinful kind.
    I’ve read two books by Dallas WIllard, both of which I very much enjoyed. But, I read them as helpful Christian literature, not weighty theological tomes. Yes, of course I understand that Willard’s theology comes out more-or-less clearly in his writings. I fear I’m becoming more open and accepting as time passes. That’s probably because of my training and work as a chaplain in the incredibly diverse milieu of Chicago. Yes, I still relish this theological discussion! When I was in seminary, I really could sink my teeth into this. Now that I’ve been out in the trenches for some years, I guess there are things of more urgency to me. Like sitting with an aging senior citizen and holding their hand while they take their last breath. Or praying with a 50-something person in the ER waiting room while their spouse is being coded.  

    But I still like this meaty theological discussion! Go for it!

  • GaryBlackJr

    Yes. I think you’ve stated this perfectly well. The risen Christ seems to have discipled Paul perfectly well. And did a number with John on Patmos. And corrected Peter’s theology through dreams. It is Jesus we are disciples of and discipled by. Willard describes this well in Hearing God. I think this is a subject leaders must be very cognizant of. We live in community and submit to one another in love. But we
    follow Christ.

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  • jrrozko

    chaplaineliza, thanks for your comment. I lament if the neo-gnosticism of dominant expressions of evangelicalism has become so thick that people such as yourself aren’t offered a theological vision that joins fundamental Christian doctrines and life “in the trenches.” That’s a critique of the system, not of you. Having has a modicum of exposure to Dallas as he suffered and succumbed to cancer, I feel like I got to witness precisely how these things connect in the “real world.” Dallas, more than anyone else I have ever met, lived in the presence of God and greeted death as a nearly seamless transition from this world to the fullness of God’s presence. Lord hasten the day when more of us would see and embrace all of life (including death!) as the primary touch point of Christian doctrine!

  • jrrozko

    So, GaryBlackJr, here’s the question I wanted to come back to on Dallas’ take on Jesus as the “Virtuous One.” Is it fair to interpret Dallas’ position here as essentially that Jesus’ moral teaching and claims, when “put to the test,” would be shown to be functionally superior to all others? At times I feel like he’s advocating for a return to a public space for the debate of virtue ethics (ala Aristotle?). I feel like I’ve come to a place (via Hauerwas and MacIntyre) of seeing how the cultivation and testing of ethics/morality are communally rooted and oriented, so I have a hard time seeing how these things might square. What am I missing when I sense that the place Dallas wants to afford (universally accessible?) “logic” seems to crowd out the notion, on the one hand, that the wisdom of God is utter foolishness to humans, and on the other hand, that the proper transmission of moral knowledge requires community embodiment and witness. 

    Or, to phrase all of this another (potentially under-nuanced) way, I sometimes get the impression that Dallas thinks a public university (or other institution) can/should play the role of the Church. What am I missing here?

  • chaplaineliza

    jrrozkochaplaineliza I appreciate knowing that Dallas Willard lived out his faith in such a winsome way, even while going through the final stages of his life. (and yes, I know how that looks for many people . . . <quiet tear>), I have been privileged to know several truly Godly people, people whose lives are and have been a tremendous example for me. I don’t always share every point of their theology. But I don’t share their individual journeys through life, either. 
    I have come to understand that each person’s individual journey–with ups, downs, trials, joys, pain and everything else combined–means so much when added to their personal theology. And as each one travels through life, life continues to shape that theology. Shaken up, blended, or woven (whichever you find describes it best), and then sometimes laid out for me to see.

  • GaryBlackJr

    jrrozko GaryBlackJr Great question that I hesitate to run headlong into as a “Dallas answer man” simply because he would discuss this issue much more astutely than I. But here is my thought: The question is flawed in assuming there is a difference between the university and the church. Dallas saw the church as those ministers who are administering the good ways of Christ in every arena of society, business, the arts, economics, politics, education, as ambassadors of good will. (Of course even the concept of “good” and “will” are huge ideas for Dallas). Thus the church is made up both of individual members (disciples) and corporate collectives (ecclesia) that embody, manifest, teach and testify to God’s ways, which would of course be moral and ethical (a la Aristotle,) but also communal manifestations as well,  (a la Augustine’s City of God.) The nation of Israel is another example of both the individuals (Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, David, etc.) leading God’s people (Israel in a way that they can be a light to all nations. Is 49.) 

    But maybe there is another question in your post that deals with the difference between individualism and communal living. Here is what I think Dallas focused on. He believed good individuals make for good societies and further that the building blocks (stones) of the church are individuals submitted to obedience to Christ. Perhaps in conflict to Hauerwasian thought, Dallas placed the impetus on the individual transformation first. Some of which is instigated and motivated by the group, but in the end the individual must choose their level of devotion and commitment to the group. 

    I’ve said in other venues that Dallas saw transformation through an AA sort of lens. Change in AA happens both in community and individually. But no one is dragged to an AA meeting against their will. The individual will must be engaged first before any communal effectiveness can be enjoyed and applied.

  • jrrozko

    GaryBlackJr That makes sense – seems to comport with what I’ve heard/read. There are undoubtedly a multitude of issues and angles that could be explored, but at the end of the day, I think I’ve come to the conviction that community is is the inescapable crucible for the formation of character – and this would need to be more expansive than 1-1 sort of community. Communities can never replace the personal connection and obedience that I see Dallas calling for, but I don’t know how the nature of that connection and obedience would ever be intelligible or reach its full telos outside of a communal framework.

  • GaryBlackJr

    jrrozko GaryBlackJr Agreed. I think Dallas would suggest that he advocated for how that communal framework is to be constructed, brick by brick, not if the community needs to exist. It can and must.

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