2 Stars Out Of 5
March 7, 2015
Willard begins by carefully defining and differentiating between knowledge, belief, commitment and profession. His thesis is that Christianity can be based on knowledge (which is truth or accuracy of representation, p. 15), whereas the world has relegated Christianity, and all religion, to the arena of belief or commitment. The problem is that someones belief or commitment can be wrong, while truth is of course correct. Further, someones belief or commitment requires nothing from anyone else, while truth requires a response from everyone. This was interesting and helpful, but only entailed the first two chapters.
The remainder of the book covered the following topics: The importance of world views; science and scientism and their relationships to the Bible; Western societys loss of faith, and the rise of atheism, secularism, humanism and relativism; the philosophical and logical arguments for the existence of God, e.g. existence itself, personality and design; miracles as seen by deism and theism; living the Christian life, i.e. practicing the presence of God; religious pluralism; and the duty of pastors to teach, preach and live Christianity as truth. Obviously, this is a lot of serious ground to cover, and in this short book Willard cannot give each topic the comprehensive treatment it needs, although he probably said enough to (sketchily) support his thesis. He said nothing on these topics which hasnt been covered better by other authors.
On the topic of science, I was disappointed with Willards statements on the theory of evolution and the Big Bang. He only touches briefly on these topics, but he does state that the solar system arose out of a prior condition in and around it several billion years after the big bang (p. 102). He also indicated that he could allow for the process of evolution of the plant and animal species, which, he said, has no serious implications at all, taken by itself, for the existence of God (p. 114). Since this books thesis is that Christianity is based on knowledge, i.e. real-world, actual verifiable facts and truth, I was very surprised that Willard has fallen prey to the entirely false theories of cosmic and organic evolution.
I dont know what to make of his chapter on religious pluralism. I read it several times, and still do not know what his stance is on the topic. Pluralism tries to answer the questions, Who are saved, and how are they saved? Are religions other than Christianity able to save? Apparently this is currently a hot topic in Christian circles, and Willard obviously felt he needed to discuss it even though it is only marginally related to the theme of his book. His discussion is confusing, which is exacerbated by his unclear writing. First, as he admits, different people have different definitions of pluralism, and its not always clear which definition(s) he is using throughout the chapter. After discussing several types of pluralism, he says, So there is a form of genuine pluralism based upon the understanding of God and of the spiritual life brought to earth in the person and teachings of Jesus Christ (p. 181); and Christian pluralism is based upon Christian knowledge and upon the Christian faith and character associated with it (p. 190). But he also says emphatically, We do not preach Christian pluralism (p. 188), which baffles me. Why does he reject the pluralism which he himself acknowledges is genuine and Christian? Or, is Christian pluralism different from genuine pluralism? Willard never clearly answers these questions.
More worrisome is his theology of salvation, which is at the heart of the topic of pluralism. He repeatedly insists that that no one merits or deserves salvation; salvation is by Gods mercy alone (e.g., p. 183). But he also makes statements such as, He [God] has both the will and means to see to it that all, Christian or not, are received as they deserve, and indeed much better than they deserve (p. 177); and any who have the inward heart God looks for is acceptable to God (p. 180). Also, because God is who he is, those who set themselves toward him in an appropriate way whatever that is, he will decide will be accepted by him, no matter what (p. 183). Willards theology of salvation may be summed up when he says, In his [Gods] goodness and wisdom he responds to the flawed efforts of flawed humankind to reach him by reaching them (p. 181).
But his theology is muddled at best. If people do not and cannot merit or deserve salvation, then why does he say that God receives people as they deserve? What does it mean that God will accept those who have set themselves toward him in an appropriate way, or that God will respond to the efforts of people Christian or not to reach him? What are the efforts and appropriate way by which people will deserve Gods acceptance? This is certainly not Calvins theology; at best it may be Arminian.
Another confusing and very questionable section in this chapter on pluralism is Willards commentary on Acts 4:12, in which Peter says, There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name [than Jesus] under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved. Willard makes a long convoluted argument trying to prove that salvation and saved in this verse do not refer to the eternal salvation of the soul; Peter is supposedly only referring to deliverance from bodily affliction. As part of his argument, Willard tries to distinguish between the Cosmic Christ who saves souls and the historical Jesus, the Nazorean who heals peoples bodies. This is a liberal, or even a post-modern, theology. He concludes by saying, Acts 4:12, accordingly, does not say that no one can come to the Father unless he or she has specific knowledge of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth (p. 187). Willard is very close to saying that people who have never heard of Jesus, even those who lived during or after Jesus time on earth, can be saved. Indeed, he approvingly quotes Billy Graham who, when asked if Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus will be in heaven, said, It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who wont. Willard never takes a stand for Christian exceptionalism.
I cannot recommend this book due to its theological weaknesses described above.