Tozer Teaches God’s Attributes

A.W. Tozer, Knowledge of the HolyA. W. Tozer. 2014. Knowledge of the Holy: The Attributes of God. North Fort Myers: Faithful Life Publishers.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Long writing projects, like my recent memoir, yield a new awareness of the subject being studied, but it comes at the sacrifice of other activities and physical exhaustion. An important way that I recharge my batteries after such projects is to focus on self-care in my reading, devotions, and daily work-out. At the recommendation of a close, spiritual friend, I turned this month to A.W. Tozer’s little book, Knowledge of the Holy.

Who is A.W. Tozer?

Aiden Wilson Tozer (1897–1963) was an American Christian pastor, preacher, author, magazine editor, and spiritual mentor who received two honorary doctoral degrees but had no formal seminary training. As pastor, he was associated with the Christian Missionary Alliance,[1] a holiness denomination, and served as editor of their official publication, now known as Alliance Life. As author, he wrote at least a dozen books focused primarily on Christian spirituality.[2] Knowledge of the Holy was published in 1961, just two years prior to his death.

Introduction

Tozer begins his work with a question: “What comes into your mind when you think about God?” (10) He also expresses a concern about a loss of a sense of God’s majesty leading to an observation: “Modern Christianity is simply not producing the kind of Christian who can appreciate or experience the life in the Spirit.” (5) Tozer links this lost sense of the transcendence of God to idolatry and libel against his character (11-13).

If God’s nature is incomprehensible and ineffable, what attributes has he revealed about himself? (16-20) Tozer starts by describing the Trinity, but lingers on mystery of how the Trinity could exist even as God is indivisible in his being. He writes: “All of God does all that God does.” (27) Tozer reflects on the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicaean Creed, and the Athanasian Creed, noting how they spell out with great care how God in three persons can be understood (34) He then observes that work of creation is attributed to God the Father (Genesis 1:1), Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:16), and the Holy Spirit (Job 26:13, and Psalms 104:3) (36), which completes the thought that the Trinity is invisible.

Clearly, Tozer prefers to swim in the deep end of the pool.

Organization

Tozer goes on to examine each of God attributes, devoting a chapter to each one for a total of twenty-three chapters. While some might think that God’s attributes are dry and boring, they are terribly important in separating good theology from weak theology.

Self-Existence of God

For example, God’s self-existence not conditioned on anything in the created universe implies that he transcends creation, is not bound by time or space (37-44). The need for Christ arises directly from the problem that as created beings we cannot approach God; he must reveal himself to us. So the question of how many paths are there up the mountain to God is answered: none—God must come to us.[3] It also means that we are totally dependent on him; not the other way around.

God’s Immutability

Tozer’s comments on the immutability of God are interesting. He writes: “To say that God is immutable is to say that He never differs from Himself.” (63) If God were to change, he would have to go from better to worse, worse to better, or change within himself. God’s holiness means that he cannot go from worse to better. Of course, we would not want him to go from better to worse, which might mean that he would perhaps neglect his promises. And God is self-existence, not compose of parts that might need to be harmonized (63-64).

If you think that God’s immutability is boring, think of what it would mean for God to need to learn something or for God to make a mistake—what exactly would a “divine opps” look like? For example, what if the laws of physic changed because God made a mathematical error and the universe imploded?

God is More than Love

Tozer’s comments about love are most helpful. He observes:

“If love is equal to God, then God is only equal to love, and God and love are identical. Then we destroy the concept of personality in God and deny outright all His attributes save one, and that one we substitute for God…

 The words ‘God is love’ mean that love is an essential attribute of God. Love is something true of God but it is not God. It expresses the way God is in His unitary being, as do the words holiness, justice, faithfulness, and truth.” (124)

The personality of a person arises because of their attributes, but also their personal history, which includes many painful experiences. If God’s love defined him in his totality, then how could he justly deal with sin? How loving would God be if he ignored the actions of mass murders and rapists, simply so he could be totally loving to everyone? What kind of love would that be? We really do want God to be just as well as loving.

Assessment

W. Tozer’s book, Knowledge of the Holy, is a Christian classic that deserves to be read and discussed by every Christian.

Footnotes

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_and_Missionary_Alliance.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A._W._Tozer.

[3] This is actually one lesson from the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis:  11:1-9.

Tozer Teaches God’s Attributes

Also see:

Tim Keller Makes Sense, Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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24. Prayers of a Life in Tension by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Prayers_of_a_Life_in_Tension_webMerciful God,
I praise you for the gift of your law and your provision of grace through Jesus Christ that we might approach you in prayer through the Holy Spirit and know who you are through the revelation of scripture and the life of Jesus Christ. You are the God of mercy and grace, who is slow to anger, abounding in love, and faithful. There is none like you; may I ever model myself on your immutable character remembering your law, ever-mindful of your grace, and with the support of your church. May I be quick to share your mercy, grace, and love with those around me in thought, word, and deed through the power of your Holy Spirit, and in Jesus’s name, Amen.

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Longfield Chronicles the Fundamentalist/Liberal Divide in the PCUSA, Part 3

Longfield_Pres_Con_04062015Bradley J. Longfield. 1991. The Presbyterian Controversy:  Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates. New York:  Oxford University Press. (Go to Part 1;  Part 2)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Scot’s Confession of 1560, which is included in the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (PCUSA), outlines three conditions for a true church[1].  A true church is one where the word of God is rightly preached, the sacraments rightly administered, and church discipline rightly administered.

When the PCUSA abandoned its ordination requirements centered on the 5 fundamentals of the faith in 1925, it effectively lost the ability to distinguish itself as a true church as defined in its own confessions. The boundaries between church and society were fuzzed because of doctrinal diversity and with the passage of time the fuzz grew as elders were elected and pastors ordained that held increasingly diverse views.  In effect, Presbyterians began a transition from being a reformed, confessional church to being a church united primarily in a common polity [2]. This fundamental change, which is often misunderstood and frequently denied, Longfield articulates primarily in terms of the person of a pugnacious son of the South, J. Gresham Machen.

Longfield sees Machen differing from his opponents in the Presbyterian controversy in a number of ways, most importantly philosophically.  He writes:

“The education Machen received at Princeton complemented and refined the religious heritage of his boyhood.  Like the Thornwellian theology of the Southern Presbyterians, Princeton held tightly to the doctrines of the Westminster [confession] divines undergirded by Common Sense philosophy and the Baconian method.  The Princeton Theology insisted on the primacy of ideas in religion and stood firmly for a strict doctrine of biblical inerrancy.  Additionally, Princeton adhered to the traditional Reformed belief that Christians must strive to bring all of culture under God’s rule….Princeton was a bastion of Calvinist orthodoxy in an increasingly hostile world…” (40)

Old School Presbyterianism, as articulated by James Henley Thornwell was strictly confessional and viewed theology as “a positive science grounded in observation and induction, consisting of facts arranged and classified according to the necessary laws of the human mind.” (33) This philosophy, known as Scottish Common Sense Realism, maintained that: ”we can and do know the real world directly through our senses… [and that] Anyone in right mind… knew that the objective world, the self, causal relationships, and moral principles existed.” (34)[3]  Following Thornwell, Machen firmly believed that once the facts were known irrefutable conclusions (events not interpretations) could be drawn (222) [4].

Machen’s focus on correct doctrine, as embodied in the confessions, flowed immediately from his philosophical presuppositions (223). Obviously, from Machen’s perspective, deviating from correct doctrine was not only wrong; it was immoral, because it led one away from God.  In some sense, a liberal was anyone who deviated from correct doctrine.

Robert Hastings Nichols, a professor at Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City, drafted a formal statement of the liberal positon in the PCUSA in 1923. The paper, which argued for theological diversity within the bounds of evangelical theology, evolved into the Auburn Affirmation and was endorsed by 174 signatories (79).  The affirmation basically said that 5 fundamentals of the faith offered only one theory allowed by the scripture (77-79).

In other words, for the liberal no one, objective reality existed—history was not a matter of facts, but of interpretations (89). The emphasis was on religious experiences, not historical events such as found in the Bible (90-91).  Writing about Henry Sloane Coffin, Longfield writes:  “the Bible was not the ultimate authority for the Christian, Jesus alone was the Word of God; the Bible simply contained the Word.” (91)

At the end of Presbyterian Controversies, Bradley Longfield prods the PCUSA to “affirm a normative middle theological position with clear boundaries.” (235)  The focus among evangelicals on the inerrancy of scripture and the doctrine of divine inspiration of scripture provide the boundaries on Biblical interpretation suggested.

The weakness in the evangelical position is philosophical:  very few PCUSA pastors and theologians today subscribe to Scottish Common Sense Realism.  If to be postmodern means to believe that scripture can only be interpreted correctly within its context, then we are all liberals in a Machen sense [5].  A strong, confessional position requires philosophical warrant—a philosophical problem requires a philosophical solution—which we can all agree upon[6].  In the absence of philosophical warrant and credibility, the confessions appear arbitrary—an act of faith [7].  In a practical, denominational sense,  the philosophical diversity that characterizes the denomination makes it unlikely that boundaries can be agreed upon even if those boundaries are based on a shared history.

Clearly, Longfield’s book is an interesting read, very relevant to current controversies, and certainly worthy of ongoing study.

 

[1] “The notes of the true Kirk, therefore, we believe, confess, and avow to be: first, the true preaching of the Word of God, in which God has revealed himself to us, as the writings of the prophets and apostles declare; secondly, the right administration of the sacraments of Christ Jesus, with which must be associated the Word and promise of God to seal and confirm them in our hearts; and lastly, ecclesiastical discipline uprightly ministered, as God’s Word prescribes, whereby vice is repressed and virtue nourished.” (PCUSA 1999, 3.18)

[2] In 2012 at the General Assembly in Pittsburg, PA (which I attended), for example, the stated clerk opined before the entire body that the Book of Order need not comply with requirement of the Book of Confessions. They served different functions. This opinion paved the way, in part, for that body to endorse the ordination of homosexuals.

3] Very ironically, from the perspective of the liberal-fundamentalist divide, Scottish Common Sense Realism was foundational in the development of the scientific method. By contrast, the liberal philosophical position, borrowing heavily from Darwinian evolution—hence, the term progressive, actually undermined scientific advancement inasmuch as it came to question the existence of objective reality—a trend in thinking that later matured into postmodernism. If one does not believe in one, objective reality, then why invest time and money in researching it?

[4] William Jennings Bryan, for example, also maintained that “true science and the bible could not disagree.” (56)

[5] The other tell that one has slid into a liberal leaning is the focus off of theology and onto experience.  Liberal theology focus on feeling rather than thinking which reflects a debt to the romanticism of the 19th century.  For the liberal, God is experienced through feelings, not through the mind.  This makes it unreproduceable among and between individuals.  By this lining of reasoning, we can have common experiences of God through service, crises, and mission trips, but we will have trouble describing what just happened.  This makes agreement on and adherence to language, creeds and confessions difficult.  Words denoting theological concepts become squishy. We like feeling words like progress, spirituality, and love which are hard to define; we have trouble with thinking words like creed, morality, and duty which have specific content.

[6] Plantinga (2000) attempts to fill this philosophical gap by offering the concept of warrant.  He argues from a postmodern perspective that warrant is a reasonable standard for justifying Christian  belief.  The modern perspective of requiring logical proof, which is also not attained by the critics themselves, is argued not to be a reasonable standard on which to base judgment.

[7] My belief is that the existence of one God is obvious from the existence of only one set of physical laws in the universe.  In some sense, the existence of one objective truth immediately follows from God’s immutability.  Relative truth is more of an optical illusion.

REFERENCES

Plantinga, Alvin. 2000.  Warranteed Christian Belief. New York:  Oxford University Press.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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