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-personalizing 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 enamored 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 program 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 rigor, 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 ))