March 13, 2014 / JR Rozko

The Theological Vision of Dallas Willard (Part 6): A Preferred Future for Evangelical Christianity

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
Part 4 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 4): The Willardian Correction
Part 5 – The Theological Vision Of Dallas Willard (Part 5): A Jesus-Shaped Philosophy

We reached the formal end of the book in the previous post, which sought to summarize the relationship between Willard’s philosophy and his theology. The final chapter of the book is a concluding summary, but how Black brings the insights of the book together and the pointedness with which he articulates the significance of Dallas’ theological vision beg to be teased out a bit.

map-2As readers of Dallas’ work will no doubt affirm, he is notoriously difficult to “locate,” on standard maps of Christian identity. This is perhaps always the case with those who, against whatever pressures may exist, exhibit a radical commitment to pursuing Jesus on his own terms. This may sound highly individualistic, but one might also argue that this disposition is the true benchmark of Christian catholicity – a radical commitment to pursue Jesus, from whatever other social location one might exist within, on his own terms. Thus, Willard is rightfully seen as someone who operated within and for the benefit of “evangelical Christianity.” Yet he did this only insofar as he saw “evangelical Christianity” as an expression of Christian faith that God desires for all believers.

On this score, his proposals are nothing short of staggering. Says Black,

Willard seems to be communicating that the vision of the kingdom of God, or the primary point of the enterprise of Christianity itself, has been altered over time in such a way that the corpus of the entire vision or mission of God has been either lost or replaced by another message… It is not an exaggeration to suggest that Willard’s critique of contemporary evangelicalism places him as one who generally views the enterprise as focused on objectives often contradictory to those presented as the missio Dei throughout the whole of Scripture. Secondly, Willard also senses that institutions and organizations of evangelicalism have largely ignored or turned away from the application of Jesus’ specific teachings and their values (181-182).

In other words, Willard is a devoted member of that group of believers who affirm that evangelicalism suffers, not mainly at the point of its methods, but at the point of its message. Contemporary, mainstream evangelicalism proclaims a gospel that fails the test of biblical orthodoxy in that it focuses “on ends different from those valued and presented by Jesus” (182).

This un-orthodoxy is manifested in conservative circles by a near exclusive emphasis on “Jesus’ sacrificial value, highlighting the ‘lamb of God’ characteristic to coincide with [a] particular atonement theology” (183) and in liberal circles by a downplaying – or outright rejection – of Jesus’ divinity. In each case, what is missing is the clear and compelling demonstration and “teaching about the availability and potency of the kingdom of God” (184).

The “application” of such a proposal is neither something that can be added to existing paradigms and structures nor something to be achieved by subtracting from them. Instead, “Willard’s view of the protoevangelical message of Jesus presents a vision of life and living that would re-center both post- and traditional evangelical theology” (188) in such a way that to move forward entails an about-face that moves us in a new direction altogether. As Black points out, “the new scandal in evangelicalism may be found in the well-worn path of giving intellectual assent to a revolutionary or attractive theological platform, while never intending to apply or practice any of its truths” (189). Thus, difficult as it may be to embrace, to take Willard seriously means engaging in the systematic dismantling and patient rebuilding of evangelical theology and ecclesial models guided by an embodied reconsideration of Jesus’ own convictions and priorities.

While reflecting on and seeking to summarize this book has been of great personal interest, I hasten to message that carving out space for precisely this sort of exploration and work is central to the mission and identity of Missio Alliance. So, for a final time in this series, I want to reiterate the profound sense gratitude I/we have for Dallas’ vision and legacy!

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