A Mature Reflection On Dallas Willard’s Theology

Dr. Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting, has written what I think is the most mature reflection I’ve seen on the life and theology of the recently deceased Dallas Willard. Willard has quite the following. There are definitely Willard’ites out there who will one gulp everything Willard has ever said and done. On the other hand there are those who think the man is secretly leading the advance guard of Nicolae Carpathia.

Dr. Hill has a more balanced approach. He writes of greatly appreciating Willard’s work, having first come across it as a grade 9 student. I wonder if this is one of the main reasons for understanding how Dr. Hill has been able to deal with his same sex attraction and what the Scriptures says in such a mature fashion. Nevertheless, he points out some problems with some of Willard’s exaggerated rhetoric, whilst still being deeply appreciative:

In the years since high school, as I’ve followed up those first tentative theological steps with more exploration in the Christian tradition, I’ve become less enthused about some of Willard’s conclusions. I now think, for instance, that when Willard characterized much of classic Evangelical soteriology as concerned only with “managing sin” or offering “fire insurance” to escape hell, he painted a regrettable caricature.

Confessional Protestantism, the seedbed of Evangelical theology, has always stressed the importance of a renewed way of life. In the words of the Westminster Confession, when we are incorporated into Christ, “the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified; and [we are] more and more quickened and strengthened in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness.”

But the crucial point, for Protestant theology, is that this transformation is only possible as the fruit of having our sin, not “managed,” exactly, but canceled, destroyed, borne by Christ on the cross and borne away. Freed in this way from fear of divine condemnation, we are joyfully enabled to inhabit the kind of changed life Willard writes about. And Evangelicals, from the beginning of our movement with people like John Wesley and William Wilberforce until now, have in fact done so.

On the other hand, though, I’ve come to view many of Willard’s insights as abidingly significant. His practical teaching, found in the final third of The Divine Conspiracy and elsewhere, on why and how to practice disciplines (like memorizing Scripture, fasting, and observing times of solitude and silence) has no peer. (It was largely because of Willard that I decided to memorize Romans 6-8 while in high school.) And some of his sentences sparkle with such insight and comfort that they merit revisiting. For instance:

Out of the eternal freshness of his perpetually self-renewed being, the heavenly Father cherishes the earth and each human being upon it. The fondness, the endearment, the unstintingly affectionate regard of God toward all his creatures is the natural outflow of what he is to the core—which we vainly try to capture with our tired but indispensable old word love.

The reasons I’ve spent the last ten years acquiring graduate degrees in theology, and the reasons I’m now a teacher at a seminary, pursuing ordination to the priesthood and helping to train students who are also pursuing Christian ministry, are multiple and complex. But lying near the heart of that tangle of reasons is, I think, a frightened, frustrated seventeen-year-old picking up Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I’ll always be grateful for the stimulus I gained from it, and for its author. May he rest in peace. (HT: First Things)