A Review of Dallas Willard's 'Knowing Christ Today'

This is a review I wrote of the book Knowing Christ Today, by Dallas Willard, that was published last year in Areopagus Journal. I'm a big fan of Willard's work and think that every believer, if she is able, ought to read something of his at some point. He has been very influential on the way I conceive of the spiritual life, the kingdom of God, and what it means to be a disciple. I hope this review encourages some people to check out this book and some of his others (like The Divine Conspiracy or The Great Omission).

Knowing Christ Today, by Dallas Willard

Western Christians find themselves in increasingly pluralistic societies. It is now the case, and has been for some time, that the average person will probably not be familiar with the Bible’s basic narrative, nor will they necessarily treat the Bible’s contents as authoritative or true. Religious beliefs are now widely understood as preferences or cultural heritage markers rather than claims to knowledge about the nature of reality. Because of this, and because of various trends within church culture towards unclear or incomplete presentations of what exactly it means to follow Jesus, it is vital that the people of God know what they believe and why – in other words, what it truly means to “know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:10).

Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne, 2009) is Dallas Willard’s articulation of the place of knowledge in the Christian life.  The central thesis of his book is that Christianity represents a very real body of (spiritual) knowledge that is accessible to anyone willing to seek it. In Willard’s own words: “We want to try to help readers with problems that arise in the modern world from the very idea of there being knowledge of God, and especially those problems that arise out of the context of contemporary education and professional life” (217, endnote 15).

Willard begins by addressing the relationship of faith and knowledge.  He first defines knowledge in terms of epistemological realism – “we have knowledge of something when we are representing it (thinking about it, speaking of it, treating it) as it actually is, on an appropriate basis of thought and experience” (15) – and then traces, in broad strokes, the shifts in culture by which “the status of ‘knowledge’ came to be reserved, as a matter of definition, to the subject matters of mathematics and the ‘natural’ sciences – and, questionably, to that of the ‘social’ or ‘human’ sciences as well” (23). It is here that Willard makes one of his most important and foundational observations:

An act of faith in the biblical tradition is always undertaken in an environment of knowledge and is inseparable from it. We can never understand the life of faith seen in scripture and in serious Christian living unless we drop the idea of faith as a “blind leap” and understand that faith is commitment to action, often beyond our natural abilities, based upon knowledge of God and God’s ways (20).

In the next two chapters he makes a twofold case. First, he demonstrates that knowledge is always operable at the practical level because all persons hold, consciously or subconsciously, some worldview, and all worldviews contain express or implied knowledge claims. He shows that the biblical answers to the most fundamental worldview questions are compelling and can still be seen at work in society, even in places and philosophies where a biblical worldview is explicitly rejected. 

Next, he goes into greater detail about exactly why and how Christian teaching came to be considered something other than knowledge. He suggests that this happened not on the basis of the falsification of such teaching but rather on the obscuring of it, and this is something for which the church herself is partially culpable. (One consequence of the scope and purpose of this book is that he is unable to relate more than a brief and abbreviated account of this; his endnotes are crucial both for further reading and for establishing his trustworthiness as a guide.

In chapter four, Willard begins the first part of his case for the existence of spiritual knowledge by articulating a form of the cosmological argument. He acknowledges that this argument does not bring us to the God of Scripture, but instead believes that it “shows conclusively that there is something more than the physical or ‘natural’ universe, something of very impressive proportions” (109). Chapter five continues this line of thought by dealing with the possibility of miracles, which culminates in a discussion of Christ’s resurrection. (Willard’s endnotes are, again, invaluable for further study.)

The final three chapters find Willard applying some of his conclusions concerning spiritual knowledge to three spheres: an individual’s daily spiritual life (chapter six), the question of religious pluralism (chapter seven), and the pastor’s vocation and calling (chapter eight). It is in these chapters that Willard’s theological acumen shines, and he repeats and elaborates on themes – centered on the present availability of the kingdom of God in Christ – that can be traced back to his book The Divine Conspiracy, first published in 1998. Willard makes the important point that knowledge by acquaintance and knowledge by description are two different things, and so this knowledge of Christ must be acted on: “To know Christ in the modern world is to know him in your world now. To know him in your world now is to live interactively with him right where you are in your daily activities” (140).

The book ends with a clarion call for local church pastors to consider themselves “teachers of the nations,” those who have access to knowledge that humanity desperately needs. It is a resounding and challenging note on which to end:
It is not enough that pastors identify what the right doctrines are and that they believe them or are committed to them. They must know them to be true and must be living according to the realities they represent. They must have firsthand knowledge (“acquaintance”) with the existence of God, the resurrected life of Christ, and the reality and power of love, good and evil, the truth, and the Word of God. They must experience Jesus Christ being “with them always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20) and must be aware of the effects of that…Only upon a solid basis of knowledge can spokespeople for Christ have the confidence in what they are saying and doing that allows them to be calm, clear, and courageous facing today’s world (200-201).

 The part of this book most open to criticism, I think, is chapter four, in which Willard relates a version of the cosmological argument. There simply is not enough space for Willard to deal satisfactorily with the treatment such an argument has historically received. Furthermore, while Willard uses it to initiate a chain of reasoning that culminates with Christ’s resurrection, I would have reversed the order. That is, for Willard, it is necessary to first “set the scene” by demonstrating that we live in a world in which miracles – of which the resurrection is the most crucial – are very much possible; I would have begun with the historical evidence for the resurrection, because this, in my opinion, opens the door to seeing reality a certain way: as a reality in which God acted in Christ and so is knowable. Those down through the ages who have defended various cosmological arguments are simply further general testimony to what Jesus claimed to reveal specifically. But this is more a question of priority than accuracy or efficacy.
Overall Willard’s book is an important and thoughtful contribution to evangelical practical theology. In an age of increasing religious pluralism, believers need to be able to gently, compassionately, and clearly articulate the distinctive contributions of Christianity to the fundamental worldview questions operable in every religion and philosophy. For Willard, that contribution is summed up as a knowable and unique body of knowledge about reality, which finds its highest expression in the daily spiritual life in Christ and is – perhaps most importantly – fundamentally available to any who would seek it.