Evangelicalism is being rent asunder by a new liberalism in the academic world and, in the churches, by the Pentecostal-Charismatic movement. The latter, obsessed with theological novelty, has fallen into heresey, most notably in the form of the Toronto Blessing and ‘Word Faith’ teaching.
Modern Pentecostalism is only about a century old. Outbreaks of Pentecostal or Charismatic-type activity are discernible in church history. These include Montanism in the second century, the Zwickau Prophets in Luther’s day, and Irvingism in the nineteenth century. But these movements have always been on the margins of the church and were decisively rejected by the mainstream.
The Pentecostal churches themselves largely arose from the radical wing of the Holiness movement, itself the radical wing of Methodism. From their earliest beginnings, they were characterised by theological divisiveness and heresy. US theologian Donald Bloesch points out that almost one-fifth of American Pentecostals today are unorthodox with respect to the doctrine of the Trinity!
Even as recently as the 1950s, Pentecostal churches were regarded as distinctly sect-like because of their novel doctrines and practices. However, all this changed with the rise of the Charismatic movement (from 1960, and known originally as Neo-Pentecostalism) which saw the introduction of Pentecostal-type teachings into the older denominations.
Even the Roman Catholic Church (from 1967) was not immune. Within a decade, Pentecostalism had gone mainstream.
John Wimber and the ‘Third Wave’
Following the mainstreaming of Pentecostalism, the 1970s saw the movement established. A plethora of Charismatic organisations were set up and numerous Charismatic conferences were held, often attended by huge audiences.
Then in the eighties there arose another spate of Pentecostal-Charismatic activity. Known as the Third Wave, and focused particularly on the ministry of John Wimber (the leading figure in the Vineyard churches), this represented a radicalisation of the movement.
A succession of novel teachings were introduced. These included: power healing; power evangelism; restorationism; the new prophetic movement; demonisation of the believer; territorial spirits; exorcism marches; spiritual warfare; and signs and wonders.
Needless to say, none of these is based soundly on Scripture. Some of them even had their roots in the ‘Latter Rain’ teachings of the late 1940s, which the older Pentecostal denominations themselves declared heretical.
As the decade progressed, this Third Wave led to further acceptance of all things charismatic across denominational boundaries. At the same time, a worship revolution was taking place, with the introduction of songs rooted in the popular music styles of secular culture.
Meanwhile, the spectre of heresy arose in the form of the Word Faith movement which began to exercise more and more influence in Pentecostal-Charismatic circles.
The past decade
The place of biblical authority having been progressively usurped in the previous decades, the nineties saw many of these trends institutionalised. For example, ‘March for Jesus’, often misunderstood as a united Christian witness, is rooted explicitly in the theology of territorial spirits. Through the work of songwriter Graham Kendrick, it has generated its own music and ecumenical momentum.
However, the single biggest event of the decade was, without doubt, the Toronto Blessing. This phenomenon brought together many of the trends of the previous decade, including prophecies concerning ‘a great revival’.
The manifestations associated with this movement (e.g. falling, shaking, laughter) had been in evidence previously, in Wimber’s Vineyard churches and elsewhere. But their increased intensity from 1993 was largely the result of association with false teachers in the Word Faith camp, such as Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and Rodney Howard-Browne.
Word Faith movement
The Toronto Blessing is known to most readers, but this may not be true of the Word Faith (also known as ‘Health and Wealth’ or ‘Positive Confession’) movement. Chief among Word Faith teachings are that:
1. God is a supernatural power who operates by spiritual law and who can be influenced by men to accomplish their desires (e.g. with regard to financial prosperity).
2. Jesus Christ came to earth to deliver men from sin, sickness, failure and poverty. Following his crucifixion, he went to hell where he was born again.
3. Faith is a spiritual force that can be used to control the created order, command angels, influence the future and manipulate God.
4. The Bible contains words of divine power which must, however, be interpreted in the light of Word Faith principles.
5. Revelation is given supernaturally and directly to the leaders of the movement.
6. Salvation involves promotion to the ‘God class’, a higher spiritual life. Man is thus a potential, even actual, ‘little god’.
7. Sanctification is spiritual growth in the knowledge of the God, who offers health, wealth, happiness and success through signs and wonders, notably the ‘slain in the Spirit’ experience.
With the advent of ‘Toronto’, the biblical and historic understanding of revival suffered a near-fatal blow. The intensity and variety of psycho-spiritual phenomena in evidence, and the claims of profound personal tran-sformation, convinced many that revival had indeed come.
The major Pentecostal and Charismatic leaders fell over themselves to hail this ‘great move of God’. As a result, most Charismatic churches and a large proportion of the older Pentecostal churches were persuaded that the movement was genuine.
Even non-Charis-matics were divided in their view. Those who could see where things were leading, and protested that Toronto was a step too far, were largely marginalised. The result has been further division, confusion and ignorance.
High-profile para-church organisations such as the Evangelical Alliance (EA) in Britain have been unwilling to give a biblical lead, because the Charismatic movement is strongly represented in their leadership. Tragically, the many biblical and historically informed critiques of the Toronto Blessing will probably go unread by the very leaders who most need them.
Although there is little talk these days of ‘Toronto’, its practices have spread far and wide. We find it incorporated into the ‘Holy Spirit Weekend’ of the popular Alpha Course, which is being pursued in thousands of churches of all denominations, including Roman Catholic.
Even Spring Harvest, the mainstream Charismatic ‘shop front’, has experienced Toronto-style manifestations.
The question of truth
When the witness of the Bible and the testimony of church history are set aside, the result is a crisis of discernment. No wonder that many leaders are unable to see the events of the past few years in their true light. Whole ministries have been built on the back of false teachings and movements. For such leaders to admit that they have been wrong would be professional suicide.
The stance of the EA is symptomatic. When their long-promised book on the Toronto Blessing is published, we expect that there is one question it will not answer: the question of truth.
What believers need to know from their leaders is whether a particular teaching or movement is biblical. However, the current climate is dominated by a post-modern suspicion of all claims to possess truth. The greatest sin today is not heresy but to claim that something is true in an absolute sense.
Non-Charismatics are not immune from this corrosive tendency. It is possible to be regarded as an Evangelical today while denying such doctrines as God’s foreknowledge; the inerrancy of the Bible; forensic justification; the reality of hell; the need for divine grace in conversion; and faith in Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation.
Post-modern subjectivism has brought us to the point where, according to some respected theologians, we should accept other professing Christians as brethren despite major differences with regard to the way of salvation.
The scandal of the recent Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative is a case in point. Apparently, we must now operate on some non-doctrinal existential level in these matters.
The past decade has seen a radical privatisation of truth. Subjectivism is dominant in the Charismatic movement, and its poison is spreading further afield. Current moves to ‘free up’ worship, for example, will not revitalise our churches, as many hope, but will only move once-biblical churches further from their moorings.
Lessons must be learned
We simply must learn the lessons of the last ten years. One commentator on the Toronto Blessing warned darkly that, if Toronto was from God, it represented judgement upon the Pentecostal-Charismatic world, not blessing. If repentance does not follow, he added, worse was surely to come.
Well, since Toronto, we have had gold teeth fillings and (since there is no evidence of repentance) worse may be on the way.
Yet non-Charismatics should not be smug. In some parts of the world, where they major on simple gospel proclamation amongst the poorest of the poor, Pentecostals and Charismatics have been mightily used of God.
In our concern for truth, let us not become inward-looking, but remember the evangelistic enterprise that Christ entrusted to his church. But let us also work and pray for the major reformation of doctrine and practice we so greatly need, and which alone can arrest the downward trend in our churches.
The author is Chief Researcher with the Christian Research Network. He acknowledges help in compiling this article from the booklet The facts on the Faith Movementby J. Ankerberg and J. Weldon (Harvest House, 1993).