November 2009 Newsletter
I appreciate TBC expanding on this issue.
Question: You have promoted books by A.W. Tozer, yet Tozer constantly quoted from Catholic mystics, and some have said that he even practiced “Lectio Divina.” In view of your warnings regarding the Contemplative Movement, how could you offer his books, knowing of his practices?
Response: Tozer did not practice Lectio Divina, a method that many mystics and occultists have used to supposedly experience God. The exercise involves reading a Bible verse or phrase, often repeating it many times like a mantra, for the purpose of stimulating insights that transcend what might be gained from the normal reading and understanding of the Scriptures. Rather than understanding a passage based on the objective meaning of the words, the grammar of the verses, and the context, the words become devices for receiving personal, subjective revelation from God. Anyone who is familiar with the writings of Tozer knows that such a technique is completely foreign to what he taught throughout his lifetime. Nevertheless, that hasn’t stopped some people from referring to him in order to support their promotion of mystical methods and teachings. John Armstrong, for example (who is general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Unites and Divides Us, Moody Press, 1994), has stated that Tozer “listened to God and practiced lectio divina in his reading habits.” The “Emerging Thought” blog, among other Emergent writers, has commented, “I am going to go through the book by Brother Lawrence called Practice of the Presence of God: The Best Rule of Holy Life. I already had someone on the leadership team comment (jokingly) about me teaching RCC stuff. Yet, I see that John Wesley and A. W. Tozer both recommended him.”
To quote someone does not necessarily include recommending him. Yet, we would take issue with Tozer regarding some of the people he quotes. In chapter 3 of The Pursuit of God, “Removing the Veil,” Tozer quotes Chinese sage, Lao-tze: “That is the first step, and as…Lao-tze has said, ‘The journey of a thousand miles begins with a first step.'” Quoting this one point, which is hardly profound, is not “endorsing” Lao-Tze. One might wonder, however, where Tozer stood when one considers the Roman Catholics (Augustine, Nicholas of Cusa, Thomas á Kempis, Francis of Assisi, von Hugel, Bernard of Clairvaux, the poet William Blake, and hymn writer Frederick Faber, a convert to Catholicism) that he has quoted or referred to in his books. That’s rather puzzling, since the gospel that Tozer preached and wrote about so well couldn’t be more contrary to the gospel and dogmas of Catholicism, beliefs strictly held by those mentioned and most of whom were canonized as saints by the Church of Rome. TBC does not condone Tozer when he quotes those with whom we have serious theological disagreement (and with whom, we are sure, he would also disagree). Moreover, instances of such quotes are so few in his many, many volumes that it’s clear they were in no way significant to his teaching.
Tozer himself recognized the confusion he generated by quoting those noted for their Roman Catholic mysticism. He wrote in his own defense, “Some of my friends good-humoredly–and some a little bit severely-have called me a ‘mystic.’ Well I’d like to say this about any mysticism I may suppose to have. If an archangel from heaven were to come, and were to start…telling me, teaching me, and giving me instruction, I’d ask him for the text. I’d say, ‘Where’s it say that in the Bible? I want to know.’ And I would insist that it was according to the scriptures, because I do not believe in any extra-scriptural teachings, nor any anti-scriptural teachings, or any sub-scriptural teachings. I think we ought to put the emphasis where God puts it, and continue to put it there, and to expound the scriptures, and stay by the scriptures. I wouldn’t–no matter if I saw a light above the light of the sun, I’d keep my mouth shut about it ’til I’d checked with Daniel and Revelation and the rest of the scriptures to see if it had any basis in truth….I don’t believe in anything that is unscriptural or that is anti-scripture” (A.W. Tozer, “What Difference Does the Holy Spirit Make?”)
Even so, some object that quoting Tozer to prove he wasn’t a mystic ignored his advice to “get still to wait on God” with the “Bible outspread.” To say that Tozer practiced lectio divina because of this statement is to be driven more by surmise than substance. The full paragraph reads: “It is important that we get still to wait on God. And it is best that we get alone, preferably with our Bible outspread before us. Then if we will, we may draw near to God and begin to hear Him speak to us in our hearts. I think for the average person the progression will be something like this: First a sound as of a Presence walking in the garden. Then a voice, more intelligible, but still far from clear. Then the happy moment when the Spirit begins to illuminate the Scriptures, and that which had been only a sound, or at best a voice, now becomes an intelligible word, warm and intimate and clear as the word of a dear friend. Then will come life and light, and best of all, ability to see and rest in and embrace Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord and All.”
There is a vast difference between Tozer’s teaching and lectio divina. The Lord tells us to “be still” at times. To “be still” is not to empty our minds, as in lectio divina. Reading Scripture without distraction, we trust the Lord to bring illumination, or “understanding.” Though Tozer speaks of a “sound as of a Presence walking in the garden,” he means that the Holy Spirit begins to bring understanding (1 Cor 2:11). “Then a voice,” denotes better understanding of a formerly opaque Scripture. Tozer speaks of “an intelligible word” consistently throughout his writing. His focus remains “the Word.” “This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein” (Jos 1:8).
The Scriptures warn us to fully discern the truth of a matter. Discernment is more than suspicion. We are cautioned in the scriptures against “evil surmising” (1 Tm 6:4), which today might be called “evil suspicion.” To establish Tozer as a “Catholic mystic” cannot be done objectively, without exaggeration, and with only selective use of evidence.