Is the "Blessing" Biblical?
Thinking through the Toronto Phenomenon

David Pawson

Hodder & Stoughton. 1995. ISBN 0-340-66147-X

Evangelicals Now: Book Review
December 1995

Introduction: Is the 'Blessing' Biblical?

Many people will have been waiting for this book to be written, convinced that what ever David Pawson has to say on the subject will be good enough for them. Aware of such a danger, Pawson insists that readers must reach there own conclusions, as he does not wish to be "quoted as a kind of guru." (p.16) He would prefer to show them how to think rather than telling them what to think. This Pawson does well encouraging readers to think "biblically", "..asking the one question that matters above all: is the "blessing" biblical? Passionate to see the integration of Word and Spirit, he looks to Scripture for the insights which will enable a clear evaluation of the "Toronto Blessing" (rear cover).

Pawson's approach is to be welcomed. As someone who straddles the, at times, uneasy Charismatic-Evangelical divide, his views will, hopefully be taken seriously by both view points, especially since the "Toronto" experience has caused deep division among both.

In the course of ten chapters, Pawson examines the biblical data associated with the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the nature of divine blessing, the events surrounding the Day of Pentecost, the contemporary Toronto phenomenon and the claims made that this is evidence of refreshment and 'end time' revival. In total Pawson examines in the region of 140 Biblical passages.

Significantly, in not one single instance does he conclude that there is either biblical precedent or theological justification for their approach to ministry or the claim that the "Toronto" manifestations are evidence of the Holy Spirit's work.

Strictly speaking then, the answer Pawson gives to the question "Is the "blessing" biblical is a resounding "no", the "Blessing" is not biblical, it has no biblical precedent or justification. So for example, he writes, "...I have not been able to find a clear biblical basis for what is being experienced..." (p.15)

At the same time, Pawson is not saying the Scriptures are neutral. Were he still pastoring a local church, on the basis of this book, there is no way that one would be led to expect him to tolerate the expression of behaviour or the approach to ministry as commonly associated with Toronto.

Lest I be accused of bias or of misconstruing Pawson's arguments, I have quoted extensively from his book in this review, and I would encourage you to read it for yourself, for this is a clear, readable and cogent examination of the relevant biblical material and will, as Ian Coffey says, help us "think Christianly about this subject, written by a friend not a partisan; it is biblical, penetrating, thoughtful and pastoral." (back cover)

Manifestations and Ministry

From the very beginning of what is an autobiographical preface, Pawson holds an imaginary debate with advocates of Toronto, anticipating their arguments and undermining their presuppositions. So for example he writes,

"There is a widespread notion that real knowledge has to be existential: something must be experienced before it can be examined or explained. If that were the case, I was wrong to write a book about heaven and hell, since I have never been to either.....Actually, the idea that something must be experienced before its merits or demerits can be assessed is as old as the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve fell for it, though they already had God's Word, telling them all they needed to know." (p.11)

"We live in a society that is constantly seeking new experiences, from trips on marijuana to trips to Majorca, from ouija boards to smorgasbords. The quest is fast extending to the spiritual realm with an increasing desire for sensual contact with the supernatural." (p.12)

While acknowledging the "reality" of the experiences people have had, Pawson recognises the danger of equating any experience, however real, with God. "They may be genuinely from God, a fleshly substitute from man or a subtle counterfeit from Satan." (p.12) Nor is he convinced that so called "fruit" is a legitimate means for testing the origin of manifestations.

"It has become customary to test experiences in hindsight-that is, to see what the results are. "By their fruit you will recognise them" (Matthew 7:20). But that verse is about discerning false prophets, not experiences. And the thrust of it is to look for their characteristic product before becoming involved with them. This book is based on the premise that the right approach for believers is to test all things before becoming involved with them, to look at the roots rather than the fruits." (p.12)

By "roots", Pawson means "biblical roots", for he asserts that, "

The basic criterion must be what God has already said, as recorded in Scripture. In relation to any experience we need to ask the simple question: Has he clearly told us he wants us to have this by promising to give it to us?" (p.12)

Looking back over thirty years ministry, Pawson admits,

"...I find myself...cautious rather than adventurous...questioning what many see as a move, even "the Move", of the Spirit in our generation" (p.14).

He is also fearful of seeing Evangelicals and Charismatics "drifting apart" over this issue.

"In what came to be labelled "Third Wave", I sensed the seeds of disintegration. Pragmatism crept in. If it works, it's right. The end justifies the means...teaching is being reduced, even omitted, in a number of meetings. It is the way Scripture is being made to fit what is happening rather than vice versa. Even worse is the dismissal of Scripture as irrelevant to the Spirit, who is "free to act in non-biblical ways. He is the Spirit of Truth as well as power. He does not contradict himself. His inspired deeds of today will be consistent with his inspired words of yesterday. Neither his gifts nor his fruit have changed. We know the ways of the Spirit (as well as the works of the flesh and the devices of Satan) from the Scriptures he inspired." (p.14-15)

A further criticism, Pawson anticipates, is the implication that to question or hesitate to get involved, is " commit the unforgivable sin of ascribing the work of the Spirit to evil sources" (p.21). In reply he insists that "Scripture never encourages unquestioning acceptance of whatever is claimed to be of God." (p.26)

Undeterred by such intimidation, Pawson challenges the assumption that what are called "manifestations" such as "violent jerking...'pogo' jumping on the spot...animal a roaring lion or even mooing cows and clucking chickens." (p.23) are evidence of the blessing of God. "Significantly much of the language I have been describing is not found in the Bible, and where it is, it seems to be used rather differently." (p.25).

For example, the claim that people falling to the floor are being 'slain in the Spirit', is, says Pawson, "a ghastly description which should only be used in such cases as that of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)" (p.25)

Similarly, Pawson is unimpressed with the way personal "ministry" has evolved in recent years, and given prominence in "Toronto" style meetings.

"An invariable pattern has rapidly developed which strongly suggests that the normal way to be 'blessed' by God is to be prayed for, usually with the laying-on of hands, at the climax of a public meeting, or even a gathering arranged for this sole purpose....What ever happened to the ministry of the Word and sacraments? (p.26)

Pawson traces through Scripture the usual means of blessing someone, which, "whether by God or man, is by word of mouth". (p.26). In contrast he questions the approach advocated by the leaders of the Toronto movement.

"The primary issue is whether this is the necessary or even the normal way to receive God's 'blessing' today. The implication is that it is 'channelled' from a person who has it to a person who hasn't." (p.27).

He points out several dangers with this approach to ministry. Beside the risk of the "wrong spirit being transferred", it also encourages a kind of religious welfare "dependency culture", and new "sacerdotalism" where there is need for a 'priest' to mediate the grace of God, and in which, for example, "It is easier to receive 'deliverance' than to exercise discipline in respect of habitual sins." (p.27).

Pawson insists, "the New Testament has no mention of this 'ministry'. (p.27)

Tongue in cheek, Pawson observes that "one quivering hand in front of the face and the other in the small of the back is probably rather different from apostolic practice." (p.27)

Pawson also anticipates the argument that we do not really need a scriptural warrant for every aspect of Christian ministry, as long as they are not incompatible with any specific biblical imperatives. He responds, "This may (or may not) be a valid argument for human activity, but it is surely an inadequate criterion for discerning what is claimed to be divine activity." (p.31)

Pentecost: Is this that?

The bulk of the book examines the alleged biblical precedents used to justify contemporary manifestations. At the risk of repetition, I quote his conclusion after appraising the biblical data for each.

Falling "It is never associated with the Spirit and certainly never interpreted as his work." (p.35)

Trembling "It is never associated with blessing! Nor is it ever attributed to the Holy Spirit..." (p.35)

Laughing "Again, we notice no justification for using such a phrase as "laughing in the Spirit"....Helpless laughter without an adequate or appropriate cause is not found. It is noticeable that God only humiliates people by making them an object of fun or ridicule in judgment." (p.37)

Weeping "Weeping in itself does not carry any spiritual significance....tears are not taken to be a manifestation of the Holy Spirit..." (p.38)

Leaping " is difficult to find any precedent for the involuntary and prolonged jerking that has been nicknamed the "Toronto twitch" and "pogo-ing"...There seems no biblical warrant for identifying them as the work of the Holy Spirit." (p.39)

Growling "Would God cause human beings, made in His image and only a little lower than the angels, to sound or behave like animals? The answer is yes, but only in judgment, never in blessing...Animal behaviour seems to be far more likely to be of demonic than of divine origin." (p.39)

Stripping "Nakedness is associated with demonic possession as well as divine judgment...It seems hardly likely that Jesus would want anyone naked and out of their mind." (p.41)

In summary, Pawson writes of these phenomena, "None of them is specifically stated to be a 'manifestation' of the Spirit. They are therefore not directly caused by him or willed by him to happen." (p.41) They are, he believes, simply "human reactions, spontaneous responses of human nature." Attempts to earth such phenomena in Scripture lack credibility. "Weird manipulation of Scripture usually indicates desperation in the absence of any unquestionable foundation." (p.40)

The Holy Spirit and a Theology of 'Drunkenness'

At the heart of the book, Pawson strongly refutes the notion that the Holy Spirit causes believers to be "drunk in the Spirit" or "intoxicated with God." (p.44). He notes, for instance that on the Day of Pentecost, "The crowd did not think they were drunk, since their speech was totally intelligible in content, indeed astonishingly so...Only a minority, for their own reasons, attempted a degrading accusation of incapability" (p.46-7)

Similarly, he insists that in Ephesians 5:18, Paul is essentially making a contrast rather than a comparison.

"...throughout the Bible, drunkenness is condemned as sinful and degrading...In view of the fact that the loss of self-control is the prime result of drunkenness, it would be astonishing if the Spirit were to lead us into a simulation of this, particularly in the light of the apostolic imperative to avoid all appearance of evil." (p.49)

Equally, Pawson is most reticent to endorse the practice increasingly common of saying, "Let go of yourself and let the Spirit do whatever he wants." (p.51) Instead he argues that,

"...there is no suggestion that those in whom the Spirit moves lose control of themselves. There may be spontaneous expression, but it is never involuntary. The Holy Spirit never makes us do anything. His anointing and gifting are under our control." (p.49) He concludes, "There is no biblical warrant for 'handing over the control of the meeting to the Holy Spirit'. That is an abdication of responsibility." (p.53)

Pawson goes on, in another chapter on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, to examine the increasingly common practice of inviting the Holy Spirit to come and minister. He gives three reasons why he regards this practice popularised by John Wimber as "dubious" to say the least (p.60). It wrongly associates any subsequent manifestations, spiritual or human with his 'coming'; It overlooks the fact that the Holy Spirit has been present all the time; and most important of all,

"...there is no biblical precedent for praying to the Spirit, only in the Spirit. He was never directly addressed in this way by the early church...This is not a quibble...The way we talk is the way we think and the way we will lead others to think." (p.61)

Revival and Refreshing

What of claims that the Toronto experience is evidence of revival? Pawson traces the various perspectives on revival and the attempt to root them in Scripture. He notes that most of these rely on Old Testament promises, promises that God would pour out His Spirit on all people, promises that have now been fulfilled.

"This partly explains why the New Testament has little or nothing to say about the 'revival' of God's people. That kind of talk is now inappropriate." (p.68).

He argues it is 'trite' to say that it is not mentioned because they were living in revival.

"It is striking that New Testament churches at a low ebb are called to repent and reform themselves rather than call on God to revive them. Compromise and complacency are the real obstacles. 'Repent or be removed' is what the Spirit says to the churches that are in trouble." (p.70)

Pawson is equally dismissive with attempts to root this phenomena in the concept of "times of refreshing" promised by Peter in Acts 3:19. He notes that Peter is speaking to unbelieving Jews, urging them to repent and turn to God. This he promises will result in 'seasons of refreshing' and the coming of their Messiah. (p.70) Pawson notes that 'refreshing' is associated in the Old Testament with the relief of suffering and guilt.

" is highly unlikely that Peter was referring to later (centuries later) periods of sudden advance in church history, however apt the phrase may have been taken out of context...The danger of using this phrase to describe contemporary events is to give them a 'biblical' aura without an adequate authority." (p.72)

Evidence of the End Times?

Here Pawson surveys the most popular contemporary eschatologies, and the rise of what he terms the "three 'R's", namely 'Restorationism'- the idea that God is establishing His kingdom through new denominations today; 'Reconstructionism' or 'Dominionism' - the belief that the Church will be able to rule over society; and "Revival" - the conviction that in these last days there will be a universal "end time revival" heralding in the Millennium. This expectancy has he argues, produced an eagerness to see some evidence of its approach.

"Successive movements originating across the Atlantic have aroused intense interest here - 'Is this IT?' John Wimber's signs and wonders, Peter Wagner's territorial spirits, Paul Cain's predictions and now Rodney Howard-Browne's meetings - these have all been considered candidates for the 'big thing'. Most conclude that they have been staging-posts on the way." (p.75)

Here Pawson is somewhat enigmatic. It is not clear whether he is merely stating the views of proponents or is himself endorsing them. It is notable however that he groups them together. he does however raise the most obvious question, often overlooked, as to whether God has promised such an 'end time revival'? (p.75)

He notes that proponents usually turn to the Old Testament for evidence of such a promise. In those New Testament books which speak specifically of the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, where we might expect to see such a prophetic promise confirmed, Pawson notes dryly, "But there is not a trace of it!" (p.76). Pawson will have nothing of this triumphalism pointing instead to the very opposite.

"Far from enjoying enormous growth, much less taking over the world, the Church is more likely to be reduced as 'many will turn away from the faith of most will grow cold'. The call is for endurance, to be faithful even to the point of death...If an 'end time revival' did occur, it would more likely be a preparation of the church to be rejected by the world than to reign over it. The refreshing would be for endurance rather than enjoyment, though it is probably not in the minds of those currently praying for it to happen." (p.77)

But what about testimonies of blessing?

Pawson concedes that there has been a flood of positive testimonies, and that for many his cautious Scriptural arguments will appear superfluous and even irrelevant. He has grave reservations that the ends ever justify the means. The ultimate test he argues however will be whether it leads to real repentance and observable obedience and not just emotional experiences.

"This yardstick is especially necessary in an age which is addicted to novel experiences and regards all religious experiences as self-authenticating....the proof that a religious experience has been a genuine encounter with God is its effect in the two areas of belief and behaviour." (p.84)

It is God's will to bless us, for it is

"the essential wonder of justification. And he does not wait until our methods are perfect...Because of this it is a fundamental mistake to assume that his blessing ratifies our ministry...When people come in simple faith for his blessing, he will bless them, however weird their thinking about how the blessing is conveyed." (p.86)


So is the 'blessing' biblical?

"The basic issue raised was whether 'manifestations' are divine actions or human reactions. I believe the biblical answer is clear: they are never defined as the former and always described as the latter." (p.88)

For this reason, in a chapter "mainly for leaders", Pawson recommends the following eight guidelines, when dealing with the manifestations.

"They should not be forbidden...They will not be distracting...They will not be encouraged...They will not be publicised...They will not be exclusive...They will not be misinterpreted...They will not be homogenised...They will not be sought." (pp89-93)

After such a clear and honest assessment, I have to confess to being somewhat disappointed with Pawson's conclusions, entitled "a yellow light"

Essentially Pawson claims he is giving a yellow "proceed with caution" light rather than a green "go" or red "stop" sign to the Toronto experience. Inevitably there is only limited value in any analogy, especially when pressed too far.

However, in this case it has to be said that how one normally responds to a yellow light greatly depends on whether one's vehicle is already moving or stationary. If stationary one may proceed with caution, but given the increasing tendency for reckless drivers to jump the lights, to proceed on a yellow light is actually inadvisable - better to wait until the lights turn green. For those approaching a traffic light showing yellow, the correct response is to slow down and stop. Although Pawson would appear to prefer not to identify with either those for or against Toronto, the journey on which he takes us through the Bible leads to only one of these mutually exclusive and opposite destinations.

In a short appendix he recognises that it is impossible to ignore the historical precedents for the 'blessing' admitting his surprise that some Evangelicals should be so enthusiastic to find in the writings of Edwards, Whitfield and Wesley antecedents for their experiences. He wryly observes,

"...if there was a clear rationale for the 'blessing' in the teaching of Peter, Paul, James, John or Jesus himself, would anyone be talking so much, or at all, about Jonathan Edwards?" (p.99).

In recognising the priority of roots over fruits, and in particular biblical teaching over pragmatic experience, I believe Pawson's arguments would have been significantly strengthened had he also taken more time to trace the immediate historical roots of the manifestations, and examined the theology of those associated with it.

Despite one passing and neutral reference to Rodney Howard-Browne, and the recognition that "what broke out in the Airport Vineyard fellowship in Toronto early in 1994 was already happening in other locations"(p.20), he does not tell us where those locations were. For example, Pawson fails to point out the well publicised fact that neo-Pentecostal prosperity gospel teachers like Kenneth Hagin, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Rodney Howard-Browne were and continue to promote the physical manifestations, which subsequently came to be regarded as the hallmarks of a Toronto experience, the shaking, the animal noises, the drunkenness. Nor does Pawson acknowledge that it was directly through the ministry of Hinn and Howard-Browne, that the Vineyard leaders, John Arnott and Randy Clark received their so called "anointing". Had he done so, I do not believe his conclusions would have appeared so equivocal.

"No" to paraphrase Pawson, the "blessing" associated with Toronto is not biblical. For those who care about what God has said in Scripture, and for whom that is their final authority in matters of faith and practice, that should be a good enough answer.

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