The Kingdom Among Us, Michael Stewart Robb. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022.
Summary: A formulation of the theology of Dallas Willard, centering around his focus on the gospel of the kingdom, and three stages of understanding Jesus followers go through in their progressive apprehension of the realities of that kingdom.
Dallas Willard is known by many for his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines. Even this book suggests a deeper substrate to Willard’s thought, as it pointed to the disciplines positioning us for life under God’s gracious and transforming rule. He develops that further in The Divine Conspiracy, where he introduces his ideas of the center of Jesus message being the gospel of the Kingdom of God.
Beyond his academic writing, Dallas Willard gave us these books plus several others, written thoughtfully for a wide audience. Over his life he spoke widely (I heard him on several occasions and even picked him up at an airport once) on a variety of topics, from venues as varied as Sunday school classes, to lecture series to Veritas Forums and plenary talks at national conferences. While his ideas called many into a deeper life of discipleship as apprentices to Jesus, he never took the time to formulate the substrate of his ideas, his theology, in a systematic sense.
That is what Michael Stewart Robb seeks to do in this work, centering around his message of the gospel of the kingdom, and around the progressive apprehension of those who listened and followed. To do this, Robb went beyond the published works of Willard to listen to hundreds of hours of recorded messages, gathering course materials and teaching notes from Sunday school classes. From this, he elaborates, more systematically than Willard himself, Willard’s theology undergirding his ideas of the gospel of the kingdom.
Robb sees Willard’s ideas of the kingdom both rooted in creation and moving toward a telos of a “community of loving, creative, intelligent, loyal, faithful, powerful human beings. And they are going to rule the earth.” While the kingdom precedes the coming of Jesus, his coming marks the “nearness” of the kingdom, its accessibility to those who follow and believe. The major part of the book traces the progressive apprehension of the gospel of the kingdom through three stages, progressing from what is known to greater understanding and a deeper apprehension of Jesus.
In the first stage, they encounter Jesus as a prophet announcing the presence of the kingdom and evidencing that in his person through a ministry of deliverance from demons, illness, and death. Those who trusted in Jesus experience deliverance in the form of regeneration into a new life.
In the second stage, they encounter Jesus as teacher, apprenticing themselves to him as disciples, learning in his bodily presence the abundant life of the kingdom, practicing what they see in him. Their faith in him is in the faith of Christ toward God.
The third stage then is the encounter with Jesus as king, as the Son of God, the Incarnate God. Here, disciples become the friends of Jesus and enjoy the access of friends to the king’s domain. They move from faith in Jesus to the faith of Jesus and ultimately to faith in God. They know the nearness of the kingdom as nearness to Jesus and God as friends.
This is a vast simplification, and probably oversimplification, of what Robb does in over 500 pages, addressing a number of theological and philosophical matters along the way–ontology, redemptive history, and soteriology. Robb incorporates his research into the extant papers, addresses, lecture notes and published works to “connect the dots” and explore the nuances of Willard’s thought. This can be quite involved in places, requiring close attention. The picture emerges of Willard as a profound but not simple teacher.
One of the matters I would like to see Robb address further is that, while this is a Christocentric account, it is not crucicentric. If I grasp this account correctly, we are saved by the whole life of Christ, in our encounter with and faith in him, into the life of the kingdom. If I am reading this accurately, this reflects something of a departure from evangelical distinctives, notably Bebbington’s Quadrilateral. This makes me want to read Willard more closely and to understand more of the place the cross occupies in Willard’s thought.
Robb has clearly made a formidable contribution to studies of a figure he calls “an odd duck.” Willard was a pastor-philosopher whose reading of theologians was focused not on contemporaries but on classic figures, from Augustine to Calvin to Finney. He was not part of the “theological guild” and something of a maverick. Hopefully Robb’s work will spark further study to mine the distinctive ideas that challenged so many of us during Willard’s life and even lead to the discovery of Willard’s work by a new generation.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.