What I Learned from Dallas Willard (1935-2013)

May 9, 2013

I loved Dallas Willard.  He was like a father to me.  I will miss him terribly.  Among those who have influenced me most, he stands out like a giant oak in the midst of saplings.  In Dallas’s case, all the things being said to eulogize him are actually true.  We have lost a five-star general in the armies of God, and the world is not what it was when he was among us.

Dallas was a man with a deep, pervasive, penetrating intellect.  He was a Christian first and a philosopher second.  From him I learned how to do metaphysics and how to think metaphysically.  He taught me to make distinctions when I was blurring categories.  He was a committed substance dualist, and never tired of defending the existence of and talking about the flourishing of the (embodied) soul.  He taught me to be a particularist, a foundationalist and a direct realist in epistemology.  And no one knew more than Dallas about the history of ethics, especially in the last 150 years.  He will be remembered most for his writings on spiritual formation, but the man was also a first-rate academic philosopher.

His spiritual writings are not only deep in content; they also have a texture or tone to them that accurately express Dallas’s own life.  He lived and practiced what he wrote, and there was a Presence in, around, and through his presence.

I cannot begin to share all the memories I have of him, but I will mention two, one at the beginning of our relationship and one at the end.  In 1983, while I was a doctoral student at USC, an undergraduate philosophy student named Joe came up to me and asked if I were religious.  I assured him that I was not, but that I was, indeed, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth.  His eyes grew big and he asked me if I thought Jesus could come up to a person.  I had no idea what he meant, so like a good philosopher, I pretended I did and replied by asking him a question!  Where did he get this idea, I queried.  Well, he said, that morning he had been in Dallas’s office, Dallas has lead him to Christ, and Dallas had told him that when he prayed to Jesus, Jesus would come right up to him and listen.  In typical Willardian fashion, Dallas had put a truth in terms no one have ever thought of, and the way of speaking had its intended impact on Joe and on me.

My next memory was a phone conversation with Dallas three days before he passed on.  He was lucid, in good spirits, but so weak that he could hardly project his voice over the phone.  He knew he was dying.  I told him that I wanted to take a minute to celebrate his life and remind him of the impact for the Kingdom he had had.  Well, being the humble, unassuming person he was, Dallas would have none of this.  I told him he had to listen to me whether he wanted to or not, and he responded that he would take the praise as from the Lord, and I filled his ear with his wonderful legacy.  He closed our conversation by remarking on “what a glorious future we all have in the Kingdom,” and that was how the man approached his death.

Upon reflection, Dallas Willard challenged—and still challenges—me to finish my life here well and to have a victorious death.  Please join me in that commitment.

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24 Responses to 'What I Learned from Dallas Willard (1935-2013)'

  1. jon glenn says:

    Well said, Brother JP, very well said. I never met Dallas, but I have benefited greatly from his ministry. I join you in your commitment to finish well, finish strong, and have a victorious death.

  2. JP, you introduced me to Willard at Talbot and the impact and transformation of thought has deeply influenced me and my ministry at Soulation. I did get to speak with Dallas on a couple of occasions. One was after a spiritual formation presentation at a friend’s house. Another when I took your philosophy of aesthetics class. We went to USC and Dallas casually sat down and talked about beauty. That Dallas understood philosophy and the spiritual life in God made him a voice that could be trusted more than most voices today. A five star general indeed. Thanks for continuing Dallas’ legacy in my own life, JP.

  3. Phil Steiger says:

    We never had the chance to meet him but my wife, Heather, and I feel as if we have lost our pastor.

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to take the seminar class at Biola about a year ago on Moral and Spiritual Knowlege where both you JP and Dallas gave lectures. The readings for the class in Willardian (as you call it) thought continues to be a treasure chest of wisdom that return to often. Both of you have had a profound impact on me and my ministry (mostly from a distance) not only because of your profound thoughts, but also your brotherly love toward one another. You will both continue to be an inspiration to me for years to come.

    Yours and His,

  5. Amber Andreasen says:

    A moving tribute, JP. I thought of you immediately as I heard of his passing and am holding you in my prayers. I remember being in your class and the phone call you made to him during our discussion of Renovation of the Heart, asking him to explain one of his statements. 🙂 He was a beautiful man who has impacted my life and the Kingdom deeply.

  6. […] J. P. Moreland recounts what he learned from Willard. […]

  7. Kevin Frain says:

    JP, thanks for sharing this tribute to Dallas. I remember that when he came to speak at ISOT, it was a transformational experience for me, and that led me to read and reflect upon his writings, most of which are in my personal library.

  8. Jeremiah says:

    Hi, I just found out about Dallas’ death today and am somber yet so proud that I was alive at the same time he was.
    I am wondering if he ever finished or came close to finishing his book which I believe was to be called, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge. Does anyone know if this was completed before he passed?

  9. J.P,

    Thanks for sharing these insights about Dallas. He lived a remarkable life and was an example to many. Thanks for continuing his legacy.

    Sean M

  10. Steve says:

    I so agree though I didn’t know him as closely as you did. One time he spoke on graciousness and I wanted to give him a hug (i don’t like hugging men). I told him I did not remember hardly anything he said because his charactor of graciousness was so very present, the words were merely ornaments. What a real man!

  11. Jon Nitta says:

    I remember being introduced to Dallas from afar. Early on in my time in seminary, many friends were talking about this book, Divine Conspiracy, which in their words was serving as a “paradigm shift”. When I started reading the book, that was when Dallas began “mentoring” me from afar (as I know he did many others). That book, along with JP’s reinforcement in class will stick in my soul for the rest of eternity.

  12. Bob Valerius says:

    I have learned so much from reading Dallas it’s amazing. We will miss him, an old friend that I never met.

  13. John Piippo says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this J.P. Blessings to you as well.

  14. Matt Roberts says:

    I often tell my students that there is no other single Christian thinker who has more profoundly shaped my walk with Jesus than Dallas Willard. Well done, good and faithful servant! May we demonstrate the same fruitfulness and faithfulness as this true spiritual giant. Thank You, Jesus, for the gift of Dallas to us all.

  15. Bryan Hurlbutt says:

    A wonderful tribute to a wonderful man. My doctoral studies and time with you have had such a deep and sustained impact on my life. Dallas’s writings have fostered some of the most important food for thought in my own spiritual life. I am thankful for him and that God so used him to mark you. Thanks for passing his legacy on to me brother!
    Bryan Hurlbutt

  16. […] friend during his PhD. studies. Take your time and digest this article. You won’t regret it.) What I Learned From Dallas Willard (J.P. Moreland—I only met Dallas Willard once and managed a brief discussion with him about […]

  17. Willard’s death is a loss for all Christians, Willard’s long-time friend and collaborator Richard Foster told CT.

  18. […] I have already commented in an earlier post, Willard was someone who actually achieved genuine competence at life in the Kingdom, and he […]

  19. […] in passing, while so many others were deeply influenced directly by his life and guidance. Our own J.P. Moreland has as much claim on his guidance, support, and mentoring as anyone. So, I can’t share many […]