The Theology of Dallas Willard: A Book Review

Gary Black’s The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, is an invaluable asset to a fuller understanding of Dallas Willard’s insights into living a with-God life. However, the book, for the most part, is Gary Black’s self-published (Pickwick) doctoral dissertation, with some (perceivably minor) adaptation “for the general public”.

The idea of the Black’s coined term protoevangelical describes the heart of Willard’s theology which “pursues, articulates and forcefully defends the position that the impact and essence of the original (proto) euangelion that Jesus preached, manifested, and taught….” The term protoevangelical describes “Willard’s overarching desire to recapture the essence of the visioning message Jesus originally delivered in the New Testament Gospel accounts” (p. XV).

The book reconfigures the four sections of Black’s thesis into six chapters; each chapter – worthy of a unique description below – could be better described as a section with subchapters. After a brief forward by theologian Scot McKnight, and Black’s important (don’t skip it) Introduction, the author gets down to details immediately.

Chapter One: Willardian Theology in Context. Gary Black begins The Theology of Dallas Willard with a brief but detailed history of American Evangelicalism to set the contextual stage onto which Willard’s theology will be presented in the remainder of the book. I was astonished by this section and found myself wishing for entire books on the subject. Thankfully, Black provides ample references for deeper study. Among many important details, Black highlights four pillars of Evangelical thought: Biblicism, Conversionism, Activism, and Crucicentrism.

Chapter Two: The Willardian Adaption. Leaping from historical foundation in Chapter One, in his second chapter, Black – while somewhat comparing to current forms of Evangelicalism – details Willard’s philosophy and theology definitions for the ever-evolving Evangelical concepts of Biblicism, Conversionism, Activism, and Crucicentrism.

Chapter Three: Essentia Dei and the Protoevangelical. This chapter, seeking to restore understanding of the essence of God (essential Dei), dives deep into Willard’s mind on the topics of Pneumatology, Anthropology, Theo-ontology (renamed to differentiate it from some aspects of Ontotheology), Christology, and Ecclesiology. For all practical matters, this is Willardian Biblical Theology reassessed as Willardian Systematic Theology.Each point of this chapter is crucial to our compression of Willard’s theological thoughts and his protoevangelical vision.

Chapter Four: The Willardian Correction. Black details specific corrections to the current problems of what Evangelical’s think despite what the bible says about what is thought. Three areas are pointedly addressed: Belief vs. Faith, Gospels of Sin Management, and the Doctrine of God. Regarding Belief vs. Faith, Black describes Willard’s critique of what he calls an empty allegiance (p. 145) as a “doctrinal acknowledgement“ (p. 146) and this a “mental assent to a ‘fact’ and the realization of oneself as a sinner in need of graces is now broadly understood to encompass the totality of a ‘decision for Christ.’ In Willard’s view, such a ‘decision’ is nothing more than a realization” (p.148).

Chapter Five: Realism, Postmodern, and Willardian Theology. This chapter tempted me to rate the book with 5 out of 5 Scholar Caps for technical language. I have read few things that were more densely complex, polysyllabically rich, and many atmospheres beyond my current level of understanding. Black intends to communicate how Willard’s immense and unique philosophical understanding interacts with his theology – and he accomplishes that intent – but the average reader (even one with a theology degree) must spend a significant amount of time in reference resources to figure out what in the world (and out of this world) he is writing about. There is no philosophy-for-dummies to get one passed this chapter aside from simply gleaning as much as one can and then moving on.

Chapter Six: Conclusion. Black’s conclusion is, first of all, a much-needed break after Chapter Five. His conclusion is artful summary of the most important thoughts of the book and most important ideas of Willard’s theological corpus. I recommend reading the book out of order: Introduction, Chapter Six, then One….Five, and then Six again.

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Black’s bibliography is followed by a much needed and very helpful glossary – albeit occasionally not sorted in alphabetical order. The bibliography is a forty-four-page single-spaced small font, bibliography. Let me reiterate…. Black not only read but intimately studied a gazillion books in the process of creating this work of art named The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith. Throughout the book, Black makes robust references to Willard’s books, papers, talks, and the personal interviews Black made with Dallas Willard. Black’s dedication to this work is unfathomable and is and invaluable gift to the Body of Christ.

I rated this 4 Scholar Caps (out of 5) as it is dripping with the Technical Language of theology, sociology, and philosophy, this book will have most readers often flipping back to the glossary (which is a wonderful feature of the book) as well as consulting dictionaries and theological encyclopedias. It isn’t meant for the faint of heart. Beneath a somewhat unpolished narrative and doctoral vernacular, the book reflects the spiritual passion of the author who spent untold hours interviewing Willard to create a semi-systematic presentation of the tapestry of the with-God life philosophy that Willard weaves from the threads of Biblical Theology. Those interviews turned into a friendship such that the author, Gary Black, was the friend sitting with Dallas, hearing his last words, in his last minutes of this life.

My final comment: Thank you Gary Black !!!

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The Theology of Dallas Willard: Discovering Protoevangelical Faith, by Gary Black. Pickwick Publications. 2013. $40.99.

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Tim Morris is the Director of Ecclesiolae Ministries Foundation, cofounded with Julie Morris. Ecclesiolae seeks to support Christians in their Spiritual Formation, Strengthening Ministry Marriages, and expanding the growth of MicroChurches within MegaChurches. Tim earned a BS in Business Management and completes an MA in Theology, from Wesley Biblical Seminary in the Spring of 2024.

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