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The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 1): Context

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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


Like anyone else, Dallas Willard developed his theological vision within a contextual horizon. Some may demure from observing this fact, but Dallas did not. With a seemingly unflappable irenic spirit, Dallas operated within and addressed his work to American evangelicalism. Says Black in his introduction…

Grounded in earlier traditions of American evangelicalism, Willardian theology seeks to capture the visceral qualities emblematic of Christian movements of the past. At its core Willardian theology pursues, articulates, and forcefully defends the proposition that the impact of the original (proto) gospel Jesus preached, manifested, and taught remains a vital ontological reality, which is understandable, incarnational, relational, and as readily available today as it was two millennia prior (xv).

Thus, Black adopts the term “protoevangelical” to describe the essence of Dallas’ theological vision and comments…

Willardian theology tends to advocate a move away from mainstream forms of American evangelical faith that have become progressively mired in denominational separation and doctrinal wranglings over issues ranging from the authority of the Bible, esoteric atonement theories, eschatology, etc., and their concomitant effects on soteriology and ecclesiology (xvi).

In other words, the theological vision of Willard provides a “home” for those who would want to identify as evangelical (people of the gospel), but grimace at the prospect of being identified with dominant forms of evangelicalism.

This is undoubtedly a major reason that, on the one hand, such a wide spectrum of people have resonated with Dallas’ work, and on the other hand, no modern institutional expressions of evangelicalism have championed his vision. Also contributing to this state of affairs is the fact that “Willard remains critical of systematic theological methodology,” seeing this approach to theological inquiry as overseeing “a significant increase of sectarian division over the past two hundred years” (xvii).

Nevertheless, as Black point out,

His body of work covers nearly all the significant points of doctrine pertinent to nineteenth-, twentieth-, and twenty-first-century evangelical theological inquiry. Yet, his intent in this endeavor is to always provide a more rooted understanding of the nature and intent of the gospel of Jesus Christ as a fulfillment of the Missio Dei revealed throughout the entirety of Scripture and history (xix).

All of this frames the basic premise of the book in its introduction. The first chapter, “Willardian Theology in Context,” then (across 50+ pages and via 294 footnotes!), delineates the major theological and historical developments that shaped the evangelical landscape over the last couple centuries.

  • Defining Evangelicalism (ala Donald Dayton, George Marsden, David Bebbington, and Randall Balmer), 2-26
  • Contemporary Evangelical Movements (Neo-Evangelicals, The Baby-Boomer/Church Growth Movement, Post-Evangelicalism, Spiritual Formation, and Emerging/Emergent Church Movement), 26-48
  • Contemporary Context, 48-56

This is a masterful chapter that reflects both the breadth as well as the particular focal points of the “evangelical movement” in the United States. It frames well the context and issues around which Willard developed his theological vision. A full summary of Black’s work in this chapter is beyond the scope of this post/series, but in anticipation of what is to follow – and at the precise point where I personally believe a more robust and sustained engagement with Dallas’ work is needed – I want to highlight what I perceive to be the centering issue in this discussion – soteriology.

As Black says toward the beginning of the chapter…

Perhaps one of the most consistent and penultimate goals of evangelical theology, which is also true of Willardian theology, is to clearly articulate a biblically valid soteriology (12).

And then, near the end of the chapter, he circles back, saying…

The issue of soteriology has been demonstrated as a historically evolving and contested theological doctrine starting with the Calvinist/Arminian debate that progressed into Moody revivalism, Methodist social activism, and finally arriving in the contemporary distinctions and juxtapositions between fundamentalist separatism, the Religious Right, the CGM/seeker movement, and the ECM’s protest of the same, a commonly agreed upon definition of salvation remains an elusive and divisive pillar in the postevangelical enterprise. The presence of a dichotomous soteriological message continues to fragment the movement (54).

Some questions for consideration…

  • In your estimation, do the figures and movements Black identifies represent the most significant shapers of the evangelical tradition? Who/what might you want to add?
  • Is Black (am I) right to identify soteriology as the “centering issue” of evangelical faith? 
  • If you had to offer a brief definition of soteriology – what is salvation in Christian perspective – what might you say and to what figure/movement might you point as helping to generate that perspective?
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