At the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture we not only want to promote the work of Dallas Willard, we want to facilitate the kind of work Dallas did. That is to say, just as Dallas was able to draw off some deep wells and channel knowledge of Christian spiritual formation to the Christian community, we want to do the same as an academic research center. But how do we do what Dallas did? Those are mighty big shoes to fill! Recently I had the opportunity to think out loud about the ongoing need for this type of work and how the Martin Institute might pursue its mission. You can watch my inaugural lecture and hear four respondents: Amos Yong (a theologian at Fuller School of Theology), Gregg Ten Elshof (a philosopher at Biola University), and Andrea Gurney (a psychologist at Westmont College). While I am curious to hear what you think about the Martin Institute’s evolving vision, I am also curious what it would look like for you, your local fellowship of Christ-followers, or your organization to think out loud about how to do what Dallas did given who you are within your context.
Of course, this presses the question: how did Dallas do what he did? In Michael Stewart Robb’s helpful examination of Dallas’s theology of formation (The Kingdom Among Us: The Gospel According to Dallas Willard), Mike invites us to puzzle along with him how it was that Dallas came to hold the collection of views he did.Michael Stewart Robb, The Kingdom Among Us: The Gospel According to Dallas Willard (Fortress Press, 2022), 3–32 and 497–507. Who were his theological influences? Was Dallas’s theology Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, Thomistic, Evangelical, Charismatic, Quaker, none of the above, a bit of each? Which traditions of Christian spirituality undergird the main lines of his understanding of spiritual formation?
Dallas would tell us that very little in his books was new. That it was all very old and only recently forgotten. He invited us to compare his ideas to the likes of P. T. Forsyth, C. S. Lewis, Frank Laubach, John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, and the biblical authors themselves (see The Divine Conspiracy, xvii–xviii for Dallas’s full list of co-conspirators). But when others have looked to Scripture and the thinkers Dallas mentions, they don’t always land where Dallas landed nor with the kind of humble confidence he possessed. When it comes to the insights and teaching Dallas embodied, how did he get there?
One plausible proposal is that Dallas’s primary influence was more of a method than a particular theological system, thinker, or tradition. Dallas came to vividly realize that the most important decision of human life was whether one would become a disciple/student/apprentice of Jesus. Once Dallas chose to come unto him and learn from him how to become like him, he committed himself to do whatever was necessary to accomplish that aim. It’s all in the approach, we might say. When Mike Robb asked Dallas about his influences, Dallas replied:
Nearly all of my “influences” are from people long dead. I have arrived at my views by studying the Bible philosophically, if you wish, and by reading widely through the ages, and trying to put it all into practice. It is presumptuous to say, but I believe that God has guided my thinking. Certainly nothing I have is really new or “my own.”Robb, 12.
This autobiographical description is what I mean by “method.” Dallas went to the bible, reason, church history, and his own spiritual experience in a manner that was open to what we might call the illumination of the Holy Spirit.These four sources—Scripture, reason, tradition, and experience—are often referred to as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Dallas mentions these four sources of knowledge in Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2009), 220 n18. In Gary Moon’s biography of Dallas (Becoming Dallas Willard), Gary recounts how in college Dallas found his way to vacant Sunday school rooms in a nearby church where he would work his way through the bible. No doubt philosophically, if you wish. And, then, how Dallas stumbled upon Lawson’s book, Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians, in which he saw the reality of the kingdom in ordinary lives.See Gary W. Moon, Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP, 2018), 63–65. See also, Dallas Willard, “When God Moves In,” in Scott Larsen, ed., Indelible Ink (Colorado Springs, CO: WaterBrook Press, 2003). And then his penchant for putting it all into practice, which of course was the logical conclusion of Jesus’s teachings. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice…” (Mt 7:24 NIV).
Recounting Dallas’s method causes me to think of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Jerusalem temple on an unauthorized, three-day study retreat. The Gospel of Luke describes him this way, “After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:46–47). Jesus found his way to the intellectual thought-leaders of his day and Luke tells us he is listening to them and asking questions of their views. Jesus was intellectually interrogating the prevailing views of his day. Luke goes on to note that Jesus’s hearers were “amazed” at both his understanding and his own answers to the questions. The Greek word translated “amazed” means something like “their minds were blown” by Jesus’s understanding and his answers.
Like Willard, we see in the twelve-year-old Jesus more a method than an inherited system of thought. It is a method where one is compelled by a desire/a mission/a calling to do whatever is necessary to come to have the needed understanding. Jesus seeks to comprehend the prevailing ideas of his age—Greek and Jewish—and then comes to see through those ideas. He perceives an alternative way, truth, and life embodied in himself that pierces the distorting conditions of his time and place.
Now, we might rightly think, “Well, we are not Jesus.” Although that is certainly true, we are his disciples, his students. We are learning from him how to become like him. That is what Dallas did and that is what we are to do as well. We don’t just want to learn from what Dallas uncovered about the way, the truth, and the life. We want to uncover first-hand Jesus and his overall way of life as Dallas himself did. We want to do what Dallas did as best we can because that is what disciples do. We come to Jesus from wherever we find ourselves, we take up his way of life as best we can, and we learn from him how to find rest for our souls.
Of course, we are not Dallas Willard either. We don’t have his brilliance, his grasp of the history of ideas, his philosophical education, his calling as a university professor, his Baptist upbringing, his wife and family, and so on. So, doing what Dallas did is going to look different for you and I. It will depend on our previous level of training, giftedness, ability, calling, life stage, and so on. But there are, as Soren Kierkegaard writes, no disciples at second-hand. We are each contemporaries with the risen Christ and there is an approach to Jesus and his way—a method—that involves the careful study of Scripture, deep thoughtfulness about the bible and life, observing the lives and teachings of the saints (past and present), practicing what we learn in embodied ways, and through it all receptivity to the illumining guidance of the Holy Spirit.
It is important to also think about how to do what Dallas did at a group or institutional level. What does the process of coming to better understand the nature of spiritual formation in Christ through Scripture, philosophy, church history, and spiritual experience look like for a small group of spiritual friends, a local church, a team of ministry leaders, a department at a Christian college, a seminary classroom, or a cohort in a school of discipleship? An important step in implementing spiritual formation into any practical setting is to spend considerable time working through the group’s views of how formation is meant to take place. Implementation always goes much better when there is clarity about what we are implementing.
As I mentioned above, at Westmont’s Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture we have been reflecting on what it looks like to facilitate the kind of work that Dallas did within our own organization. We are an academic, research institute that aims to help establish Christian spiritual formation as a field of publicly available knowledge. In this lecture, I am teasing out how an academic research institute might utilize the method that Dallas used to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 3:18).
Steve L. Porter is Senior Research Fellow and Executive Director at the Martin Institute for Christianity and Culture.