A paper on the Toronto Blessing, delivered on the 16 September 1995 by John Richardson
My contribution to this conference concerns the theological foundations from which we assess a phenomenon like the Toronto Blessing. We are well aware that the bible tells us to `test all things’. The question is HOW we test things.
Supporters of the Toronto Blessing frequently make two pleas to people who wish to assess or criticize it. FIRST, we are urged to approach it with an open mind. We are told to attend meetings for ourselves – and not critically, but asking God to bless US also if something real is happening. SECOND, we are urged to judge the phenomenon by its fruits – to look at the long-term results, not the immediate manifestations. See for Yourself …
However, it is far from an invariable biblical principle EITHER that we should assess claims to God’s activity personally and uncritically, OR that we must look at the fruits to make an assessment. For example, claims that Christ has returned in secret are NOT to be assessed personally: “So, if they say to you, `Lo, he is in the wilderness,’ DO NOT GO OUT”. Nor are they to be assessed uncritically: “if they say, `Lo, he is in the inner rooms,’ DO NOT BELIEVE IT” (Matt 24:26).
If the claim had been made that Jesus was in Toronto we would be entitled not to go and not to believe. Why should we then go if the claim is that the Spirit is moving in Toronto? Unbelief can be a sign of faith!
Look at the Fruits
Similarly the challenge to assess the Toronto Blessing by its fruits can be met. We need to take seriously Jesus’ warning about the plausibility of false versions of Christianity: “For false Christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matt 24:24).
But again, as one writer has already observed, it is difficult to assess a movement by its fruits when the fruit is still green. How difficult can be seen in the case of the Quakers, who were people of strong Christian conviction and powerful social witness in their day. Today, however, Quakerism is the refuge of those who want not merely a religionless but a doctrine-less Christianity.
And yet it could be argued that the long-term decline of Quakerism was inherent in its early doctrine. We must recognize from history that a movement may have a powerful – even beneficial – impact in the short term and yet be disastrous in the long term because of its fundamental theological weaknesses.
A Question of Systematics
How then can we `test’ the Toronto Blessing? If we cannot trust personal experience or short term gains, what can we trust? The answer is basically a matter of systematic theology.
Unfortunately, systematic theology has not been a particularly strong feature of the Anglo-American scene for some time. In the English case there is hesitancy about theological systems which seem to claim too much. But as Colin Gunton has observed, there is “an important distinction between a systematic theology that aims at a SYSTEM, and one that more modestly aims at being SYSTEMATIC.” (`An English Systematic Theology?’, The Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 46, 1994, pp.479-496).
We need to recognize that systematic theology is a biblical concept. The reason Jesus gave for not investigating claims that he had returned to the desert or the inner room is grounded in a systematic theology about the second coming which links the SIGNIFICANCE of this event with its NATURE: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of man” (Matt 24:27).
But we also need to recognize WHAT IS the systematic theology contained in the bible. The best key to this is, I would argue, the biblical theological approach pioneered by Donald Robinson and developed by the likes of Graham Goldsworthy, Bill Dumbrell etc. The particular feature of this approach is that it recognizes and identifies in the bible both CONTINUITY and DEVELOPMENT. There is the continuity of ONE great theme, from start to finish and there is the DEVELOPMENT of that theme through Scripture.
Only a systematic theology allows us to give coherence to our experience and expectation of God. And more specifically, only a systematic theology allows us to recognize that whilst God CAN do anything he DOESN’T do everything – and this is fundamental to our approach to the Toronto Blessing.
A Necessary Limitation
Those who reject the Toronto Blessing are often accused of limiting the actions of God. Thus Michael Green, writing in the CEN 23/6/95 asked, “IS IT SO REPREHENSIBLE … if God should determine in this day and age to offer a powerful experience of his presence and his power?”
However, we could turn the same question round. Why SHOULD God should not speak in this day and age as Abraham spoke to the rich man in the parable: “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead”?
GOD’S activity IS limited – by God himself – but it is limited in a way which is not simply arbitrary but consistent with the overall framework of the bible. Understanding that framework will enable us to understand the limits of God’s activity – not so that WE may limit it, but so that we may limit what is CLAIMED for it. Thus when we test the Toronto Blessing, which makes particularly claims about the activity of God through his Spirit in the life of the Christian, we need to ask whether it is consistent with the TOTAL picture the bible presents, particularly in relation to the work of the Spirit in the life of the believer.
Systematics and the Spirit
To answer this question we will consider what the bible says about blessing and how this is connected with the Holy Spirit. Because of its clear presentation of this link we will start with Gal 3:13-14.
The context here is the SUFFICIENCY of the gospel in terms of our relationship with God and the PEDIGREE of the gospel in terms of its continuity with what went before. Vv 13-14 conclude:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us – for it is written, `Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’ – that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
These verses link “the blessing of Abraham” and “the promise of the Spirit” with the curse of the law, the death of Christ and faith. The task of the systematic theologian is to unravel the connections.
Blessing and Curse
The first step is fairly obvious. The counterpoint of curse and blessing takes us back to the beginning of the bible. The great theme of Gen 1 is blessing, and the great theme of Gen 3 is cursing. God creates the world for blessing and the fall brings it under the curse. The story of the bible from Gen 3 onwards is of how God reverses the curse and restores the blessing.
Crucial to this story is, of course, God’s calling of Abraham which occurs in Gen 12:1-3:-
Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who curses you I will curse; and by you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (taking niphal as passive, see D. Kidner Genesis – An Introduction and Commentary [Leicester: IVP, 1967) p 114).
It is this calling and promise to which Paul refers in Gal 3. The blessing of the human race is thus focused in Abraham and in people’s response to him. But part of Paul’s insight is that the relationship between God and Abraham is already a GOSPEL relationship. It depends on the election of God and on HIS righteousness and faithfulness – not on these qualities in Abraham – and thus there is CONTINUITY between him and us
So Paul can write in Gal 3:8 that “the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, `In you shall all the nations be blessed.'”
At the same time, the relationship between God and Abraham is a DEVELOPING relationship. The concept of blessing is further focused through the encounter in Gen 18 where, before he destroys Sodom and Gomorrah, God reveals himself to Abraham as a God of moral justice and righteousness. The purpose of this revelation is given in vv 17-19:-
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him.”
The blessing promised to Abraham and his descendants is thus contingent on their keeping the way of the Lord “by doing righteousness and justice”.
The Dilemma of Holiness
But of course, “doing righteousness and justice” is precisely what eludes the descendants of Abraham. As Isaiah 5:7 declares,
… the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, a cry!
Thus is raised the biblical `dilemma of holiness’. God looks for and demands holiness from his covenant people as a concomitant for blessing, but they are incapable of being holy. Hence the effect of the Law which is itself “holy and just and good” is described as “the curse”.
The solution the OT proposes is necessarily radical and is, in fact, a New Covenant. Jer 31:31-34 sets it out in these terms:-
Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbour and each his brother, saying, `Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.
Notable features of this New Covenant are (a) the forgiveness of sins, (b) the general knowledge of God and (c) the law written on the heart. However, as Bill Dumbrell observes, what makes it truly `New’ in relation to the Sinai covenant is that it is unbreakable. It will be “not like … my covenant which they broke”. (W J Dumbrell The End of the Beginning: Revelation 21-22 and the Old Testament [Homebush West: Lancer Books, 1985] p 90)
The newness of the New Covenant will be effected by a new availability of the Holy Spirit, as is brought out in Ezek 36:26-27:-
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
The promises of the outpouring of God’s Spirit are not many (as also God’s encounters with Abraham were limited) but they are significant and they are linked to the final salvation act of God and the accompanying restoration of blessing. Thus Isaiah 44:3 promises: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring” – a sentiment which is very close to Paul’s linking the Spirit and the blessing promised to Abraham.
Gospel and Blessing
The giving of the Holy Spirit is thus not an additional bonus to the New Covenant but a necessary condition of it, for it enables those who are called to be God’s people to be faithful to the covenant and hence to be in receipt of his blessing. The event which activates the New Covenant forms, of course, the content of the gospel. However, great confusion is caused when Christians fail to appreciate the absolute link between the gospel and the promises of God. The result is an UNCERTAINTY about the extent to which those promises apply to the individual.
To an extent this reflects an inadequate appreciation of baptism. Baptism is to the Christian what the marriage ceremony is to a husband and wife. The marriage ceremony allows a couple to say to themselves “EVERYTHING which marriage entails applies to us, not because we have appropriated to ourselves each thing individually, but because we have MARRIED ONE ANOTHER.”
In the same way, BAPTISM allows the Christian to say “EVERYTHING which being a Christian entails applies to me personally, NOT because I have appropriated each thing individually, but because I am BAPTIZED INTO CHRIST.”
Thus Paul can ask baptized Christians if they are IGNORANT of what their baptism means, as he does in Rom 6:3 with his characteristic “Do you not know?”, but he does so in order to awaken their appreciation of what is already a fact.
The means by which the benefits of baptism into Christ are received is, of course, faith. But it is not `faith in the benefits’ – rather, it is `faith in the gospel’, and here we can close the circle with the passage from Galatians where we began.
Faith in the Gospel
The theme of the bible is the restoration of blessing, and the focus of that theme is the promise to Abraham and those descended from him. The fulfilment of that promise, however, may be summed up as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law … that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” (Gal 3:13-14).
And this is a NECESSARY fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, because only the Holy Spirit enables us to have the holiness of the people of God which is the concomitant of blessing. However, we need to be absolutely clear about the condition for receiving the Holy Spirit. Paul says in 3:14 that the Spirit is given “through faith”, but we need to ask “Faith in what?” The answer, is “Faith in what was heard” – “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (3:2).
If we then ask “Hearing WHAT with faith?” we are driven back to chapter 1 and the SUFFICIENCY of the gospel. In Gal 1:6 Paul declares “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a DIFFERENT gospel”.
This `different’ gospel differs from the one Paul outlines in Gal 1:3-4:- “Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father”. Paul clearly regards THIS gospel, and hearing it with faith, as sufficient to bring people into the blessing promised to Abraham.
The system of Paul’s theology, then, is this: the saving acts of God (aimed at removing the curse of sin) began with the promise of blessing to Abraham which was fulfilled by the outpouring of the Spirit on Christians. The enabling event for this fulfilment is the death of Jesus for our sins, which is proclaimed as the gospel, and the response which avails us of this is faith (ie trust) in the gospel.
The Spirit and the Gospel
This, I would argue, is the fully developed theology of the New Covenant. It means that hearing the gospel with faith is the NECESSARY and SUFFICIENT precondition for us to receive the Holy Spirit because he is the embodiment of the blessing promised to Abraham. Positively, this means the Spirit is certainly received by hearing the gospel with faith. Negatively, it means the Holy Spirit is only received through hearing the gospel with faith.
This is important when we consider claims that the Toronto Blessing is a particular work of the Holy Spirit, because we will expect the work of the Spirit and the blessing of God always to be linked to our hearing, understanding and applying the gospel.
The Toronto Blessing and the Gospel
We need therefore to ask whether the Toronto Blessing is a blessing DERIVED FROM the gospel, or a blessing ADDITIONAL TO the gospel. If it is a blessing DERIVED FROM the gospel it belongs to every Christian already, `as of right’. Paul opens his letter to the Ephesians by blessing “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with EVERY spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). The Ephesians may not have known that was true. They may not have known what all those blessings were, but they certainly had those blessings IN AND THROUGH the gospel. They received them when they responded with faith to the message that Christ “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Gal 1:4).
New Things from God’s Word …
If the Toronto Blessing is `a blessing of the gospel’ of which we are unaware, we will expect it to become ours when it is preached to us as a proper consequence of the gospel. This is not to NARROW the scope of the Christian life to the justification of the sinner – though that is no small thing. The gospel is the point of application of the WHOLE bible to our lives. With the gospel as a key we can preach any part of the bible BIBLICALLY. Thus the scope for exploring the depths of the gospel and bringing new insights to bear is immense.
This happens to most people in relation to suffering. At the start of our Christian lives we are generally ignorant of the fact that suffering is a `blessing of the gospel’. It has to be preached to us and explained from Scripture. It is usually only when this is done that we begin to realize suffering is indeed a `gospel blessing’ which we can incorporate into our experience.
But I am not aware of this happening in relation to the Toronto Blessing. Indeed, Michael Green himself says “The `Toronto phenomena’ certainly form no part of Christian theology or ethics …” (op. cit.) Far from being derived from the preaching of the gospel, the Toronto Blessing begins with its phenomena and attempts to work BACK from these to some aspect of biblical phenomenology.
Moreover, there are clear examples where the phenomena of the Toronto Blessing are entirely inappropriate responses to the gospel, even when it is preached. Rodney Howard-Browne himself quotes the example of people laughing whilst he spoke about hell. It is difficult to claim that this response was produced by “hearing with faith” – that is, trusting in what was said.
And here is a difference from the phenomena of the American Camp meetings which are often quoted in support of the Toronto Blessing. To scream with fear and to run around in terror whilst someone preaches on hell is to show great faith – at least in the message of hell. To laugh uncontrollably is inappropriate and bizarre, and suggests the attention of those laughing is focused somewhere else than on the gospel.
I would challenge anyone to start from the bible and demonstrate that the Toronto Blessing is what we would expect to see in the life of the believer today as a result of the outpouring of the Spirit fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. The link between the Toronto Blessing and the gospel is simply not established, and until it is we may reasonably assert that the Toronto Blessing is NOT a gospel blessing.
A Blessing Too Far
But could it not be claimed that the Toronto Blessing is a blessing BEYOND the simple blessings of the gospel? Could it not be, as Michael Green has also suggested, God’s way of by-passing our rationalism and reaching the parts other approaches – such as gospel preaching – haven’t reached?
This is perhaps the hardest claim to answer in support of the Toronto Blessing. To deny it seems to deny either the power or the sovereignty of God. And yet, as we said at the outset, one vital function of systematic theology is to insist that, whilst God can do anything he doesn’t do everything. The blessing of which Paul speaks in Gal 3, the blessing which may be summed up as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit even on the Gentiles, is the blessing God promised to Abraham and it is received through hearing the gospel with faith. So we must say that any blessing which goes BEYOND the blessing promised to Abraham, and any blessing which comes by some OTHER means than hearing the gospel with faith, is a blessing too far because, as Paul points out in Gal 1, it MUST come from “a different gospel”.
We need to ask in conclusion not whether the Toronto Blessing might be something God is doing nor whether it is changing peoples’ lives, but whether it is consistent with the a biblical theology of the blessing of God and the work of the Holy Spirit.
The essence of the work of the HOLY Spirit will be the HOLY life, and for this we do not have to pass through the Toronto Blessing. Rather we need to immerse ourselves more and more in the whole counsel of the gospel which is sufficient for our relationship with God. This is the teaching of the rest of Galatians, and I would suggest it is the consistent teaching of the whole of Scripture.
And if the preaching of the whole of Scripture on the basis that Christ gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age is not adequate to bring the Toronto Blessing to those who hear with faith, then whatever DOES bring the Toronto Blessing is another gospel and whatever it brings is not the blessing promised Abraham, nor a result of receiving the Holy Spirit.
by John Richardson September 1995