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The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3b): 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
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 😉

Christology

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…

Master:

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).

Physicist:

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).

Moralist:

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.

Teacher:

“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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