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Why Listen to Tozer?

This entry is part 1 of 14 in the series

"The Tozer Collection: Worship Music"

Read more posts by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

A.W. Tozer is found in places where he probably wouldn’t have been invited to preach. His books will be found on the shelves of the charismatic church and the conservative, the Reformed and the Wesleyan, the fundamentalist and the seeker-sensitive. Tozer’s writings were of such penetrating clarity that they resonate with people of very different theological leanings. Perhaps this partly explains his nickname – ‘the twentieth century prophet’. He did not claim any personal gift of special revelation, but his insight was prophet-like: incisive, penetrating and filled with unusual clarity. His bold warnings to the church have nearly all proved well-founded, though not many of them have been heeded.

When a writer is found to have appeal across such broad lines, there are only two ways to explain that. The first is that his writings are so generalized, so ambiguous, and so populist in appeal that almost anyone can pick it up and find some soothing platitudes. Such writing is of such a vague nature that as Tozer himself put it – if it were medicine it wouldn’t heal, and if it were poison it wouldn’t kill. This can hardly be pinned onto Tozer’s writings.

The second possible explanation is that the writer writes with such illumination that his writings are almost always ‘close to the center’; that all those within the realm of orthodoxy identify with his keen sense of understanding truth. His writings send forth ‘a distinct sound’, a ringing call to orthodoxy. His writings build on the faith of the historical, universal church with the moss of worldly pragmatism or false tradition scraped off.

It is this second explanation that is surely the reason for Tozer’s broader appeal, and one reason to hear his voice on the issues of worship and music. Clarity, incisive vision, and a catholic spirit are very often missing in this debate, and Tozer’s voice deserves to be heard. Tozer’s voice still carries authority to people on both sides of the debate.

Tozer was seldom, if ever, guilty of towing a party line or grinding a denominational axe. He was not afraid of the opinions of men, perhaps to a fault. When reading Tozer, one never feels he is placating the scribes from a particular ‘camp. Tozer’s spiritual independence comes out strongly in his writings; he had little time for the provincialism of many in Christendom, or the desire for Christians to curry favour with one another. Today, it is becoming rarer to find a writer who is not looking over his shoulder to see how his circle of friends or ministerial colleagues will review or regard his work. As such, we can approach Tozer’s writings and not fear a hidden allegiance to one side or the other.

Another reason for considering Tozer’s views is that he was largely self-taught. Tozer valued tertiary education and seminary training highly, but did not have those opportunities himself. As such, he diligently set about educating himself in everything from English grammar to poetry, from philosophy to theology. And Tozer showed no partiality when it came to these theologians. His writings freely quote from Augustine to Wesley, from Spurgeon to A.B. Simpson, from Fenelon to Martin Luther, from early revivalists to John Calvin. Tozer grazed where many seminarians are warned off by their professors; indeed, many would not be able to read from them and profit as he did. While many will regard his lack of formal education as a reason to disregard his views, I see great value in hearing from a man who, as it were, gave all the writers of the ages a fair hearing. He was not prejudiced against any. While he certainly had his own views, he did not judge a writer to be a heretic before he had read him. To me, this places Tozer in a unique position regarding this debate. Certainly it would be naïve to imagine that he was not shaped in some measure by his own denomination. But in Tozer we find a man who studied his Bible, and indeed, most books he read, on his knees. This does not give all his works doctrinal or intellectual infallibility. The point is, Tozer’s experience was to be thrust into the ministry before he could be made into a unbending disciple of one particular theological system.

And to this we must add, if his lack of theological training unnerves some, they must simply consider his orthodoxy on almost every other theological issue he wrote on. His views on the inerrancy of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the Incarnation, substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the need for regeneration, the resurrection of the body and the Second Coming are impeccably sound. If he came to these by reading and studying humbly and diligently, there is sure to be some value in his writings on worship.

Certainly, Tozer had his weaknesses. He was no aesthetician. Nor was he a scholar of the first rank. He was a pastor. He was a generalist who strove to be a competent thinker. And as a pastor, he seems to me to be a model of what shepherds of this age should strive for, at least in the area of learning and personal piety. Given that he had come through some of the more vigorous expressions of revivalism, that he wrote and thought as he did is quite remarkable.

Several years ago I invested in some software that contains everything that Tozer had written. It’s been as invaluable to me as my complete volumes of Spurgeon. I’ve spent some time searching his works for his views on music in worship. What I hope to do in the next months is present a near-complete collection of Tozer’s views on worship music. There are some that I don’t completely agree with, but I don’t intend to cherry-pick only the quotes that seem to support my position. To my knowledge, these will be the collected written words of Tozer on worship music.

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David de Bruyn

About David de Bruyn

David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.

2 Responses to Why Listen to Tozer?

  1. Well done, David. Could you specify which theologians you had in mind in this statement: "Tozer grazed where many seminarians are warned off by their professors"? I'm sure the "off-limits" group of theologians from which Tozer gleaned would vary depending on the professor, but I wondered if you had some in particular in mind.

    Also, I am not nearly as conversant with Tozer as I ought to be, but I've heard that he did not do well as a husband, and I wonder if that would qualify your statement "And as a pastor, he seems to me to be a model of what shepherds of this age should strive for, at least in the area of learning and personal piety." I could take that statement to mean that "as a pastor" he was a model, not as a husband; or it could very well be that I have been misinformed about his family relationships.

  2. Chuck,

    Good questions. In Snyder's In Pursuit of God (a biography of Tozer) he lists several of the mystics that Tozer found helpful. These included some very devoted Romanists such as Francis de Sales, Lancelot Andrewes, and Lorenzo Scupoli. Certainly, some professors would warn one off Brother Lawrence and Frederick Faber! But Tozer's influences included far more of the medieval mystic than many would be comfortable with.

    Also, Tozer occasionally refers to Finney favorably (though usually in reference to revival).

    As to a model of personal piety, I mean in the sense of private devotion. Tozer was almost certainly lacking in overt spiritual leadership at home. Why his private devotions did not spill over into a more overtly affectionate and involved husband and father is impossible to judge. Nothing I have read disqualified him as an elder, but few can take the biographical evidence we have and conclude that his family life was as exemplary as we would like.

    So I am using personal piety in the very narrow sense of his private devotion.

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