01. Two Short Sections of The Kingdom Among Us for Conversatio
“A Road Map for What Lies Ahead”
The Kingdom among Us is not a short book. At the most general level, this work is an attempt to show theologically educated persons that Dallas Willard’s theology is worth worrying about. When I discuss Willard among such persons, I find is that there is a basic lack of familiarity with his main teachings, not to mention his more obscure ones. I also find that theologically educated persons, when they do hear what Willard has to say, tend to ask for more rather than less detail. This is because what Willard has to say is strange. He is not following, as I have emphasized in this chapter and will underscore with the rest of the book, any recognizable theological tradition of the twentieth century. Familiarity will only be won by hearing Willard out. And it turns out that Willard had a lot to say.
I have chosen, for a number of reasons, space notwithstanding, to interpret Willard uncritically—that is, engaging exclusively in reconstruction and analysis of his main theological themes. I am aware that an absence of criticism and a rhetoric lacking constant reminders of my objectivity may make me appear, in some academic circles, starstruck or unwissenschaftlich (a fancy German word for “stupid”). I can criticize Willard, but I believe that at this point in time, we are in more need of understanding rather than distance.
In that spirit of seeking understanding, especially historical, contextual understanding of Willard, I have also chosen to compare Willard mainly to authors I know he read and interacted with. Given Willard’s intellectual range, this restriction leaves open a huge analytical task, and I did not come anywhere close to completing it. However, I do hope that it helps with the historical task of uncovering more in terms of sources for Willard’s thought.
More specifically, the reader should come away with a greater understanding of how Dallas Willard conceives of the Christ event—that is, God’s coming into history in the person of Jesus and how he accomplished through it something that had never been done before. Without discounting all that might have been going on behind the scenes, what God mainly gets out of the historical life of Jesus, says Willard, is the whole life transformation of a gathered group of fewer than one hundred Jews. I understand that may not be the result of the Christ event that any of us were expecting. If it is any consolation, it was not what the Jews of Jesus’s day were expecting either. Nevertheless, Willard is remarkably consistent in the way that he reads the Bible on this matter.
Apropos reading the Bible, it will be important, before we launch into the Christ event, to get some understanding of how Willard does this. The first step—that is, the next chapter—is to explain Willard’s theory of the diversity of the Bible and especially of the New Testament. For example, he does not go for the ancient “fourfold interpretation of Scripture,” with its heavy emphasis on typology, nor does he follow the seventeenth century’s “covenant theology” or the nineteenth century’s “dispensational theology,” which was present in his childhood. Rather, Willard thinks of the Bible as an inspired product of the progression through which God’s people passed as they gradually came to better understand God and his kingdom. When Jesus comes, his first listeners pass through a number of stages before they embrace all of what Jesus’s gospel of the kingdom means for them and the kingdom and also for Jesus.
Now, kingdom is one of those biblical words that has never had a stable interpretation in Christian history. In the twentieth century, renewed interest has been poured into discerning its meaning in the Scriptures, especially in light of the fact that the concept seems so incredibly important to Jesus. But Willard appears to ignore mainstream exegetical research and to discover in the Scriptures an eternal concept of the kingdom of God. This is a significant parting of ways and has to do, as we will see in the third chapter, with Willard’s realist hermeneutics and his overall interest in discovering the Scriptures’ inherent metaphysics, what I call biblical ontology. Though Jesus’s listeners’ knowledge of this ontology will be a perennial theme of this book, Willard’s epistemology will be passed over quickly to discuss, in chapter 4, Willard’s view of faith, or his pisteology. As important as their knowledge is, salvation for Jesus’s people is, in the end, by faith.
In chapters 5 through 12, the book is divided into three major parts. This is the heart of the book. Each part corresponds to one historical stage of Jesus’s first listeners’ understanding of Jesus and his gospel. Along with the main chapters explaining each level of understanding, I have included a few chapters on theological topics, the ignorance of which may hinder the twenty-first-century reader from rightly understanding what is happening at that particular level. The first of these theological topics, chapter 5, deals with important concepts in the Old Testament—informed worldview of Jesus’s first listeners. The second, chapter 7, deals with the work of God before the advent of Jesus and how this intersects with what happened in and after the time of Jesus. The last two inserted chapters, chapters 10 and 11, deal with the transition to an ascended view of Jesus, who is recognized, by some, as the Christ.
The main chapters on the three stages, chapters 6, 8, 9, and 12, have a certain cadence to guide the reader. Each has an initial section on the topography of the gospel as understood by listeners at that stage. This section is followed by one on Christology and one on soteriology. The last section in each stage is on faith. The reader would do well to think of the first sections as comprising the first listeners’ knowledge at that particular stage. The last section, by contrast, is about the first listeners’ faith at that particular stage. One of the things that led to popular misunderstandings of Willard in soteriology and in theological prolegomena is that Willard never made his view of faith abundantly clear.
After all these years of working on The Kingdom among Us: The Gospel according to Dallas Willard, I am still pleased with the stadial path it recommends for scaling the Willard mountain that is his conception of the Christ event. However, I think the real pleasure and amazement for me, the author, and for you, the reader, is had when one sees how it works in the details. The beauty and potency of the details are what I invite you to explore here.
“God’s March Through Human History”
In December 1971, Dallas Willard was on sabbatical from the University of Southern California (USC) and had agreed, as he usually did, to teach Sunday school for his local church. Willard had been a child of both dispensationalism and revivalism, and the book he chose to teach on this quarter was a favorite of both movements. In his second lecture, he had this to say about the special way he was reading and teaching it: “I was attempting to place the events and the book of Acts in the context of the work of God throughout the ages.” He then says to the participants, “Do your own thinking about this. Try to understand the sweep of history as the field in which God is working to bring something about.”Dallas Willard, “The Kingdom Comes in Power,” Studies in the Book of Apostolic Acts: Journey in the Spiritual Unknown (Woodlake Avenue Friends Church, Canoga Park, CA, November 28, 1971), MP3/cassette, 2:00. This is an astoundingly early instance of themes that would occupy Willard for the rest of his life, such as human history—human history not as “one damned thing after another” but as caught up in the cumulative work of God in time. As he taught later in his life, human history only exists because God, in his wisdom, has set up the world in such a way as to get a certain result. So while humans are vital to the progress of the world to its end, it is above all important that God is involved, “working to bring something about.”
Readers of Willard should be familiar from The Spirit of the Disciplines with what he called the psychology of redemption.Dallas Willard, “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Deliverance from the Law of Sin and Death (Eastern Mennonite College, Harrisonburg, VA, January 14, 1985), MP3/cassette, 14:30: “One of the things we lack today is an adequate psychology of redemption.” See also Dallas Willard, “Breaking the Bondages of Life—Part 2,” Essentials of Kingdom Living (Valley Vista Christian Community, Sepulveda, CA, 1986), MP3/cassette, 1:30. In an early series on Romans, he says he learned to read the book as a manual on the human soul (Dallas Willard, “Reigning in Life through One, Christ Jesus,” Romans [Faith Evangelical Church, Chatsworth, CA, September 18, 1977], MP3/cassette, 29:00). Taken from Oswald Chambers’s book of the same title, this phrase denoted for Willard the theory of the “progressive sequence of real human and divine actions and events that resulted in the transformation of the body and the mind.”Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God changes Lives (San Francisco: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1998), 111. In other words, it is the theology of the process by which the Triune God saves the individual soul and saves it “to the uttermost” (Heb 7:25). As a member of the Western church in the late twentieth century, Willard felt a special burden to remind the church that this process will not happen if individuals are passive. “Grace,” Willard insisted, “is opposed to earning, not to effort.”Dallas Willard, “The Spirit Is Willing: The Body as a Tool for Spiritual Growth,” in Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation, ed. Kenneth O. Gangel and James C. Wilhoit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994), 225. And much in Willard’s pentalogy, including two whole books, Disciplines and Renovation, deal with the theology of this process.
Readers of Willard, however, will be less familiar with Willard’s interest in what he called the history of redemption. Taken from Jonathan Edwards, this phrase refers to the theory of ordered steps God took and is taking in human history to accomplish his plans for salvation in the cosmos. “God’s March through Human History,” as Willard once called it, is the process in which God is gradually bringing about something that either has been lost or has never quite existed in his universe.Dallas Willard, “Plain People Lifted into God’s March through Human History: The With-God Life under the Hebrew Covenant,” The With-God Life: The Dynamics of Scripture for Christian Spiritual TransFormation (Renovaré International Conference / Spiritual Formation Forum, Denver, CO, June 20, 2005), MP3. The history of redemption is the cosmic flow into which Willard was trying to set the acts, divine and human, that are recounted in Luke’s second book.
As a cradle dispensationalist, Willard’s earliest teachers had taught him one way of conceiving of this history.At present, Willard’s earliest years in Missouri and at Tennessee Temple are too obscure to know the precise books or persons that were representative of his earliest theology, though one prominent name is Baptist pastor J. Harold Smith. Willard says that he was raised “without knowing the word” in dispensationalism and in a view that what Jesus taught is irrelevant to Christian life because it was for another age and that what is relevant about Jesus is what he did on the cross (Dallas Willard, “The Kingdom of God and the Person of the Psychotherapist Part 1,” The Care of the Soul [Christian Association for Psychological Studies, Virginia Beach, VA, April 1995], MP3/cassette, 6:15). But by the time Willard taught on Acts in 1971, he had clearly been reading an earlier treatment of the issue, Augustine’s monumental City of God. And from Augustine and elsewhere, Willard was learning that there are ways other than dispensationalism of conceiving the theory, the central acts, and the final target of redemption.
In fact, Augustine’s theology was probably more in his mind in those early days than he lets on to. His first attempts to describe the kingdom of God speak of it as a cosmic fellowship in which God’s will is done and into which Jesus is inviting new members. This sounds remarkably like Augustine’s city of God, likewise a fellowship composed of the unfallen angels, saints in glory, and faithful pilgrims on earth. Because its first members were the immortal angels, the city of God is very old, much older than the earth and the human race. And though it did not have any need of being “founded” by Jesus through his coming, Augustine thinks of the city of God as the sort of fellowship that seeks a certain completion in the consummation of human history, when the full number of God’s elect are gathered in.Cf. Willard, Disciplines, 127. He continues, “As a result of Paul’s experience with Christ’s Kingdom, Paul recaptured the ancient, prophetic vision of the world being governed by the people of God—governing through the light and power resident in them as God’s earthly dwelling place” (127).
With Augustine in mind, one may wonder what exactly Willard was talking about in his now famous statement of biblical teleology that he first expressed in those Acts lectures in 1971:
God’s aim in human history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons with himself included in that community as its primary sustainer and most glorious inhabitant.Dallas Willard, “Handout for ‘Studies in the Book of Apostolic Acts,’” (Woodlake Avenue Friends Church, Canoga Park, CA, November 28, 1971–January 30, 1972), Dallas Willard Collection, 35.
Is this a statement about the church? Or a statement about the kingdom of God? Or about both? If the kingdom of God is a fellowship of created beings gathered around their God, it would seem that Willard, at least in 1971, believed that God’s aim in human history was the kingdom of God or, at least, its completion. If so, this kingdom is not a metaphysical reality that is transcendent and fundamentally immune to human history so much as the immanent and gradual goal of redemption.
Much more can be said about the development of Willard’s mind than I am at liberty to do here. Suffice it to say, this is not how Willard spoke of the kingdom in his mature years. As the Augustinianism gradually falls away from his account, a more eternal, metaphysical, and Trinitarian view of the kingdom takes its place, and in the end, Willard comes to sound more like Bonaventure or Aquinas. The kingdom of God forms, along with God himself, a part of that which is blessedly eternal in biblical ontology.Ontology is the study of what is and of what fundamentally is. Biblical ontology is the Bible’s overall teaching about what is and what fundamentally is. Theologians will notice how Willard’s mature view of the kingdom fits hand in glove with his interest in the psychology of redemption or, as Bonaventure called it, “the soul’s journey into God.”Regis J. Armstrong, Into God: Itinerarium Mentis in Deum of Saint Bonaventure (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2020). For the medieval scholastics were far less concerned with the history of redemption and far more with their present participation in the redemptive ontology that is now at hand.
But as the kingdom of God migrates to a more ahistorical place in his overall theology, Willard does not abandon his interest in the history of redemption. He, after all, still has to account for the diversity in the biblical writings and for the fact that certain key events, like the coming of Christ, are not at the beginning of biblical history. He, unlike the medieval theologian, can no longer make use of patristic hermeneutical techniques to smooth out the Bible’s message. Willard, as all who would presume to teach Christian theology today, must find an adequate theory of history, especially biblical history.
Excerpts taken from Michael Stewart Robb, The Kingdom Among Us: The Gospel According to Dallas Willard (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2022). Used with permission of the author.