Saturday, June 07, 2008

A Passion for God

A couple of weeks ago, I purchased and read the new biography on A. W. Tozer entitled A Passion for God: The Spiritual Journey of A. W. Tozer. Authored by former Wheaton and current Beeson Divinity School professor Lyle Dorsett, the telling was a breezy and focused look at the life of Tozer. Relying heavily on oral history as well as caches of unpublished correspondence, Dorsett related the story of Tozer's life, from the rural hills of western Pennsylvania through northeast Ohio to his preaching ministries in West Virginia, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Toronto. For what it is, namely a life narrative, A Passion for God was a worthwhile read.

And yet, Dorsett exposes a fundamental contradiction in Tozer's character that raises all sorts of questions about holy zeal and its effect on the whole of life. The contradiction could be summed up: how did Tozer reconcile his passionate longing for communion with the Triune God with his failure to love passionately his wife and children? Perhaps the most damning statement in the book was from his wife, after she remarried subsequent to his death: "I have never been happier in my life," Ada Ceclia Tozer Odam observed, "Aiden [Tozer] loved Jesus Christ, but Leonard Odam loves me" (160).

Now, certainly all human beings have flaws; that is not the point here. Rather, the point that Dorsett failed to explore adequately is how Tozer reconciled his pursuit of God with his failure to pursue his wife. This reconciliation--or failure to reconcile--should have raised questions about Tozer's mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life. After all, if his piety could spend several hours in prayer and also rationalize his failure at home, then it should raise questions about his approach to piety.

Then again, we all live divided lives. And thankfully, God used his Word as proclaimed through Tozer to bring Leonard Odam himself and hundreds of others to a saving knowledge of Christ. When God promises that his Word will not return to him empty (Isaiah 55:11), it gives all of his servants hope that the working is from God, not from ourselves (Col. 1:28-29). After all, God is able to use clay pots (2 Cor 4:7): he used A. W. Tozer with this glaring personal contradiction and he can use you and me.


jordan said...
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Chris said...

A very provocative post on your part. I haven't read the biography of Tozer. But, your post has me thinking that I wouldn't want my wife and four children have that same experience. Your post is a good challenge.

canonglenn said...

A. W. Tozer's *Pursuit of God* and *Man: The Dwelling Place of God* are two books that draw me into the secret place of God. This secret place is the resting place of enjoying the Holy Trinity's constant, conscious presence. I do not abide in Christ continually like I should, but Tozer’s writings assist me in getting there. I am most grateful for A. W. Tozer’s writing and preaching ministry for his words lead me to love my Lord more deeply and intimately.

Tozer's family struggles are not new information. James A. Snyder's *In Pursuit of God* biography noted that inconsistency some time ago (1991).

*As a family man, Tozer had his share of contradictions and incongruities.
Tozer was the product of his rural upbringing and its division of labor. His mother had major responsibility for the household and the children, himself included. His father devoted his attention to the farm work. Although urban church ministry was very different from the farm, Tozer saw his wife’s role as essentially similar to his mother’s.
Tozer’s goal was God. His pursuit of God demanded that all else be secondary. After all, Jesus said, “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). He also said, “Any one who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). In a sense, Tozer saw his family as a distraction from his supreme goal of knowing God. (pg. 179).*

Tozer behaved like many men of “the greatest generation ever” who placed work and career ahead of family nurture and personal availability. This is no excuse, but Tozer’s lack of response to his wife’s needs was very typical of the fathers/husbands of that time. I live near what was once a great steel producing town. I remember as a child, the workers coming out of those factories and driving straight to the closest bar, Elk’s lodge, or labor union hall. From five p.m. to ten p.m., they would smoke, drink, shoot billiards, and neglect their families. As long as these men were materially providing for their families, all was considered right by them in the world. To my knowledge, Tozer neither smoke nor drank, but he did give his all to the task of seeking God. By being completely involved in his work to the neglect of his family, Tozer may have taken on the mentality of that age.

*Between Two Worlds* is a Reformed blog. Sean Lucas is a professor at Covenant, so I assume he holds to the same Reformed convictions. Therefore, it concerns me when Sean Lucas states: “This reconciliation--or failure to reconcile--should have raised questions about Tozer's mystic approach and prophetic denunciation of the church and nuanced the value of his teaching on the Christian life.”

It appears that Sean is using Tozer’s shortcomings as an opportunity to question Tozer’s theological convictions. A. W. Tozer was a pastor in the Christian and Missionary Alliance denomination, that denomination is Wesleyan by conviction with a Keswick/Deeper Life emphasis. In Western theology, Tozer’s convictions are the opposite of a Reformed commitment.

I pray that this blog, or any other, would not use take Tozer’s shortcomings as an opportunity to criticize an opposing theological view. The personal failures of an individual like Tozer, who belongs to a different theological camp, should not be used to prove that “we are right and they are wrong.” Calvinists feel that Arminians are perfectionists. Arminians believe that Calvinists are antinomian. Reform folks target Keswick/Deeper life proponents as quietists. Holiness people believe that Calvinists are members of the “frozen chosen.” Using the moral failures of individuals in an opposing theological camp to prove our particular theological conviction is unbecoming of gracious Christian behavior. None of us, whether Calvinist or Wesleyan, should use the failings of another member of the Body of Christ to advance our own particular convictions. We must remember, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it . . . .”

Warren Wiersbe relates this story in one of his preaching books about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and A. W. Tozer. They both were invited to speak at the same Bible conference. (I wish I could have been there.) At dinner one evening, Tozer turned to Lloyd-Jones and said, “We are both trying to get to the same place—intimacy with God. You are doing it through the Puritans and me through the Mystics.” After a brief pause, the good Doctor responded, “I agree.”

Calvinist or Wesleyan—we have far more in common than we realize.

DBerg said...

Dr. Lucas,
That was both a challenge and an encouragment. Thank you.

Anonymous said...


You really see a Calvinist vs. Wesleyan conflict in Sean's words?... a criticism of Tozer's Arminian theology?

Please re-read Sean's blog slowly and carefully. I think the casual observer will not find that Dr. Lucas is the one with a theological ax to grind.

Bill in STL

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Canon Glenn: I just got back in town and looked at this. I must say that it was as far from my mind as possible to question Tozer's theological stance. However, I did mean to raise questions about the compartmentalization that allowed Tozer (and me) to rationalize what appears to be a major internal contradiction between profession and life.

As you may be aware, I've written a book about someone with a similar contradiction: Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian theologian who justified slavery. On some level, I draw into question all of Dabney's teaching on ethics because of his faulty ethic as applied to race. Such a contradiction, or blind spot, should raise questions--that was all I was trying to do.

If you look at the last paragraph, though, I tried to say that we all have such blind spots (not to justify Tozer's, btw, but to admit the fact). The great mercy is that God chooses to use us clay pots even when we chip and break at places. Best, sml

milesdownunder said...

I have really enjoyed the read and comments on A.W. I would just like to add that from what I have read and gleaned over the years is that all Tozer's 7 children (6 sons & 1 daughter) all followed the Lord after he died. As we are aware, busy ministers have sometimes embittered their children against the faith. This certainly doesn't appear to have been the case......though it must have been challenging not having a car!!