Book Review: The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives, Dallas Willard

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Introduction

Dallas Willard is one of the world’s foremost leading experts in the field of spiritual disciplines.  He is a professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California.  He has written numerous books and speaks at conferences throughout the country.  The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives is heralded as “one of the classic texts on the subject.”  The writer of this article has much to learn from Dr. Willard’s experience and wisdom.  Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline, another classic text, gives high praise for The Spirit of the Disciplines. That being said, there is reason for careful review of this book in particular.

Summary of Contents

After a short acknowledgement page and preface, the book is composed of eleven chapters, an epilogue and two appendices.  In chapter one, titled “The Secret of the Easy Yoke,” Dr. Willard makes one of the best points in the book. He suggests that we live in a culture that is content with “cheap grace” and a lifestyle of Christian laziness (2-3). Meanwhile, we emulate star athletes.  “Young people try anything and everything their idol does, hoping to be like him – they buy the type of shoes the star wears, the same glove he uses, the same bat” (3). When it comes to discipleship, we do not have the same commitment. The end of chapter one clearly defines the thesis: “This book is intended for those who would be a disciple of Jesus in deed” (9).

Chapter two, “Making Theology of the Disciplines Practical,” examines the necessity for spiritual disciplines. The Protestant Reformation pushed against certain behaviors and practices of the Catholic Church, and rightfully so.  However, it may have swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.  In chapter three, “Salvation Is a Life,” Dr. Willard makes the point that Jesus’ death was not all that was required to redeem us—His resurrection was of vital importance as well.  It is here that Dr. Willard brings up a rather ambiguous argument about the human body. This chapter concludes with, “To readjust our view of the possibilities of our body and the spiritual life the body can experience, the next three chapters are devoted to an explanation, from the biblical viewpoint, of who we are and what spiritual life is” (42).

In chapter four, “Little Less Than a God,” Dr. Willard begins an uneasy track.  He argues that mankind’s job description is to rule the earth. The Westminster Catechism helps us to understand that the chief end of man is not to rule but to worship God and enjoy Him forever. Dr. Willard’s premise here leads to a questionable conclusion and weak theology, which results in a review that will ultimately be rather critical of this book.

Chapters five and six stir up some questionable language and ideas that ultimately get    Dr. Willard in some trouble and labeled a “mystic.”  He writes, “Life is always and everywhere an inner power to relate to other things in certain specific ways. The living thing has an inherent power that contacts what is beyond it…” (57). Willard goes to great lengths to bifurcate the physical life and the spiritual life.  One of the problems here is that Dr. Willard is attempting to answer a question that our culture is not asking.  Plus, he references a “power” that can lead the reader to places other than the God of the Bible.

Chapter seven, “St. Paul’s Psychology of Redemption – The Example,is basically a look at Paul’s life of discipline, compared with the disciplines of Christ, and disciplines in the early Church.  An easy transition is made into chapter eight, “History and Meaning of the Disciplines.” Dr. Willard takes a look at monasticism and asceticism, explaining the ideology behind both. “Some Main Disciplines for the Spiritual Life” is the chapter most readers will skip ahead to read.  Willard correctly explains that this is not an exhaustive list of disciplines and not all are necessarily biblical. They are separated into “disciplines of abstinence” and “disciplines of engagement.”  These lists are certainly helpful for the reader.

Dr. Willard discusses poverty in chapter ten, “Is Poverty Spiritual?”  In it, he seeks to combat some popular views that look favorably upon Christian poverty as a godly pursuit.  He also presents a well-founded argument on how to treat the poor.  In my opinion, chapters nine and ten are two of the best chapters in his book.

In the final complete chapter, “The Disciplines and the Power Structures of This World,” Dr. Willard tackles the problem of evil, and suggests that radical transformation is the only hope for change. Radical treatment is necessary and can only happen with radical faith and radical discipline (236-37). The church is the vehicle by which this change can take place, but the church has largely failed in her mission to make disciples (246).  The Epilogue, too short to be a chapter, is basically Dr. Willard’s plea to make a plan. “It is time to take what you have learned and make your own specific plan for your life” (252). Appendix I is Jeremy Taylor’s Counsel on the Application of Rules for Holy Living.”  It is short—only three pages long—and not remarkably helpful.  On the other hand, Appendix II, which is Dr. Willard’s article from Christianity Today, “Discipleship: For Super-Christians Only?” (October 10, 1980), is arguably the best section of the entire book.

Critique and Evaluation

As previously stated, this book is a classic text on spiritual disciplines.  The author of this review has much to learn about the field from a man like Dr. Willard. However, an initial reading has raised a number of concerns.  Further research has led to some serious criticisms of Dr. Willard’s approach and terminology, which produces some questions about Dr. Willard’s theology. The old adage, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” is particularly applicable here.  The Spirit of the Disciplines has significant strength in chapters nine and ten.  The list of suggested disciplines is very good and hard to argue against.  The discussion on poverty is well done.  The article on discipleship, Appendix II, is outstanding.  That being said, the numerous references to unlabeled “power” leave this reader uneasy about Dr. Willard’s ultimate conclusion.  Willard says, “It is the amazing extent of our ability to utilize power outside ourselves that we must consider when we ask what the human being is.  The limits of our power to transcend ourselves utilizing powers not located in us – including,  of course, the spiritual – are yet to be fully known” (62). Transcendent powers are more closely related to Eastern Religion and Mysticism.  Dr. Willard has left himself wide open for well-founded criticism.

Application to Ministry

There are a number of outstanding principles for ministry is this book.  Dr. Willard points out the fact that humans often imitate their heroes. We work hard for those things that we most desire to do well.  However, most Christians give up most endeavors after little effort.  As the saying goes, “When the going gets tough,” Christians don’t get going. Instead, they often simply abandon the mission.  Willard’s point is that Christians must discipline themselves in the faith with the same manner of intensity and commitment that a young musician commits to becoming a virtuoso.

Dr. Willard’s list of disciplines in chapter nine is excellent.  Again, it is not exhaustive, but very helpful.  The segments about each discipline are short and easy to read.  In fact, the brevity of these segments is one place where this book could be improved.  The excerpt for each discipline could be more robust.

Summary

The text is typically on the short-list for “must read books” on the subject of spiritual discipline.  It has influenced many Christian circles.   Dr. Dallas Willard is a scholar and certainly has more credentials than necessary to write on this topic.  However, Dr. Willard uses some loose terminology and leaves some gaping holes in his writing.  The reader can be led away from the Scriptures and away from the leading of the Holy Spirit.   Of course, if one is being led by a “spirit” and not the “Holy Spirit,” then he must beware that they are not “impure” or demonic spirits (see Matthew 8:16, Mark 3:11).  Dr. Willard has also made some theologically inaccurate statements in the recent past (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5tiDX-C3-U) .  In light of these glaring difficulties, The Spirit of the Disciplines is a book that could be read for research purposes and only by those spiritually mature enough to decipher what is biblically permissible, because there is grave danger in the gray areas.

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