Thursday, March 20, 2014

A. W. Tozer's Devotional Dozers

From the March 2011 E-Block.
I have little enough to say about A. W. Tozer, reputedly a self-taught Bible teacher who has become a beloved devotional author. I checked out these three titles:

Man: The Dwelling Place of God [MDP]

Root of the Righteous [RR]

The Pursuit of God [PG]

The mystery for me remains why authors like Tozer become popular, though I use the word “mystery” facetiously. Tozer, like Spurgeon in our last entry, is spiritual comfort food, but where Spurgeon was macaroni and cheese, Tozer is a cup of hot (but thin) soup that can put you to sleep if you’re not careful. I have no reports of Tozer misusing Scripture – because in these books he only rarely quoted it, and never performed anything that remotely resembled an exegesis. 

Instead, Tozer is simply one devotional exhortation after another – in which Scripture may make an allusive appearance, if anything at all.

There is to be sure much good in Tozer. Among the more heartening emphases I found:
  • A sad but strong denunciation of the use of entertainment to fill churches.
  • A stress on obedience and devotion.
  • An excellent exposition on prayer as something done for the same of communication, not to ask for stuff. At one point, the image is used of Christ as “Aladdin’s Lamp” (as seen by those who think prayer is for the latter purpose).
  • An early (and very accurate) assessment of deficiencies in “no lordship” salvation.
  • A discussion of the need to follow up evangelism with discipleship.
  • Calls for better discrimination.
  • Indications of discipleship as work (eg, “there is no short cut to sanctity”) and not merely fun.
These are all well and good. But there were also a number of disturbing elements. In these, I perceive Tozer to have been innocent of wrongdoing, but it is disheartening to think that his devotional readers will take the following to heart:

  • “I believe that we find the Bible difficult because we try to read it as we would any other book, and it is not the same as any other book.” Tozer thinks this is because the Bible was “directed to a chosen few” who would understand it, but there is no reason to think this, given that, for example, even atheists can arrive at correct understandings after study. The real cause for the difficulty is that the Bible was written in a high-context society.
  • “Faith based upon reason is faith of a kind…but it is not the character of Bible faith” which rather “asks no further proof than the moral perfections of the One who cannot lie. “ This of course is an incorrect definition of faith – one that says, “God said it, that settles it”. Elsewhere Tozer proposes that the new reader of the Bible would conclude that “faith is the gaze of a soul upon a saving God” and “a redirecting of our sight, a getting out of the focus of our own vision and getting God into focus.” He has captured to some extent the loyalty aspect of faith, but not the full nature of its object (based on evidence).
  • Several statements offer what amount to disturbing rejections of apologetics: “To dig among rocks or to search under the sea for evidence to support the Scriptures is to insult the One who wrote them.” And: “God needs no defense” – from there, Tozer speaks of judging the Word instead of letting the Word judge you. These are standard riposte from those who reject apologetics or scholarship as an exercise. The truth is there is no “insult” to God in seeking evidence; it rather brings glory to Him. It is not so much that God “needs” defense but that arguments against God need defeat.
  • There is the usual overemphasis on “relationship”, as in: “The Bible assumes as a self-evident fact that men can know God with at least the same degree of immediacy as they know any other person or thing that comes within their field of experience.” (But does Tozer know that in the Biblical world, people didn’t “know” each other with that much intimacy?) And: “We are turning out from the Bible schools of this country year after year young men and women who know the theory of Spirit-filled life but do not enjoy the experience. These go out into churches to create in turn a generation of Christians who have never felt the power of the Spirit and who know nothing personally about the inner fire.” I am reminded here of the person who told me that apologetics was unnecessary because all people lacked today was “joy” in God. But what is this “experience” is merely manufactured? Does it not concern Tozer that Mormons, for example, speak just as readily of “inner fire”?
Actually, it probably would not. In Tozer I would suspect we have someone who would say that we just need to witness to those Mormons and not bother with apologetics – never mind that apologetics is the only way he would have known they needed to be witnessed to in the first place. Tozer was an earnest and sincere Bible teacher who clearly cared deeply for God and for his brothers and sisters in Christ, and had he stuck to nothing other than devotional commentary, all would be well with him. But like many popular teachers, he allowed his care to compel him to overextend his authority now and then.

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