A.W.Tozer's Pursuit of God

My senior year in college I began to get serious about my faith. Among other things, I realized that I didn't really know what I believed, and it certainly was not taught in a secular university -- although I did take what they had, including Philosophy of Religion taught by visiting British professor A.J.Ayer. I resolved to fill in the gaps by going to seminary the next year. I think I was hoping God would call me to be a preacher, but I learned I am not preacher material (it took four decades longer to unerstand why).

Among the courses I took that first year in seminary was New Testament Theology taught by Walter Liefeld. The first midterm in his class included a question asking which commentaries I had read in preparation for the test. I answered, "None. I prefer to read the Bible instead of books about the Bible." My other right answers counted for nothing, he failed me on that one line.

I remain unrepentant to this day, I believe for good reason. When people, Godly though they may be, set out to explain in a whole chapter or book what the Bible says clearly in one or two verses, they run the risk -- nay, it is inevitable -- that they will overstep Scripture, or contradict themselves (or worse: God), or else go off on some irrelevant tangent unrelated to what God has to say on the subject. Most likely some combination of these flaws.

A.W.Tozer's Pursuit of God is a case in point. The superscript on the cover ("A Devotional Classic") is the first clue that this is a ringer. Devotional writing is by design intended to grow in their readers devotion, which is another word meaning "affirmation", and affirmation is the essense of Relationshipism. I have nothing against being devoted to God, and I would prefer a person be devoted to God as a Relationshipist than rejecting God as an atheist, but Relationshipism is none the less heretical in the same way I consider heretical the excessive veneration of the "Blessed Virgin Mary Mother of God" or the supposition that "as God was, we are, and as God is, we shall become." You can be a Christian -- even a "good" Christian -- believing those wrong ideas, but who wants to be Wrong?

Every chapter of Tozer's book suffers from the fault I hold against books about the Bible:

1  Following Hard after God -- Tozer correctly observes that the phrase "accepting Christ" is not found in the Bible, and (again correctly) observes that those taught this idea "are not expected thereafter to crave any further revelation of God to our souls." The point of this chapter is rather the contrary, that we should indeed seek after God, and I would agree -- except he introduced the topic quoting John 6:44, that nobody comes to Christ except the Father draw him. That seems to imply that our efforts to "Follow Hard after God" are worthless. Tozer does not attempt to resolve that contradiction, nor even to recognize it. The purpose of a devotional book is to induce warm fuzzies in the reader's heart, not to speak Truth to their soul.

2  Possessing Nothing -- The chapter title expresses well his worthy goal, which is the separation of us from our possessions. The negative is a tiny one, not so much unScriptural as merely contrary to fact: "truth such as this cannot be learned by rote as one would learn the facts of physical science. They must be experienced..." [his emphasis]. I learned many pithy aphorisms from my father, among the more useful being "Experience is a hard school, but the fool learneth in none other." Science is not about learning facts, it is about applying a particular method for learning those facts (nevermind that many alleged scientists ignore the method and appeal instead to majority vote). I suspect the "Blessedness of Possessing Nothing" is not achieved so much by experiencing destitution, as by the continuous process of transferring our bondage from the possessions (idols) of this world to the person of Jesus Christ.

3  Removing the Veil -- At the moment of the Atonement on the Cross, the veil of the Jewish temple was torn from top to bottom, thus signifying our new access to the throne of the Father. Tozer gets this part essentially correct, but like the other chapters, reading his book does not significantly improve my grasp of it. Is it something we do in the pursuit of God, or something God does to us as we accept Him as LORD? Tozer seems to believe the former. "The instant cure of most of our religious ills would be to enter the Presence in spiritual experience, to become suddenly aware that we are in God and God is in us." Tozer chose "enter" as an active verb, something we can choose to do, as opposed to being drawn by the power of God. I suppose I can actively resist God, but when God acts, it is not I but God who acts. Worse, this sentence borders on mysticism, almost pantheism. A Buddhist would accept it unchanged and without qualification. I cannot. I think the instant cure of most of our religious ills would be to start truly loving our neighbor as ourselves, which is made possible when we love God above all else. Removing the Veil might help us to love God, but I suspect it more likely would immobilize us in holy terror, as it did to most of the people in the Bible (including Peter, as quoted by Tozer).

4  Apprehending God -- Tozer begins this chapter with the observation (attributed to Canon Holmes of India) of "the inferential character of the average man's faith in God." This is undoubtedly true. Tozer goes on to distinguish such inference from the alleged non-inferential quality of our knowledge of other people. This I contest. Everything we know of anybody -- including the most intimate relations with a spouse -- is none the less mediated through our senses and the inferences our conscious and subconscious mind applies to the glut of sensory stimuli to distill it down to a model of who we think the other person is. Having on numerous occasions experienced the consequence of such inferences wrongly made with respect to myself, and knowing myself different from the mental image they imagine me to be, I am unable to accept such a difference in kind, but only in the quantity of stimuli from which such inferences are made. Tozer says (with disapproval) "While admitting [God's] existence they do not think of Him as being knowable in the sense that we know things or people." I suspect that Tozer believes otherwise of himself because he has suppressed in his mind the inferential quality of his knowing God and other people. Although I have never heard anybody admit to it, I suppose it is conceivable that people can know God through the accumulation of sensory stimuli of touch, smell, sight, and sound. I suspect it is rather some non-sensory model accumulated in their imagination from sermons they hear, what little they read in the Bible, and mostly just plain wishful thinking. Otherwise why would these models differ so much from one person to the next, and especially from the God of the Bible these same people claim to read and respect? Is God deceptive in His self-revelation? I prefer to think not.

5  The Universal Presence -- Conceerning the Omnipresence of God, Tozer rightly says "Christian teachers shy away from its full implications." It is less clear to me "What a difference it would make if they knew." I think it would make a bigger difference in people's lives if they really understood and accepted that God is God, and we are not gods. Tozer also asserts "the will of God is the same for all. He has no favorites within His household." My Bible seems to suggest otherwise. Why were only Peter, James, and John invited to the Transfiguration or the raising of Jairus' daughter? Why did Jesus choose only Twelve disciples and not 70 or 120 or 500 or 3000? Why are there only 24 elders seated on thrones around the emerald throne in Revelation? Why were only Enoch and Elijah spared physical death? Why did Noah find grace in the eyes of the Lord, and not the rest of the world of his day? Why did God love Jacob, but hate Esau? We Americans like to believe in equality and democracy, but the Bible does not teach it in all cases. There is no difference between slave or free, male or female, educated or ignorant, with respect to our salvation, but there are differences.

6  The Speaking Voice -- I did not notice Tozer to cite it, but Paul tells us that "faith comes by hearing...the Word of God." This chapter expounds on the quality of Voice as a communication from God. Which is probably all well and good in the time of the Prophets, be we now have that Word written. We can imagine some sort of "Voice" speaking to us in and through the written words, but it is a vivid imagination, not a physical vibration of the air molecules impinging on our eardrums. Is it "the present Voice which makes the written Word all powerful," or only the quickening spirit? I would not deny mystics their voices and their visions, but I am not a mystic.

7  The Gaze of the Soul -- Tozer carefully notes that (apart from Heb.11:1) the Bible does not define faith so much as show it in action. He even rightly insists "We will be wise to go just that far and attempt to go no further," before proceeding nevertheless to offer his own definition for faith. And like all who seek to expound on the Biblical idea of "continual" prayer, he must either ignore or explain away the problem faced by us who do real things in the world that require undivided attention if they are to be done well. Tozer's explanation is unsatisfying.

8  Creator-Creature Relation -- I had trouble getting into this chapter, because Tozer built it on a foundation of Relationshipism, which I have elsewhere rejected as unBiblical. It's not that any particular thing he said is false, only that it does not follow from his premise.

9  Meekness and Rest -- This chapter purports to be a homily on Matt.11:29, but Tozer goes off on a tangent inspired by the modern English meaning of "meek" which he contrasts with pride. Pride is indeed an evil to be shunned, but it is not mentioned in this Biblical context as a contrast to what Jesus is offering, nor anywhere else in the Bible that I could find in connection with the Greek word translated here as "meek." In the Matthew text Jesus contrasts his offering to a burden, without defining what that burden is. The second paragraph of the next chapter, where Tozer, now relieved of the burden of connecting it to meekness, gives a much better treatment of the subject.

10  The Sacrament of Living -- A recent article in WORLD magazine invited Christians to take over the pagan American holiday Labor Day by properly understanding the Christian idea of "vocation," the calling by God to do something in the world to benefit other people, not necessarily "ministry." In this final chapter, Tozer makes the same plea, but somewhat less eloquently. He admits that "it may be difficult for the average Christian to get hold of the idea that his daily labors can be performed as acts of worship..." Yes, that is difficult. In my opinion, it's much easier to get hold of the idea that one's daily labors can be performed is service to one's neighbor, and inasmuch as the Second Great Commandment (2C) is a large part of what true Christianity is (according to Jesus), the problem is solved. Tozer offers instead the proposed solution of "offer[ing] all our acts to God and believe that He accepts them." What nonsense! The 9/11 hijackers offered their hostile act to God (Allah in Arabic), believing that God accepted them. The 2C Christian knows that we do not love our neighbor as ourself by killing them suddenly. Even the Muslims who sought death in their act had time to prepare themselves for their coming doom. The sniper shooting school children probably knows he cannot in good conscience offer it to God believing God accepts his sociopathic behavior, but he wouldn't guess it from reading Tozer. Playing video games may be a pleasurable pastime, and we might sincerely offer it to God and believe that He accepts it, but it benefits nobody, and thus fails the test Jesus himself gave us.

I do not exempt my own writings from the criticism I level at other books about the Bible. Read the Bible. If you cannot make sense of it, get a better (I would call it "more accurate") translation like the NLT or even The Message. If that doesn't help, I suppose reading a processed version (such as commentaries and devotional books like Tozer's Pursuit of God) with all the added chemicals is better than starving your soul on nothing at all.

Tom Pittman
2010 September 8