A question was raised about whether A. W. Tozer was a Calvinist when I quoted him last week in several of my blogs. I have several responses to this statement and the supposed objections that come with it.
1. Who cares? Seriously now, must we who are Reformed in our understanding of divine revelation always use this “label” to prove a point or to discredit the contributions of another Christian thinker who is not precisely where we are on some doctrinal points? Can’t I be a Reformed minister and still count the confession of this particular historical understanding of faith as much less important than the simple fact that I am a Christian? If I must rank these commitments, as labels are generally used to judge others, then I am a mere Christian first and a catholic Christian second. Beyond that I would call myself a Protestant catholic Christian. Only then would say that I am a Reformed Protestant catholic Christian. My order here is precisely the priority that I really do give to these labels. The truth, however, is that I still do not care about labels that much. I have been personally tagged with a bunch of labels and quite honestly I do not care what you call me so long as I remain a true and faithful follower of Jesus Christ. Ands this is primarily what I care for about you as well. If my life is one where faith is lived, and not simply a list of labels, then I will be happy at the end of my days. A faith that is lived, genuinely and honestly, means more to me than what you "understand" about the divine and human components in the ordo salutis; i.e., the order of salvation.
2. Tozer was not a confessional Calvinist, at least as a minister would be who is in a denomination like I am; e.g., the Reformed Church in America. But saying that he is not a Calvinist, at least in the general sense of what this term has meant, is another matter altogether. After I read the comment about Tozer not being a Calvinist I thought to myself, “Yes, that is true in one sense. But in a more important sense it is not quite true.” Why? Well, because Calvinism does not consist in affirming the five points of the Synod of Dordt. This is how many think of it but this is not the heart of the theology at all. Generally the term has been used, more broadly, to describe anyone with a fairly robust view of the sovereignty of God and a deep and growing desire to maximize God’s glory in the way they live and teach the faith. (This is why Calvin’s own symbol is an outstretched hand offering one’s heart to God!) In this sense Tozer was a “Calvinist.”
In Chapter 22 of The Knowledge of the Holy Tozer writes on the subject of “The Sovereignty of God.” After telling his readers that “God’s sovereignty is the attribute by which He rules His entire creation” Tozer adds that “to be sovereign, God must be all-knowing, all-powerful, and absolutely free.” He then spells out what he means by each of these terms. The one that is most closely aligned with the “spirit” of Calvinism is the term “absolutely free."
To grasp the idea of unqualified freedom requires a vigorous effort of the mind. We are not psychologically conditioned to understand freedom except in its imperfect forms. Our concepts of it have been shaped in a world where no absolute freedom exists. Here each natural object is dependent upon many other objects, and that dependence limits its freedom (108).
He later adds:
God is said to be absolutely free because no one and no thing can hinder Him or compel Him or stop Him. He is able to do as He pleases always, everywhere, forever. To be thus free means also that He must possess universal authority.
The Tozer then faces squarely the objections to what he has claimed about God. He says there are two primary ones.
1. The presence in the creation of free things which God cannot approve, such as evil, pain, and death. He could have stopped these from ever occurring so why did he choose not to do this? He says a “complete explanation of the origin of sin eludes us” but there are a few things we do know. God has “permitted” evil to exist in “carefully restricted areas” and thus Satan and evil are “a kind of fugitive outlaw whose activities are temporary and limited in scope.” This led Martin Luther to say, “The devil is God’s devil.” God has acted, in this regard, according to “infinite wisdom and goodness” (110).
2. The second real problem is the “will of man.” How can man exercise free choice if God is really sovereign? And if he cannot exercise choice how then can man be held accountable for his actions? Tozer wisely says, “The attempt to answer this question has divided the Christian Church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin” (110). Tozer believes that these two views can be reconciled so as to not do “violence to either” view. (I think he is overly optimistic about this and does not have a clear grasp on how this was tried and, so far at least, has failed.) Thus I do not agree with him here, at least strictly speaking. I do, however, believe that both approaches have strengths and weaknesses. These can allow people from either side of this debate to learn from the other side and then pay more careful attention to some real dangers for their own side if they will seek to truly learn from the other side.
Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not countervail the sovereign will of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What dost thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon his creatures. He would be afraid to do so.
The Reformed view would argue that men are morally free but they are enslaved to sin because they are Adam’s children and thus because they are in union with their human head they fell into sin. It has to be noted that there is even more profound mystery here but what is at stake, I believe, is a robust and biblical doctrine of the fall, of human nature and of sin. Tozer thus does not go far enough here, but what he says, in and of itself, is not altogether wrong. He uses an illustration of a group of passengers buying a ticket to sail on an ocean liner. Once they are on the ship they are free to move about but also limited by their choice. With Augustine and Calvin I believe that Adam bought a ticket for the family and we joined him on the ship. It is sinking and the problem is the people on the ship are spiritually dead and without hope in God.
Tozer later concludes, “Nothing