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The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 2): An Evangelicalism for Kingdom Disciples

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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
Part 1 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard: Context


In the 2nd chapter of this book, Black turns his attention to”The Willardian Adaptation.” Using the “Bebbington Quadrilateral” of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism as a framework for defining evangelicalism (which Willard agreed was a fair descriptive analysis, though not a prescriptive one), the author wants to show how Willard’s theological vision differs. As I contended in my last post, these differences, by-and-large, can be attributed to fundamentally divergent understandings of the nature of salvation. Where traditional evangelicalism, even if unwittingly, held forth a concept of salvation that was largely transactional and future-destination-oriented, Dallas operates from the perspective of salvation as patently relational (his discipleship emphasis) and available to us now through our participation in God’s life and mission (his kingdom emphasis). 

Biblicism

Mired as it was by a reactionary posture and the trappings of modernistic/Enlightenment rationality, Willard had little interest in the “Battle for the Bible” that marked mid-twentieth century evangelicalism. Far form being disinterested in the nature, place, and role of Scripture in the life of Christianity, he actually found the entire of premise the argument about whether Scripture is inerrant, infallible, or something else to be missing the point. Instead…

Willard suggests one’s ‘view’ of Scripture intellectually or theoretically, although important, is not of greatest consequence. Of greatest importance is actually doing or applying the concepts and truths described in the Bible, ‘getting the words to come off the page,’ as it were. For Willard, this represents the ‘highest’ view of Scripture… (65)

This serves as a profound example of how, for Dallas, Christian doctrine serves the purposes of discipleship and mission or it is not, in any significant sense, Christian. In terms of his “biblicism,” “Willard’s specific intent is to provide the reader with a clear understanding and greater confidence in the practical means God uses to guide individuals within a communicative relationship” (66). That is, our doctrine of the Bible is only faithful insofar as it contributes to believers and communities gaining an increased capacity for hearing, communicating, and living in loving communion with God.

Conversionism

According to Black…

… evangelical theology has historically considered Christian conversion a moment or choice wherein an individual either receives or chooses the forgiveness and grace offered through Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. This event alters the spiritual and existential nature of the human being. In what is commonly termed justification, the convert’s sins are atoned or ‘redeemed.’ As a result, one is rescued or delivered from the eternal consequences or penalty of the previously unjustified or unsaved condition. The concept of sanctification, following justification, becomes quite another matter, an issue encountered subsequent to the atoning, salvific choice (Armenian), or act of God’s grace (Calvinist) (69).

Not so with Willard.

Willardian theology reconnects the justification/sanctification event that evangelical versions of conversionism previously separated. He positions justification (atonement) as something accomplished solely by the Trinity and therefore altogether beyond human intervention or effect… Willard  suggests the convert’s ontological position becomes progressively adapted through discipleship to Jesus into the metaphysics of the kingdom of God… Willard views conversion as a simultaneous conjoining of justification and sanctification to the point a convert can be considered equally both ‘saved’ and ‘being saved’ (69-70).

So here again we see that while Dallas affirms the “conversionist” impulse of evangelicalism, he does so in a way that seeks to recast it in light of a different soteriological perspective – one that sees discipleship as integral to, if not coterminous with, God’s redemptive action/mission in and through Jesus.

Activism

“Activism,” as Bebbington applied to the term to his description of evangelicalism “focused primarily on a revivalist, proselytizing, view… made popular by Moody, Graham, and later the CGM [Church Growth Movement]” (76). In other words, evangelical activism was seeking religious converts. It is at this point that Willard’s critique becomes most strident and his alternative soteriological vision most clear.

Christian evangelism today is rooted in a misunderstanding of salvation. People have been told they are Christians because they have confessed they believe Jesus died for their sins, but the total package is presented in such a way that it leaves their general life untouched… The problem is that we have been obsessed with this idea that the real issue is ‘making the cut’ to get to heaven. We have taken the discipleship out of conversion (76, quoted from Willard, “Rethinking Evangelism”).

For Willard, discipleship to Jesus is the epicenter of Christian activism from which all other actions and missional impulses are to be ordered and from which they should flow. And to a certain extent, ecclesiology stands at the center of shaping and sustaining such a vision. He states that “the goal of ecclesiology should be focused solely on…”

the effective proclamation of the Christian gospel to all humanity, making disciples from every nation of ethnic group, and the development of the disciples’ character into the character of Christ himself… If these are done well, all else desirable will follow (77, quoted from Willard, Spirit of the Disciplines, 15).

All of this, in Willard’s view and as Black makes sure to point out, hinges upon an active and growing dependence on God’s grace, which we access and through the regular practice of personal and corporate spiritual disciplines.

Crucicentrism

With evangelicals, Willard sees the cross as central to the identity and life of Christian(ity)s. However, “Willard’s view of the all-encompassing reality present in the absolute beneficence of God as King of his kingdom substantially reformulates his view of the cross and its effects” (81-82). Says Willard…

Embracing the cross with Jesus is to be our salvation. It is release ourselves into the realm of God, into God’s care, and to stop trying to work the human system of power and desire to get what we want (82, quoted from Willard, “The Craftiness of Christ”).

Notice the subtle but stunningly divergent turn of phrase Dallas uses. Whereas the standard evangelical account might run, “The cross of Jesus is our salvation.” For Dallas, it is “Embracing the cross with Jesus” that is our salvation. This flows from his contention that “the New Testament presents salvation as not the imputation of a meritorious condition, but a different form of life, one not focused and dependent on the self but rather fully cognizant of God” (83). Allow me to conclude this section and the post with this powerful summary from the author on Dallas’ crucicentrism in relation to his overall soteriological vision…

Willard’s theology places significant and appropriate value on the cross of Christ. Yet, Willard’s crucicentrism is tempered by a more theologically encompassing soteriology that he believes is biblically rooted in a more holistic understanding of the type and quality of life, made available after the cross and resurrection of Christ, in the kingdom of God. Willard argues the New testament gospels demonstrate and advocate for a crucicentrism that rests not on profession of belief in the cross but rather on the believer picking up ones own ‘cross,’ and dying to the ‘old self,’ by assuming a discipleship relationship to Jesus (86).

Would love to hear your thoughts/questions on Willard’s “adaptations” to the traditional marks of evangelicalism! Gary Black, the author of the book we’re reviewing will be following the comments and responding as possible.

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