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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