Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book Review: Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge by Dallas Willard

In Knowing Christ Today Dallas Willard sets out to show that spiritual knowledge is real knowledge, that it can be tested, and it should be trusted. 

In the introduction (which should not be skipped) Willard identifies the prevailing cultural attitude towards Christian truth claims and crisply defines “knowledge” as contrasted to “belief” and “profession [of belief]”. These distinctions are important for subsequent chapters. The introduction ends with a warning to readers that this book will require “significant mental effort to understand.” (10) This reviewer finds the level of understanding required to appreciate this book to be comparable to, but slightly higher than, the level required for Edgar Andrews’ Who Made God: Searching for a Theory of Everything which was previously reviewed on this site here.

The first chapter continues to explore the relationship between belief and knowledge and shows that these terms are not mutually exclusive in human experience. Willard uses references to scripture to show that knowledge is something that Christians are exhorted to have as the basis for their belief and thus (from a Biblical perspective) the two are meant to exist symbiotically. Willard also shows that this is not the only possible relationship between belief and knowledge by giving examples to show that sometimes we believe what we do not know and sometimes we “do not believe what we know.” (18) The author then expands on his previous definition of knowledge and discusses the social and political implications of having knowledge. (A great discussion of these ideas is found in this Craig Hazen interview.)

Chapter two is entitled “Exactly How We Perish for Lack of Knowledge” and the chapter opens with practical examples of how not having knowledge can be to our detriment and summarizes them by saying “people perish for lack of knowledge, because only knowledge permits assured access to reality; and reality does not adjust itself to accommodate our false beliefs, errors, or hesitations in action.” (39) Willard specifies the type of knowledge that is rejected when rejecting knowledge of God as “worldview knowledge” and shows that rejecting God as a part of our “worldview knowledge” is not unique to our present culture but is what Hosea and other OT prophets dealt with as well. Willard defines a worldview as including a person’s answers to the questions “what is real?” “what is good?” “who is good?” and “how do I become good?” and then gives Jesus’ answer to these questions before examining the answers of competing worldviews.

Having explained that our culture lacks knowledge of God, and is perishing for it, Willard then details the historical process of how it is that we lost this knowledge and compares this loss of knowledge to a hypothetical loss of our knowledge of electricity. Willard shows that knowledge of “the good” left culture along with knowledge of God and that our culture has replaced knowledge of “the good” with feelings. This passage details that replacement:
So it is now generally thought that desiring to do something is a sufficient or at least a weighty reason for doing it. From this we get our overall culture of sensuality, in which people are almost completely governed by their feelings. Within that context the major ills of contemporary life fall readily into place: everything from obesity to elder abuse, from broken families with broken lives to drug dependency and addiction, from misuse of credit to contempt and animosities between racial and other groups. Over these we helplessly chant our slogans such as “choice,” “diversity” and “tolerance” hoping the grim and grinding realities will go away. These ills are the natural outcomes of a culture that finds the saying “If it feels good, do it” humorous instead of morally ridiculous [.] (82)
The author then shows that substituting desire for real morality is problematic because morality is a mechanism precisely for restraining desires and so equating it with desire actually destroys it. The moral argument for the existence of God is never outright stated but it is a background fixture of this chapter.

Chapter Four is on the existence of God; Willard gives a defense of the cosmological argument combined with elements of the argument from a First Cause. The teleological argument is then defended with the help of quotations from David Hume. This chapter is concluded with a reminder that these arguments and their conclusions constitute knowledge in the normal sense of the word.

Having established the existence of God, Willard now attempts to show that God acts in the universe. Willard first shows that the universe is not causally closed and that working miracles is not “beneath” God as has been asserted in past centuries and that miracles are therefore not impossible in principle. Willard urges people to approach miracles with a degree of skepticism but also with an open mind and he defends the claim that witness testimonies, while not able to compel belief in the occurrence of miracles, can none-the-less provide some evidence of miracles. Furthermore, some events that are asserted to have occurred (and which must have been miracles if they did occur) would leave behind empirical evidence and are thus verifiable. Based on these two types of evidence Willard makes a case for the resurrection of Christ.

Willard now turns the corner from the impersonal to the personal to support his case. Specifically our personal interactions with God give us knowledge about God just as our personal interactions with other people give us knowledge about those persons. Willard draws on, and directly alludes to, the Christian classic Practicing His Presence to describe how our daily lives can be affected and informed by this relationship while summarizing such a relationship as one of “humility and the intention of inward transformation, and the practice of Christ’s constant presence, and progressive overall obedience.” (156) The author goes on to briefly discuss the spiritual disciplines used to pursue such a relationship (a fuller treatment found in Willard’s previous book: The Spirit of the Disciplines) and then discusses Biblical claims about the predicted results of pursuing these characteristics with the disciplines in question. Because there are Biblically predicted results, the discussed knowledge is verifiable and falsifiable. Willard concludes this section with further discussion of atheistic objections to spiritual knowledge.

The next chapter addresses Christian exclusivity, the author contends that while Christ is exclusive (he is the only means of salvation) Christianity is not, which is to say that you need not self-identify as a Christian in order to know Christ and it is this knowledge of Christ that saves. Moreover because Christ, as a part of the Trinity, is timeless; and because his sacrifice impinged on a timeless reality, those who were born before Christ and others who have never heard of Christ can still be saved by this salvific mechanism. Thus the classic question “what happens to the person who is separated from knowledge of Jesus by time and/or space?” is answered.

The final chapter is a call to those publicly representing Christianity; Dallas Willard calls them to know what they preach, to preach it as knowledge, and to not preach things that they do not have knowledge of. Furthermore such people are exhorted to claim to be the ones holding the knowledge which he warns will rightly be interpreted as a claim to a power and thus subject to attacks, for this reason, sound defenses of these claims to knowledge must be known. A reminder is given that this is how Jesus taught, with authority, and that this authority was challenged by the knowledge-holding power-brokers of the time (the Pharisees). Willard contends that today, Christian institutions of higher learning and many other Christian institutions are largely failing to present spiritual knowledge as real knowledge but are instead presenting it as things which we simply believe or perhaps as things for which belief is to be merely professed. Willard then shows that this not how Jesus presented the Gospel, it is not how Paul presented the Gospel, and it should not be how we present the Gospel.

This book is dense, insightful, and supremely relevant. Willard, though less colorful than Lewis, has a C.S. Lewis-esque way of communicating fresh thoughts about complex realities with clarity and brevity. This book is recommended in particular to pastors and others in full-time ministry but all Christians that have at least a basic knowledge of philosophy will likely find this book stimulating and personally challenging. 

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Nate is a professional pilot in Arizona who enjoys classical apologetics, following the tech industry, and playing in the mountains. More of his writing can be found at


orthodoxcolvinism said...

Nice review. This book and Willard's teaching in general on knowledge, belief, commitment and profession have been invaluable to me as a template for understanding so many of the issues surrounding apologetics. I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who wants to firm up their intellectual foundations to master the material in this book.

Mark C.

Ex N1hilo said...

There is no "salvific mechanism." Salvation is of, by, and through a Person. The Lord Jesus Christ Himself is our Salvation (Isaiah 12:2-3); and to be saved by Him is to know Him. His sheep hear His voice and they follow Him. (John 10:26-28) Those who do not hear His voice are not of God. (John 8:47)

The "anonymous Christian" teaching is dangerous.

Stephen Bedard said...

I enjoyed this book but had trouble with his inclusion of the chapter with salvation of non-Christians. It is not a theological problem, although I think there are concerns there as well. That chapter seems to break the flow. He is arguing that we can really know and then all of sudden throws in the idea that people can be saved with no knowledge. I wasn't sure how that fit with the rest of the book.

_Nate said...

Thanks for the comments and yes I agree that the chapter on the salvation of "anonymous Christians" seems problematic. I considered adding some criticism of that chapter but did not for two reasons.

1. Brian specifically asked us to try to leave our opinions out of reviews.

2. I couldn't, and still can't, think of a way to clearly articulate exactly what my problem with the chapter is.

Ex N1hilo I'm not sure I understand your objection, when you say "His sheep hear his voice and they follow him" it seems to me that the process of "His sheep hearing his voice" is something that can be accurately described as a mechanism (and I think this will be true for any other description of how salvation occurs as well see the second definition). If this mechanism produces salvation I think it can be accurately described as a "salvific mechanism" though I understand that the word mechanism might inappropriately connote determinism or an excessively formulaic conception of salvation.

Stephen I think you're misunderstanding Willard when you say
"He is arguing that we can really know and then all of a sudden throws in the idea that people can be saved with no knowledge."
He's not saying that people can be saved with no knowledge he's saying that people who haven't heard of Jesus from other humans can none-the-less have saving knowledge of Jesus through a direct personal relationship with him.

Anyway I really do appreciate the comments and I agree that something seems funny about the chapter on exclusivity but frankly I suspect that I'm not understanding something that Willard was trying to communicate so I'm a little worried that I misrepresented him out of ignorance in my review.

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