The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 4): The Willardian Correction

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
Part 3c – The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part3c): God’s Character in Christian Theology

In the opening of the 4th chapter of his book, Black explains how it is that Dallas could at once provide such a strident critique of evangelicalism yet still be embraced by those in this camp. He says…

Although perhaps new to evangelicals, Willard’s soteriology is not novel in light of the broader history of the church catholic. Yet, since Willard places such a high value on Scripture, a longstanding evangelical theological bulwark, he is seldom if ever perceived as critiqued as offering a ‘new’ gospel or even an extremist shift in evangelical theology… Conversely, reviewers who recognize and advocate for his interpretation of the gospel and its corresponding theology realize that, if properly understood, Willard presents a significant and radical departure from the status quo within the preponderance of evangelical settings (144).

As an insider, how precisely does Willard then seek to correct evangelical theology? Black expounds this across the three general categories of “Belief vs. Faith,” “Gospels of Sin Management,” and the “Doctrine of God.”

Belief vs. Faith

Straightforwardly, Black notes that “Willard recognizes the now uniform assumption that mandatory conformity to Jesus’ teaching is optional and no longer essential to the evangelical articulation of Christian life. That is, the sort of “belief” advocated for within contemporary evangelicalism as of ultimate importance also “amounts to an empty allegiance” (145). Christian belief has become a matter of mental assent, which may or may not translate into practice, much less transformation.

Instead, “Willard argues that a biblical description of belief necessitates a dedication to the proposition of a conviction to the point of actively placing one’s life in the realities those beliefs represent.” In other words, for Willard, the only sort of belief that truly matters  – in that it is precisely the sort that Jesus calls for – is one that manifests in real life transformation. “Unfortunately, Willard sees the status of contemporary evangelical theology and praxis as largely incapable of attaining the type of genuine ‘belief’ defined wither in Scripture or used in any non-religious arena. This dearth of a robust and biblical concept of belief is decimating evangelicalism and its credibility across the spectrum of cultural and societal institutions in America” (146).

Gospels of Sin Management

This is topic for which Dallas is perhaps most well known and appreciated. For better or for worse, it is what Dallas has to say on this topic that causes many people to wonder if “evangelical” is even a label they can suffer. The essence of Willard’s account here is that evangelicalism, in both its conservative (right) and liberal (left) forms, are marked by understandings of the gospel that “are a means for the religiously devoted to ‘manage’ the lingering effects of a guilt-ridden conscience” (148). For Willard…

History has brought us to a point where the Christian message is thought to be essentially concerned only with how to deal with sin; with wrongdoing, and wrong-being and its effects. Life, our actual experiences, is not included in what is now presented as the heart of the Christian message, or it is included only marginally (149, quoted from Divine Conspiracy).

Willard agrees with Karl Barth that such a shift, in both conservative and liberal forms, was wrought by how “early evangelicalism in America developed as ‘absorption of Christology into soteriology.’ This absorption brought a gaping loss of “Christological concern’ regarding the nature and substance of one’s own salvation of the effect Christ’s life and influence should have on society at large” (149). Thus, “the conservative (right) evangelical sin management proposal presumes a Christ with no serious work other than to atone for sin” while “liberals tend to apply a contextualized degree of Pharisaic activism to their sin management endeavors” (149).

What both gospels of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ have accomplished is to divorce the personal integrity of their adherents to the namesake of their faith… In effect, both of these ideologies categorize the work of Jesus as a means to their own end. Thus, Willard suggests both systems offer the ability for their constituencies to resist the call of the protoevangelical vision and instead take the anti-evangelical position, ‘But I don’t care to be your student or have your character. In fact, won’t you just excuse me while I get on with my life, and I’ll see you in heaven’ (151-152).

Against these gospels of sin management, Willard highlights Jesus’ announcement of the availability of God’s kingdom to all those who would respond to God’s gracious invitation by virtue of their turning from their own way (repentance) to trust and follow him in faithful and loving obedience (discipleship).

Doctrine of God

It would seem, for Willard, that what undergirds the marred visions of both belief and the gospel within dominant expressions of evangelicalism is a failure to discern “the foundational knowledge and personal, interactive experience with God that Jesus both demonstrated and advocated” (155). For Willard, there is nothing more fundamental to God’s character than his agapic nature. “Since agape is the primary component that informs the essentia Dei, it is the position from which all biblical theological inquiry should proceed and the point from which discipleship commences. Any doctrine or dogma that does not conform to the agape nature cannot be assigned or attributed to the actions, will, or providence of God” (156-157).

The upshot of this is that Willard sees something of a dichotomy at work within evangelical Christianity. For Willard…

Such characterizations [Pat Robertson “declaring that Haiti’s earthquake, which killed tens of thousands of Haitians, was a direct result of a divine ‘curse'” or  John Piper’s suggestion that a tornado ripping through Minneapolis “damaging a particular Lutheran church that was considering a vote of ordination of homosexual clergy was ‘a gentle but firm warning’ of God’s disapproval” (157)] assumed in the evangelical doctrine of God require something of a theological schizophrenia, or a divine multiple personality disorder, to explain a theological system that simultaneously describes a deity who ‘loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life’ yet is also willing and able to kill tens of thousands of Haitians or send tornadoes to destroy neighborhoods surrounding ‘liberal’ churches” (158).

As Black goes on to show, Willard is no Universalist, fully recognizing “the presence and importance of evil in both the physical and spiritual realms,” and believing in a literal hell – though perceiving it as “God’s best for some people.” In this view, hell is how “God has arranged for people who don’t love him and can’t worship him to be ‘somewhere else,’ where they will have to endure the person they have become forever” (159).

What do you think, when it comes to belief vs. faith, gospels of sin management, and our understanding of God’s character, how have you see these errors and shortcoming at work? What has your experience been with these “Willardian corrections?”

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