Dallas Willard: Why the Church?

Dallas Willard framed all theology and all practices as dimensions of spiritual transformation unto Christlikeness. Gary Black, Jr., in The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith sketches three more themes that illustrate our opening claim: theo-ontology, christology, and ecclesiology. God, Jesus and the church.

What do you think of making spiritual formation or transformation central to theology?

Taking up the term “ontotheology” of Kant and Heidegger, Willard reformed it to theo-ontology to express what is perhaps his most central idea: God’s existence and God’s nature are central to all being, to all creation. Everything derives from God and everything is sustained by God — and that’s the only way any life exists. Notice now this: Jesus’ kingdom theology is about that theo-ontological reality.  Kingdom for him expresses the nature of all reality. Kingdom then is the possibility of spiritual relationship to God.

The human’s destiny then is to be transformed into a perfected humanity, into perfect relation with God. This happens through transformation. Each of us “is” a kingdom and we choose which kingdom we will serve: God’s kingdom, where God rules, or our own kingdom, where we rule. Kingdom is about the range of a person’s will.

Christology — here Willard uses images not drawn from classic Christian theology (Chalcedon, deity/humanity, etc) nor from NT terms (Son of God, Son of Man, Messiah), but the following terms — and the reason seems to be that they point us in the direction of transformation unto Christlikeness: Jesus as Master, as Physicist (mastery of physical world), as Moralist (as master of how to live, with a focus on the term “righteousness”), as Logician (only a philosopher brings this into discussion, but the emphasis is the brilliance of Jesus), as Teacher, and as Guide.

On ecclesiology, once again Willard fashions a distinctive approach, and once again the church is seen as a hospital for folks on the journey toward transformation into Christlikeness. Gary Black looks at three themes, and here he applies to the church what Dallas develops for transformation: V – I – M. Vision, Intention, Means. But this time for the church. The focus, however, is more on individuals in the church. The Vision is what life in the kingdom should look like. The Intention is to become Christlike and to hold one another accountable to that journey. The Means are the spiritual disciplines that permit self-evaluation and retrain the self into Christlikeness. Grace is routinely mentioned by Willard to keep in mind that all of this is the work of God through the Spirit.

Yet, it must be emphasized that for Willard the human will is given significant location in his theology: in this Black says Willard is very Arminian.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • http://www.wheretoreach.us/ T Freeman

    One of the things I’m most thankful to Dallas for is that he expanded the concept of the *redemption* that God intends. Specifically, Dallas helped me realize with much greater depth how the center of the Lord’s prayer (“May your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth like in heaven”) is a prayer for God’s dream for the world would come, and in no small part through the total renovation of his image-bearers. More than anyone else, Dallas helped me see that whether we are Christians or not, whether we are going to heaven after we die or not, we remain objects in motion in this life, for good or for ill for ourselves and all we contact, often repeatedly. And God cares deeply about changing us from being people who leave a destructive wake each day into people who, like Jesus, bind up the brokenhearted, heal the sick, overcome evil with good, love our neighbor and our enemy. The kingdom, Christ’s kingdom, is not of this world, but it is for this world. It is here, at work, doing what Jesus has always been doing. Each day we work with it or against, or, more likely, some of both. Our prayer is for all to grow into being more and more deeply redeemed—repurchased and re-purposed—for Christ and his loving mission.

  • Kandace

    “Grace is routinely mentioned by Willard to keep in mind that all of this is the work of God through the Spirit.
    Yet, it must be emphasized that for Willard the human will is given significant location in his theology: in this Black says Willard is very Arminian.”
    After a devastating fall, I picked up Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart. I found challenging comfort as I tried to make sense of how I could proclaim my love for Jesus, feel sincere and then be utterly STUPID. His words help me unravel, unwind and untwist some faulty beliefs. Also, to uproot some “bad seed” theology. I needed that season of finding “myself” in my theology. However, if it were not for my renewal and revival of understanding grace, looking inward would have destroyed me, literally. At my lowest moments, I loathed my life.
    Coming out of that season, I was surrounded by those who found their way into my life preaching grace, Jesus at the center, the Bible being first and foremost about His activity and what some would call an unbalanced grace message. I happen to believe my recovery was divinely inspired and there was a reason why Dallas showed up first. The ocean of grace I swim in today is what gives me the hope of transformation. What I use to strive in now seems almost effortless. Not void of work but void of fear and control.
    Thankful for Dallas Willard and the myriad of “Grace preachers” who have never once encouraged me to live a sloppy life, but a holy life motivated from what Jesus has already done in me and for me.

  • John L

    Interesting to see a Christology prioritized as logic, moral, physical, and knowledge — rather than love. Sometimes, it helps me see better when I substitute the word “love” for the word “God”. Like this,

    “Willard reformed it to theo-ontology to express what is perhaps his most
    central idea: Love’s existence and Love’s nature are central to all
    being, to all creation. Everything derives from Love and everything is
    sustained by Love — and that’s the only way any life exists.”

  • danaames

    Amen.

    I also must say that Dallas elevated theological discussion – and actual praxis – so far beyond the things about which non-sacramental Protestants spend so much time arguing. At the time I first encountered him, I was hoping for such a place but hardly expected to ever find it… I am so very grateful for his life and work.

    Oh Lord, grant remission of sins and repose to your servant, Dallas Albert, and make his memory to be eternal.

    Dana

  • danaames

    Yup, I did not know it at the time I first read “Divine Conspiracy,” but it was laying the groundwork for my journey to EOrthodoxy.

    “Everything derives from God and everything is sustained by God — and that’s the only way any life exists.” Check. This is, in fact, the basis of Soteriology in the East, as well. See Fr Stephen Freeman’s blog post “The Death of Christ on the Cross – the Life of Man.”

    “Jesus’ kingdom theology is about that theo-ontological reality.” Yes, especially in the Incarnation – even though Dallas doesn’t speak of the Incarnation in those ontological terms, the fragrance of it is found throughout DC.

    “We choose which kingdom we will serve: God’s kingdom, where God rules, or our own kingdom, where we rule.” “…this (transformation) is the work of God through the Spirit.” “…for Willard the human will is given significant location in his theology.” That is “synergy” in EO, again well stated.

    In Christology, I think if those descriptions of Jesus were understood in Eastern terms, there would be a lot of overlap. Too long for a blog comment, but it’s pretty much all there, at least in this layperson’s understanding.

    “The church is seen as a hospital for folks on the journey toward transformation into Christlikeness.” Bang on – and not so entirely distinctive, as this has been the teaching of the Eastern fathers since at least the days of the earliest monastics. The VIM of the church is all there in EO, too. The “spiritual disciplines” are the tools that are available in and through the church to help in our pursuit of virtue – which is also big with Dallas in DC. (This includes participation the sacraments – again, where he does not go explicitly, but where there is overlap with the Eastern understanding in some measure.)

    Dana


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