I was saddened by the death of Dallas Willard at what looks like a relatively young age (77) from my present perspective. But he made a great contribution to the world during his life. I am one of the many who were informed, inspired, and challenged by his writings and by his godly example as a fine scholar, a brilliant teacher, and a faithful and humble follower of Jesus. As I have read tributes to Willard from people who knew him well, I have frequently thanked God for him. Through his writings and the influence he had on those who learned the most from him, his ministry will continue in ways we can not measure.
I only talked with Willard once, but that brief conversation was a blessing to me. He spoke at the Wheaton Theology Conference one year when I was able to attend, and I was privileged to be among a small group at a dinner graciously provided by IVP for some of the conference speakers and some IVP authors. I sat next to Willard and enjoyed talking with him about discerning God’s will, a topic about which he had recently written a book. Ours was less a theological discussion than it was a brief time of spiritual direction. I was greatly impressed by the gentleness of Willard, as a southern gentleman and a humble Christian, and I was a receptive listener to his wise words at dinner and in his plenary address later that evening. It would certainly have been a great privilege to be one of his students, and even more so to have been a personal friend. His home going will be widely and deeply mourned, but with a spirit of gratitude for God’s work in his life and through him in the lives of many others.
Years ago, when Gail and I read The Divine Conspiracy together, we both benefited significantly, but I was intrigued to encounter what sounded to me to be an open theist perspective in regard to prayer and God’s action in the world. I was reminded of this by Roger Olson’s post today, in which he recounted his correspondence with Willard in this regard. Reflecting on an email message from Willard in response to Roger’s direct question whether or not he was an open theist, Roger writes:
In my opinion, this could be fairly called “open theism”—or a version of it. But subsequent e-mail exchanges with Willard made clear that he did not want to wear that label.
One question the above quote raises for me is the extent and depth of Willard’s knowledge of open theism. Did he understand what leading open theists say or was he under some false impression of open theism?
Another question it raises (for me, anyway) is whether Willard’s aversion to being labeled an open theist had to do with the politics of evangelicalism. There is without any doubt a certain stigma attached to that label such that one will not likely be rejected (by moderate evangelical gate keepers) for holding the view but will be rejected for wearing the label. (It’s the same but reverse for “inerrantist”—as I have argued here before. One can deny inerrancy in any normal meaning of the term and be welcome among conservative evangelicals so long as one convincingly applies the label “inerrancy” to his or her theology of scripture.)
I never figured out what to make of Willard’s denial of open theism in light of his statements about God’s self-limitation including of his knowledge and of God’s mind-changing responses to prayers.
At the very least Willard was an ally, wittingly or unwittingly, of what I call “relational theism” and “relational sovereignty” and even of open theism.
I suspect, in my more cynical moments, that many ardent, passionate, conservative evangelical critics of relational sovereignty and open theism loved Dallas Willard because of his profound piety and intellectual support of biblical Christianity (as a philosopher) and, so long as he did not embrace the label “open theism” were happy to overlook his section on prayer in The Divine Conspiracy.
I concur with Roger that Willard’s theological framework was open theist, and I find quite plausible his speculation about why Willard was unwilling to identify himself as an open theist. To do so, may well have alienated some of his readers or listeners, and there was no reason for him to curtail his ministry opportunities in that way. Now Willard knows the truth of the matter, whatever that may be, and he rejoices to be in the presence of the Way, the Truth, and the Life. To God be the glory.