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The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 3c): 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
Part 3b – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part3b): God’s Character in Christian Theology


The previous two posts have highlighted Black’s exploration of how God’s character – the essentia Dei – shapes Willard’s pneumatology, anthropology, and theo-ontology (3a), as well as his Christology (3b). This post rounds out this exploration in chapter 3 of the book by focusing on how an emphasis on God’s character impacts Willard’s understanding of the church.

Ecclesiology

At the outset of summarizing this section I should say that ecclesiology was always what I perceived to be the weakest of Dallas’ strengths. This not a veiled attempt to feign positivity. Rather, it’s meant to convey that while I think Dallas’ overall theological project holds important implications and critiques for “evangelical ecclesiology,” I do not find it to be his most fully developed arena of thought. For instance, when Black says, “Willard sees the church as those individuals gathered or called (ecclesia) of God into a discipleship relationship with Jesus who routinely congregates in local groups,” (132) I’ve got a number of bells going off already. This statement still seems to exhibit a latent individualism and fails to capture the missionary witness of the Body of Christ. In short, whereas I might want to emphasize the life and witness of the Church – as reconciled & reconciling community – as A) the focal point of God’s redemptive mission in the world, and B) the primary and necessary context for personal spiritual formation, I see Dallas emphasizing other dynamics. Inasmuch as I continue to see Dallas as teacher and myself as student, this is not so much a critique as it is an expression of ideas I am anxious to continue to put into dialogue with his work.

Nevertheless, continuing on to Willard’s ecclesiology, Black notes, “Willard suggests the church can and must pursue the establishment and maintenance of the kingdom of God through applying the VIM [vision, intention, means] rationale (133).

The Vision of the Church:

Black maintains that…

Willard views much of Jesus’ work in the first-century context as focused specifically on deconstructing then reconstructing a vision of God’s missio Dei, which many first-century Jews appear to have lost sight of entirely or had perhaps never considered in specific detail (133).

Such a vision, for Dallas, fixates on the reality and availability of God’s kingdom. For Dallas, life in the kingdom of God is to be the fundamental reality around which the Church derives its identity and organizes itself. Thus, “throughout the ministries, services, worship, sacraments, fellowship, preaching, hymnody, and teaching of the church, an overarching and all encompassing, holistic vision of life in the kingdom of God must be cast” (133).

A departure between Willard’s “evangelical faith” and that which has dominated Western Christianity is most acute at this point; for, how many of those of us who would consider ourselves evangelicals could honestly argue that a vision of life in the kingdom of God permeated our Christian formation?! God is King and we are to understand ourselves as those who live under and within his benevolent reign.

The Intention of the Church:

“Decision” plays a vital role in Willard’s understanding of the Christian life. However, unlike the category of permeates mainstream evangelicalism of “deciding to believe,” Willard is vastly more interested – because he sees much more biblical support for – “deciding to follow.” As Black says,

Ultimately, Willard senses people may wish for life in the kingdom, or even think it best for themselves and others and, therefore, honestly express their wish for such a life to come upon them. However, what remains missing is the power of an intentional decision… Therefore, the church serves as a place where followers of Christ hold one another lovingly accountable in discerning the level and presence of intentionality in following Christ… This lack of intentionality, and the absence of open and accountability in communal life, is where Willard finds the most pressing void within modern Christian ecclesiology (135).

This points yet again to Willard’s understanding of salvation as more something we receive and participate in through lives of discipleship than some spiritual status we possess predicated on our mental assent to particular beliefs. For Dallas, a significant part of God’s character has to do with his will – his intention to act a certain (covenantal?) way toward both his people and his world. As followers of Jesus, we are to take on the same pattern of life.

The Means of the Church:

“The means, in Willardian thought, are those activities or disciplines one employs to eventuate the decision to follow Jesus and enter his kingdom ethos… The means’ primary objective is to replace the inner character of the self with the character of Christ” (136). Black goes on here to note the centrality of “spiritual disciplines” as the way Willard frames the “means” by which believers take on the character of Christ. Yet, while these spiritual disciplines are to be practiced “in community,” they remain focused largely on the individual. Dallas has indeed set the stage for a discussion of “corporate spiritual disciplines” and how they might facilitate a congregation’s intention to live into God’s vision for the Body of Christ in the world, but it seems to remain an un(der)developed part of Willard’s ecclesiology.

Summarizing this VIM pattern of churchly transformation, Black says that it…

…is the sum total of what Willard understands as the mission of the church… Willard suggests such activity and focus should be organized and accomplished through the local church, led and directed by pastors and teachers who case a vision for the kingdom of God and manifest it in their lives. ‘Discipleship is for the church. Disciples are for the world.’ This process is to carry on the work of Jesus himself, presenting unique knowledge of the essentia Dei and the missio Dei as a total and holistic worldview… therefore, the church should be a gift to all humanity (137).

One final point stuck out to me with regard to Black’s assessment of Dallas’ ecclesiology. It’s how he seems to understand the relationship between power, cultural change, and salvation. Black says,

…when Christians look to attain positional authority through leadership roles as the sole means of changing society, Willard suggests, churches tend to remove themselves from the very source of power cultural change requires. Thus, salvation (deliverance) is not the overturning of existing power structures through some political means, Instead, the kingdom of God spreads throughout the proliferation of spirit and truth (140).

I find this to be a spiritually weighty and sorely needed perspective on the place and way of the Church in the world. One that, of taken seriously, would revolutionize church structure and practice on the one hand, and our vision for leadership training on the other.

What do you think – where does Dallas’ character-based theology of the Church intersect with your own perspective or experience?

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