Monthly Archives: April 2016

Tozer’s First Concern – Illumination

It would be easy – or more precisely, lazy – to dismiss Tozer’s concern with the doctrine of illumination 1 as a form of flakey quasi-prophecy or dreamy mysticism. Presumably, some of Tozer’s contemporary critics did just that. Among Evangelical Rationalists, the truth is in the text, and the Philosopher’s Stone is solid hermeneutics. Apply the literal-grammatical-historical method, and all turns to gold.

Tozer had some Wesleyan and classical Pentecostal leanings, to be sure. But his writings on illumination are not at all concerned with a second blessing, nor does he regard the Bible as a convenient starting point for an experience of unmediated revelation. Instead, Tozer’s heartbreak was over a religion that was substituting analysis for adoration. At the risk of sounding trite, Tozer saw the omission of the Person from the pages. The obsession with objective truth in the mid-twentieth century was, quite literally, de-personalising the faith. Tozer called this approach textualism, evangelical rationalism, and the work of the evangelical scribe.

What Tozer meant by illumination was the Spirit’s work of opening the spiritual understanding, of granting the soul an experience of admiration, adoration and communion. He meant that the text by itself would provide information, but the text and the Spirit would bring illumination, and the vast difference between the two was the difference between “a nominal Christian life and a life radiant with the light of His face.” One was the experience of acquiring a competent grasp of the Christian system of thought, the other was a living encounter with God through His Spirit in His Word.

In an era obsessed with ‘objective’ knowledge and enamoured of the scientific method, we can succumb to worldly vanity by exchanging the pursuit of a Person for a procedure of dissecting grammatical statements. It provides a superficial pretense of scientific respectability before those who call religion mere personal preference. But the upshot is a sterile faith, where assent to orthodox propositions counts as Christian worship.

And falling off the other side of the horse will be the disparagers of real study, the pseudo-mystics who pretend at hearing God’s voice, but know nothing of internal discipline. Their god is their own sincerity, which they fondle and fawn over, while thanking God that they are not as some men are: academics, scholars, and theologians. These are Christian practitioners of Oprah-spirituality, and they were not as numerous in Tozer’s day. They are heirs of the worst in 19th-century Romanticism, and they fuel the intractableness of the evangelical rationalists.

Between these poles lies the evangelical mysticism that Tozer called for. His programme was straightforward. Christians must pursue the loving Personality who fragrances the pages of Scripture. They must come to Scripture with denial of self, and earnest longing to see what cannot be seen without eyes of admiration. They must search out the Word with hard, intellectual rigour, while begging God to open the eyes of the understanding. They must come with moral integrity, desiring to change and to obey what they are shown. They must be willing to take long periods of time to meditate, gaze, and ponder.They must simplify, be silent, seek solitude, mortify self, and diligently seek.

He wrote: “Let’s practice the art of Bible meditation. Now please don’t grab that phrase and go out and form a club. Don’t do it! Just meditate. That is what we need. We are organized to death already. Let’s just be plain Christians. Let’s open our Bible, spread it out on the chair, and meditate on it. It will open itself to us, and the Spirit of God will come and brood over it.
So be a Bible meditator. I challenge you: Try it for a month and see how it works. Put away questions and answers and the filling in of blank lines about Noah. Put all that cheap trash away and take a Bible, open it, get on your knees and say, “Father, here I am. Begin to teach me.” He will begin to teach you, and He will teach you about Himself and about Jesus and about God and about the Word and about life and death and heaven and hell, and about His own Presence.”


1. Tozer’s most extensive treatments of this doctrine come in The Divine Conquest, The Pursuit of God, That Incredible Christian, The Size of the Soul , The Attributes of God , The Counselor, and the introduction to The Christian Book of Mystical Verse ))

Tozer’s Three Concerns

Although A.W. Tozer’s writings ranged over all kinds of topics, three concerns dominated Tozer’s writings. You’ll find him returning to these often, and giving them different treatments each time. What they amount to is what Tozer saw as the most serious maladies of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

The first was what he called textualism. For Tozer, this was a rationalistic expounding of biblical texts, with little to no expectation of the Holy Spirit’s ministry of illumination. He saw a kind of de-personalisation of Scripture taking place. Scholars and pastors were treating Scripture as a collection of inert facts, which could be discovered and communicated as surely as a scientist recording laboratory findings. He saw this as the shortest path to dead orthodoxy, and incessantly called for the church to recognise the doctrine of the Spirit’s illumination. “You can be,” Tozer delighted in saying, “straight as a gun barrel theologically and as empty as one spiritually.” For Tozer, the deadness and lack of piety was evidence that people were not seeking God Himself when reading the Word. He called for solitude, silence, and self-denial as means of seeking God in His Word so as to experience His illuminating ministry. This was the Deeper Life – a surrendered pursuit of the knowledge of God Himself in His Word.

His second major concern was pragmatism in the church. Tozer saw the pragmatism begun in the 19th century beginning to bring in its harvest. He spoke out against using methods and techniques from the world to make church more popular, palatable, fun, or attractive to unbelievers. Tozer was writing in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, but already pragmatism was changing the very nature of what styled itself as the heir of the apostolic and historic church. Evangelicalism was culturally apostatising while claiming fidelity to the gospel. Long before Bill Hybels, Rick Warren and the worldliness you now see around you, Tozer stood as a signpost to the church pointing away from pragmatism.  He wrote, “The temptation to introduce “new” things into the work of God has always been too strong for some people to resist. The Church has suffered untold injury at the hands of well intentioned but misguided persons who have felt that they know more about running God’s work than Christ and His apostles did. A solid train of box cars would not suffice to haul away the religious truck which has been brought into the service of the Church with the hope of improving on the original pattern. These things have been, one and all, positive hindrances to the progress of the Truth, and have so altered the divinely-planned structure that the apostles, were they to return to earth today, would scarcely recognize the misshapen thing which has resulted.”

His third major theme was true worship. Tozer saw that the church was losing a sense of majesty, reverence and awe in its worship, and had trivialised the whole act. Worship was becoming a form of entertainment. Hymnody was being replaced by the gospel song and the religious entertainer, reverence was being replaced with breezy cheeriness or childish hilarity, and sobriety and simplicity were being wounded in the house of their friends. “Worship,” Tozer explained, “is to feel in your heart and express in some appropriate manner a humbling but delightful sense of admiring awe and astonished wonder and overpowering love in the presence of that most ancient Mystery, that majesty which philosophers call the First Cause but which we call Our Father Which Art in Heaven.”

And what was said of Ezekiel could be easily said of Tozer, whom everyone loves to quote, “Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them. (Eze 33:32)

Slang is Just a Style

Every now and then, an article appears, patronisingly explaining to all adults why there is a debate over music in the church, and, in under 400 words, telling us how to resolve it. It all comes down to preferences and styles, you see. Well, obviously we didn’t see, hence the recurrent need for these profoundly enlightening articles.

Now once again, for those of us who read stop-signs with our lips moving, articles like this really break it down for us. Traditional churches are those who love “older” hymns, and seem to have a ‘concern with reverence’. Older folks typically prefer these churches or services, you see. Contemporary churches or services are more casual and relaxed, but they’re “more intentional”, than traditional churches. The musical style is ‘blended’. Oh, and they want to be passionately expressive in the lyrics. And then, nudge, nudge – most are going this way, except the few of you who wish to be left behind. But, don’t worry, you can stay in the 1960s, if you want to. No prob. It’s your choice. No pressure. Those actually interested in ‘engaging their communities’ will be contemporary. And then, here comes the illuminating flash of wisdom that some of us just can’t seem to get- truth is taught only in words, not in music. Really, it’s no big deal, folks.

I wonder if evangelicals and fundamentalists would accept this kind of reasoning (and use of language) if applied to one of the only areas in which they are conscious of form: preaching. I wonder if those those who are convinced of the primacy (and dignity) of expository preaching, would accept this kind of argument if the form of preaching was dismissed as a mere style. Let’s try it out:

Traditional churches are those who expound the Word in a way that seems to be concerned with reverence. The language used tends to be sober, the vocabulary more exacting, the sentence structure more formal, and the whole approach represents a way of speaking that was found in speeches, letters and essays several decades ago. They are very concerned with trying to communicate the gravity and seriousness of God’s revelation, with preciseness.  Contemporary churches expound the Word in a far more relaxed way, using colloquialisms, slang, plenty of likey’knowsorta. It’s more of a conversation. It reflects how the average man speaks, and does not speak above him. It is more intentional, wanting to engage a man where he is. It’s, like, more expressive. And just so you know, the man in the street prefers the contemporary “style” of preaching. It’s where things are going. You can stick to your old-fashioned ways of speaking, preaching to your shrinking groups of gray-heads, or you can loosen up and, like, dialogue, man. Because, for the umpteenth time, folks, the style of preaching does not affect the meaning of what’s preached. The truth is in the words, not in the vocabulary. The truth is in the words, not in the sentences.  The truth is is the words, not in the tone of voice. Rhetoric is just a “style”, and enlightened Christians don’t make style an issue (though they know which style represents the real future of a growing church).

Would the proponents of the gravity of preaching (and I am one of them) nod approvingly at that paragraph? Why then do the same men, conscious of the form in which the Word is to be preached, become dismissive and agnostic when it comes to the form in which the Word is to be sung?

Richard Weaver would not agree with Ed Stetzer: “Thus we invariably find in the man of true culture a deep respect for forms. He approaches even those he does not understand with awareness that a deep thought lies in an old observance. Such respect distinguishes him from the barbarian, on the one hand, and the degenerate, on the other.”