A. W. Tozer on Divine Sovereignty and Human Freedom

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963)

A. W. Tozer (1897-1963) was one of the finest Christian thinkers and preachers of the relatively recent past. I have only just become familiar with him quite recently, but have been delighted to share in some of the insights of his writings.

One such insight that I have particularly appreciated is that found below on the topic of divine sovereignty and human freedom.

As an Arminian, I have never understood the Calvinist insistence that divine sovereignty and control implies that human beings cannot be granted (libertarian) free will. I have always thought it rather obvious that a God who may do whatever he pleases with the powers of the heavens and the earth can make man such that he does possess free will.

I have never encountered a quotation such as Tozer’s that so perfectly encapsulates and summarises my view on this topic at current.

Thus, without further ado, here it is; the quotation from A. W. Tozer, The Knowledge of the Holy (Authentic Media, 2008), pp.144-145:

[p.144] “Another real problem created by the doctrine of divine sovereignty has to do with the will of man. If God rules His universe by His sovereign decrees, how is it possible for man to exercise free choice? And if he cannot exercise freedom of choice, how can he be held responsible for his conduct? Is he not a mere puppet whose actions are determined by a behind-the-scenes God who pulls the strings as it pleases Him?

“The attempt to answer these questions has divided the Christian church neatly into two camps which have borne the names of two distinguished theologians, Jacobus Arminius and John Calvin. Most Christians are content to get into one camp or the other and deny either sovereignty to God or free will to man. It appears possible, however, to reconcile these two positions without doing violence to either, although the effort that follows may prove deficient to partisans of one camp or the other.

“Here is my view: God sovereignly decreed that man should be free to exercise moral choice, and man from the beginning has fulfilled that decree by making his choice between good and evil. When he chooses to do evil, he does not thereby countervail the sovereign will [p.145] of God but fulfills it, inasmuch as the eternal decree decided not which choice the man should make but that he should be free to make it. If in His absolute freedom God has willed to give man limited freedom, who is there to stay His hand or say, ‘What doest thou?’ Man’s will is free because God is sovereign. A God less than sovereign could not bestow moral freedom upon His creatures. He would be afraid to do so.”

Notice that Tozer first acknowledges the real difficulty in discussing divine sovereignty and human freedom. He therefore does not so presume to state his opinion lightly. Nor is he so proud or dogmatic so as to suppose that his word shall be the final and all-encompassing say on the matter.

Yet, to me, what he then goes on to say is simply masterful. He asserts that it is possible — nay, that it is, indeed, the case — that God has sovereignly decreed that mankind should have free will. Whatever choice man then makes in this capacity God has given him, man fulfills that original decree, not in that God causally determined and thus necessitated any one particular choice any given man should make, but that in so making the choice, that man has thereby exercised that rational capacity of free agency that God, by his sovereign free will, has decided that mankind should have.

The one quibble I would have with Tozer is that it seems implicit in his quotation that he believes that this is a middle ground between two extremes of Arminianism and Calvinism, one which denies divine sovereignty and the other that denies genuine human free will, respectively.

Yet if one were to compare what Tozer says to what writers such as Jacobus Arminius and John Wesley say, then it would actually become apparent that how Tozer has explained his position falls squarely within the Arminian camp. For on Arminianism, the freedom of our will just is a sovereign gift of divine grace in creation and salvation — in creation, as subsisting in the nature of man in original righteousness (that which was lost in the Fall); and in salvation, as God draws us who are totally depraved and thus unable of ourselves to come to him by His Spirit, and softens our hearts through Prevenient Grace in order to enable us sinners freely to come to Himself.

So rather than being a middle way through Arminianism and Calvinism, I believe Tozer’s point of view is an example of genuinely classical Arminianism. Perhaps what Tozer thought was Arminianism was actually Pelagian or semi-Pelagian. For that, we can forgive him. For it is a common misconception among those who are not sufficiently acquainted with the original writings or Arminius, Wesley or the Remonstrants that Arminiainsm is Pelagian or at least semi-Pelagian.

Nevertheless, classical Arminianism is genuinely a theology of grace — grace from beginning to end — with a sovereign God who loves his creatures, and gives each one a libertarian free will to make genuine, moral choices, and we fulfill his sovereign decree for us to have a free will whenever we exercise that moral capacity that God has given us by his grace.