Several years ago, a friend, who also happened to be my Sunday school teacher, urged me to read The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. He said that Willard provided a fresh view of the Bible and my friends spoke of the book as life-changing.

We no longer attend the same church but still remain friends. When he and our common friends debate with me by email or on Facebook, their parting shot would often be, “You would understand better if you just read The Divine Conspiracy.

So Okay, I’m going to read it.

Considering the size of this book, it seemed best to record my thoughts in installments. I’ve already read the introduction and have more to say than I dare put in one post. I will try to be brief, but the introduction contains his thesis for the entire book, so it is probably one of the most important parts to examine.

Dr. Willard begins by lamenting the shallowness of the Church in America. He complains that the Church as a whole doesn’t seem to take Jesus seriously in regards to his command to “make disciples of all nations” and “teach them all I have commanded.” (Matthew 28:19) I agree with Willard on this point, and as I ponder the rest of introduction, which I just finished reading, this could possibly be our only point of common ground.

I agree that the average christian has little root to his faith and has been indoctrinated by the World far more than by the Christian faith. But as Willard expands on what he sees as the source of the problems in the Church, we begin to part ways as Dr. Willard constantly departs from God’s Word  in his analysis and for his solution.

The Clarity of Scripture and Willard’s Lack Thereof

Under the section of his introduction called “My Assumptions about the Bible”, Willard begins by describing what most theologians would call the “perspicuity of scripture”. Perspicuity is the state of being transparently clear and easily understandable. What is ironic is that the passage where he describes this belief is not, in itself, perspicuous. I found myself giggling at the irony. In the section describing Scripture’s clarity and how it was written for the common man, Willard’s verbiage and logic took a serpentine route across two or three pages, taking several paragraphs to say what I could have said in one very short paragraph. It quickly became clear to me why this book was so long.

I also noticed that Willard frequently forms sentences which were technically grammatical but devoid of any clear meaning. For instance, Willard describes what he saw as the view of Jesus from the first-century perspective:

Jesus himself was thought of as someone to admire and respect, someone you thought highly of and considered to be a person of great ability. Worship of him included this – not, as today, ruled it out.

What does this sentence mean? I think I read it three or four times and was still scratching my head. It seems that perhaps his particular definitions for the descriptive phrases “thought highly of” and “person of great ability”, are much different than what might be their most forthright interpretation, using the basic dictionary definitions of the words they contain. But despite the mental hurdles thrown in my path, several messages came through quite clearly from between the lines. For instance, I found significant meaning from one little phrase in the aforementioned quote. Willard uses the phrase “not as today… “.

Willard the Reformer?

What is Professor Willard saying when he says “not as today”? These three words expose the heart of Willard’s teaching and his attitudes towards what most would consider orthodox Christianity. He constantly implies that we need to go all the way back to the first century to find proper discipleship and worship of Jesus. He did not follow this phrase with any qualifier, such as “in liberal Churches” or “in most mainstream denominations”. He gave no qualifier to imply that, at this point in history, there was anyone out there “getting it right”.

This is not the first time I’ve heard Dr. Willard display this attitude. I have heard him say that the Church has been getting the “gospel wrong” for a very long time. In fact, he mentions in his introduction of The Divine Conspiracy some of the same troubling opinions on this subject I heard him use in a recorded interview, though he is less direct in written form. (Here is a link to a page that has a recording of that interview, with commentary by Chris Rosebrough of Pirate Christian Radio. The part of the program with the interview begins 37 minutes in.)

Willard repeatedly laments, throughout the introduction, that believers today do not see Jesus’ teachings as having any connection to “real life” or having “practical” value. He claims that we are unfaithful to the teachings of Jesus if we arrange our beliefs and life according to a long-range view of things, with our focus fixing on what follows our departure from this world. Here is passage where he says this, though in words again less direct than in his recorded interview (I am really not sure if I would have caught on to what Willard was trying to say, at times, if I had not recently heard this interview.):

The early message [of Jesus] was, accordingly, not experienced as something its hearers had to believe or do because otherwise something bad – something with no essential connection with real life – would happen to them.

Why Worry about Hell when You Could Have Your Best Life Now?

What he said more clearly, in interview, is that he renounces the view of the gospel as your way of avoiding Hell. He looks down on having our sights set on our life after death rather than this life. He speaks dismissively of those who have their eyes on the “feathery realm other than the one we must deal with”. (This is a quote from the book. My apologies if referring to the interview seems to confuse matters. I recommend, however, that anyone considering coming under the teaching of Willard listen to this interview before they proceed further.) Overall, the persistent message of his introduction was that he didn’t think much of Christians that were, as the old saying goes, “so heavenly-minded that they are no earthly good”. These are not Willard’s words, but merely an old saying that seemed to be more of an inspiration to his philosophy than Scripture actually seemed to be.

Willard will have his work cut out for him to get around all the passages where we are supposed to have our minds “set on heaven above” (Colossians 3:1-4), because he keeps stating that our “eternal life” occurs as soon as we become Christians and that the Kingdom of Heaven has arrived on earth. I wonder, though, what he is to do with the part of the verse in Colossians that points our eyes to focus not only on “things above” but goes on to say “not on earthly things”. The same goes for the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says those earthly things will be provided by your Father in Heaven and that those earthly things are not to be our focus. (Matthew 6:25-34)

A Free-Style Approach to Scripture

But I can tell, from another part of the introduction, that Dr. Willard will use the standard method for scaling such obstacles. He is going to start redefining terms. He will not let the Word of God get in his way if it seems to contradict him. In his section “My Assumptions about the Bible”, he makes this rather alarming statement about his approach to Scripture:

I have freely translated and paraphrased scriptural passages to achieve emphases that seem to me important.

Really?! Is Dallas Willard a scholar of the biblical languages? I know he happens to be a philosophy professor, not a theologian. This will probably surprise those who know that Dr. Willard is on the bookshelf of countless American pastors. So what does he mean by translate? I am guessing that perhaps he will mine Strong’s concordance to take advantage of the various shades of meaning a Hebrew or Greek word may have and he will insert the meaning that best fits his purpose? Even though this is a review of the introduction to “The Divine Conspiracy”, I can’t resist inserting the opening to Chapter One where he “quotes” the most well-known verse in the New Testament, because it so beautifully supports my hypothesis:

God’s Care for humanity was so great that he sent his unique Son among us, so that those who count on him might not lead a futile and failing existence, but have the undying life of God Himself. (Willard Paraphrase, John 3:16)

Wow… I have no words. I hardly know where to begin! But certainly the most glaring liberty he seems to take here is “might not lead a futile and failing existence”. I suppose that he does not want anyone “misunderstanding” the words “shall not perish” as meaning “eternal destruction” such as you might find in the realm of Hell. As far as I can tell (and again, from I’m heard in interviews), he considers those who cling to Jesus because they fear God’s verdict on Judgment Day as having a less-than, impoverished sort of faith. I do wonder how he fits Judgment day into his whole scheme, and the resurrection, for that matter. If eternal life is this thing that starts now and just seamlessly moves us off into eternity, then I wonder what he does with the abrupt partition we find throughout Scripture known as “The Day of the Lord”?

Jesus as Life Coach

Dr. Willard clearly finds to be wrong-headed the view that Christianity primarily offers hope for the next life and not as much for this mortal realm. (I think Paul, the apostles, and every great martyr would agree.) Willard says Jesus is “taking students in the master class of life”. He complains that Christianity is most often presented with “practical irrelevance”. Willard lists the temporal benefits of Christianity to include “character development” as well as being helpful to our “overall personal sanity and well-being”. Isn’t this a cleaned up version of the prosperity gospel, repackaged for the stressed-out, middle class American? Willard says:

…any significant change [in the Church] can come only by breaking the stranglehold of the ideas and concepts that automatically shunt aside Jesus, “the Prince of Life,” when questions of concrete mastery of our life arise.

Interesting that he put quotes around “the Prince of Life”. I haven’t come across that title for our Lord in any of the many translations of God’s Word I’ve read over the years. Perhaps this is another personal translation of Willard’s, but of what verse? (He repeats this title more than once, always with quotes. For grins, I went to the end to look at the end notes, and I may post one review just on the endnotes. You can tell much about an author just looking at his end notes.) Aside from this particular liberty, assigning a new title to Christ, it’s disturbing that he finds the Church’s deepest problem is their failure to go to Jesus for something he has never promised to us. Where did Jesus or any of his Apostles teach that one of the goals of our faith is “mastery of life”?

Redefining the Gospel

The last thing I’d like to address is his summary of the purpose of “The Divine Conspiracy”. Willard says that in this book he “presents discipleship to Jesus as the very heart of the gospel.” This is the most concise summary of where Dr. Willard goes wrong. In The Proper Distinction of Law and Gospel by C.F.W. Walther, Walther explains that the content of scripture, from beginning to end, falls into one of two complementary, not contradictory categories: Law or Gospel. And here is the heart of why they complement and do not contradict. Walther says:

The Law tells us what we are to do. No such instruction is contained in the Gospel. On the contrary, the Gospel reveals to us only what God is doing.

So I guess this doctrine contradicts Blackaby’s claim that we need to go find what God is doing and join him in it, but that is for another post.

Discipleship is all about what we do. It is a natural outflow of our salvation and our regeneration, a fruit of the gospel. We are freed from the Law which enables our obedience to the Law. (See Paul’s letter to the Romans for more on this.) The gospel is all about what God has done and is continuing to do for us: our salvation, justification, sanctification and glorification.

Now I would remind you brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you, as of first importance, what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

As we can tell from what I already quoted from the beginning of Chapter One, Dr. Willard has a different definition of the Gospel. That’s all, for now. I’m off to tackle that first chapter.