Dallas Willard on “Right-Wing Theology” in The Divine Conspiracy

Dallas Willard, master philosopher and Christian, wrote an amazing book a few years ago called The Divine Conspiracy. In it he writes about how both left and right wing theology make errors regarding the Christian life, admitting he is painting with fairly broad strokes. The left, very concerned with social justice, preach a “social gospel.” This is definitely part of what the Christian life should be, but they fail to make room for an all-powerful God who is loving because for them “loving” is defined in a social context as freedom and justice.

Willard writes, “Desire becomes sacred, and whatever thwarts desire is evil or sin. We have from the Chrisitan left, after all, just another gospel of sin management, but one whose substance is provided by Western (American) social and political ideals of human existence in a secular world.”

But my primary purpose is to highlight his criticisms of the right, especially John MacArthur-style Christian ethics. I live in the Santa Clarita, CA valley, which is a hotbed of “MacArthurism” because The Master’s College is located here.

Willard spends most of his time dealing with statements made by Ryrie, but shows that the right’s understanding of the kingdom of God is primarily in reference to the after life. What this does is set up a life of “sin management”, in which one focuses on not doing bad things because Jesus has commanded us not to do those things. On the ground level, I see this work itself out as young Christians finally reach the point of burnout because of discouragement by their failures and they come thankfully back to the doctrine of grace, which is great but it is sad when someone has a crisis of belief.

The Christian life, therefore, becomes one that does not focus on the transforming power of the Holy Spirit living in us and making us a new creation. Instead it is legalistic because of this oversight for MacArthur types.

Also, because the kingdom of God is not really present in the here and now in this kind of theology, culture is often ignored. Willard’s understanding of the kingdom of God is that we are sub-creators and sub-rulers in the kingdom and as such must bring every aspect of our life under God’s authority. This means setting up a Christian culture. Many Masters students and graduates I meet look down on Biola types because we are concerned with cultural impact and apologetics, etc. According to Willard and his interpretation of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, this is a grave error and misunderstanding of the kingdom of God.

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/3143546 Matthew Anderson

    Good write-up, Andrew. It’s been a while since I’ve read DC, but this post brings back fond memories. : )

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13660282 Theosebes

    I am attending a staunchly supportive McCartherish church and must say that you are correct in the need for grace and living in the power of the Holy Spirit. Somehow the deep concern for correctly dividing the Word of Truth and Living a holy life through the power of the Holy Spirit (both radically essential in the Christian walk) get lost in translation when fleshed out in our daily lives. Although the church I attend has taken enormous strides to aid in the wake of Katrina, somehow this dose of intentional love needs to be poured out in our surrounding culture. Not to say that the congregation at my church doesn’t necessarily do this…but the church as a whole is either on one end of the spectrum or the other.
    How does one marry the deep need of Biblical integrity and holiness with impacting the culture? Living the Kingdom of God here and now, living in love and grace, eating with the tax collectors and sinners…bring the Kingdom of God to them…not making them uncomfortable because we are uncomfortable with their lifestyle, yet not watering done the Gospel. It seems to me that the Christian culture must come to the world, because the world more than likely won’t walk through the doors of most churches tomorrow morning.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14555218 Jody Huck

    I can see social gospel being a left-wing trait, both practically, in 20th c history, and logically. But I see right-wing Christians as naively and illogically embracing legalism. It’s really a betrayal of one of the most core conservative principles, i.e. being people of the text. The NT law of Christ really does demand that we walk in the Spirit. That we make sure the long list of character qualities is not only present in us but increasing, as the beginning of 2 Peter puts it. Obviously if we’re honest, a big if, only a resurrection miracle by the Spirit in the life of the believer produces this. This may not be traditionalist-conservative, but it certainly is textualist-conservative.

    I have to admit I’ve hesitated about reading Willard because I somehow got the impression he was reframing the Puritan spiritual disciplines which however much I’m awed by the Puritans’ devotedness to the Lord, intellectual firepower, intense creativity etc. etc. The great majority of them, according to RT Kendall, no slouch, were terrified as they approached death that they may well be headed for eternal torment. Which seems to contradict an authentically Spirit-filled Life. Anyway I’ll have to read him.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14555218 Jody Huck

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  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/7746122 GL

    I’m curious– have dispensationalists critiqued Willard’s book? As someone who is in the Reformed tradition, went to RTS-Orlando, I loved Willard’s book. In fact, I thought his avoidance of usual terminology was clever. Perhaps I’m wrong in this inference, but I suspect Willard wanted to fly under the radar of everyday evangelicals, most (I speculate) of whom are explicitly or de facto dispensational in their theology. Dispensationalism is the air that conservative Protestants have breathed since the 1920s, so laity tend to have learned Christianity wholly or mostly as dispensational.

    So, when Willard writes a great book but does NOT use the usual language, he was able to fly under the radar and persuade laity of his perspective. Had he directly contradicted Ryrie in the text (instead of the footnotes), I suspect the explicit conflict would have triggered “loyalty epistemology” from lay evangelicals. We love our heroes and we’re loyal to the point of anti-intellectualism (in all evangelical camps, not just dispys)

    But surely the large number of dispy trained pastors and teachers would notice what Willard was doing. Surely the leaders like MacArthur would notice. So have there been strong critiques from the dispys of Willard’s book?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/8589214 Christinewjc

    Hi Matt,

    My latest post deals with the concept of “cheap grace” which is similar to the Ray Comfort term of “false converts” from “The Way of the Master” book. I have also heard the term “nominal Christians” used as the same idea.

    Please visit my blog, read the post and share your thoughts!

    In Christ,
    Christine

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14555218 H K Flynn

    I haven’t seen a critique by free grace writers of DW, and I don’t otherwise read much old school dispys, as you say. (funny:) I’m not sure, you may be being polite, about most Christians being generally dispensational, it’s a hard thing to gauge of course. I heard somewhere that it’s very regional. S.CA v. Dallas area, and other regions too. I think the whole totally juvenile setting of dates for the Rapture, combined with John MacArthur advocating reformed soterology made things a little soggy. However I think the dispys are right, so optimistically, the pendulum is moves back & forth. Iron sharpens iron…
    Feel free to comment on my newbie grace blog!
    http://hungrysix.blogspot.com/