Willard and a Gentle Apologetics

Willard and a Gentle Apologetics May 29, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 9.52.11 AMToday I want to conclude this brief series on Dallas Willard’s view of apologetics in his new book, The Allure of Gentleness. And this means some random topics at work in this fine new book.

First, the disconnect between some who believe in Jesus but not God.

Many Christians, in their heart of hearts, also believe that their faith is just another superstition. They really do. That is why I often say that I know many people who believe in Jesus, but don’t believe in God (12).

Second, knowledge and truth defined:

I define knowledge as being able to deal with things as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience (13).

The traditional view of truth has always been that truth, knowledge, and reality are not matters of what you or your group think; the task of truth is to come to correct terms with what is actually there, regardless of how you or others may view it. The earth is round, you have to have gas in your tank to make your car run and money in your account to buy things, you are degraded by doing what is morally wrong, you will face judgment after death and an eternal destiny of a certain nature, regardless of what you may or may not think about such th
ings (18-19).

Third, apologetics needs to turn more inward:

We need to emphasize that point strongly, because the great problem facing the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the doubt that is outside the church; it is the doubt that is inside the church. We need to be able to deal with doubt lovingly, helpfully, and especially without ever scolding or shaming anyone for doubting. We must allow people to be who they are and then be able to meet them where they are (25).

Fourth, we need to be better thinkers:

What’s key here is that the best answer to philosophy and vain deceit is good philosophy and good thinking in the Spirit of Jesus Christ (41).

Fifth, the aim is not to be Right:

That’s why so many churches have “Grace” in their name. Not many people want to go to “Right Church,” but we’ll gladly go to “Grace Church.” I’ve been to Right Church you may have been there too—it’s a tough place. There are a lot of dead people at Right Church, because life comes by grace (47).

Sixth, a brief response to the question of why God is not more obvious:

If you’re going to do apologetics in a way that is helpful for yourself and others, you’re going to have to explain why God is not more obvious than he is. One of the reasons I often give to people is that if God showed up in his full glory, we could all just kiss our free will good-bye (65).

Seventh, God’s omniscience and omnipotence:

I get a lot of resistance to the idea that God can choose not to know things, because people are concerned about God’s omniscience. But let me tell you that God’s omniscience does not overwhelm his omnipotence. God does not have to know anything he does not wish to know. His omniscience refers to his ability to know everything, just as his omnipotence refers to his ability to do anything he wishes. God’s omnipotence does not mean that he is always doing—or that he ever does—everything he can do. In the same way, he does not have to know everything he can know. He is capable of not knowing whatever he does not wish to know—should there be any such thing (66).

Eighth, on hell:

God did not create hell because he’s mad, he wants to see people suffer, and he enjoys torturing them for eternity. The only reason there is a hell is because God makes provision for what people want, and hell is simply the best God can do for some people (69-70).

Ninth, on Jews:

We need to spend some time thinking about the Jews as a people. There are no people on earth like the Jews. They owe their existence for millennia up to the present to God alone and to the truth that God gave to them in their history and in their laws, which have been incorporated into a book. The highest iteration of God that has ever been given to humanity is in the Old Testament. And the New Testament, once you understand the Old, is simply a natural consequence (99).

Finally, the ultimate apologetic is a person filled with Christlike character:

The ultimate apologetic is the life of the individual who is living out of the resources of the kingdom of God (143).

Which includes an interactive relationship of talking to and listening to God.

Many kinds of objections have been raised about the idea of God speaking to us. For example, many people feel that this is a threat to the authority of the scriptures. No, it is a threat to the authority of the scriptures to teach and to act as if God does not speak to individuals, because it is the clear teaching of the scriptures that he does speak. Read John 14. Read the book of Acts. You will see that he does. Scripture stands as an objective historical measurement of what God will say. It’s important to remember that no communication that God ever gives to anyone will ever conflict with scripture, but he also needs to say a lot of things to you that aren’t in scripture (152).

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  • Phil Miller

    This is a common objection, but free will doesn’t mean the freedom to do anything. It means that we have at least some degree of freedom. Even if we are 99.9% determined, we still have freedom to determine that last 0.1%.

    Think of it this way. If someone really believed that people’s actions were totally determined would they actually try to convince anyone to change their mind? Would such a thing be possible? That’s why I think that books written to convince readers that free will doesn’t exist are probably about the most self-contradictory thing in existence. If the author really believed that, he’d be better off, I don’t know, playing golf rather than writing a book about it.

  • A great book on this topic is by John Stackhouse: “Humble Apologetics” – this book floored me when I read it and has forever changed my approach to “defending the faith”

  • kwfoster

    Willard’s is such a beautiful and compelling vision for an apologetic enfolded into the practice of loving God and loving our neighbors. The section on ‘Right Church’ would be funnier if it weren’t such an accurate description of so many churches. I only wonder if “The ultimate apologetic is the life of the individual who is living out of the resources of the kingdom of God” could be more accurately amended as “. . . the life of a people living out of the resources of the kingdom of God.”

  • scotmcknight

    What helps me is to say that when we choose something we could have chosen something else. As simple as an item on a menu.

  • Phil Miller

    I’m not entirely sure of the point Willard was getting at with that statement. Perhaps he just means that rather than using “shock and awe” to force people to worship Him, He wants people to be drawn into a genuine love relationship with Him. Freedom is a prerequisite for love, in other words.

  • wolfeevolution

    The third point fits nicely with RJS’s post yesterday about Ed Stetzer. We must not be anti-science — and not just because unbelievers are watching (Stetzer’s emphasis), but because *believers* are watching, and if we tuck our fears and doubts away and pretend they don’t exist, we are cheating our faith of honest vitality.

  • Really good question! I am sure you already know…ask John Frame, Michael Horton, or Paul Helm this question and you will get a different answer than say Joel Green, Roger Olson or probably even Scot McKnight.

    I personally can’t escape Jonathan Edwards distinction between moral will and the natural will. I think it is legit and needs to be part of any conversation on the will.

    I am with Phil on Willards’ quote about freewill and the hiddeness of God. Don’t have a clue what he means there.

    My guess is Willard may have been talking about God’s glory as His holiness. If so, maybe the idea is that if we are fully exposed to this then consummation of the Kingdom is here/inevitable. Therefore, what you are is fully revealed in the light of God’s holiness and our will, at that point, becomes a moot point with respect to our status or position in Christ.

  • JamesPLong

    Combative apologists do not elevate my respect for God or deepen my commitment to truth or take the edge off doubt. But those, like Dallas, who have spoken out of the spirit of 1 Peter 3:15–gentle, humble, lively, prepared–another matter. It’s sobering to think that we can speak truth and have it sound like static. But truth with grace … so compelling.

  • Andrew Dowling

    The belief in a literal bodily Resurrection kind of throws that argument above about how God revealing Himself would “destroy free will” out the water. Or let’s take any of the Gospel miracles. If you saw someone make a cripple person walk, walk on water, or rise from the dead, eating fish while walking through walls etc. you would be a believer. That would cause any non-crazy person to get down on their knees and worship whatever achieved those incredible feats. So did the disciples really have “free will”? You could easily argue “no” if you are taking the stories literally.

  • Dean

    I don’t know much about Willard, but here he sounds refreshingly “old school”, you don’t hear conservatives talk like this these days.

  • RThompson

    Number four is critical. In a post-modern world, though, we have discarded things like facts, history and truth. So we get bogged down with things like free will. Not that that is not important to discuss, but getting the theology right is only half the picture.

    The elephant in the room is the church. We next have to recreate that understanding of theological and biblical issues in the minds of those we serve. Most pastors just don’t seem to understand that.

  • Bev Mitchell

    In the quote headed “Knowledge and truth defined” Willard seems to be challenging us to think more dynamically. This is what that fine bit of writing says to me about the will.

    Freedom, including free will, should be considered more dynamically. Like faith, it is a gift that goes on giving. The more we use them correctly, the more of them we get. Christian thinking would say that the best way to exercise faith and free will correctly is through the Spirit of the one who gifts them to humanity in the first place.

    This can be combined with quote six by realizing that the journey of growing in faith and freedom is supposed to end in complete agreement with God through Christ. It’s not that he denies us free will, but that we, through the Spirit, willingly grow to become in agreement with him. His ultimate full self-revelation may be sudden or, perhaps more of a process than we often think. At the end of the process, our will will be his will. And, Christ will be there waiting.

  • Brian Arbuckle

    I’m not following you here. How is it that a literal reading of the gospel miracle stories leads to the conclusion that the disciples had no free will? Did Judas Iscariot have “free will”? Did those “Jews” who conspired to kill and ultimately with Roman help succeeded in killing Jesus have “free will”? If we take the stories of gospel miracles literally we also note that those miracles did not compel belief. There were other responses by the “non-crazies”. There were other explanations that sought to justify those responses. There are those, Jesus said, that would not believe even if one should return from among the dead. Did not those who witnessed the gospel miracles remain free to not believe, i.e., become disciples of Jesus and through him worshipers of the one who “achieved those incredible feats”?

  • Andrew Dowling

    Willard states “One of the reasons I often give to people is that if God showed up in his full glory, we could all just kiss our free will good-bye”

    So was Jesus’s miracles not uniquely exhibiting God? You honestly think if anyone saw someone walk on water, they would remain steadfast in their “disbelief?” Really? According to the stories the disciples saw the power of God much more than anyone has ever since in all of human history.

    “If we take the stories of gospel miracles literally we also note that those miracles did not compel belief.”

    Right, which is one reason why I don’t take them literally. Belief in miracles was widespread enough in the pre-Enlightenment age that a writer could say people remained obstinate in the face of seeing the laws of nature turned utterly on their head. That there was a holy man healing sick people was not considered amazing in and of itself. Pagan treastises against Christianity (as well as Christian treastises against paganism) did not debate whether the miracles were real from either tradition, but whether the source of the power was from demonic spirits or the true divine immanence.

    So if one is going to retain intellectual honesty, I think would either has to claim a) People in the 1st century could literally remain unmoved upon seeing incredible supernatural occurrences because such occurrences were widespread and not particularly unique or b) Such appearances were completely unique and earth-shattering, and thus took free will out the window of those who were witnesses/participants.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t know… I’ve known people who have seen or experienced miraculous events who have not radically changed their life because of it. For one thing, anyone can rationalize almost any experience away if they try hard enough.

  • Andrew Dowling

    Phil, what people consider a “miracle” covers a pretty wide sprectrum. We’re not talking “God told me to take an alternative route home that day and the usual route ended up having a 10 car pile-up” miracle. This is people walking on water and the dead rising. The only way one could “rationalize” those away (again, assuming literalism here for the sake of argument) would be via the chemical influence of narcotics/hallucinogens . . .if you were to witness such an event, would it not be the single biggest event in your life?

    Even from a biblical standpoint, people are often “chosen” by God . . they do not do the choosing. This argument can go back further into the text; could one say Moses really had “free will?”

    My main point wasn’t to begin a larger debate about miracles, but to highlight out a flaw in Willard’s argument here.

  • Andrew, but to that main point, there is a big difference b/n miracles and seeing God in his full glory. I’ve seen things that were undoubtedly supernatural. Though they did not include the dead rising, they were and remain very significant to me. And yes, they do bolster one’s faith. But life continues. Doubts and other formational challenges remain. In any event, Miracles aren’t the same as seeing God in all his glory. They are, like many things, foretastes.

  • Dixie Lee

    I see the Bible stories as very creditable. These people were following Him mercilessly, to the point where they took off out to the countryside in hot pursuit, even with their kids in tow, and didn’t even stop to think about food or how long they were going for, and they didn’t have a quick way of getting back. It is VERY obvious that what was going on around Jesus was EXTREMELY life-changing for MANY people. Can you possibly even just imagine becoming a martyr during that century, only because you were too proud, after He took off, to admit you had been deceived. Hardly. I don’t think it is a stretch at all to believe EVERY story we are told, and that there were many more, as it mentions, is VERY obvious, indeed! I think the part that escapes us here is the word “fulness” as in the Glory of the Father. Before creation, Christ saw Himself with unveiled
    glory and majesty. As He is praying in John 17, His hands of human flesh veil His glory. He looked
    forward to the day His glory would have the same radiance that blazed
    before creation.

  • Dixie Lee

    We all have the ability to hear Satan speaking. Acknowledge this and you will realize that your whole life is full of choices. We can choose to listen to one of 3 voices: God’s, Satan’s, or our own. Your free will is totally exercised constantly. Don’t be deceived.

  • Dixie Lee

    He wants us to love Him with no co-ercement