Search Results for: Steven L. Porter

Philosophical Contributions to Christian Spiritual Formation: An Interview with Steve Porter

We recently interviewed Steve Porter about his own journey, about philosophical contributions to Christian spiritual formation literature, and the tenth anniversary of the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care (JSFSC). Steve’s role [among other things] includes teaching theology and philosophy for Talbot School of Theology’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and Rosemead School of Psychology. He is also the Managing Editor of the JSFSC. Currently, he is also a scholar-in-residence for Biola’s Center for Christian Thought.

At this point in your journey, who or what has most shaped your own thought, sense of calling and work as an apprentice of Jesus?

​Very early in my life (around age seven) I began to have rather undeniable (even if rare) experiences of God’s presence. I had never heard of the possibility of such experiences in my church experience. While I had heard the stories of Moses’ burning bush and Elijah’s still small voice, I didn’t know those were the sorts of ways God still operated with his people. So within a Christian tradition that did not emphasize an experiential relationship with God, I came to know otherwise. I also knew that such experiences of God’s presence and love were transformational–mainly at an attitudinal level (e.g., joy). In junior high I came into contact with a pastor that helped me understand more fully what I was experiencing. But I did not encounter anyone who had a theory of how to follow Jesus in such a way that transformation was the norm. I pretty much thought you just went from experience to experience hoping for another fresh outpouring of the Spirit and that you tried really hard not to sin in the meantime.

Who helped guide you?

J. P. Moreland was the first one, I think, that began to put some theory around the spiritual life. He taught and lived it passionately, which was so helpful for me. And he kept talking about Dallas Willard, whom I really didn’t appreciate at first. I thought Spirit of the Disciplines smacked of legalism. I just wasn’t ready for it when I first read it at about twenty-years old. But eventually myself and a few other folks in graduate school got together and started doing some reading. Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Thomas Kelly, M. Robert Mulholland, EugenePeterson, and eventually back to Willard. Then, we thought we should hear more from some of these people so we went on to plan three spiritual formation conferences at Biola University in the mid-1990s which featured folks like Willard, Brennan Manning, James Houston, Glandion Carney, Emilie Griffin, LarryCrabb, and others. Rubbing shoulders with these folks really enlivened me to the realistic possibility of spiritual formation in Christ. And doing all of this in community with these friends was essential.

What were you coming to notice about you and the Spirit?

On my own I don’t think I would have noticed as clearly what the Spirit of God was up to. I could see him at work in the others in ways that I was blind to myself. I should also say that somewhere along the way I was exposed to “pop” psychology and good Christian psychotherapy. Being in therapy has been a discipline for me on and off for close to thirty years. While I am sure God would have his way with me without therapy, having seen God use it so powerfully in my life I can’t imagine my journey without it.

And you would eventually go study under Dallas Willard.

Yes, I did my Ph.D. at USC under Dallas’ supervision. Again, it’s hard to even imagine how I could have gotten along without my times with Dallas. He embodied the kingdom reality of God in a powerful way that I had never seen before or since. I have a book chapter entitled “The Evidential Force of Dallas Willard.” He was a force to be reckoned with because Dallas, along with Paul, was “struggling with all [Christ’s] energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col 1:29).

Academic and devotional writings on ‘spirituality’ among evangelicals tends to focus on one’s interior – e.g., ‘inner transformation.’   How has the Journal sought to address issues of Christian spirituality  in a more ‘whole-life’ sense?

Right, there has often been a perceived tension between “inner” and “outer” in Christian spirituality. Jesus was fairly insistent on the need to change the inner–cleaning the inside of the cup (Mt 23), the healthy tree produces healthy fruit (Mt 7), “For from within, out of people’s hearts…” (Mk 7), etc. I think the importance is to see that the inner life is inherently connected with the entire person and the whole of a person’s life. Perhaps we could say that the whole of life includes the inner as the pivotal dimension of the person. But it is this sort of discussion that is ripe for scholarly investigation and the Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care seeks to host this sort of discussion. I will say that over our ten years of publishing we have had many articles and essays that focus on those dimensions of persons that are often neglected in contemporary evangelical spirituality. For instance, we did a special issue on the theme “Spirituality and Mission” in Spring 2013 and we had another curated discussion on the theme of “Embodied Spirituality” in Spring 2014. Articles from those issues are some of our most sought after publications. ​

The Journal recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary with the release of the Spring and Fall 2017 issue. What stands out to you about the journal’s contribution thus far?

​When I look at the twenty issues we have published over the last ten years, I think of the many e-mails we’ve received or in-person conversations expressing gratitude for this or that article. And then I think that there is a good chance the article in question wouldn’t exist apart from the existence of the Journal. There simply are not many places to publish scholarly work on Christian spirituality, let alone an evangelical approach to Christian spirituality. Over the summer I was at a small town church where one of the elders was referencing the Journal and the help that one of the articles had been for their congregation. You just don’t hear that kind of thing very often–a scholarly journal article helpful to a small town congregation?! That’s amazing. So, one thing we’ve done well, I think, is to help bridge the academy and the church.

Since its inception, the Journal has intentionally sought to foster an interdisciplinary conversation on issues of Christian spirituality. Why does that interdisciplinary orientation matter for the Journal and the ‘state of the literature’?

​One way to get at this is to realize that sanctification is a lived doctrine. Not all doctrines are lived. We don’t live the incarnation (Jesus did), we don’t live eschatology (at least not yet), we don’t live God’s omniscience (we live in light of it). But we actually live out our theology of sanctification–what I believe about sanctification makes a difference for what I do when I wake up and how I go through my day (at least it should). So that makes the study of sanctification–or Christian spirituality–an interdisciplinary affair. Part of what other disciplines get at is the existential nature of the spiritual life. Sociology investigates what spiritual life looks like in particular groups and settings. Psychology investigates the psychological dynamics of life in the Spirit. History investigates the ways of the Spirit as it has been exhibited across the lifespan of the church. Philosophy investigates the evidential basis for these sorts of claims as well as the metaphysical, epistemological, and moral matters that lie at the foundations of spiritual formation. These and other disciplines come into play to help get at the particularities of the Jesus way of life. ​

What might be some important meta-questions that philosophers should consider taking-up in the Journal’s pages, including ‘philosophy of spirituality’ questions?

​Well, first, I think there are some fairly developed philosophically-oriented views of Christian spirituality already in existence that deserve careful attention. Of course, Dallas Willard’s works have all sorts of places of entry into the discussion for philosophers. Paul Moser’s recent works on religious epistemology [see also “Christ-shaped philosophy” project] are a gold-mine for further philosophical research as are James K. A. Smith’s books.​ Lesser known are philosophers like Thomas R. Kelly and Douglas V. Steere who developed philosophically rich accounts of Quaker spirituality. When you look at philosophers such as these the meta-questions that repeatedly arise have to do with the metaphysics of spiritual reality, the nature of virtue formation, and overall accounts of soteriology that make sense of the place of spiritual formation in the Christian life.

Some examples of these questions?

For instance, what is the nature of spiritual reality and what are the conditions under which persons can come into contact with spiritual reality?; what is the best way to conceptualize the role of spiritual life in our overall understanding of the human person?; how is it that life in the Spirit brings about changes in human psychology that give rise to virtues?; what is the role of the body, mind, will, emotions, etc. in Christian virtue formation?; what sort of soteriology best explains and accounts for Christian formation in the way of Jesus?; etc. Speaking of Jesus, I should say that Jesus’ teachings are the best place for philosophers to start when it comes to understanding spirituality. What Willard did so well was take a teaching of Jesus and really get to the bottom of it in terms of the way of life in the kingdom he prescribed.

By design, the JSFSC has encouraged Christian philosophers to contribute to its pages. As a historical snapshot for our readers, what has tended to be the focus of those articles?

​O.k., here is a snapshot of some Christian philosophers who have contributed to the journal. Mike Austin (Eastern Kentucky University) wrote an article on sports as a type of spiritual exercise. J.P. Moreland (Talbot) has written on Willard’s ontology of the person and its implications for formation. Dan Speak (Loyola Marymount University) responded to an article written by Willard on the will and the flesh. Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola University) addressed Willard’s interpretation of the Beatitudes. Paul Moser (Loyola University Chicago) wrote an essay on philosophical reflection and formation. And Brandon Rickabaugh (Baylor University) addressed knowledge of God as a type of knowledge by acquaintance. These and other contributions to the journal by philosophers are some of our best publications.

What are some common areas of spirituality, spiritual formation or questions of soul care that merit greater philosophical attention?

​I think any question of Christian spirituality can benefit from a philosophical approach. For instance, marshaling evidence for various claims of Christian formation is urgently needed. I know folks who try to argue for the importance of spiritual direction in their local churches and they just get eaten alive because they do not have well-formed biblical, theological, and philosophical arguments. Alternatively, looking carefully at the evidential base for spiritual principles and practices (e.g., certain forms of contemplative prayer) can bring about much-needed qualifications as well as an appropriate intellectual humility to proponents of these practices. Whether it’s a stereotype or not, it does seem that many persons involved in spiritual formation are driven by their own experience and therefore they often appeal to their own and others’ experience. But that only goes so far and it never goes far enough. Philosophers, for better and for worse, bring a more objective, logical mind to these questions. While that can lead to an unhealthy critical attitude, it can also lead to a more grounded and nuanced understanding of Christian spirituality.

Is there one common area that merits greater philosophical attention?

If I were to pick one, it would be the nature of the Divine-human relationship. For instance, a philosophical conceptualization of how human minds interact with the Divine mind is sorely needed, including the criteria whereby one can know that God is influencing one’s thoughts (see 1 Cor 2–3). Jesus seemed keenly aware of the presence and will of his Father (e.g., see John 8:29). If we are going to imitate Jesus we need to imitate the way of life he led with his Father by the Spirit. But, unfortunately, many folks either don’t think about the nature of God’s presence at all or, what might be worse, they think of it operating like magic or in overly romantic categories (i.e., a felt sense of God’s love). The other prevalent view is to reduce God’s presence to beliefs one has about God. There is simply a conceptual desert for many when it comes to thinking about life in interactive relationship with God. Philosophers could really help fill in this absence with well-formed biblical and theological concepts. 

You have a Special Issue coming out in Fall 2018 on the theme, “Christian Spiritual Formation: Teaching and Practice.” What might be some philosophical questions/interests to be addressed in that theme?

​This special issue [deadline for CFP is February 28th!] is particularly focused on what can be done and has been done regarding spiritual formation in educational settings–particularly the church and university. Of course, there has been a lot of work in virtue epistemology and virtue ethics on the question of whether virtue can be taught. This goes all the way back to Plato’s Meno but more recently Robert Adam’s A Theory of Virtue ends with a chapter on whether virtue can be taught. Linda Zagzebski’s recent Exemplarist Moral Theory and Nancy Snow’s work is relevant here as well. All of this to say, this special issue is crying out for some submissions on issues related to the teaching of virtue. What role does direct instruction on the virtues have in virtue formation and formation by the Spirit? What role does exposure to exemplars have? How about spiritual practices? There is also a lot of empirical, psychological work on virtue acquisition that is relevant here and much of that work has been profitably discussed by philosophers (see, e.g., Christian Miller’s recentbooks). It would be wonderful to have some submissions engaging this material.

Dallas Willard’s philosophical and theological assumptions are an important pathway into certain aspects of the Journal’s contributions. For those interested in the ‘Willardian corpus’ and its significance, what do you see as some yet-to-be-fully-realized contributions from Dallas’s insights applied to issues of Christian spirituality?

​Great question! First, I think we need to make sure we understand Willard’s own views. I often find that my first take on what Willard is saying is completely wrong. My second take is closer to what he actually held, but it really takes three or four approaches to Willard to get at the nuanced way he addresses these issues. Even still, I sometimes worry whether I am understanding him correctly. So that is a project in and of itself. What actually is Willard’s view of this or that aspect of spiritual formation? After that is clear, we need folks to develop some of Dallas’ insights more fully. Critical evaluation and emendation is needed as is developing the arguments for some of Dallas’ views more fully than he did. Then there is the work of implications.

What might be a Willardian philosophical foundation to build on?

This all has to start with Willard’s realist epistemology and that includes his understanding of concepts. Philosophia Christi published an article in vol. 1, no. 2 in which Dallas offers his clearest presentation of these issues. The first and last couple of chapters of Knowing Christ Today apply this realism to his understanding of faith and knowledge of God/Christ. All of that is great fodder for further philosophical reflection. Then one should turn to Willard’s understanding of the nature of God and God’s kingdom, Jesus as providing access to and a way of life within God’s kingdom, and finally how it is that intentional engagement with such a way of life is transformational. I think all of this is ripe for further philosophical analysis. Willard is one of those philosophers the investigation of whom brings about great rewards. Also, sometime in this current year Willard’s posthumous book, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, will be published by Routledge. This book is a history of 20th century ethics with an eye to the failure of moral theory to ground moral knowledge and a brief positive case for the possibility of moral knowledge. All of this is foundational to Willard’s work in spiritual formation as it puts forward views that provide the basis for his sort of optimism and confidence regarding knowledge of spiritual life.

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge

In 2018, Routledge Press will release The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge by the late Dallas Willard and edited by Steven L. Porter,‎ Aaron Preston,‎ and Gregg A. TenElshof. Dallas Willard was a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California, USA from 1965 to 2012. Steve L. Porter is Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Biola University, USA and Scholar in Residence at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought. Aaron Preston is Associate Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Valparaiso University, USA. Gregg A. Ten Elshof is Professor of Philosophy at Biola University, USA and Scholar in Residence at the Biola University Center for Christian Thought.

From the publisher’s description of The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge:

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Based on an unfinished manuscript by the late philosopher Dallas Willard, this book The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge is a unique contribution to the literature on the history of ethics and social morality. Its review of historical work on moral knowledge covers a wide range of thinkers including T.H Green, G.E Moore, Charles L. Stevenson, John Rawls, and Alasdair MacIntyre. But, most importantly, it concludes with a novel proposal for how we might reclaim moral knowledge that is inspired by the phenomenological approach of Knud Logstrup and Emmanuel Levinas. Edited and eventually completed by three of Willard’s former graduate students, this book marks the culmination of Willard’s project to find a secure basis in knowledge for the moral life.
makes the case that the 20th century saw a massive shift in Western beliefs and attitudes concerning the possibility of moral knowledge, such that knowledge of the moral life and of its conduct is no longer routinely available from the social institutions long thought to be responsible for it. In this sense, moral knowledge―as a publicly available resource for living―has disappeared. Via a detailed survey of main developments in ethical theory from the late 19th through the late 20th centuries, Willard explains philosophy’s role in this shift. In pointing out the shortcomings of these developments, he shows that the shift was not the result of rational argument or discovery, but largely of arational social forces―in other words, there was no good reason for moral knowledge to have disappeared.

For some preview of part of the book’s argument, enjoy this two-part video presentation by Dallas Willard at the University of California-Irvine:

2019 “Disappearance of Moral Knowledge” Symposium

Dallas Willard Ministries (DWM) recently released some interesting video presentations at a Center for Christian Thought hosted symposium on Dallas Willard’s Disappearance of Moral Knowledge, which we are also happy to promote here. The symposium is part of DWM’s recently launched Moral Knowledge Initiative. Introductory papers were presented by Gregg Ten Elshof on an “Overview of the Issues Presented in the Book” (see the Westmont 2018 presentation) and by Steve Porter “The Primacy of the Individual in Reclaiming Moral Knowledge.”

Jonathan Haidt and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: How Good Intentions and Philosophical Confusions Threaten to Perpetuate the Problem”

by Aaron Preston

Jonathan Haidt published The Happiness Hypothesis in 2006, and has become a leading public intellectual addressing matters of morality and ethics.  Dr. Preston chose to present an overview of Haidt’s work because, “As far as the project of making moral knowledge available as a public resource is concerned, Haidt is the one who is making an impact.” Haidt observes that we have lost “a richly textured common ethos with widely shared virtues and values,” and shares many of Willard’s concerns.  But he desires to restore virtue because of its importance to human happiness, and it is happiness itself, or more broadly emotion, that is the goal.  While Haidt needs better philosophical grounding to sort out his own understanding of reason, intuition and emotion, Preston sees him as a potential ally for the Moral Knowledge Initiative.

Response: Commentary on Aaron Preston’s, “Jonathan Haidt and the Disappearance of Moral Knowledge”

by Aaron Kheriaty

Kheriaty affirms much of Haidt’s work, but puts it in the category of “sociology of knowledge” which Willard says “deals with the causal conditions that bring about the general acceptance of certain thoughts and beliefs as representations of reality—moral or otherwise” (DMK 12). Any such knowledge generated by the social sciences is only knowledge by general consensus and can therefore easily disappear when this consensus changes. Studies of the human soul have fallen into this category (DMK 10). In response to Haidt’s heavy emphasis on emotivism in his moral psychology and philosophy, Kheriaty prescribes a regrounding in the part of classical platonic tradition “which we could roughly describe as the doctrine of participation: all normally functioning human beings participate by a kind of intuition in the logos – in a universal reason or ordering principle.  This participation allows us both to know the world, which is rationally ordered and intelligible, and to reason and deliberate together in the pursuit of truth and goodness.”  Accounts based on evolutionary psychology or the sociology of knowledge are incapable by themselves of recovering moral knowledge as a publicly available resource.

“The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Education”

by Mary Poplin

Following the exclusion of Christianity and any organized moral knowledge in the academy, the focus in teacher education became stages of development (e.g., cognitive, social and moral), all deeply embedded in scientific method. There is a loss of meaning that comes with an attachment to physical sciences because they cannot deal with the big issues of life. This has created a culture of despair on college campuses. Student health centers are being overwhelmed by students struggling with anxiety and depression, as suicide statistics in young people continue to rise. In the classroom, courses that address moral knowledge and goodness are in high demand because they offer hope for students examining their lives and looking to their future. But teacher training in the last several decades barely touches issues of morality or character. Today the emphasis is largely on culture, gender, and class seen through the lens of critical theory. This is the case in K-12 as well, which is a crucial time for character formation. With this educational trend, defining “the good person” becomes a significant challenge, but one of utmost importance so that students can know how to become good people.

Response to Mary Poplin’s “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Education”

by Mike Austin

The university as we know it is in trouble. It is no longer a “uni”-versity because it’s not united. It is shifting from a marketplace of ideas to a platform for social change, and the understanding of who counts as a “good person” is weak. But our secular colleagues do have some access to moral knowledge that is grounded in the character of God, though it is perhaps indirect, which Austin encouraged us to make use of as we do our work. We can find common ground, insofar as there is knowledge about morality, human selves, and human flourishing, that is available outside of special revelation. This includes using the empirical work available to us via positive psychology to make our case. As Poplin points out, “scientific findings that relate to human flourishing reveal the advantages of living Christianly”: physical and mental health, longevity, the family, education, and more. We need more of this kind of work on Christian virtues, such as faith, hope, and love, at the academic and popular levels.

Law, Discursive Distortions, and the Loss of ‘Moral Knowledge’”

by Steven Smith

Smith’s central concern regarding moral knowledge is found in his reframing of the issue as the “very real, non-academic question that all of us constantly face: How should I live?  Or, in a communal version: How should we live together?” This allows him to write about the good person from a normative legal and moral perspective and articulate a possible way forward. He acknowledges we live in a world of “rampant normative pluralism” and identifies the challenge it presents for “modern legal and political theorizing, and in many respects for modern law.” He doesn’t hold out much hope for a “recovery through greater philosophical attention to ‘the good person’” as a merely human remedy, but recommends that ministry, rather than either law or philosophy, “is the best prospect for a recovery– if not of ‘moral knowledge,’ exactly– at least of a sensible, grounded normativity in our current society.”

“The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge in Law”

by Robert F. Cochran, Jr.

Cochran described the ways in which moral knowledge has been disappearing from legal theory over the last two centuries, and how these changes are manifested in legal ethics, lawyer counseling, law school and law practice. His paper particularly emphasized the influence of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s philosophy that there is no “higher law,” but that law is merely the assertion of power here on earth. While not very optimistic about the prospects of the return of moral knowledge in the legal field, Cochran pointed to the possibilities present in the New Natural Law theory being championed by John Finnis (emphasizing “the good person” as Dallas does), and noted that the newest member of the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch, was Finnis’s graduate student at Oxford. Cochran’s presentation ended on a hopeful note with a white board comparison of Finnis’s Natural Law and Natural Rights (2011) with Willard’s DMK and the similarities in what both authors are promoting.

Response to Cochran and Smith on Legal History and Ethics

by Scott Rae


In his response to Cochran and Smith, Scott Rae provided the following analysis of law and morality: “The authority of the law depends on the moral attitudes that undergird it, giving it the competence to order society that it claims to have.” He gave an example of the loss of moral knowledge as applied to physician assisted suicide, indicating a trend toward its wholesale adoption due to the prevailing attitude around the question of who is being harmed, along with the societal position expressed by Genontologist Joanne Lynn that, “there is nothing cheaper than dead.” Rae closed his paper with a quote from James Davison Hunter’s The Death of Character: “We want character, but without unyielding conviction; we want strong morality, but without the emotional burden of guilt and shame; we want virtue, but without particular moral justifications that invariably offend; we want good without having to name evil; we want decency without the authority to insist on it; we want moral community without any limitations to personal freedom.” And his own personal assessment, “It strikes me that the death of character and the disappearance of moral knowledge go together, which lends urgency to the recovery of moral knowledge.”

The Disapperance of Moral Knowledge: An Interview with the Editors (Part Three)

Earlier this year, Routledge released the posthumously completed volume by Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (DMK), which was edited and finalized by Dallas’ former students: Steve Porter (Biola), Aaron Preston (Valparaiso), and Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola). Below is Part 3 of an interview with Steve, Aaron and Gregg (enjoy Part 1 and Part 2). This final part of the interview unpacks some of the implications of Dallas’ DMK, along with how one might think about the prospects for an institutional ‘return’ to moral knowledge. Update: To learn more about the DMK, visit In 2019, Dallas Willard Ministries also launched a Moral Knowledge Initiative that is worth considering and supporting.  

Thinking of your own work, which has been shaped by Dallas as your teacher and friend, what do you find in DMK to be the most challenging to your own thinking and assumptions, even to the point of puzzling, “Hey, Dallas, what did you mean by . . . ?”

Aaron: The final chapter contains a criticism of certain longstanding trends in Western ethical theory generally, not just in the 20th century. Plato’s Republic, for instance, comes in for some heavy criticism, as does the notion of the summum bonum, so central to Thomistic ethics. I found this surprising, because the impression I got from Dallas in the classroom and in other writings was that he thought well of these approaches to ethics. So I’ve had to refine my understanding of Dallas’ attitude toward them. I still think it’s true that he agreed with certain aspects of the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, etc., but prior to working on DMK I didn’t realize that this was coupled with some very deep disagreements as well.

Gregg: Willard’s moral epistemology involves a fairly high confidence in the ability of ordinary people to simply recognize good, bad, right, and wrong in their interactions with others. He did not claim infallibility here. But he did seem to think people the world over could be counted on to fairly reliably track these things. At the same time, I believe he recognized the possibility of being trained out of reliable acquaintance with these things — not only that this could happen but that it has indeed happened at various times and places. I’d love to have talked to him more about (i) the grounds for his confidence in the general reliability of people the world over to recognize the ethical demand in the face of the other and (ii) whether or not anything can be said about how to recognize those situations wherein cultural training takes us away from moral knowledge. After all, on many of the more difficult questions in ethics (sexuality, war, punishment, distribution of resources), good people seem to experience the ethical demand in the face of the other quite differently.

Steve: In connection to Gregg’s point above, I was recently listening to a talk by Dallas in which he was saying that human persons ‘naturally’ respond to animals with care when animals are hurt or in trouble. He used as an example the response humans have when they find an animal caught in a net or in a fence. As a funny aside he said that animals do not stop to help us when we are caught in a fence. There was not much context to these comments in his talk, but I take it that this ‘natural’ response to the needs of others (including non-human others) in the course of human life is the practical basis for his confidence in the reliability of moral insight. Of course, from a Christian point of view we can turn to the intentionality of a morally good God in creating persons in his image, but Dallas did not think you had to accept Christian premises to ground the reliability of moral insight. Although, in his original talk on this topic — “The Redemption of Reason” — he does argue that “only the body of Christian knowledge and intellectual method can redeem reason, in our time, and for the future.” I would have liked to hear him expand on these points in greater detail.

Are there chapters in DMK that might be more fruitfully read and appreciated if understood side-by-side with other articles or books by Dallas? If so, which chapters and sources do you recommend?

Steve: Certainly reading the chapter on the disappearance of moral knowledge in Knowing Christ Today would be helpful, and in many respects the whole of that book is relevant. The “Redemption of Reason” manuscript is also helpful background information. There are at least two chapters in the collection of Dallas’ essays (Renewing the Christian Mind, edited by Gary Black) that are relevant: (1) “The Foundations of Moral Realization” and (2) “Truth in the Fire.” Lastly, the article in Philosophia Christi entitled “How Concepts Relate the Mind to Its Objects: The ‘God’s Eye Point’ of View Vindicated?” (1999) provides a clear presentation of the epistemology behind Dallas’ positive view of moral knowledge in DMK.

You have indicated to me that Chapter 1, “Moral Knowledge Disappears,” is ‘underdeveloped’ compared to the detailed history and analysis that appears in chapters 2-7. I take that to be less of a criticism of chapter 1 and more of an invitation toward an opportunity for scholars to take-up. If you had to conceptualize further work to be done, what would that consist of?  As a result of working on this book, are there other ‘disappearances’ that come to mind, which perhaps you wonder about in light of Dallas’ account?

Steve: Yes, I think there is a nearby disappearance when it comes to the disappearance of knowledge regarding Christian formation. I do not simply mean that if moral knowledge disappears then, by implication, Christian moral knowledge also disappears (there is that point, which Willard makes in the introductory chapter of Divine Conspiracy). Instead, I think there is a unique though similar story to be told about the disappearance of knowledge of spiritual growth. This is what the church historian Richard Lovelace termed ‘the sanctification gap’. Lovelace’s thesis is much broader in historical reach (going back at least to the Puritans) and only pertains to theological knowledge regarding sanctification, but I think some of lessons Willard draws about the disappearance of moral knowledge can be applied to the disappearance of spiritual knowledge.

Dallas thinks that there are two mistakes when it comes to ethical theorizing in the 20th century that in part kept ethical theory from getting much traction in grounding moral knowledge:

First, Dallas argues that there was a changing subject matter: the form of the good, the good person, the greatest good for the greatest number, the good as indefinable, etc. Dallas wonders how any theoretical progress can be made without a stable subject matter. I think we can see an analogue to this in Christian theology and spirituality. When you look over the history of Christian reflection on the nature of spiritual growth, you see it discussed in quite different ways. In some periods reflection is focused on experience of God, in other periods it is focused on church rituals, in still others we have a focus on an intellectual understanding of the Bible, charismatic experiences, behavioral obedience, and so on. In some ways, Richard Foster’s six streams of Christian spirituality (holiness, charismatic, contemplative, social justice, evangelical, incarnational) are representative of a changing subject matter that can stall coming to have any sort of agreed upon understanding of life with Christ. When it comes to spirituality, we are often not talking about the same phenomenon.

The second mistake Dallas uncovers when it comes to moral knowledge is that theorists approach ethics as an abstract, deductive science, like Euclidean geometry. But Dallas maintains that moral knowledge is not of this form. Moral knowledge is more like geography or medicine than geometry. The idea here, I think, is that you don’t study medicine in the abstract. It is a practice developed in life with persons (human anatomy, disease, cure, etc.). And you do not study or theorize about geography in the abstract. You need to walk the terrain and pay attention to the land.

Ethics, like geography and medicine, is a lived reality and theorization about ethics needs to take place in lived interaction with persons. This is equally true regarding knowledge of Christian spirituality. Knowledge of spiritual formation is a lived reality as well and we need to pay attention to the actual dynamics of spiritual formation in Christ in the lives of actual persons (this is sometimes called ‘spiritual theology’). Dallas would sometimes define spiritual formation as “a field of play for grace.” It’s a field of knowledge–a field of play–for grace.

The final chapter, Chapter 8, “Prospects for a Return to Moral Knowledge,” offers a general sketch of what needs to be done in light of the ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge. In light of those prospects, what are some implications – some ‘lessons to be learned’ – here for professional philosophy?

Steve: The main two lessons from the history of 20th century moral thought are those I mentioned above: (1) a changing subject matter and (2) an inappropriate form of knowledge. But the other lessons to be learned are Dallas’ constructive proposals regarding (1) and (2). As a stable subject matter, Dallas recommends “the good person.” As the appropriate form of knowledge, Dallas recommends a phenomenological form. I imagine the implications of these points for professional philosophy depends on how far one judges the field has strayed from these points of view. Also, Dallas thought that one of the social factors in the disappearance was turning moral theorization and teaching over to professional philosophers. In one sense, Dallas thinks the university and the discipline of philosophy is the appropriate place for the development of moral knowledge simply because the university is meant to be the center of knowledge in our societies and philosophers have within their domain of study the nature of value. But, of course, he thinks the university–and philosophy in particular–has abdicated this role in society. Part of the abdication has to do with professionalization within philosophy where the field is driven more by getting published in the leading journals and impressing the guild than finding things to be as they are on an appropriate basis of thought and experience (i.e., knowledge).

How might Christian scholars [regardless of discipline] help contribute to this ‘return’ even though it is not just the responsibility of Christian scholars to contribute in this way?

Steve: Well, there is certainly something for everyone. I think the main thing Dallas would want for Christian scholars is that they come to see that they are working with knowledge and that Christianity is a knowledge-tradition. The first two chapters of Knowing Christ Today are key here. If Christian scholars can accept that there is moral knowledge and come to hold their moral beliefs as knowledge, then that puts them in a position to offer moral guidance. Dallas realized there is all sorts of societal resistance to this idea of offering moral guidance (e.g., the will to power), but he believed that having moral knowledge was the key to not getting caught up in the abuses of the past when it comes to moral teaching (e.g., moralizing or indoctrination). This is in part because moral knowledge is knowledge of the good person and the good person cares about the needs of others, including their need for autonomy.

Overall, there are several implications to be drawn from DMK for understanding culture, society and its institutional nodes of authority. For example, what implications do you see for issues of spiritual formation?

Steve: While this is not a book on spiritual formation, there are several ways the argument of this book connects with Dallas’ work in spiritual formation. Of course, that is clear from Dallas’ own writings in spiritual formation. In both Divine Conspiracy and Knowing Christ Today, Dallas situates Jesus’ on-going invitation to life in the kingdom of God, at least in the west, against the backdrop of the disappearance of moral knowledge.

So, the first way DMK connects with Dallas work in spiritual formation is that the comprehensibility of formation in Christ depends on the perceived possibility of moral knowledge. It is difficult to take Jesus’ answers to the fundamental questions of human existence seriously—as knowledge—if it is generally agreed upon in our culture that there are no right answers to those types of questions—there is no knowledge of such matters.

For instance, in Knowing Christ Today, Dallas writes,

Today, given the prevailing intellectual and cultural atmosphere, you are likely to pick up from your surroundings, with no special thought on your part, the conviction that there is no knowledge to be had of good and evil, no knowledge of God, and no divine presence in our world that enables us to transcend its merciless regularities. If that conviction settles in on you, you will live in terms of it and never enter the kingdom of God (140).

The second major connection has to with Dallas’ positive account of moral knowledge, which centers on an analysis of the good person as the fundamental subject matter of ethics. In DMK Dallas makes clear that a good person will seek out the means for becoming good and it is in Dallas’ spiritual formation writings that he develops the view that the means for becoming good involves confidence in the person of Jesus. Dallas writes in DMK:

A good person, then, is one who is committed to the preservation and enhancement, in an appropriate order of importance, of all the various goods over which he or she has influence, including their own moral goodness and well-being and that of others. Clearly, then, a good person will be one who cultivates their understanding of the various goods of life, and cultivates their capacity to reason clearly about those goods and about the conditions of their preservation and enhancement . . . A good person is one who chooses to be a good person, and who seeks out and implements, the means for becoming good. It does not just ‘happen’ (DMK, 373).

Of course, the means for becoming good include Jesus. In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas writes:

A really good person, as Jesus teaches, is anyone pervaded by love…How do you become a really good person? You place your confidence in Jesus Christ and become his student or apprentice in kingdom living. That amounts to progressively entering into the abundance of life he brings to us. You learn from him how to live in the kingdom of God as he himself did (KCT, 53).

This concludes the final part of a three-part interview. Enjoy part one and part two. In light of Dallas’ passing in 2013, the Evangelical Philosophical Society featured several tributes to him and his work. His work was also featured and often discussed in the pages of Philosophia Christi. The EPS website will continue to develop content related to “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge” and its implications.

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: An Interview with the Editors (Part Two)

Earlier this year, Routledge released the posthumously published volume by Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (DMK), which was edited and finalized by former students of Dallas’: Steve Porter (Biola), Aaron Preston (Valparaiso), and Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola). Below is Part 2 of 3-part interview with Steve, Aaron and Gregg (Part 1 can be found here). This part unpacks some of the ‘plot’ of Dallas’ intellectual history in DMK, along with some insights that the editors found interesting. Update: To learn more about the DMK, visit In 2019, Dallas Willard Ministries also launched a Moral Knowledge Initiative that is worth considering and supporting.  

How would you describe the overall ‘plot’ narrated by Dallas regarding how moral knowledge disappeared as an ‘institutionally-embodied resource’ for guiding human life?

Gregg: After an introduction to the disaster which is the disappearance of moral knowledge, the book unfolds in four episodes – each describing a crucial step in the progression toward the current state of things wherein, again, there is no publicly recognized body of moral knowledge taught as such by the authoritative knowledge institutions of our day.

In the first episode, the church lost its credibility as a repository of moral knowledge. This gave rise to the need for a science of ethics – a secular grounding for moral knowledge.

In the second episode, the most influential attempts to provide such a secular grounding rendered the moral domain “non-natural.” The most notable efforts to develop such a body of common moral knowledge could be found in variations on Kantian-inspired (largely German) Idealism, and in Hedonistic Utilitarianism such as those of Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. These two streams of thought—one emphasizing, roughly, the sources of action and the other the outcomes—ran parallel to one another through much of the Nineteenth Century, until they culminated, respectively, in the work of T. H. Green and F. H. Bradley, on the one hand, and the Utilitarianism of G. E. Moore on the other.

Most importantly for the story Dallas tells, G.E. Moore’s ethical theory all comes to rest on a particular property far removed from ordinary experience (and certainly from sense experience) called “The Good.” Given the prevailing early 20th century attitudes about what could and could not count as a “science” – indeed, what could and could not be known – this dislocation of the primary subject matter for ethics all but guaranteed the perceived failure of attempts to develop a science of Ethics. Non-naturalism would soon collapse under the force of a burgeoning ideology of “science” that expressed itself in the Logical Positivist’s criterion of meaningful concepts and statements. Under this criterion moral ‘judgments’ could not be “cognitive,” for the cognitive was restricted to what was verifiable in sense perception.

This failure to establish a science of ethics gave rise to the third and (I think) most depressing episode in the story. This episode is given over to the development of non-cognitivist theories of the meaning of moral language. Here is expressly abandoned the attempt to ground moral distinctions in a body of knowledge concerning how things are (either in the natural or in some “other” non-natural domain). What is offered in the place of this attempt to develop a systematic body of moral knowledge is an attempt to explain what we are doing when we use moral language. Perhaps we are simply “emoting” – giving expression to emotional experience. Or perhaps we are prescribing conduct for ourselves or others. What we are decidedly not doing is ascribing moral properties (natural or otherwise) to actions or persons. In this episode, logic, rationality, and cogent inference (traditionally understood) are rendered irrelevant to moral discourse since that discourse does not express truth-bearing propositional content. Expressions of emotion (e.g., HURRAY!) and prescriptions (e.g., Go get my car!) are neither true nor false. So they cannot meaningfully appear either as premises or conclusions in an instance of rational inference traditionally understood. 

The fourth and final episode in the story is driven by widespread dissatisfaction with the divorce of moral discourse from logic, rationality, and cogent inference. Surely, it was thought, our moral judgments must admit of rational assessment and grounding. The final episode, then, is given over to the development of a kind of “logic” and a kind of “rationality” that can be applied to moral discourse even in the absence of a domain of moral properties (natural or otherwise) “out there” to be discovered. John Rawls and Alasdair Macintyre feature prominently in this episode of the story insofar as they attempt to ground moral knowledge (and the relevant species of rationality) in real or ideal social conditions. The normative distinctions that make up the ethical life arise not in connection with discoverable properties of persons or acts but rather in connection with certain real or ideal social conditions (e.g., agreements between ideal observers of one kind or another). If you know anything about Dallas Willard, you’ll know that he did not think that this re-characterization of logic and rationality could do justice to the moral domain. Social agreements and conditions (ideal or otherwise) simply do not give rise to the kind of normativity that we all recognize in the ethical dimension of human existence.

As an editor and compiler of Dallas’s work, what stands out to you about how Dallas does ‘intellectual history’?

Steve: I think the phrase “painstaking analysis” was used in part one of this interview. That pretty much captures it. Though, it is right to add that Dallas engaged in painstaking analysis out of respect for those with whom he engaged. It was out of respect and care for the other person that he went to such great lengths to understand their position and the influences (social and otherwise) on that person’s thought. His research of the figures he addresses in the book (e.g., G. E. Moore, T. H. Green, John Rawls, Emmanuel Levinas) is exhaustive. We have access to the primary source material he used for these thinkers and it is quite clear that he read the major (and minor) works of these figures over and over again. For instance, certain articles and books of Levinas are highlighted, underlined, and commented on in the margins in four or five different colored inks. There is no rhyme or reason for the different colors except that that was the color of pen he had available when he re-read the selection. 

Whether he agreed or not, Dallas sought to come to a clear understanding of the ideas he investigated. I think it was in part due to his careful analysis of others’ views that he had insight into what was driving the view–for example, who and what the thinker was responding to in his or her thought. So this led him to see interconnections between one set of views and another set of views across time and culture. Thus, intellectual history. Dallas understood that to say what causes what in terms of intellectual history is always an approximation of the actual flow of ideas. Nevertheless, he developed a line of thought about what was happening in moral theory in the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries that is compelling. 

What did you find to be one of the more insightful passages in DMK, and why?

Aaron: I’m not sure that I can point to particular passages, but there are certainly definite ideas that stand out as particularly insightful. Dallas’ account of the disappearance in ch. 1 is loaded with insights about the nature of cultural change in general and about the particular causes and institutional manifestations of the disappearance in particular. Likewise, his diagnosis of the errors of traditional moral theory, and his account of the good person, in ch. 8, are extremely insightful. In the middle chapters, I found Dallas’ approach to Rawls not merely insightful, but revolutionary. We are very fortunate that he had gotten a good start on this chapter before he passed, and that he had laid out his novel approach to interpreting Rawls very clearly. What Dallas does is to show that the views for which Rawls became famous as a political theorist are really special applications of an approach to moral epistemology that Rawls had developed in his doctoral dissertation and in his earliest publications. The claim, then, is that Rawls should be read and evaluated as fundamentally a moral epistemologist even in his later works. I’m not aware of anyone else who has taken the early work on moral epistemology as the key to understanding Rawls entire corpus. It really casts Rawls in a new light.

Gregg: One of the things I found most interesting is the asymmetry that Dallas points out between G.E. Moore’s moral epistemology and his (Moore’s) epistemological approach more generally. In general, Moore was an epistemological particularist. He began with clear cases of the thing under consideration and worked up to more general claims through careful examination of those particular cases. When it comes to knowledge of good and evil, though, Moore attempts first to identify a perfectly general property (The Good) and work down to particulars from there.

Steve: One passage that has stayed with me is this one:

A good person, then, is one who is committed to the preservation and enhancement, in an appropriate order of importance, of all the various goods over which he or she has influence, including their own moral goodness and well-being and that of others. Clearly, then, a good person will be one who cultivates their understanding of the various goods of life, and cultivates their capacity to reason clearly about those goods and about the conditions of their preservation and enhancement (DMK, 373).

This is one of several descriptions of a good person in the final chapter. This particular description highlights the importance of proximity to and prioritization of moral goods, including one’s own well-being and that of others. There is a lot to think about when it comes to which goods we are in the best position to bring about and which ones are most important. While Willard does not go into any detail about what conclusions to draw, it seems to me that he points us in the right direction as to how to go about this important work.

This concludes part two of a three-part interview. Enjoy part three! Part one is archived here.

The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge: An Interview with the Editors (Part One)

Routledge recently released the posthumously completed volume by Dallas Willard, The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge (DMK), which was edited and finalized by former students of Dallas’: Steve Porter (Biola), Aaron Preston (Valparaiso), and Gregg Ten Elshof (Biola). Below is Part 1 of a 3-part interview with Steve, Aaron and Gregg. This first park unpacks some of the background for the book, the process for finalizing the manuscript, and how this book relates to Willard’s ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ writings.

Update: To learn more about the DMK, visit In 2019, Dallas Willard Ministries also launched a Moral Knowledge Initiative that is worth considering and supporting. In light of the launch of the book, Steve, Aaron, and Gregg spoke at Westmont College about the book at a conference honoring the work of Dallas and other leaders in the spiritual formation movement. The video presentation on DMK is now available here:

What was it like for you to wrestle with the editing and completing of this text in light of Dallas’ absence?

Aaron: Daunting, frustrating, fascinating, illuminating, and rewarding. Dallas was a truly exceptional thinker and writer, and we really wanted to do justice to him in supplying the missing chapters. We wanted to write those chapters as he himself might have written them. This required a lot of reading and thinking before we were ready to write, and then a lot of fretting during the writing process itself. Dallas once told me that he spent nearly two years revising the paper that became his first publication [“A Crucial Error in Epistemology,Mind, 76:304 (N.S.), 1967, 513-523], painstakingly considering every word, phrase, sentence and paragraph. I’m not sure we were as exacting as Dallas would have been in his writing and revising, but I think we came close. 

Daunting, indeed. What was the pace and collaboration like? 

Aaron: The slow pace of the work was at times frustrating, but it was also fascinating, illuminating, and rewarding, both intellectually and personally. To follow the pointers Dallas had left us into the work of Rawls and MacIntyre, for instance, made for an amazing intellectual journey. At a certain point in studying their work, you’d start to have these exhilarating moments of insight where you’d say “this must have been what Dallas was seeing!” Then later, once you’d complete your study, you’d just kind of stand back in awe and say “wow, he really saw through to the heart of things!” So that was very intellectually rewarding. And the whole project has been deeply rewarding on a personal level as well. It was quite literally a labor of love. For me, having this project to work on felt like a way of keeping Dallas with me just a little longer. It was also deeply gratifying to be able to do something significant for Dallas and his family. We are inexpressibly grateful for all that Dallas gave us as our teacher and friend. He was incredibly generous with his time, and we know this would not have been possible without support from his family. That’s something you don’t really think about when you’re a student, but now that we’re professors with families of our own, we understand it very well. So we are deeply happy at having been able to do this for him and for them.

Steve: I will simply add that the work was immeasurably easier because we did it together and not just because we could split up the responsibilities. The burden was shared in more ways than one. Dallas once took a group of his graduate students out to dinner at the faculty dining facility at USC. Amongst the things he said that evening, he spoke of how it was the case that many philosophical movements came out of a group of philosophers working together on a common vision (e.g., the Vienna Circle). Dallas was recommending to us that sort of approach to philosophical work: working together. Not only was there a joy in doing this work together, it was also an exercise in intellectual humility. We each had to reassess our thinking in response to the challenges from the others and concessions were often made based on these reassessments. 

Give us some background context. How did “The Disappearance of Moral Knowledge” – as a project and a manuscript – come to be?

Steve: I will offer a bit about the inception of the project and also how the three of us became involved. In 1998 Dallas gave a talk at Biola University entitled “The Redemption of Reason” in which he argued that the reliability of reason needed to be reestablished in order for knowledge of reality (including moral reality) to be comprehensible. Both Dallas and Jane (Dallas’ wife) had a keen sense that that talk contained the seeds of Dallas’ next book. Soon after the talk Dallas began working on the book, which became DMK. By 2011 Dallas had written a preface and five chapters of what he had planned to be a seven chapter book. That preface and those first five chapters appear in the book as Dallas had them. But that same year Dallas fell ill with what would eventually be diagnosed as pancreatic cancer. Worked slowed for Dallas on all fronts as he dealt with surgery and treatment. Over the next several months, Becky (Dallas’ daughter) and Jane provided email updates on Dallas’ health and more than once it was mentioned that Dallas was burdened by not having the energy to get back to the writing of DMK.

Did Dallas know of your guy’s involvement before his death?

Steve: In the early days of May 2013, we received news that Dallas’ health had once again worsened. With the idea in mind that Dallas still had many years of life ahead but was becoming increasingly worn down by his cancer, I contacted Gregg and Aaron to see if they would join me in offering our assistance to help Dallas complete the book. It was our sense that the manuscript was almost complete and so we were offering ourselves to help with proofreading, tightening up footnotes, and the like. We decided over email that I would email Becky and offer our assistance if needed. I was on a research leave at the time and had traveled to England to participate in a fellowship program. I was jet-lagged and couldn’t sleep. So, tossing and turning in bed in the early morning hours of Tuesday, May 7, I felt compelled to send off the email to Becky. Quite honestly, I felt a deep sense of urgency about it. Again, no real thought that Dallas was nearing death, just the thought that I needed to send the email immediately. And so I got out of bed and drafted an email to Becky cc’ing Gregg and Aaron. Becky retrieved my email sometime on May 7th and was able to mention it to Dallas that night while visiting him in the hospital. At 10:30pm, the night of May 7th, Becky emailed us to let us know that Dallas had expressed confidence in the three of us being the ones who could help him complete the book. As it turned out, Dallas passed away just before 6am the next day. The email was sent, received, and communicated to Dallas within a very small window of time prior to his passing. All of us involved took this as a kind of providential commissioning.

Providential, indeed. Compared to the broader Willard corpus, including Dallas’ work in philosophy and Christian spiritual formation, how do you see the stature of DMK, and perhaps more importantly, how might it be read and valued in light of his other contributions?

Aaron: I agree with Bill Heatley, in his EPS interview in June 2013, that Dallas would not have characterized DMK as his magnum opus. As Bill says, Dallas didn’t really see it as a culmination of all his other work but rather as just another work addressing a very important topic. That said, I do think that DMK occupies a special place in the Willard corpus. It is natural to see Dallas’ writings as falling into two main divisions: ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’. Although there are deep connections between the two, Dallas rarely made them explicit; but it seems to me that they are closer to the surface in DMK (and its non-academic counterpart, Knowing Christ Today) than in most of Dallas’ other writings. The connections are still not explicit, but they are easier to see if one knows what to look for. On the academic side, Dallas is best known for his work on Edmund Husserl and realist epistemology, and it is no accident that both of his academic monographs contain the word “knowledge” in the title. Logic and the Objectivity of Knowledge explains how Husserl developed a realist epistemology capable of reclaiming objective knowledge in an intellectual milieu which had long rejected that possibility. 

DMK is about the broad, cultural implications of this rejection in the moral domain. It traces the main ways in which 20th century moral philosophers failed to develop adequate moral epistemologies, and so left moral claims unanchored in the turbulent seas of cultural change. And Dallas’ ideas about how to reclaim moral knowledge point us right back in the direction of phenomenologically-grounded realist epistemology focused on knowledge of the good person.

 What helps link Dallas’ ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’ work?

Aaron: The emphasis on the good person as the central subject-matter for ethics links DMK to Dallas’ non-academic work on spiritual formation. Dallas saw Christian spiritual formation as a version of the universal human project of character-formation. Of course he saw it as the best version of that project; mainly, I think, because he thought Christianity does the best job of putting us in touch with the realities relevant to proper character-formation. It does this, first and foremost, by giving us a clear vision of the fundamental moral reality – God and His Kingdom. This vision both inspires moral effort in a way that other visions of reality (think materialism, or even Plato’s Forms) usually don’t, and, because the vision is accurate – it is knowledge – it facilitates successful interactions with reality. This in turn facilitates greater success in the project of formation. So Christian character-formation has some important advantages over other approaches. Nonetheless, on Dallas’ view, it is generically the same sort of activity that Plato discusses in the Republic – the activity of rightly shaping the inner self, the soul, the spirit. 

With that fact in view, one can begin to see how both DMK and his writings on spiritual formation are aimed at supporting the project of character-formation. DMK does not talk about character-formation as directly as his works on spiritual formation do, but one who knows what to look for can see that he is aiming to lay a foundation in knowledge for Character formation.

 What is Dallas’ view of character-formation?

Aaron: On Dallas’ view, proper character-formation requires the right combination of vision, intention, and means (his VIM model for spiritual formation). One might think that, with his emphasis on spiritual disciplines, Dallas was most concerned with reconnecting Christians with effective means of formation. But in fact Dallas was most concerned with vision. His writings on spiritual formation are all exercises in vision-correction in the service of character-formation. They all address wrong ideas, frequently found among Christians, which get in the way of character-formation. And they seek to replace these with right ideas, with a clear and correct vision – constituting knowledge – of God and “how He changes lives” (that’s an allusion to the subtitle of The Spirit of the Disciplines).

How does DMK figure in this mix?

Aaron: DMK too is an exercise in vision-correction in the service of character-formation, but for a secular and academic audience. Dallas thought that successful character-formation is possible apart from Christianity, but only because Jesus, as the eternal Logos of God, is “the true light that gives light to every person” (John 1:9). In Knowing Christ Today, Dallas quotes this verse in the context of explaining that humans are generally able to recognize moral truth – about what is right, wrong, good, bad, admirable, praiseworthy, etc. – in particular cases, apart from any special revelation. 

This power of “moral perception,” we might call it, is central to the moral epistemology that Dallas sketches in the final chapter of DMK. We use it to identify clear cases of good people, and from examining clear cases we derive a general understanding of the nature of a good person. This clear and correct understanding of the good person, Dallas believed, would provide an at-least minimally adequate vision for character formation. Having Jesus as your model for the good person would be better, but for those not ready to take that step for whatever reason, a clear, general vision of the good person, grounded in actual moral experience, can serve the purpose well-enough to make a good start on the project. 

But before Dallas could pitch this idea, he had to establish that “the disappearance of moral knowledge” is a reality, that it is a serious problem, and that other prominent approaches to reclaiming moral knowledge have not worked. Most of the book is given to establishing these other points. So again we see the pattern of addressing wrong ideas which get in the way of character-formation, and replacing them with right ideas, with knowledge constituting an adequate vision for character formation. It’s just that, in DMK, the wrong ideas are ones that have been popular among philosophers rather than Christians, and the right ideas are ones that might seem plausible even to philosophers who are not Christians. In these ways, then, DMK can be seen as a kind-of bridge, or maybe a keystone, subtly linking Dallas’ academic and non-academic work in a number of ways.

Steve: I agree with what Aaron has said here (not that he needed my endorsement!). Dallas once said that anything worth saying in the field of Christian formation is ultimately grounded in philosophical claims. That is not to say that Scripture isn’t essential but that the claims of Scripture about formation just won’t make sense against a theoretical backdrop of, for example, materialism or moral relativism. Or, more germane to our discussion, Christian formation would not make sense given a non-realist epistemology. In DMK Dallas was attempting to establish the realist foundations of moral knowledge, and doing that in large part by providing a historical argument as to how the possibility and actuality of moral realism, and therefore knowledge, fell out of favor. DMK should be read in that light.

The ‘disappearance’ of moral knowledge might be an elusive way of speaking for some. Specifically, what does Dallas mean [or does not mean] by this descriptor, and why did this concern matter greatly to him?

Gregg: Dallas did not mean to suggest that moral knowledge had gone out of existence – that people used to, but no longer, have it. In fact, he was confident that the average person knows quite a bit about what is good and evil, right and wrong. Rather, he used the language of ‘disappearance’ to describe a particular and dramatic shift in social facts over the course of one hundred years or so. Here is how he describes the shift in Knowing Christ Today (page 73):

…over a period of time, less than a century, the knowledge institutions of our society ceased, for various causes and reasons, to represent traditionally recognized moral values and principles as constituting a body of knowledge. They took it to be an area in which knowledge was not possible or not possible to the extent it could be taught as knowledge. This is the disappearance of moral knowledge that has actually occurred in our recent past.

Dallas thought this disappearance to be a disaster for society. Moral judgments, once grounded in a socially and institutionally endorsed body of knowledge and supportable (at least, in principle) by means of argument and reason have fallen to the purview of feeling or, perhaps, public policy. And as a result, reason, rationality, and argument, once thought ineliminable in the guidance of moral judgment, have been replaced with charisma, the capacity to affect the way people feel, or perhaps just the raw exercise of power. With the loss of a publicly recognizable body of moral knowledge is also lost the possibility of public debate over good and evil, right and wrong — or, at any rate, public debate governed by traditional rules of inference and rationality. All that is left to guide public moral discourse is strength of feeling and (for those who have it) power to enforce the dictates of those feelings

To account for such ‘disappearance’, Dallas engages in a form of intellectual history, where he is not merely assessing the flow of ideas and their analysis but also the role of institutions. Why does Dallas care about institutions? Couldn’t he just do what many professional philosophers tend to do, especially in the so-called analytic tradition, and just analyze ideas, concepts, language, arguments, etc., as if they are merely ahistorical?

Aaron: The main reason Dallas took this approach is that the phenomenon that he calls “the disappearance of moral knowledge” is an intrinsically historical and institutional phenomenon. It is fundamentally a shift in social norms of belief and attitude pertaining to moral knowledge, a movement from widespread belief of the availability of moral knowledge to widespread rejection of that belief. For Dallas, social institutions, such as the professions and, above all, the university, are at the heart of this shift, because they bear primary responsibility for making moral knowledge available to society. It is important to understand that Dallas was concerned with the availability of moral knowledge not in the abstract, but as a concrete public resource for living, on par with knowledge of medicine or of engineering. Without institutions like professions and schools, such knowledge cannot be made so widely available that it begins to color public life. In general, without institutions for the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, knowledge might be possessed by a small number of individual geniuses, but it would not be so widely available that it could be considered a public resource. The disappearance of knowledge – moral or otherwise – as a public resource will thus take the form of a breakdown in the institutional structures responsible for making that knowledge available to the public. Consequently, the “disappearance of moral knowledge” is not something that can be understood in terms of ideas and arguments shorn from their socio-historical embodiments in institutional settings.

A second reason is that Dallas thought philosophical analysis and argument could do very little on its own to either secure or to lose moral knowledge. Both its appearance and its disappearance in the West, Dallas says, were not driven by rational demonstrations, but by largely arational changes in the Zeitgeist. Such shifts are due more to causes than to reasons, he says, although reasons do play some role. Consequently, to focus only on the rational factors involved would be to miss the larger part of the explanation for the shift in attitudes toward moral knowledge (Even so, most of the book is in fact devoted to painstaking analyses of the arguments of key moral philosophers in the analytic tradition.)

This concludes part one of a three-part interview. Enjoy part two and three at the EPS website.

EPS at AAR/SBL: Human Flourishing: Biblical, Theological and Philosophical Issues

Friday, November 17, 3:00-6:00 PM

Sheraton Boston – “Olmsted” (Fifth Level)

Presiding: Chris Armstrong (Wheaton College).


Marc Cortez (Wheaton College), “How are the ‘Natural’ and ‘Spiritual’ Telos of the Human Person Interrelated: Biblical Contours on Flourishing.”

Steven Porter (Biola University), “The Role of Natural and Supernatural Formation in Human Flourishing.”

Greg Forster (Trinity International University), “Contested Visions of Flourishing: The Challenge of Pluralism.”

Responding: Jay Wood (Wheaton College).

[EPS members can register for the AAR conference as a “related scholarly organization”].

Thanks to the generous support of the Oikonomia Network for helping to sponsor this session! Participate in their 2018 Karam Forum to learn more about their flourishing-themed discussions.

EPS at AAR/SBL: Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theories Today

Saturday, November 18, 7:00-10:00 PM
Boston’s Hynes Convention Center – “202” (Second Level)

This session will focus on contemporary penal substitutionary atonement theories and Biblical, theological, and philosophical issues related to those theories.

Presiding: Robert B. Stewart (New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary).

William Lane Craig (Biola University and Houston Baptist University), “On the Alleged Injustice of Penal Substitution.”

Douglas J. Moo (Wheaton College), “The Word of the Cross in Paul.”

Mark A. Seifrid (Concordia Seminary), “Participation in Christ and Current Discussion of the Atonement.”

Steve Porter (Biola University), “Four Considerations in Favor of Penal Substitutionary Atonement.”

[EPS members can register for the AAR conference as a “related scholarly organization”].