Dallas Willard (1935—2013) was a best-selling author and has been variously described as Christian philosopher, reformer, and iconic Christian scholar. Others, perhaps more critical, describe him as a mystic. He received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin (Madison) and taught philosophy for almost 50 years at the University of Southern California.
According to Dallas Willard Ministries, “Dallas Willard spent his life making eternal living concrete for his friends. He encouraged us to use our own lives to demonstrate Jesus’s message. We must be transformed people living out a life reflective of Jesus himself, a life of love, humility, and gentleness” (http://dwillard.org/, accessed 8/15/22).
Willard is probably best-known for his work in spiritual formations and the spiritual disciplines and his best-selling book The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. Willard’s unique perspective is that spiritual disciplines are actually physical disciplines in that they require bodily action and discipline. The disciplines he promoted were solitude and silence, prayer, simple and sacrificial living, meditation upon God’s Word and ways, and service to others. His work is controversial because, in the eyes of some critics, he emphasizes these disciplines in ways that the New Testament does not. Willard also seems to downplay doctrine while emphasizing more subjective aspects of faith. Willard answered the critics by saying that, since the early Christians were regularly involved in these disciplines, there was no need for the apostles to give instruction regarding them.
Each of the disciplines is addressed directly in Scripture (prayer, meditation on God’s Word, service to others, sacrificial living) or modeled (solitude and silence, meditation on God’s ways, simple living). But the disciplines are never presented as the key to discipleship. Willard is solidly evangelical when he states what he believes, but, at times, it seems as though he considered participation in the spiritual disciplines as more important than what one believes. His works have been well received in both evangelical and non-evangelical circles as keys to living a better, more generous, and less complicated life.
Most of Willard’s books would fall into the category of “Christian mysticism.” When held in balance with other biblical truths, some form of mysticism may be attractive and even helpful to some Christians. When out of balance, it can lead to a subjective form of Christianity unmoored from God’s Word.
Much of what Dallas Willard has written can be of benefit, but he must be read with caution. Both the content and the emphasis must be continually measured against God’s Word.