This past week, I have been re-reading The Captivation of the Will, Gerhard Forde’s book on Luther’s debate with Erasmus, while (almost) simultaneously listening to a “Tough Questions” interview that took place at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church with Dallas Willard (ht CR). In doing so, I was reminded of the words of Ecclesiastes yet again, that there is nothing new under the sun.
I was given a copy of Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines as a freshman in college. Having spent very little time (if any) with Aristotle, Aquinas or Erasmus (or Luther or Calvin or St. Paul, really), I thought that this book was the most profound thing I had ever read. Now, I see that its profundity lay in the way it told me exactly what I wanted to hear about myself, my freedom, my future and my ability to Renovate my Heart.
Listen to the entire interview, particularly the sections on “Assurance of Salvation,” “Why Jesus?,” “Christian rejection of other religions,” and “Christian Arrogance.” Spoiler alert: According to Willard, “Everyone who deserves to be saved, will be saved. . . because God looks on the heart.” My, what wonderful news.
To be fair, this is an often confounding mix. He comes close to the gospel distinctive in the section “Does any one religion have all the answers?,” and if this one stood alone, it would be great; furthermore, he does articulate some beautiful truths of the Christian message and there is a wonderful quote about the supposed intellectual supremacy of doubt: “you can be as dumb as a cabbage and still say ‘Why?’.” Nevertheless, the issue I have with his presentation is similar to the one that Luther had with Erasmus, that over and over again Willard emphasizes that it is not really important what you believe (he continually pits Jesus against Christianity—a nice-sounding but misleading and altogether unhelpful distinction), but what you do or who you are on the inside–your heart. Like Erasmus, no matter how many Christian words he uses, and no matter how many things he gets right, his presentation of the “gospel” is woefully absent of the cross; Luther’s critique can easily (and sadly) be applied.
Forde explains: [because] “the Erasmian position simply persists in its view that the first concern is morality rather than larger issues of faith, reverence before God, and the deeper dimensions of the Christian life under the cross. The laity can concern themselves with moral reform which the professors debate abstract theological issues!—a familiar procedure in the life of the church, alas, even down to the present day.“ Luther’s fury was heightened by Erasmus’ statement on the “sum” of the Christian life wherein he talked at length about the “changed life,” but wanted to shy away from emphasis on the cross.
Forde writes, “Luther found [his ideas] shockingly vacuous as a description of Christian faith. Why? Because there is nothing particularly Christian about them! There is no mention of Christ’s distinctive work, nor is there mention of the Spirit. It is a draft of the Christian faith, Luther says, ‘which any Jew or Gentile totally ignorant of Christ could certainly draw up with ease’ (LW 33,29)” (33)
One can only echo Luther’s incredulity with Erasmus when listening to Dallas Willard’s interview, because the problem, not the good news, is that God looks on the heart.
If you did sit through the whole tough questions interview, then here is a short sermon from John Piper to help cleanse your soul; consider it a sort of spiritual Grappa:)