Here’s the review I promised for The Great Omission by Dallas Willard. It is non-technical and rather short. The book is not altogether bad, but it does have some issues that need to be addressed and perhaps there are other, longer, more technical reviews that will satisfy the need.
Willard, Dallas. The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’s Essential Teachings on Discipleship. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis sums up his point in the next to the last chapter, a chapter he titled “Nice People or New Men.” He wrote:
For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of men.” (1)
The problem I had with The Great Omission is that I was often under the impression that this ‘effort’ we make in grace was merely about improvement and not about newness; or about becoming nice people and not new men. Willard does write, “Transformation into goodness is what the ‘Good News’ is all about…isn’t it?” (2) I think this is too shallow.
The author’s purpose can be summed up, I believe, by combining a few sentences from a couple of different places in the book. The first is found in the introduction, “We have a manual, just like the car owner. He told us, as disciples, to make disciples. Not converts to Christianity, nor to some particular ‘faith and practice.’” (3) The second quote is found twice, but I’ll cite only page 61, “To drive the point home I often put this challenge: I do not know of a denomination or a local church in existence that has as it’s goal to teach its people to do everything Jesus said. I’m not talking about a whim or a wish, but a plan.” (4) I gather, then, that his point is to present to us what ‘we’ have been missing, or omitting (hence, The Great Omission) in the practice of the church. The Church, he suggests, cannot be satisfied to think in small terms any longer about what it means to make disciples: Sunday School, Congregational worship, and pulpit preaching are not enough to ‘drive home this point.’ The church generally and individual Christians specifically must make ‘obedience to all [Jesus] commanded,’ under the cover of grace, a deliberate, proactive choice (see chapter 11). Aside from this deliberate choice, we will simply fall well short of Jesus’ intentions for disciples. Willard’s contention is that we have, and we are.
Thus it seemed to me that he was speaking more to a specialized audience and not just the general reader. The book contains ‘previously published articles and addresses’ which at times was more of a distraction than a help. I well understand his desire to reach and speak to those who are the so-called shapers of a Christian spiritual formation, but if spiritual formation (discipleship) is the responsibility of us all, then the book should have been edited better. There were, in my opinion, too many occasions in the book when, due to poor editing, the reader could tell that Willard was ‘speaking’ to someone who was not, in fact, the reader. An example is found on page 170, “I trust and hope and pray that the occasion of this colloquium, under the leadership of people at Harvard, will open the way to a renewal of that kind of depth of life and thought on earth.” I appreciate the overall point, but in leaving this sentence at the end of this ‘previously published’ paper I felt like Willard was no longer speaking to me (and he did this other times too.) I wonder if this detracts from the overall purpose to help ‘everyone’ become obedient to all the things Jesus said?
Another problem I had with the book is that Willard, for all of his quotation of Scripture and all of his otherwise fine points about Scripture, takes a very ‘Rick Warren’ approach to Scripture. I was immediately put on guard while reading the introduction and on page xiii Willard paraphrased the ‘Great Commission’ found in Matthew 28:18-20. His paraphrase lacked authenticity. Furthermore, aside from a couple of passages in chapter 15, “Jesus the Logician”, Willard makes no attempt at all at lengthy exegesis of Scripture to support his ideas. His points fall more along the lines of philosophical observations based upon the fact that “Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived” (180) or that Jesus is the “maestro of all good things” (191). But if we take Jesus’ interpretation of Scripture from Luke 24: “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about mein the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44, NIV), then we see that Scripture is more than a ‘manual’ to help us get along better, be better, or do better. Scripture is about Jesus and merely yanking verses here and there out of a larger context, without doing detailed exegesis, and paraphrasing passages in strange, non-traditional ways (much like Rick Warren does), tends to reduce Scripture from Word of God concerning Jesus as God’s Revelation (See John 1:1-4; Hebrews 1:1-4) to a manual for improvement. We become not necessarily new men even if we become nice people.
Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of other problems with the book. In short they are, in no particular order: 1) The use of ‘previously published material’ meant there was too much repetition in the book. 2) The use of ‘previously published material’ caused the book to lack any sophisticated logical flow. There was no ‘building upon’ each chapter in the next. 3) Although Willard did well to analyze the ‘problems’ the modern church faces when it comes to discipleship, I believe that he spent far too little time addressing how to solve the problem through spiritual disciplines. Here and there he spoke of them and expounded upon them, but not nearly as well as Foster did in his book. 4) I concede that this fourth objection may be a (too) personal complaint, but I wondered at times why he seemed to shy away from traditional language. What he was generally speaking of was sanctification and holiness (and he was not speaking of them in perfectly theological ways.) Yet I don’t recall seeing the former at all and the latter only a couple of times. 5) While I appreciate his oft-repeated phrase “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort,” (5) he did place much of the burden for spiritual achievement on the human effort. After reading, I wonder if there is anything left for the Spirit to do after we have made our efforts?
On page 157, Willard writes: “To develop accurate knowledge of the human soul is the primary need of our times, and who should be in better position to provide it than the Christian psychologist? If we accept the reality of the soul, we can begin to explore its nature and to seek the means, of whatever kind, that are effective in its restoration.”(6) Dallas Willard had many well rounded, sound thoughts interspersed throughout this book. I think at this crucial point in the book, however, he fell flat. I don’t think I could disagree more with what Willard said in this paragraph. The truth is, the Gospel of Jesus has been so thoroughly psychologized in our culture that one can scarcely tell where Dr Phil ends and Jesus begins. If all we need is a sounder point of view on the psychology of humanity, or even the soul, then how can we ever begin to tell the difference between ‘nice people’ and ‘new men’?
Instead, I believe that God has ordained the preaching of the Gospel, the proclamation of his Good News, to be the catalyst behind the changes that are necessary to restore the soul. If Paul says that we cannot ‘call on the Name of the Lord’ without a preacher (Romans 10:5-17), he also says, “we are to offer ourselves as living sacrifices…not conforming to pattern of the world, but being transformed by the renewing of the mind” (Romans 12:1-2). Then he says we will be able to test and approve God’s good, pleasing and perfect will. In a left-handed sort of way, Willard has persuaded me all the more of the importance and necessity of preaching the ‘whole council’ of God. What the Church needs now is far less Christian psychology in the pulpit and far more prophetic preaching of the Word of God. Perhaps the reason that teaching, study, preaching and congregational worship have not done as well in making disciples is precisely because the Word of God has been co-opted by psychologists who are interested in making nice people, but not new men.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1960), 182
Willard, 34 and elsewhere