Beyond Toronto

Posted on 27 March 2008

Evangel 12:3 (Autumn 1994)

Beyond Toronto

Evangel 12:3 (Autumn 1994)

I recently received a request to consider taking a seminar in seven months time on the subject ‘Beyond the Toronto blessing’. The cynic in me felt tempted to write back and say that the title might be meaningless by the time the meeting took place; for ‘slaying in the spirit’ has been quickly superceded by ‘holy hilarity’ and, one suspects, will itself soon be a thing of the past as some new phenomenon ‘hits’ the evangelical world.

  Probably, as with so many of these phenomena, history will indicate that there are thosse who have had genuine experiences in which they were overwhelmed by a sense of holy joy. Possibly, much will be seen, at best, as a fairly innocent case of hysteria; of evangelical over-enthusiasm.
 
  Behind much of the interest in such phenomena (especially among believers) is, of course, the hope that such experiences might be the precursor of revival. Amid the spiritual darkness and confusion that exists, certainly in the West, a desire to see God at work reversing the present decline of the church is understandable and desirable.
 
  It might seem an inappropriate moment, therefore, to question the biblical basis of much revival theology (whatever brand of evangelicalism spawns it!). However, it does appear that there are questions we do need to face. Simply, ‘revival theology’ is usually expressed in terms which suggest that in normal times the church cannot expect to do much more than stem the tide of ungodliness. Only when God intervenes in revival does any prospect of significant advance become a reality. Viewed in this way, the history of the church is seen as one in which the church is gently (or not so gently!) sliding downhill except for those seasons when God produces an upward ‘blip’.
 
  This, however, raises a number of questions. Firstly, it is at least questionable whether the history of the church ‘fits’ the model. In fact, while recognizing that there have been times (sometimes long!) and areas (sometimes extensive) where decline has been experienced the overall picture is one of steady, sometimes spectacular, advance. This is certainly true for the first four hundred years of the church and has also characterized the last 450 years. Those with a less evangelical theology might offer (with at least some justification) a case for the ‘bit in the middle’!
 
  Secondly, the ‘revival model’ raises at least two biblical questions. On the one hand, it is questionable whether a theology of revival can be found in the Bible. Usually, it appears, revival is argued back into the Bible from subsequent and selected events in church history. On the other hand, and more significantly, it would appear that the biblical model for spiritual growth (for individual and church) is one of growth ~o maturity. If God then intervenes it is not to save a sinking ship but to accelerate the progress of the church’s mission; an infinitely desirable occurrence!
 
  It follows, therefore, that revival should not be seen as the only answer to the church’s needs. Equally, inactive ‘waiting’ is an inappropriate response to spiritual darkness. Prayer for divine intervention will, of course, be made. But God’s people will have a biblical optimism that ‘the normal church life’ will usually be one of progress and growth (as, indeed, it has been).
 
  But, perhaps, the greatest challenge is this; are there reasons in our own failure to grasp and proclaim a biblical spirituality that have led to the pathological condition where, except where God intervenes in a remarkable way, the spiritual condition of church and people ‘bumps along the bottom’? Could it also be argued that this failure has created a situation where there is an almost unhealthy preoccupation with any new phenomenon.
 
  Over the years I have noticed that to argue that the gospel presupposes a dynamic at work which ought to cause us to look for far more in the lives of God’s people than we usually experienced is met with an accusation of unrealistic optimism. It has to be asked, however, whether in failing to aim high we achieve what we aim at!
 
  So we may be cynical about ‘the Toronto blessing’; possibly justifiably. But rather than judgmentally point the finger at others we need to ask ourselves whether our own house is in order and whether our own failure to proclaim a biblical spirituality is not one of the factors that has produced an unhealthy pre-occupation with ‘pre-revival’ phenomena and a failure in God’s people to live as they should, revival or no!

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