Review: A. W. Tozer in Pursuit of God (James L. Snyder) (2009)
There were two significant 20th century Evangelical pastors who taught about ‘spiritual theology’ from the classical saints and mystics. On one side of the Atlantic Britain’s Dr. W. E. Sangster – a Methodist – wrote Masters’ and PhD dissertions on ‘holiness’ and Christian sanctity. In America ex-farm-boy A.W.Tozer (who had one day’s – yes – high school education and no seminary training) fell in love with the mystics and imparted their wisdom to his sometimes perplexed Evangelical compatriots (who wondered: can anything good come out of Catholic spirituality before or after the Protestant Reformation?).
Fast forward a couple of decades: in the late 1970s four authors triggered an avalanche of books, articles and seminary courses on this broad subject: Richard Foster (Quaker), Tilden Edwards and Morton Kelsey (Episcopalian) and Anglican Kenneth Leech. Now only hard-core vangelicals/ Fundamentalists have any problem with the spirituality of
people like Bernard of Clairvaux or Fenelon or with the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing.
A W Tozer is about the best example of a well-educated Christian ‘auto-didact’ I know. This self-taught Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor became a supreme wordsmith, and read widely in theology, history, philosophy, poetry, and literature. He wrote two best-selling books about God – The Pursuit of God (penned overnight on a Pullman train journey) and The Knowledge of the Holy, which have been translated into many languages. Forty other books were written by him or by others advice to pastors: ‘Think twice as much as you read’ (p.10) or ‘ten times more than you read’ (p.71 – take your pick!) – and pray without ceasing’. He would often lose track of time during private prayer- sessions (and sometimes missed arranged speaking appointments as a result!).
Tozer was a prophet and a mystic. He cautioned: ‘Our religious activities should be ordered in such a way as to leave plenty of time for the cultivation of the fruits of solitude and silence’: good advice for us noisy Evangelicals! And yet sometimes Tozer had such a craving for solitude that he bought a round-trip train ticket so that he could have three or four hours of privacy for reading and thinking and praying. He had few real friends: ‘friends and knowing God were incompatible in Tozer’s thinking’.
He was not perfect. Sometimes he could be caustic. He never took vacations and rarely a day off. As a father he followed uncritically his own parents’ practice: his father ran the farm and mother raised the children. Often the only way Mrs. Tozer could enjoy his company and his help was to read to him while he did the ironing! ‘Tozer saw his family as a distraction from his supreme goal of knowing God’ (p. 174). (But when after six boys their only daughter appeared, he changed those priorities a little!).
Nor was he a good ‘pastor’: indeed he was something of a recluse. Hardly anyone ever came to him for counselling. The deal with his churches was that he preached and wrote for his denominational journal, and someone else did the pastoral work. There’s a charming story about his arrival back in town from conference-speaking, and his chauffeur – he didn’t own a car – told him one of the elders was in hospital. Tozer said ‘That’s not far out of our way, let’s visit him!’ When he came to the man’s bedside the poor fellow was startled. Turning to his wife he asked ‘Are you and the doctors hiding something from me? The pastor’s here: am I really that ill?’
Tozer was provocative: he told a conference of writers that fiction was a very poor vehicle for expounding God’s truth!
But he could be funny. A person introducing Tozer went on and on about Tozer’s marvelous qualifications. When Tozer eventually got to speak, he said ‘All I can say is dear God forgive him for what he said, and forgive me for enjoying it so much!’
And he was occasionally dogmatic: about what is sometimes called the ‘Second Blessing’ he wrote: ‘No believer was ever filled with the Holy Spirit who did not know he had been filled. Neither was anyone filled who did not know when he was filled. And no one was was ever filled gradually’.
But he could also be open-minded. In a sermon he asked ‘Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world… Is he strumming a harp in heaven, or at the other extremity? We don’t know, but the last we hear of him he’s walking in the wrong direction’. He encouraged reading the Catholic mystics, without necessarily agreeing with their theology. His primary question was simply: how well does this person know the living God? If Bernard of Clairvaux sponsored crusades that was bad. But if he wrote hymns that included such sentiments as ‘We taste Thee O Thou Living Bread, /And long to feast upon Thee still;/We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead/ And thirst our souls from Thee to fill’ he couldn’t be all bad! He carried on a correspondence for a while with Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk.
And when asked if he were an Arminian or a Calvinist, he quoted Graham Scroggie: ‘I am a Calvinist when I pray and an Arminian when I preach!’
This book is a reprint of an older edition and includes a couple of dozen typos. Ignore them, and be inspired!
Rowland Croucher September 21, 2009