Several years ago, a friend of mine, who also happened to teach my Sunday school class, urged me to read The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. He was excited about the fresh view that Willard provided towards the Bible. Years later, I no longer attend the same church as this friend, but still remain in contact with him, as well as other friends from that church who share many of his views. When we have theological debates by email or Facebook, the final point on their part often still seems to 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 particular volume by Willard, it seemed best to record my thoughts in installments. I’ve already read the introduction and already have more to say than I dare put in one post. For the sake of my readers, I will try to be relatively brief, but the introduction is full of his thesis for the entire book, so it is probably the most important “chapter” to examine closely.
Dr. Willard begins by lamenting the shallowness of the Church in America. He complains that the Church as a whole doesn’t seem to be taking Jesus seriously in regards to his command to “make disciples of all nations” and “teach them all I have commanded.” I actually agree with Willard on this point I suppose, and judging from the rest of the introduction, this could possibly be our only point of common ground. But I agree that the average person who confesses Christ 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 problematic in the Church, we begin to part ways as Dr. Willard departs constantly from God’s Word as the basis for his analysis and 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.