Gary Black. The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013.


Gary Black’s The Theology of Dallas Willard is a rather ambitious work with a rather specific audience. The book is written to and for post-evangelicals—that is, for those who find themselves estranged just within or just without the circles of mainline evangelicalism[1]—and in it, Black attempts not only to summarize and to explain Willard’s thought but also to show how what he calls “the Willardian correction” might in fact save evangelicalism from the disaster it has recently made of itself. In Black’s words, Willardian theology is essentially “a distinct and concerted effort to transcend the limits and myopia of American evangelical religion” (186) as we have come to know it.

Black begins by setting Willard’s theology in context. What I take to be the best chapter in the book (Scot McKnight says as much in the foreward, too) provides an illuminating sketch of American evangelicalism, largely by means of very readable explanations of David Bebbington’s quadrilateral and Randall Balmer’s account of the key transitional and transformative events in the history of evangelicalism in North America. Having done that, Black goes on to show how Willard’s thought departs sharply from standard evangelical ways of talking about the gospel, a departure that nonetheless remains true to the heart of the evangelical tradition because it is true to the original gospel given in Christ. In other words, Willardian theology is not mere departure—it is retrieval.

What, exactly, has Willard retrieved? By Black’s accounting, nothing less than the essence of true evangelicalism, which he names “protoevangelicalism.” Willardian theology, Black believes, effects a recovery of the “primal gospel” (186), and just so provides a way of escape for evangelicals from “the social adaptations, political trappings, and cultural contextualization” (186) that have caused evangelicals to lose touch with “the original message of Jesus” (72, 79). Black’s Willard is a reformer who wants to recover the “brand of evangelicalism marked by Edwards, Wesley, Whitfield, and Finney” (180).

More than a few readers are going to balk at this point, I suspect. Surely it is too much to say that Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney belong to the same “brand.” And it is just short of outrageous to claim that Willard has recovered the primal gospel of Jesus’s original vision. Perhaps all Black really means to say is that Willard, like other prophetic figures in the tradition, wants to call evangelicals back to the heart of the gospel revealed in Christ as he is witnessed in the Gospels. (In this construal, Willard’s project sounds very much like N. T. Wright’s.) Regardless, this much remains clear: Black’s Willard believes that Christians must return to following Jesus’s example and his teachings—and that such a return would effect in the here-and-now “an attainable reality that is very, very good” (188). To that end, Black argues, Willard proposes his Vision Intention Means (VIM) model of spiritual formation (spelled out in Chapter 5 of Renovation of the Heart), which basically summarizes the Pietistic traditions’ core commitments to an “optimism of grace”: where an adequate vision of the kingdom as promised by Jesus is given and where people arerightly intentional about submitting to that vision by attending to the ordained means for transformation, then there follows an establishing of kingdom-like realities in this world.

This optimism of grace—a term often used to describe Wesley’s theology—shows itself also in Willard’s methodology. At least as Black construes it, Willard’s common-sense take on the Christian life arises from a straightforward reading of what the Jesus of the Gospels says and does and real-world observations of what does and does not move people along toward Christ-likeness here and now. These common-sense habits of reading all things through the teachings and example of Jesus and attending to the apparent results of ministry and discipleship are grounded in Willard’s assumptions about God’s nature: he keeps asking himself, “If this were true, then what would it say about God?”

Willard’s sharp criticisms of evangelical theology and his use of “bracketing” (ephoce)—a technique he learned in his engagements with Edmund Husserl’s work—have left the impression on some readers that Willard is postmodern. But Black insists this is not true. Although Willard shares the postmodernist suspicion of modernist epistemologies and their attending notions of cultural progress and self-construction, his methodological optimism and philosophical realism set him dramatically apart. Unlike Jacques Derrida, in particular, Willard believes he is “seeking, and describing the discovery of, exactly what Derrida claims does not exist and cannot be known.”[2] Black admits that many post-evangelicals are drawn to postmodernist theologies—such as Jürgen Moltmann’s, John Caputo’s, and Thomas Altizer’s—that “highlight ambiguity, communal discernment, contextual dependence, and dialectical engagement” (172). But to follow their lead, Black warns, is to lose touch entirely with “evangelical priorities” (6). As for what he thinks post-evangelicals should do, Black is forceful and clear: they should follow Willard’s lead and not succumb to postmodernist temptations.

Especially in reading Black’s conclusions, I found myself wondering if Willard’s work can in fact save evangelicalism as Black claims it can. I also find myself wondering if Willard’s work departs from standard evangelical theology as radically as Black suggests. For example, Black maintains that Willard remains committed to biblicism and conversionism—the bastions of evangelical identity—even though he is verydifferently committed to them.[3] But perhaps that just means that Willard is not so much reforming evangelicalism as rearranging its priorities. Some post-evangelicals, I imagine, are going to find that Willard—at least as Black presents him—does not go far enough in his critique of the evangelical tradition. For them, something more severe is needed.

Without doubt, the Willardian model has, in Black’s words, “hit a felt need” (187). As McKnight says, Willard has left an indelible mark on the American evangelical imagination. But questions about the model remain, questions that have to be answered. Is the model too intellectual, too didactic? Does it move too linearly? The process of transformation, some might argue, is more complex and dynamic than Willard’s model allows. And Willard’s account of intentionality—at least as Black represents it—may raise concerns, as well. Not only is it individualistic, but it also privileges rationality in ways some are sure to question if not reject outright. It would be helpful, I think, to put Willard’s model into conversation with James K. A. Smith’s work on spiritual formation. Out of that conversation, a model might emerge situating the teaching ministries in communal formational practices that train believers’ bodies, affections, and imaginations to “feel” the kingdom’s dynamics, empowering them to take on the mind of Christ.[4]

For me, the most troubling aspect of Willard’s account of intentionality, as Black describes it, is its confidence in our powers to decide for God. While reading Black’s book and writing this review, I happened also to be reading Rowan Williams’s Teresa of Avila, and the contrast is remarkable, to say the least. Williams shows how, throughout her writings, Teresa draws attention to God acting to overcome her will, interrupting and defeating her intentions in order to effect in her a greater good than she could have known to desire. In her Life, Teresa testifies: “God delivered me in such a way that it seems clear he strove, against my will, to keep me from being completely lost.”[5] What would Willard do with such a claim? Unless I am misreading him (or Black has oversimplified him), Willard wants to say that our intention to submit to what God wants for us is the determinative factor in our spiritual development. I believe the witness of Teresa and others cautions us against any such reduction.

Other questions persist, having to do with the theological assumptions that undergird Willard’s work. Take, for example, his Christology, which can seem at times merely exemplaristic; his ecclesiology, which threatens to reduce the church to sheer function; his notions about the logos, which sound like a version of Sergei Bulgakov’s sophiology; or his doctrine of the essentia dei,which is assumed but not argued.Like Wesley and others in the Arminian tradition, Willard wants to affirm in the strongest terms that God in love respects the inviolability and absolute freedom of the human will. His account of intentionality simply will not work if humans are not free to yield to God’s grace, to cooperate with it. But even among those who agree with what Willard wants to say about our participation in God’s saving us, many will (rightly) want a clearer, more nuanced account of how our participation comes to matter in our salvation.

Willard did not develop fully satisfying answers to all of these questions in his published works, and it is likely unfair to expect him to have done so. And it would be unfair to expect Black to have addressed them all in this book. Still, it would prove immensely helpful, I believe, if Black—and others who are working with Willard’s theology—were to develop a more robust theological framework for and articulation of the Willardian model. McKnight suggests that Willard is the father of spiritual formation for our generation. No doubt many people have gained and are gaining much from engaging Willard’s work, and Black’s work, I trust, will lead even more people into engagement with it. But Black’s work also shows some of the limits—if not, in fact, deficiencies—in Willardian theology. His work signals the need for others to take on the work of developing (and, where necessary, correcting) Willard’s spiritual formation model.

William Golding said that Pilate’s question—“What is truth?”—is a good question only if it comes at the beginning of a conversation.[6] Perhaps the same can be said of Black’s recommendation of Willard and of Willard’s work, as well. And at the end of the day, what more could Black want than for readers of The Theology of Dallas Willard to move back and forth from it to Willard? And surely Willard would want nothing more than for us to return again and again from his writings to the Scriptures and the wisdom of the Christian theological and spiritual traditions, making ourselves available at every turn to the grace that conspires for our good.

[1] In his preface to Dave Tomlinson’s widely read work on post-evangelicalism (The Post-Evangelical, rev. ed. [El Cajon, CA: emergentYS, 2003), 11), Dallas Willard describes post-evangelicals in these terms: “you have to start with the realization that what Tomlinson calls post-evangelicalism is by no means ex-evangelicalism. There are, of course ex-evangelicals, and even anti-evangelicals, but post-evangelicals are evangelicals, perhaps tenaciously so. However, post-evangelicals have also been driven to the margins by some aspect of evangelical church culture with which they cannot honestly identify.”

[2] Black’s reading of postmodernist thought—and Willard’s too, insofar as Black represents him rightly—is sure to be contested. Readers of the work of John Caputo, James K. A. Smith, Mark C. Taylor, and others like them are going to take serious issue, I suspect, in particular with how Husserl and Derrida are represented.

[3] For Willard, the efficacy of the Scriptures matters more than an abstract theory of their inerrancy and conversion is not in any way reducible to a one-time “decision for Christ.”

[4] Willard believes that this is the goal of all spiritual formation.

[5] Teresa of Avila, The Book of Her Life, 2.6,trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2008), 7. See also Williams, Teresa of Avila (London, UK: Continuum, 2003).

[6] Golding, “Thinking as a Hobby,” in The Norton Reader, Shorter Eleventh Edition, ed. Linda H.

Peterson and John C. Brereton (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2004), 128.