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The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 3a): God’s Character in Christian Theology

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


In the third chapter of Black’s book on the theology of Dallas Willard, he employs the the essentia Dei to describe the “overarching schema” of Dallas’ protoevangelical vision.

The Essentia Dei is defined as a mental pattern in Willardian theology that prioritizes the consistent pursuit of discovering the nature or essence (essentia) of God. Essential Dei colors Willard’s view of anthropology, pneumatology, soteriology, the atonement, sanctification, ecclesiology, eschatology, and thus all the objectives of Christian life and faith… So central is essential Dei to Willardian theology, in order to properly understand the more concrete details of his vision of the kingdom of God, or the means of personal formation and discipleship Willard proffers, one must first come to grasp the quality, disposition, and temperament of the King who governs this order (87-88).

In short, for Willard the essentia Dei is parent-like agape. In other words, at the most fundamental of levels, seeing and experiencing God as infinitely and unconditionally loving, as a “protective, supportive, and nurturing Father, giving guidance about what to avoid in life, what to pursue, and how to flourish,” undergirds the entirety of his theological project (89). Given this “schema,” we can consider Willard’s unique contribution to a range of core theological subjects.

Pneumatology

Black notes that “pneumatology is a central and catalytic feature of the entire Willardian project.” More, that in league with “Renewal theologians” such as John Rodham Williams, Ray Anderson, and Amos Yong, “the role of the Holy Spirit, along with the spiritual nature of life and faith, needs significant reemphasizing in Christian theology (90). In classic Willard fashion of crafting brief, but compelling definitions for key theological concepts, Willard defined spirit as “unembodied personal power” (92). As God is Spirit, it is then then our submission to God (the Holy Spirit) that animates and “embodies” the power of God in us personally and corporately. Though, for Willard, God remains “uniquely separate from his creation,” he nevertheless “subscribes to the position that God’s spirit sustains all things and created all things” (95). Thus, in moving to anthropology, he suggests, echoing Teilhard de Chardin, that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience, but spiritual beings having a human experience” (96).

Anthropology

For Willard, as those made in the (spiritual) image of God, “humanity is created to ‘reign’ with God over all creation in mutually collaborative and creative governance… Thus, the Missio dei represents the universal restorative and redemptive plan of God” (99). In this section Black goes on to describe how Willard develops a theological anthropology with reference to terms and themes like: heart/will/spirit, the body, relationships, and the soul. He also addresses the “fallen condition” of humanity. My own summation of Willard’s view here is that he sees sin as “multi-directional broken shalom.” In other words, human beings, through willful disobedience, have broken or lost their proper and intended relationship to God and all of God’s created order. “The overarching result is demonstrated in a collective societal disorientation and blindness to the essentia Dei, God’s purposes, and the realities of his kingdom” (110). I find the following passage to be one of the most important of this section…

Willard describes how discipleship to Jesus is the process by which humanity can regain entry to the missio Dei and this accomplish their God given destiny. The definition of a disciple, or as Willard liked to use “apprentice,” is simply someone who has decided to be with another person, under appropriate conditions, in order to become capable of doing what that person does or become what that person is (112).

Here, I believe Dallas contributes to a vision of Christian anthropology that transcends traditional categorizations that focus on the effects of sin in favor of one that focuses on God’s intentions, initiative, and invitation. In other words, for Dallas, understanding humanity and the human condition isn’t principally defined by our relationship to sin, but by our relationship to God.

Theo-Ontology

It will likely be only the philosophers among us that are familiar with the term, theo-ontology. Basically, “Willardian theology proposes that the world or cosmos, and everything in it, derives its subsistence specifically from the existence and will of God. Therefore, knowledge of God and his kingdom directly enhances and explicates human existence and living” (115). Translated, getting God is the most proper place and pursuit for getting anything at all. Thus Black points out how “Willard argues the realm of God’s rule and reign (kingdom) is where humanity discovers and achieves its highest potential” (116). Lest we miss it, properly understood, this is perhaps a contentious claim given the landscape of dominant forms of evangelicalism. This is not so different than the (Anabaptist?) conviction that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe” (John Howard Yoder), or the idea that “the Church” (and not Christians “out there” in the world), is at the epicenter of God’s work of new creation. Furthering this sort of connection, “Willard states God is sovereign over, but not necessarily actively in control of, every aspect of reality. Thus, Willard delineates God’s omnipotent ability from its actuality.” This is a distinction that it seems is sometimes lost in Kuyperian (or other Calvinistic) theologies of culture. For Willard, “the kingdom [of God] is to be sharply contrasted with the kingdom of man: the realm of human life, that tiny part of visible reality where human will, for a time, has some degree of sway, even contrary to God’s will” (120).

In this chapter, the sub-categories of “Christology” and “Ecclesiology” still remain, but we will return to these in the next post in this series.

For now, I (and Gary) would love to hear your thoughts on these aspects of Dallas’ theological vision.

  • Are these new ideas?
  • Do you see them as conflicting with dominant conceptions within contemporary evangelicalism?
  • What “practical implications” might extend from these aspects of Dallas’ theological vision
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