Was A. W. Tozer a Calvinist?

John ArmstrongReformed Christianity

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."

Tozer writes:

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.

Tozer says,

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 [can] turn Him aside from His plans. Since He is omniscient, there can be no unforeseen circumstances, no accidents. As He is sovereign, there can be no countermanded orders, no breakdown in authority . . . (112).

Tozer says that all who commit themselves to Jesus Christ will become the sons of God and all who continue in darkness and rebellion will remain in a state of spiritual alienation. This is precisely what I believe as a Reformed minister.

He concludes with this excellent counsel, counsel that every Calvinist should freely give to all sinners:

We must choose whether we will obey the gospel or turn away in unbelief and reject its authority. Our choice is our own, but the consequences of the choice have already been determined by the sovereign will of God, and from
this there is no appeal

Calvinists have the tendency to preach divine election as if humans make no real choice. In fact, a well known theologian once preached a sermon in my own pulpit and said, “Since you are dead in your sins you can do nothing at all. The best you can do it put yourself in the place where God might save you!” (This notion of "seeking" has a long and sad history.) The next Sunday I explained to my congregation why my esteemed friend was wrong and for the only time in my entire life I corrected a guest preacher whom I admired and loved. Simply put, the doctrine of total depravity is never presented in the Scripture as a doctrine that hinders any unbeliever from coming to Christ whenever they desire to come. Free grace and human responsibility, and thus real choice, are doctrines of the Bible. The mystery will remain because “The secret things belong to the Lord our God but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 29:29).

However you understand and teach divine sovereignty it should never be handled in any way that discourages sinners from coming to Christ. And it should never be handled in a way that keeps Christians from being faithful to the mission of Christ. Much modern Reformed theology, of the kind that is debated and argued about in many conservative circles and on the Internet, denies both.

Question: Can you tell sinners that God loves them and that he really and truly wants them to repent and believe the gospel? If you can’t then you ought to rethink your doctrine and consider that you have moved away from the clear teaching of Scripture to a doctrinal system that actually harms the mission of Jesus.

Conclusion: I do not believe that good Reformed theology and teaching creates this problem but rather the logical minds and cold hearts of some people promote it in spite of the “mystery” that lies at the heart of a proper understanding of divine sovereignty.

So, was Tozer a real Calvinist? Not in a strict confessional sense I feel sure. But as to the root of the matter he was and you can sense it and feel it in his spirit and words. And, as I said above, “Who cares?” He loved God, wrote powerfully about Scripture and human experience, and has helped a multitude do the same. I think you can do far worse, and likely not much better, whatever you may believe about Calvinism.

And while I am at it, if you love Jesus then you belong to him and I belong to you as your bother, regardless of other doctrinal differences that we might have. I call this missional ecumenism and it is at the very heart of my life and ministry.