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The Divine Conspiracy

by Prof. Dallas Willard

Book Review by Barbara Buzzard


Barbara BuzzardThe first sentence of the introduction to this book so gripped me that I knew I had to write a review: “My hope is to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him.”[1]  Certainly noted author and scholar Dallas Willard had my attention. In Jesus’ case, “Presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance.”[2]     This is a picture which several other authors I have reviewed identify with.

Equally galvanizing was this: “It is the failure to understand Jesus and his words as reality and vital information about life that explains why, today, we do not routinely teach those who profess allegiance to him how to do what he said was best.”[3] Prof. Willard’s emphasis upon the words and teaching of Jesus is rare and even disputed in its importance.  For example, "Many people today think that the essence of Christianity is Jesus’ teachings, but that is not so…Christianity centers not in the teachings of Jesus, but in the person of Jesus as Incarnate God who came into the world to take upon Himself our guilt and die in our place."[4]

Prof. Willard often includes the phrase “and his words” when he speaks of Jesus. I read him as revealing that popularly we have a Jesus without his words and hence not the genuine individual. Willard finds that not only do we not do what Jesus said, we don’t know how to do it; and we don’t seriously attempt it. He actually says that there is a stranglehold of ideas and concepts that shunt Jesus aside and he speaks of the “real” Jesus, indicating that there is a false one. This is an amazing state of affairs, if true, because he is essentially telling us that the established church hides the words of Jesus. Historically, Jesus brought vital information; currently we disregard it and use other material. Willard doesn’t say it quite so starkly but that is the gist of it (in my opinion).     

Willard notes in his introduction that his hope is to provide an understanding of the gospel that will enable Christians to obey or “do” it. This too, is radical. How can one “obey” that common understanding of the gospel — Jesus’ dying and being raised? Willard can be pretty scathing in his words, speaking of a “mindless orthodoxy” and urging instead “intelligent, careful, intensive but straightforward reading.” He speaks of apprenticeship to Jesus (and his words!)
Willard writes with enthusiasm and has a gift for portraying his ideas. I enjoyed his humorous “stand up for your responsibilities” version of the usual “stand up for your rights.” Also “practice routinely purposeful kindnesses” instead of “practice random acts of kindness.”

Prof. Willard emphasizes God’s invitation to His kingdom and Jesus’ role of being the Way into this kingdom life. “But intelligent, effectual entry into this life is currently obstructed by clouds of well-intentioned misinformation. The “gospels” that predominate where he is most frequently invoked speak only of preparing to die or else of correcting social practices and conditions…Our usual “gospels” are, in their effects—dare we say it—nothing less than a standing invitation to omit God from the course of our daily existence.”[5] Thank God that Prof. Willard dared to say it. In the year 2013, it surely is not possible that we do not really understand what the gospel is – or is it?

I think that Dallas Willard’s manner of asking acute questions is very effective in helping us to see what “the system” has done to us. (He reminds us that genius is the ability to scrutinize the obvious, and perhaps he has this genius.) He asks: “Does Jesus only enable me to ‘make the cut’ when I die?” And by this he means – is “heaven” all there is? Do we not differ profoundly in our new lives as believers from our prior selves? Willard answers: More likely, we currently do not understand who he is and what he brings.”[6] He is here introducing the Kingdom of God, the gospel that Jesus preached, but  so often not recognized as being a part of the gospel. As Willard sees it, the rule of God is now accessible to everyone and he deems it a “remarkable new opportunity.” (Mark 1:15)                                   

Willard says of Jesus: “He simply was the good news about the kingdom. He still is.”[7] I applaud Prof. Willard for his inclusion of the kingdom as part of the gospel and for his insight into what Jesus came to do, which was very much more than to die and be raised (Luke 4:43). Try this test: (not in the book) – what did the disciples preach as gospel for a total of 31 chapters in Matthew, Mark and Luke before they understood that Jesus was to die and be raised? The answer of course is the Kingdom of God.

Willard puts the greatest part of his emphasis by far on the present kingdom.  I would think that in this case, it would be like having a grand party but without the guest of honor. I.e. how could you possibly have a kingdom without the king? Yes, absolutely we can have a foretaste of the kingdom now; we can attempt “kingdom living,” “kingdom morality,” but in the absence of the king, we do not experience the whole of it, or even the climax. (Especially as the current ruler of this age is the evil one – 2 Cor. 4:4!)  We are schooled by the Scriptures to anticipate the coming of Jesus who will inaugurate and usher in his Father’s kingdom. According to Mat. 25 which gives us a time frame: when Jesus comes, then he will sit on his throne and then he will give the kingdom as an inheritance to the saints and then the wicked shall be punished.

This is how I understand the history of this kingdom controversy: since the end of the 1800’s a battle has raged over the question of whether the kingdom is essentially future or present. Albert Schweitzer shocked the theological world with his well known “bombshell”. He pointed out that Jesus’ idea of the kingdom of God was apocalyptic, that the kingdom would be established by a worldwide revolution at the second coming. An opposing school of interpreters maintained that such an idea of the kingdom was quite unsuitable for modern man. C.H. Dodd at Cambridge proposed that the kingdom was strictly and only present in the ministry of Jesus. And Bultmann “demythologized” the apocalyptic idea of the kingdom. The Jesus Seminar arbitrarily declared all the future kingdom statements of Jesus to be inauthentic. What havoc this has caused! Willard is right to complain about gospels of sin management, and right to stress the ethics of the Kingdom taught by Jesus, but he himself speaks unclearly about the all-important future aspect of the Kingdom. Certainly it will be a restoration of all things (Acts 3:21) but more precisely this will entail a new Messianic political order on earth supervised by Jesus and the resurrected saints of all the ages. (The popular notion of heaven at death has tended to displace the future kingdom hope.)

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[1] Dallas Willard,  The Divine Conspiracy, Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God,  HarperSanFrancisco,  Introduction
[2] Ibid. ,p. xi
[3] Ibid., p. xiv
[4] "How I Know Jesus Is God," Truths That Transform,  Nov. 17th, 1989.
[5] Ibid., p. 12,  emphasis mine.
[6] Ibid., p. 13

[7] Ibid., p. 17

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