Dallas Willard: Proto-Evangelical

Dallas Willard: Proto-Evangelical September 5, 2013

Let us agree that one way of talking about evangelicalism is to speak to five themes: Bible, conversion, cross, evangelistic and social activism, and its focus on salvation. How did Dallas Willard fit into these major themes? This is the question Gary Black Jr asks in The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. I cannot emphasize the value of this book enough: Dallas Willard was way ahead of the curve on many issues.

Dallas left an imprint on each of these themes. That, in many ways, was his genius, but even more he set theology in the context of Christlikeness, or he set theology in the context of formation. Any theology that is not in the context of formation needs to be recontextualized.

What area of Willard’s theology was the most challenging for you? Where do you think his impact was/is?

To begin with, Dallas Willard ordered these themes so that Bible and conversion generated cross and activism in the context of a robust view of salvation. If you listen to the Word, you will be converted into those other themes.

Scripture: it is the human and divine in concert. He’s not into either inerrancy or plenary inspiration theologies. Infallibility is “for the purposes of guiding us into a life-saving relationship with God in his kingdom” (58). The Bible is comprised of “witness testimony” and as such has “the limitations of individual perspectives” (59). God can be trusted to communicate what God wants us to know. Once again, his view emphasizes the divine infallible ability to accomplish divine purposes. Many defenses of Scripture result in rationalism and dogmatism.

Black says Willard removes his view of Scripture from so much of what evangelicals fight about. Scripture is a “physical, written manifestation of God’s revealed presence” (60). Here he sketches Logos, which is “present in the Scriptures, in history, in nature, and also discovered in the lives of individuals” (60). Scriptures are an objective presence of the Logos in the world, but not an all-inclusive representation of the Logos. The living Logos transcends language (62). Straightforward readings are its design. Methodology does not necessarily lead to encounter into transformation. Let the Bible be the Bible, and listen to it. The highest view of Scripture listens and applies Scripture.

Also, Willard believes in a “conversational revelation”: that God speaks and we hear God’s voice. We are called to live our life “with God.” God still communicates; cessationism is contra the Bible. God still uses the “still small voice.” God is a person; we are persons; person-to-person communication follows.

Willard on “conversion”: his focus is transformation, not the term “conversion.” Thus, he connects justification and sanctification, and conversion is thus a life-long event. It is progressive adaptation to ontological status. It is holistic conversion of the whole self into Christlikeness. Black sketches Willard’s VIM theory: vision, intention and means. Christlikeness met with intention to be Christlike and the spiritual disciplines are the means. It is more than correct belief and it cannot happen all at once. God’s Spirit transforms.

On activism: Willard thinks evangelicalism’s activism (in evangelism) is rooted in an unhealthy and unbiblical understanding of salvation. In other words, discipleship has left salvation’s house. He advocates “discipleship evangelism.” If the aim is Christlikeness, then activism must be entirely devoted to that — not to forgiveness or guilt or status.

Only in light of the above can we see what Willard is onto when it comes to crucicentrism. Justification is a restored relationship with God. “Just as if I’d never sinned” is unhelpful. Atonement is God giving his Son for us and our salvation. The cross is one dimension of that giving. New life is atonement. How it happens is a mystery. Salvation is about deliverance — from sin and sins. Not just imputation of a meritorious condition but a new relationship — again showing how relational theology is at the core. Traditional evangelical atonement theories — penal substitution —  then can miss the whole point. It is all about a state of being. Thus it is not so much believing in the cross but entering into the cross.

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  • Lynn Betts

    Fascinating, and enriching. And contrasts dramatically with a related post by Tim Challies a few months ago, and the comments that were generated (http://www.challies.com/articles/the-boundaries-of-evangelicalism).

    So, are there many who consider Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, et. al. fall outside the boundaries of evangelicalism? Fundamentalists likely would; is it also likely the neo-reformed do as well – whether non-Baptists or Baptists? (BTW, I ask as one who is interested in knowing what is key to a person excluding him/them from the label of evangelicalism, not one who is throwing darts.)

  • Rick

    At least some at The Gospel Coalition seem to appreciate him:


  • DMH

    Thanks for these posts, they’re helping to fill out my understanding of who he was. I was first introduced to his writings through an “existence of God” debate. A couple of weeks ago I started reading his The Spirit of the Disciplines. Seems like a pretty diverse guy, which may be why people from various segments of Christianity can find something to like in him. I’m finding his disciplines book engaging and challenging.

  • Dallas was a wonderful gift to the world, and to evangelicals in particular. In so, so many ways, he not only put his finger on what was going wrong in evangelicalism, but so wisely and gently pointed the way forward.

    Scot, how ’bout, in honor and continuance of Dallas’ legacy, we do a slow, posthumous review of “Divine Conspiracy?”

  • Mark Kennedy

    I second that.

  • danaames

    T, I third that. It’s hard to believe it has been 15 years since DC was published.

    There is so much about Dallas’ thought and life, of what Scot sketched in the above description of this present reviewed book, that resonates with EO. If Dallas had been Orthodox, he would surely be up for recognition as a saint at some point in the not too distant future. Seriously. (Our process is different than that of RC.) And as an Orthodox Christian, I am free to continue to ask for the prayers of a faithful Christian, which Dallas most certainly was. Love is stronger than death.

    I think Dallas’ greatest contribution was to explain the meaning of the Kingdom of God, with Jesus as the center. I think that is what unites his work on theology, transformation, the disciplines – all of it.


  • Gary Black Jr

    great idea

  • Bill Donahue

    yes, rare voices. I was in a room with a strong TGC proponent who decried Dw’s theology of the spiritual life. Oh my. Thank God for Willard’s humble and thoughtful contribution. Not one of us has a corner on the market, especially those who claim so.

  • Dianne P

    voting with Dana. and would very much like to see discussion of that which resonates with EO.

  • danaames



    -“Scriptures are an objective presence of the Logos in the world, but not an all-inclusive representation of the Logos. The living Logos transcends language.” The rest of that paragraph would be a Protestant view, but the above quote is very Orthodox.

    -“God is a person; we are persons; person-to-person communication follows.” I would say for Orthodoxy it would be that a person-to-person encounter follows. There may be overt communication, or not, but whatever happens is personal, and I believe Dallas understood the theological meaning of “person”. [I bet he is having some great conversations with the Eastern Fathers, esp St Maximos the Confessor!]

    -Basically that whole “conversion as transformation” paragraph. Vision would be seeing all things through the Resurrection; intention would be the synergy enabled by the Holy Spirit, bringing the intellect, thoughts and emotions under the direction of the nous (the faculty of our being that is able to directly apprehend and experience God), rather than being led by them; means would be the sacramental life of the Church.

    -Activism as pursuit of Christlikeness, which essentially means acquiring, and growth in, virtue – not as any kind of “works righteousness” but because of being subjects of the King in the Kingdom of God. Dallas identified “the soterian gospel”, though he called it by another name…

    -Crucicentrism/justification – again the whole paragraph. God instigating it all, and deliverance from death and sin by entering into the Cross and all that it means. Our problem is ontologic, not legal. Our healing must be relational and connected to the Incarnation, not forensic.

    Good to see you still hanging ’round here, Dianne –


  • Todd Jordan

    T, I am on-board for the the review.

  • Gary Black Jr

    Dallas did have a very robust understanding of personhood. This came from both a theological and philosophical perspective. And he was deeply engaged with the mystics and desert fathers/mothers in relation to God’s interest and connection to the spiritual essence of human beings. I deal with Dallas’ anthropology and theo-ontology in ch. 3.

  • Gary Black Jr

    Dallas as a saint…. I think I like that idea very much. Although he would certainly run head long away from any such notion. I do think there is work to be done regarding the connections of Dallas’ theology to eastern orthodoxy. Sounds like a great dissertation project. Anyone?

  • Gary Black Jr

    Bill, I’m not familiar with the voices in TGC who opposed Dallas’ theology. What was their position?

  • Andrew Dowling

    I will admit, I’m usually not a fan of theologians/commentators on the “evangelical” side of the spectrum, but Willard is an exception. He strikes me as having been a gracious, wise man. American Christianity needs more from his cloth.

  • Bill Donahue

    as stated above his integration of faith and works in their minds, that spiritual growth takes effort that we do

  • Gary Black Jr

    Ah. Yes. Thanks. Dallas used to say often, both in public and private that some of his more reformed brothers and sisters could run the risk of not only being saved by grace but possibly paralyzed by it. His most famous reply to the issue of faith and works was that God’s grace was not opposed to effort, only earning. He talks about that concept in an interview with John Ortberg here. http://www.outofur.com/archives/2011/05/ur_video_dallas_1.html

  • Don Bryant

    Evangelicalism – how I love it. Whatever it is!! I grew up Evangelical, ministered with an Evangelical parachurch ministry, went to an Evangelical seminary, served in Evangelical churches, ministered on the boards of an Evangelical seminary and a mission board, and still trying to figure it out. Those boundary lines sure are hard to draw.

  • Dianne P

    Thanks so much. Hope you get my response via disqus as this post is getting old. Recently spent some time in western Ireland and I continue to be intrigued by similarities between celtic and EO. I’m guessing because both were not very influenced by Rome??? You might recall that I raised EC (eastern Catholic), and I continue on my journey of seeking the roots of my sense of spiritual “gentleness” if you will. Speaking with my Irish tour guide, a blessed young man with degrees in history and theology, he thought that was a good term to use for the EO faith.
    Glad to see you still hanging around here too.