I mentioned in my June 24 post (yesterday) that I would address A. W. Tozer’s views of the sovereignty of God. I will still do that in the next few days, God willing. But today I want to tell you several of the reasons why I respect A. W. Tozer.
First, he was a plain preacher. I have heard a number of his sermons on audio, and read some others. They were simple, clear and prophetic. I feel this is one of the truly great needs of our time. Most preaching today is predictable, political, dull, doctrinally pedantic, a rigid exposition of words without engagement with the soul, and generally heavily manuscripted. People are unmoved. Thus both their emotions and minds are left untouched. Tozer spoke to both and did so with pathos. He didn’t seem to care all that much about what you thought about his sermon either. It may surprise some of you to hear this but he was very unpopular with many evangelical people. Some thought him unfriendly and unloving, while others said he was simply arrogant. A few said he depressed them and was not happy enough. Still others thought that he was just “odd.” The last point might be slightly true but only if you apply our typical social standards. (Tozer was not much for small talk and social events thus this put people off.)
Second, he was a clear and simple writer. In the preface to the classic, The Knowledge of the Holy, he wrote:
As my humble contribution to a better understanding of the Majesty in the heavens I offer this reverent study of the attributes of God. Were Christians today reading such works as those of Augustine or Anselm a book like this would have no reason for being. But such illuminated masters are known to modern Christians only in name. . . . The current religious mood makes the reading of them virtually impossible even for educated Christians.
This is my own goal in writing, though I fear I fail to accomplish it in far too many ways. I thus agree with Tozer and doubt that he would be surprised at evangelical developments today if he were still alive. People, and ministers, read the great masters of the past even less in 2008 than in 1961. When they do read them they will often cite them in sectarian and divisive ways just to prove a point that they wish to make. Tozer digested these masters and understood their tone and the direction of their great minds and then gave the essence of them to us in forms that we could comprehend. I believe this is why his little book endures and still sells quite well. It is a truly important book 47 years after it was published. Nothing that I write, or most anyone else I know who writes except for a person like J. I. Packer, will be read 45 years after their death by any significant number of people. (The Knowledge of the Holy is clearly his best known book and interestingly was published only two years before he died. It is one of the few, if not the only one, of his books published by a major publishing house, Harper.)
Tozer would write one editorial after another, in an almost modern like blog fashion (these became the chapters of many of his books). These short pieces were originally written for The Alliance Witness, a denominational magazine. He could be very critical of movements and trends in the Church but from what I can tell he never attacked persons, judged their motives or reacted to those who attacked him or disagreed with him. He was able to make you think deeply about what was wrong in our churches and lives without making you want to follow Tozer as a kind of guru. This again is so rare in evangelicalism, where critics create followers who promote them and their cause. Tozer was able to "judge righteous judgment" (it seems to me) and avoid personal condemnation and name-calling. He cultivated no following and really had none in the modern sense of how ministries are built on a national, or regional, audience. You could sometimes hear his sermons on Moody Radio in the 1950s but he didn’t seem to market himself, in any sense, by this means. It was all unpaid broadcasting that was given to him.
Finally, Tozer was an evangelical mystic in the best sense of the word. He related Christian doctrine to Christian experience at every point. Mind you he was not overly mystical, in the wrong way, but he was a mystic nonetheless. As I hope to show you later, he understood the great central doctrinal concerns of historic Christianity and taught them very well. He also understood that the loss of the knowledge of God leads “to a loss of religious awe and consciousness of the divine Presence.” He saw the worship breakdown of evangelicalism long before we had “worship wars” and he understood that what was happening was much more than a change in style or musical forms.
Tozer was actually a prophet in the best sense of the word. He saw trends, he understood them and knew God deeply. He listened to God and practiced lectio divina in his reading habits. This is how he could so plainly warn us about what would happen. His dire predictions have sadly proven to be right with regard to evangelical popularity.
I once heard the late Alan Redpath speak at Moody Founder’s Week. I got there late and sat in the choir loft behind the pulpit at Moody Church. He spoke about his relationship with A. W. Tozer while he was the pastor of Moody Church in Chicago in the early 1950s. Many today do not know this but the famous Alan Redpath was not well liked in Chicago. In fact, he was considered a failure at Moody Church. At one of Redpath’s lowest moments Tozer phoned him and invited Redpath, who had been so successful in Great Britain and would be successful again after he left Chicago, to meet him on a beach along Lake Michigan for prayer. It was early in the morning, at daybreak, when Redpath arrived. Tozer was face down in the sand crying out to God in prayer and worshiping him. He was oblivious to all else. Redpath said the way that he prayed for him that morning helped turn his life around and put him back on a right course. He would face the failure of his Chicago ministry with renewed power and the aid of the Holy Spirit. Redpath also reminded us that day at Moody, and I shall never forget this, that A. W. Tozer was disliked by a wide array of evangelicals in the Chicago area, and beyond, and thus he often missed the “big opportunities” that he might have enjoyed had he not been so outspoken. I knew then why I loved this man so profoundly even though I never met him except through books.
We need an A. W. Tozer today but I seriously doubt such a person(s) would be popular. I pray God will raise up men and women just like him, people who will speak the truth prophetically with compassion, clarity and love.