Gary Black’s The Theology of Dallas Willard

This review essay originally appeared in Evangelical Quarterly 87, no. 3 (2015).

In his first book, Gary Black Jr. has led the charge in the investigation of the theological legacy of Dallas Willard. And it is not a contingency of Willard’s untimely death that this review must talk about legacy because The Theology of Dallas Willard, begun and largely completed before his death, is deeply interested and invested in the Wirkungsgeschichte (reception history) of its subject. I’m not sure who is responsible for the title of the book but I suggest that The Legacy of Dallas Willard gets much closer to the actual content. Indeed the book is about the historically immanent momentum towards ‘a radical shift’ in America-brand evangelicalism and the empirically identifiable part that Willard’s books played and the idealistically ascertained part they should play in it (xv). Thus, the study of Willard’s theology, though occupying a significant portion of the page count, is only a cog in the overall argument for Willard’s theology.

The book is a revision of Black’s Exeter PhD dissertation in Practical Theology. It begins with a brisk tour of evangelicalism in historical and thematic scope for the purpose of naming the sociological context from which Willard’s theology ‘evolved’. Capitalizing on David W. Bebbington’s four evangelical distinctives heavily relied upon to establish this context, ‘Willardian theology’ is put on display using the concepts of biblicism, conversionism, activism and cruciocentricism as headings. A change of pace and a more creative exposition of Willard begins in the third chapter. Here Black identifies a ‘mental pattern of organizing a certain perspective’ in Willard and promises to trace this piece, namely God’s love, through the doctrinal loci. Though this is done in part, in fact, the chapter mainly isolates and summarizes Willard’s views on said doctrines.

Chapter four returns to the relationship between Willard and the American evangelical context, this time revealing not the bond but the friction in the relationship. Two of Willard’s standard laments about American evangelicalism are brought to light and a third point of potential friction is also raised. The next chapter, more relevant to Black’s dissertation, summarizes the anti-constructivist impulse in Willard’s philosophical realism and explores his relationship to intentional evangelical forays into postmodern thought and life. The dissertation ended with four speedy but enlightening ethnographies of postevangelical church and para-church groups who were studying and implementing ‘Willardian theology’. In the sad absence of these studies, the book’s ‘Conclusion’ delivers Black’s prescriptive punchline, namely that Willard as ‘a product of his culture’ appeals to both postevangelicals and their detractors and is ‘in a rare position to bridge what has often been perceived as an ever widening divide’ (186). Hence, the future of evangelicalism, if it is to have one, ought to be ‘Willardian’.

Black’s memorable, broadly researched monograph needs to be assessed on multiple levels. On the level of accurately representing Willard, there is the matter of Willard’s so-called evangelicalism. Though Black is no doubt telling the truth when he claims he examined ‘the entirely of Willard’s theological corpus’ and conducted multiple interviews with Willard (xix), somehow it escaped his purview that Willard did not like Bebbington’s classification of evangelicalism. Willard appears to have at least tipped Black off to this because he puts a cryptic note to that effect in his book (57). But in an email correspondence with Gerald McDermott (24 December 2008) forwarded to a few of Willard’s close associates, Willard explicitly challenges all of Bebbington’s distinctives except biblicism and concludes that Bebbington is not even treating evangelicalism proper but a popular and faulty interpretation of its post-WWII form. The email aside, much of this could have been deduced I think (without the advantage of hearing it from Willard’s mouth) if Black had taken a less sociological route and pursued Willard’s actual theological ties to actual evangelical figures of the past. Similarly, Black could have pursued Willard’s own descriptions of evangelicalism in publications such as ‘Christ-Centered Piety’ and ‘Discipleship’.[1]

But granting Black’s position, in defiance of Willard, that Bebbington’s distinctives put their finger on evangelicalism, then a meritorious thesis could be easily defended that Willard is not an evangelical. If successful, this would not have disturbed Willard in the least who spent no time at all defending or grabbing after evangelical credentials and was hesitant to even use the word because of how contentious it was. He certainly referred to himself as a Southern Baptist, which was infrequent, more often than he did to being an evangelical. But evangelical, Baptist, these were examples of what Willard called the unavoidable ‘vessel’ of the redeemed life; the ‘treasure’ was the ‘knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’.[2] On this basis, Willard knew that the people of God pursuing the treasure of God could be found in plenty of non-evangelical, non-American, non-Baptist vessels. This explains why there is a great deal of biographical and textual evidence that Willard’s views did not evolve from the post-WWII American evangelical vessel.

So turning to how Black applies Bebbington’s evangelical distinctives to Willard, we find that, apart from biblicism, a lot of pushing, stretching and ‘duct taping’ needs to be done to make the other three fit. When conversionism is mutated into ‘transformation’ because the latter theme is more prevalent in Willard’s writing, there is hardly anything remaining of Bebbington’s original insight. When Black defends the proposition that Willard’s teachings on the discipleship and asceticism are his version of activism, one may wonder if Black has understood what the original concept even meant. Black’s hand is completely exposed when he comes to cruciocentricism which is simply absent in Willard’s thought. But again, Bebbington’s category is robbed of any distinctive content and astoundingly Willard is labeled as cruciocentric despite his denial of anything which could reasonably give sense to that concept. I have little doubt that Black, a wide-ranging observer, does know what Bebbington was talking about, but that he would so readily engage in free association to make a point suggests that something else is at stake besides a clean reading of Willard’s position.

What else is at stake becomes clearer in the next, more abstract level of assessment: the philosophy inherent in Black’s overall argument. As already intimated, the book is best characterized as an argument for Willard’s theology. What is the assumed epistemology of argumentation? Black explicitly mentions a few tenured Practical Theologians and intellectual historiography (xx). With that in mind and given the book’s content it seems to me that Black is using a ‘soft Hegelian’ method, putting him into the good company of great modern philosophers such as Charles Taylor (14). Willard is promoted as a ‘potential remedy’ (56) for instability, tension and conflict within the evangelical ‘social imaginary’. On one side, we have conservative, modern, American evangelicalism. Then comes disillusioned, progressive, postmodern, American postevangelicalism. But the synthesis for these increasingly frictional parties can be found in embracing ‘Willardian theology’ because Willard as a born and bred evangelical stands within evangelical intellectual history and from within can effectively push it forward or perhaps has been effectively pushed forward. Willard, we could say, fulfills the Aufhebung of evangelicalism.

Apart from calling himself an idealist, Black, who is methodologically conscientious, admits much of this. And he has a duty to pursue the epistemology of argumentation that he determines is best. But the main problem is that he seems unaware, and certainly leaves the reader unaware, that Willard was not in agreement with this type of argumentation and thus never promoted his views because they were contextualized or as a contextualized solution to immanent groanings of a social group. Black tells us that in writing the book he examined ‘pertinent aspects’ of Willard’s philosophical work. I fear that this is a case where his examination was not pertinent enough.

I do not want Black to be misunderstood. His original project arising from current popular methods of research was to uncover the type of reception Willard’s books had in the minds of sociologically identified evangelicals who had somehow ‘moved on’ from the evangelical thought and practice of their childhood, so-called postevangelicals. This is a fine task and certainly makes a contribution to knowledge and to the clerical profession. It is when Black steps beyond the bounds of describing social phenomena and wants to be prescriptive for these social groups that he has his ‘idealist moment’ and the philosophical and theological problems arise.

Does the intellectual history or mindset of my social dimension give any indication of what I/we should believe? Willard, for one, did not think so and one among many reasons why he do not think so is that this way of arguing assumes a philosophy of mind called representationalism. This is the view according to which you cannot really know how things are; you can only know your representations or your ideas of how things are and must work from there. Sadly in his chapter on Willard’s philosophical realism, Black only singled out the anti-constructivist theme and skipped over the anti-representationalist theme. This is quite an oversight because philosophy of mind and challenging the contemporary assumption of representationalism were of lifelong importance to Willard’s work in professional philosophy. If one subscribes to the intentionality philosophy of mind, as does Willard, one need not deny that minds have representations or ideas; one merely denies that minds do not go beyond their representations to the things themselves. Thus, in building an argument for the Bible or the kingdom of God or the church, one could and therefore should start from the evidence that the things themselves give.

However social scientists, for good reason, specialize in uncovering the representations of the human subjects they are studying. Willard, too, thought pastors should study what the people they speak to actually believe. This is what Black in his research as a Practical Theologian in part committed himself to doing. It is when he wants to argue for Willard’s theology on the basis of his subjects’ representations alone that he departs from Willard’s view and, if it matters, my view. And this is fine. Agreement with Willard is not the measure of intelligence, orthodoxy or knowledge. As Willard would say to his students and colleagues, ‘This is how things appear to me. If you’ve got something better, go with it.’ Nevertheless, it is irresponsible in a book in which Willard takes up such a dominant part and which will represent him to a less-informed audience to not provide transparency about where his views end and our views begin. If I am really reading The Theology of Gary Black Jr., I am not opposed, I am even intrigued, but would rather be told up front. But perhaps that is just the realist bent in me. I know that idealists will see the interpretive and epistemological task otherwise and there are other forums to explore those disagreements.

But if we can bracket the connection between Willard and evangelicalism and can bracket the overall argument for Willard’s theology and if we can concentrate on the positive portrayal of Willard’s theology in the middle of the book, we come to a third level of assessment. Black promises ‘an in-depth practical theological organization and investigation of Willardian theology’ (xix). So, is this ‘organization and investigation’ a good one? In terms of accurately reporting on the basics of Willard’s books, everything seems fine. There are no major misrepresentations, just a few minor ones not worth mentioning. But unfortunately, for the person who has already studied, even merely read, Willard’s books for herself, there is little to nothing new. Black has a book-report strategy of exposition: he defines a topic and then collects, reproduces and occasionally summarizes Willard’s own statements on that topic. In this, Willard’s parlance is so prevalent that one can barely call the exposition an act of reconstruction. Often no more is done than leaving off quotation marks. And analysis or commentary is almost completely missing.

Positively, what should be noticed about this is that it is not far away from what is required for PhD research in Practical Theology which primarily aims to locate the legacy of a set of books in a social group. One in the least needs to demonstrate that one knows the content of the books which one is looking for in the social setting. Analysis of influences, interlocutors, prominence of doctrines, logic, internal consistency, linguistic situation and register, underlying philosophical assumptions, relevance and even truth content is not required. By contrast, if Willard’s thought were being treated in a Dogmatics, Historical Theology or Philosophy research project, the absence of analysis could not be overlooked. Therefore, stripped of its forays into evangelicalism and positive theologizing, beneficiaries of Black’s research will not be university- or seminary-trained readers. What’s more, Black’s baroque, idiosyncratic language will certainly scare off the layman who perhaps wishes to have an introduction to Willard. This is lamentable because otherwise this would be the best introduction to Willard on the market.

The only contribution of Black’s treatment of Willard to the ongoing study of his thought, not his legacy, may lie in its thought-provoking suggestion for organizing Willard’s theology; therefore, this final space will be devoted to it. It is proposed that we avoid systematizing and (a bit ironically) organize Willard’s thought according to a ‘schema’ i.e. ‘a mental pattern of organizing a certain perspective’ (142). If carried through, this would give us something like the theologies of Martin Kähler and Paul Tillich and behind them Friedrich Schleiermacher. Tillich famously used ‘justification by faith’ as a singular principle to organically tie his systematic theology together. However, as already mentioned, this method of organization is merely promised and what Black has done is collected Willard’s statements using the loci method.

Because Black’s on-the-record interviews with Willard (xix) are not yet publically available and because Black is generally sparing with references, I am not sure whether Willard or Black is the one claiming (repeatedly in the book) that systematic theology is inherently modern and sectarian (xvi-xviii, 55, 164, 184). In my own researches, I have never encountered such a statement from Willard. He has complained of the ‘modern’ type of systematic philosophizing which first looks for ‘the key’ to the secrets of the universe. This key, often a genuine insight, is then used to build a system which arbitrates everything. But in the process this insight is often stretched to somehow support statements which are distant cousins and even complete strangers to the original insight.[3] What Black and maybe Willard are worried about are people who think of systematic theology as an infallible discipline as if the practitioners gained entrance into the heavenly reading room to read from God’s very own Systematic Theology. That indeed would lead to sectarianism. But one need not settle for representationalism or soft Hegelianism in order to avoid this danger. Other than through philosophical realism, Willard avoided it by actively cultivating humility based on the conviction that all humans, himself included, were inevitably wrong about some things and openmindedness based on the conviction that God is a ‘God who hides’ (Isa. 45:15) and we are beings who are in via.

What could be revealed by organizing Willard’s theology according to a singular principle? Black has gotten us started by suggesting God’s love and the central message of Jesus as the principle(s) but unfortunately leaves the execution to others. If ever pursued, we should hope that this type of project does not succumb to the overextending that Willard complained about in philosophy and instead is able to return again and again to the things, including the God, which/whom it is trying to articulate. For that is the realist pattern of scholarship which Willard aimed for.

All told, we should conclude that The Theology of Dallas Willard is a mixed bag. I am aware that Willard read the book and gave Black a pat on the back for it. We all remember that professionally Willard was a teacher and a doctoral supervisor and was accustomed to reading students’ work and patting them on the back. His explicit strategy in teaching was to keep students searching and not shut them down by imposing his views on them. Nevertheless, Black’s first book is not one I would recommend to my scholarly or non-scholarly associates. Because Black clearly has an above-average overview of Willard’s corpus (excluding his philosophy), we should be attentive if he continues to publish on Willard. We should be especially attentive, I believe, if he has more to say about those who associate with, for lack of a more neutral word, alternative evangelical communities. For it is in this that he has the honor of being a leading scholar and advocate as his PhD dissertation should show.


[1] ‘Christ-Centered Piety’ in Where Shall My Wond’ring Soul Begin?: The Landscape of Evangelical Piety and Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 27-36; ‘Discipleship’ in The Oxford Handbook of Evangelical Theology, ed. Gerald R. McDermott (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 255-271.

[2] Willard, Dallas. Renovation of the Heart (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), 236-237.

[3] Willard, Dallas. Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge. (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1984), 256-270.