I first learned about the works of American philosopher Dallas Willard reading John Eldredge’s book on resilience that I reviewed here. Dallas experienced a painful childhood. His mother died when he was 2, and his father remarried a woman who exiled him from the home. (I still haven’t learned why. Possibly she didn’t want children.) Dallas grew up in Depression-era Missouri where he spent time in a one-room schoolhouse. He lived in poverty, and experienced great personal anxiety and depression, but instead of turning away from God, he sought a personal relationship with Him. As a teen, he had a passion for learning and reading and talked about reading the works of Plato when he finished his work as a migrant farm laborer.
Dallas’ passion for learning led him to university where he graduated in 1956 with a B.A. in Psychology, in 1957 with a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion, and in 1964 with a Ph.D. in Philosophy with a minor in the history of science. He taught for 48 years as a professor of philosophy at University of Southern California and wrote and spoke often on the topic of Christian spiritual formation.
I decided to start with Dallas’ last work, his book on apologetics called, “The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus.” He said he wanted to supply answers to some of the hardest questions people ask Christians about God. These common areas that allow doubt to creep into the hearts of believers and unbelievers alike. Doubt can mean death to faith, but it can also open a dialogue that leads to greater faith in God.
The material for this book came out of Dallas’ four-part series presented at Grace Church in Los Alamitos, Calif., in 1990 called “Apologetics in the manner of Jesus.” Apologetics “uses thinking and reasoning, in reliance on the Holy Spirit, to assist earnest inquirers in relinquishing disbelief and mistrust in God and God’s good purposes for humankind” (9).
The word “apologetics” came from the Greek legal term “apologia,” or “to give a defense” as in a court setting. Peter used the term “apologia” in 1 Peter 3:15, he said, when he told Christians to “always [be] prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
In all four gospels, Jesus as our master teacher taught how best to talk to people about God, His redemptive plan for humanity, and life in His kingdom. He used human logic, reasoning, and a come-alongside manner. Dallas showed throughout various passages in the Bible how defending the faith in the manner of Jesus prepares the way for faith to happen.
“Apologetics isn’t intellectual bullying, it isn’t belittling, and it isn’t a way of getting people saved without God’s grace,” Dallas said. “We work with the Holy Spirit in gentleness and reverence. We surrender our powers of reason to the Holy Spirit.
“We expect God to enhance those powers and use our words, under the teaching of the Holy Spirit, to relieve the burden of doubt from a troubled heart” (50).
Christians who share the Gospel with an antagonistic manner of delivery will turn people away from Jesus Christ, he said. They need to create an environment of joint discovery with those they wish to reach when asked to explain why they believe and have confidence in the truth of scripture. Christians are to live out the hope they have in Jesus in such a way that people can see they are different. The Christian life is one of transformation. They are kingdom people living in right relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
People should be able to see Christ in me as a Christian. They should ask things like,
“How is it you find joy and contentment in times of deep suffering in your life?”
“How were you able to forgive that person who harm you (physically, mentally, or financially)?”
And my answer should come easily. “I can’t take credit. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit in me.”
Thanks to Dallas, I feel more certain now that I can give a defense for the hope that is in me, having seen God at work in my life as well as others in my life. Nothing in my life is coincidence, and the people who have come into my life have been divine appointments. I thought of Lecrae’s song Messengers often while reading because that’s the purpose of the Christian life here on this side of eternity to act as Christ’s messengers.
I’m so glad that Dallas’ daughter Rebecca Willard Heatley encouraged him to write this book based on his talks on apologetics. Sadly, he died of cancer in 2013 before completing it. Rebecca said she finished his last work by stitching together the materials, following a pattern he provided in an outline they discussed.
Rebecca helped her Dad pass the torch to Christians today, who are still running the race. But he’s in the presence of Jesus!
To learn more about Dallas Willard, go here.