Would Jonathan Edwards Support The Toronto Blessing? by Michael A.G. Haykin, Gary W. McHale – Edited

By April 9, 2011 April 12th, 2016 Charismatic Movement

In his book Catch the Fire Guy Chevreau concludes a lengthy chapter of citations from the works of Jonathan Edwards by answering the question, ‘With all of the manifestations that have characterized the meetings at the Airport Vineyard, what assessment would Jonathan Edwards bring to bear?’ His answer, using another couple of quotes from Edwards, is that the New England theologian would undoubtedly throw his support behind the Airport Vineyard. (1)

John MacArthur, on the other hand, in his recent book Reckless Faith, comes to a very different conclusion. Would Edwards, he also asks, defend what is happening at the Toronto Airport Vineyard as a true work of God? ‘The historical facts’ MacArthur answers, ‘actually suggest he would be appalled by the movement. He would almost certainly label it fanaticism.’ (2)

Which of these two diametrically opposed perspectives on Edwards is correct? After having read Edwards’ own views presented in the previous chapters, the editors sincerely hope that the reader will see that MacArthur has rightly judged where Edwards would stand. While there are some similarities between the Great Awakening and the ‘Toronto Blessing,’ Edwards, given what we know of his beliefs, would not have endorsed the Toronto Blessing. Why?

1. Edwards is a Calvinist

First of all, Edwards is a convinced Calvinist. (3) Nor is his Calvinism a mere freckle on the face of his theology. It penetrates to the heart of his being, as can be seen from such texts as the Faithful Narrative. Moreover, he was severely critical of Arminian thought, and felt that it was Spirit-quenching. That explicitly Calvinist preaching and teaching, and the exaltation of free, sovereign grace are not central at the Toronto Airport Vineyard would be extremely disturbing to Edwards.

Now, one of the key features of Calvinist preaching in the eighteenth century was an emphasis on total depravity. All men and women arc sinners standing under the judgment of God and are unable to save themselves; thus, they sorely need God to sovereignly invade their lives and save them. This theme of the total sovereignty of God in salvation is abundantly apparent in Edwards’ Faithful Narrative. However, this is an emphasis rarely heard at the Toronto Airport Vineyard.

A good illustration of this fact came during a question-and-answer time on January 20, 1995. The question was asked why this ‘revival’ was so different from the revivals in Edwards’ day when Edwards and his contemporaries had focused on sin and repentance. Randy Clark, a Vineyard pastor from St. Louis, Missouri, and the guest speaker at the time of the question, responded:

I think one of the problems is most of the people in the church already feel so icky about themselves that they feel they can’t, they’re kind of out in the bunkhouse anyway, and first there’s been a major message of grace and the love of God, it’s not so much his wrath but his goodness that brings us to repentance, and as we respond to his message of his grace and mercy, it will provoke a repentance on the part of the church in the sense of change.

Clark added to this somewhat disjointed answer by stating that ‘God threw a party first.’ (4)

Although many today would rather focus on God’s love and mercy, the fact is that Edwards was convinced that people must first come to the place where they see themselves, not as ‘icky,’ but as depraved sinners justly destined for hell. For Edwards, only when people come to a humble recognition of their complete spiritual destitution in the face of God’s righteous demand for a holy life are they in the place where they are ready to embrace the Saviour whom God has graciously provided. A careful reading of the Faithful Narrative alone substantiates this point.

2. Edwards is a cessationist

Second, Edwards is an unabashed cessationist. He is one of the earliest, if not the earliest, theologians to argue for limiting the ‘extraordinary’ gifts of the Spirit to the Apostolic era on the basis of I Corinthians 13.

As MacArthur notes: ‘on this question Edwards would not have been the least bit sympathetic with modern charismatics.’ (5)

Central to much of what happens at the Toronto Airport Vineyard revolves around the practice of these ‘extraordinary’ gifts. Edwards would have regarded it as pure delusion. As Edwards stated in his Charity and Its Fruits

:

The canon of Scripture being completed when the apostle John had written the book of Revelation, which he wrote not long before his death, these miraculous gifts were no longer continued in the church. For there was now completed an established written revelation of the mind and will of God wherein God had fully recorded a standing and all-sufficient rule for his church in all ages. And the Jewish church and nation being overthrown, and the Christian church and the last dispensation of the church of God being established, the miraculous gifts of the Spirit were no longer needed, and therefore they ceased; for though they had been continued in the church for so many ages, yet then they failed, and God caused them to fail because there was no further occasion for them. And so was fulfilled the saying of the text, ‘Whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.’ And now there seems to be an end to all such fruits [i.e. extraordinary gifts] of the Spirit as these, and we have no reason to expect them any more. (6)

Moreover, as we have seen, the New England divine is particularly severe on those who take their guidance from ‘mental impressions.’ There is little doubt that Edwards would be just as severe on the contemporary practice of so-called ‘words of knowledge.’ As he states in his Some Thoughts:

One erroneous principle, than which scarce any has proved more mischievous to the present glorious work of God, is a notion that it is God’s manner in these days, to guide his saints, at least some that are more eminent, by inspiration, or immediate revelation. They suppose he makes known to them what shall come to pass hereafter, or what it is his will that they should do, by impressions made upon their minds, either with or without texts of Scripture; whereby something is made known to them, that is not taught in the Scripture. By such a notion the devil has a great door opened for him; and if once this opinion should come to be fully yielded to, and established in the church of God, Satan would have opportunity thereby to set up himself as the guide and oracle of God’s people, and to have his word regarded as their infallible rule, and so to lead them where he would, and to introduce what he pleased, and soon to bring the Bible into neglect and contempt. (7)

3. Edwards is agnostic about outward manifestations

Then, while Edwards was quite prepared to recognize that various outward manifestations, such as trembling and falling to the ground, could result from the Holy Spirit’s work in an individual’s life, he was not prepared to say that such manifestations must result from the Spirit. Edwards clearly taught that outward manifestations cannot be used to prove or disprove the working of the Holy Spirit. While the Vineyard verbally endorses this perspective of Edwards, in practice the outward manifestations are given centre-stage.

Iain H. Murray, who has written what is probably this century’s best biography of Edwards, notes the following about the Vineyard’s emphasis on outward manifestations in his book review of Chevreau’s Catch the Fire

.

It is … clear that the author, who writes with an appealing sincerity, has absorbed some of Edwards’ main emphases and in particular the point that physical actions can never of themselves provide any proof of the power of the Holy Spirit: it is inward transformation, resulting in a closer communion with Christ and a greater knowledge of God, which alone has real validity. But while asserting this, Guy Chevreau contradicts it by constructing his book very largely around the physical phenomenon. We fail to see how this is consistent with what he quotes from Edwards. If physical phenomena, such as falling down, are not the vital thing, why should they be given such prominence? We can understand secular reporters giving all their attention to the merely outward, but this book appears to confirm that those most closely involved are themselves far too interested in the appearance of things.(8)

It is noteworthy that James A. Beverley also states that Vineyard leaders repeatedly claim that outward manifestations are not primary. In his ‘thirty or so visits to the Airport Vineyard’ he has heard this disclaimer regularly. Nevertheless, Beverley is convinced that for the Vineyard:

manifestations occupy a key place. More important, they have a dominant place in the current theology of Toronto Blessing advocates. The signs and wonders have served from the start as justification for belief in the manifest presence of God. (9)

4. Edwards is a firm advocate of self-control

Fourth, Edwards repeatedly encouraged people to control their external behaviour in public meetings. ‘It would be very unreasonable, and prejudicial to the interest of religion,’ he wrote, ‘to frown upon all … extraordinary external effects and manifestations of great religious affections.’ But, he went on, ‘I think they greatly err, who suppose that these things should be wholly unlimited, and that all should be encouraged in going to the utmost length that they feel themselves inclined to. There ought to be a gentle restraint upon these things.’ (10)

Edwards especially urged that speaking during the worship of God ‘should not be allowed.” Obviously, Edwards felt that order and the work of the Spirit are not incompatible. There were those in Edwards’ day who disagreed with the New England divine and who argued that ‘external order’ is but ‘ceremonies and dead forms.’ ‘God,’ they maintained, ‘does not look at the outward form, he looks at the heart.’ But, Edwards replied,

…that is a weak argument against its importance, that true godliness does not consist in it, for it may be equally made use of against all the outward means of grace whatsoever. True godliness does not consist in ink and paper, but yet that would be a foolish objection against the importance of ink and paper in religion, when without it we could not have the word of God. If any external means at all are needful, any outward actions of a public nature, or wherein God’s people are jointly concerned in public society, without doubt external order is needful. The management of an external affair that is public, or wherein a multitude is concerned, without order, is in every thing found impossible.—Without order there can be no general direction of a multitude to any particular designed end, their purposes will cross and hinder one another. A multitude cannot act in union one with another without order; confusion separates and divides them, so that there can be no concert or agreement. If a multitude would help one another in any affair, they must unite themselves one to another in a regular subordination of members, in some measure, as it is in the natural body; by this means they will be in some capacity to act with united strength. And thus Christ has appointed that it should be in the visible church, as I Cor. 12:14, etc. and Rom. 12:4-8. Zeal without order will do but little, or at least it will be effectual but a little while. Let a company, however zealous against the enemy, go forth to war without any order, every one rushing forward as his zeal shall drive him, all in confusion; if they gain something at the first onset, by surprising the enemy, yet how soon do they come to nothing, and fall an easy helpless prey to their adversaries! Order is one of the most necessary of all external means of the spiritual good of God’s church; and therefore it is requisite even in heaven itself, where there is the least need of any external means of grace. (12)

5. Edwards would not accept ‘holy laughter’

One manifestation that would give Edwards great cause for concern would be the so-called ‘holy laughter.’ It is noteworthy that in the section of Some Thoughts that deals with the experience of his wife, Sarah, whom Edwards is actually setting forth as a paradigm of piety, he pointedly states that her

…great rejoicing has been with trembling, i.e. attended with a deep and lively sense of the greatness and majesty of God, and the person’s own exceeding littleness and vileness. Spiritual joys in this person never were attended with the least appearance of laughter, or lightness, either of countenance or manner of speaking; but with a peculiar abhorrence of such appearance in spiritual rejoicings. (13)

6. Edwards has a high new of preaching

Edwards had inherited from his Puritan forebears a high view of preaching. For him, as for them, the pulpit is ‘a place of nurture, of fire and light’ (14) In fact, it would probably be true to say that Edwards regarded preaching as the preeminent aspect of public worship.

Edwards was reared in an environment, the home of a pastor, where ‘sermons were always in the making.’ (15) The extant sermons of his father, Timothy Edwards, are classic example of solid Puritan divinity, which would have taught the young Edwards the fundamentals of preaching as he listened to them week by week. (16) The other important influence on Edwards as a preacher was his grandfather, Solomon Stoddard, one of the last great Puritan preachers in Massachusetts. Stoddard was an exceptionally powerful preacher, whose sermons were formally similar to those of Timothy Edwards, but filled with ‘pungent, epigrammatic expression,’ for which it appears Stoddard had a real gift. (17)

Shaped by such an environment, Edwards could declare in 1738, ‘have we not reason to think that it ever has been, and ever will be, God’s manner to bless the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe …?’ (18) And five years later, in his Some Thoughts, Edwards can state that ministers are God’s

…ambassadors and instruments, to awaken and convert sinners, and establish, build up, and comfort saints; it is the business they have been solemnly charged with, before God, angels, and men, and to which they have given up themselves by the most sacred vows. These especially are the officers of Christ’s kingdom, who, above all other men upon earth, represents his person; into whose hands Christ has committed the sacred oracles, holy ordinances, and all his appointed means of grace, to be administered by them. (19)

Edwards could also observe in The True Excellency of a Gospel Minister, an ordination sermon that he preached in 1744:

Ministers are set to be lights to the souls of men in this respect, as they are to be the means of imparting divine truth to them, and bringing into their view the most glorious and excellent objects, and leading them to and assisting them in the contemplation of those things that angels desire to look into; the means of their obtaining that knowledge is infinitely more important, and more excellent and useful, than that of the greatest statesmen or philosophers, even that which is spiritual and divine: they are set to be the means of bringing men out of darkness into God’s marvellous light, and of bringing them to the infinite fountain of light, that in his light they may see light: they are set to instruct men, and impart to them that knowledge by which they may know God and Jesus Christ, whom to know is life eternal…. Ministers should be very conversant with the Holy Scriptures; making it very much their business, with the utmost diligence and strictness, to search those holy writings: for they are as it were the beams of the light of the Sun of righteousness; they are the light by which ministers must be enlightened, and the light they are to hold forth to their hearers; and they are the fire whence their hearts and the hearts of their hearers must be enkindled. (20)

Even the architecture of eighteenth-century New England churches bespoke this emphasis on the preached word in worship: the central feature of these simple structures was the pulpit. These meeting-houses were generally square or rectangular structures. Inside the meeting-house the pulpit was made prominent and was well within the sight and sound of the entire congregation.

As we have already noted, preaching is not the central aspect of the public worship as the Toronto Airport Vineyard; the outward manifestations during the ‘ministry time’ seem to be. Nor is the preaching that does take place particularly strong. As Beverly observes:

I have talked to hundreds of people who have been to the Air port Vineyard and have asked them about their perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the preaching they heard. Their chief complaint is the lack of clarity, exegetical skill, and focus that is brought to the biblical text during worship.

Since October, 1994,1 have attended about shiny meetings. My view matches the majority opinion I have heard from others, including my colleagues at Ontario Theological Seminary. A regular pattern has emerged since January 20, 1994, in that the messages usually consist of story-telling about manifestations or about the latest developments in The Blessing. Biblical proclamation has not emerged as a keystone of this renewal. (21)

Edwards would find it very difficult to comprehend, to say the least, that God’s Spirit could be so powerfully present and there not be ‘anointed’ preaching. For him, as for other leaders in the eighteenth-century revivals, the Spirit-empowered preaching of the Word was the life-blood of the church’s life in this world.

7. Edwards is Christ-centered

During the Great Awakening Edwards was insistent that a genuine work of God the Holy Spirit is known by the way that men and women are drawn to Christ, convinced of his lordship and deity, and shown that Christ alone can save sinners. As he states in his Distinguishing Marks:

When the operation is such as to raise their esteem of that Jesus who was born of the Virgin, and was crucified outside of the gates of Jerusalem; and seems more to confirm and establish their minds in the truth of what the gospel declares to us of his being the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; it is a sure sign that it is from the Spirit of God… So that if the spirit that is at work among a people is plainly observed to work so as to convince them of Christ, and lead them to him—to confirm their minds in the belief of the history of Christ as he appeared in the flesh—and that he is the Son of God, and was sent of God to save sinners; that he is the only Saviour, and that they stand in great need of him; and if he seems to beget in them higher and more honorable thoughts of him than they used to have, and to incline their affections more to him, it is a sure sign that it is the true and right Spirit…(22)

In other words, for Edwards, the Holy Spirit is a Christ-centered and Christ exalting Spirit. Edwards would have heartily agreed with J.l. Packer when the latter states that the Spirit fulfills ‘what we may call a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus Christ,’ that is, he focuses attention upon Christ, draws the gaze of men and women to the Saviour, and exalts him in their minds and hearts. (23) The Spirit has come to teach us about his favorite subject, the Lord Jesus Christ.

As critics of the Vineyard have pointed out, though, the focus of this movement is not Christ. (24) This should not be taken to mean that Vineyard leaders care nothing about the biblical Jesus. What it does mean is that the Spirit has wrongly become the center of attention for many advocates of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ and ‘signs and wonders’ associated with the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity have become their passion instead of Jesus. As Beverley rightly says: ‘This is no picky point about word games.’ (25) What is at stake here concerns the heart of biblical Christianity. If Christ is not central, Edwards would urge us to raise the question: is the spirit that is at work then the Spirit of Jesus?

8. Edwards rejoices in God’s gift of the mind

Finally, Edwards would be critical of the constant anti-intellectualism displayed by advocates of the ‘Toronto Blessing.’ As Beverley observes, the ‘Toronto Blessing has an anti-intellectual spirit.’ It manifests itself in the Vineyard leaders’ ‘complaints against theology,’ and when act ‘as if the disciplined study of Christian doctrine is an intrinsic evil. The constant snide remarks against the intellect are distressing …’ (26) What a contrast to Edwards, as Beverly proceeds to note.

The one great irony in the anti-intellectualism that manifests itself too readily is that this goes side by side with the constant invocation of Jonathan Edwards as the guiding light for this renewal. This man’s intellectual rigor, his passion for careful theology, his precision in analysis, and his longing for penetrating discernment should raise hope that the irrational impulse in The Toronto Blessing will be reduced as Vineyard leaders listen more readily to his voice, one that combined renewal of intellect and spirit in a remarkable way. (27)

Will the Vineyard leaders listen to Edwards, as Beverley hopes they will? Only time will tell. If they do, there will be much to reform, as this conclusion has sought to indicate.

A definitive answer

Would Edwards support the ‘Toronto Blessing’? Given the weight of these differences between Edwards and the proponents of the ‘Toronto Blessing,’ the editors are convinced that the only answer that is historically accurate is ‘No.’

FOOTNOTES:

(1) Catch the Fire: The Toronto Blessing. An experience of renewal and revival (London: Marshall Pickering, 1994), 142-144.

(2) Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1994), 163.

(3) Ibid., 164, James A Beverley, in an irenic critique of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ also notes this key area of difference between Edwards and the proponents of the ‘Toronto Blessing’ [Holy Laughter and The Toronto Blessing. An Investigative Report (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 80].

(4) Randy Clark, ‘Run With the Fire’, Toronto Airport Vineyard, January 20, 1995.

(5) Reckless Faith, 186

(6) See p. 104.

(7) See p. 246.

(8) ‘Book Reviews: Catch the Fire: The Toronto Blessing – an experience of renewal and revival. Guy Chevreau’, The Banner of Truth, 378 (March 1995), 28.

(9) Holy Laughter, 95-96.

(10) See p. 300.

(11) See p. 289.

(12) See p. 264.

(13) The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:376.

(14) This description of the pulpit is that of Michael J. Walker, Baptists at the Table: The Theology of the Lord ‘s Supper amongst English Baptists in the Nineteenth Century (Didcot, Oxfordshire: Baptist Historical Society, 1992), 7. While Walker’s description is of the Baptist pulpit in the nineteenth century, it is a perspective shared by seventeenth-century Puritans and eighteenth-century Evangelicals.

(15) Wilson H. Kimnach, ‘General Introduction to the Sermons: Jonathan Edwards’ Art of Prophesying’ in Jonathan Edwards, Sermons and Discourses 1720-1723, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1992), 3.

(16) Ibid. 10-12.

(17) Ibid. 12.

(18) ‘Preface’ to Five Discourses on Important Subjects, Nearly Concerning the Great Affair of the Soul’s Eternal Salvation [The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 1:621].

(19) Ibid., 1:387.

(20) Ibid., 2:956, 959.

(21) Holy Laughter, 153.

(22) Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:266.

(23) Keep in Step with the Spirit (Old Tappan, New Jerry: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1984), 55,65.

(24) MacArthur, Reckless Faith, 174-175; Beverley, Holy Laughter, 159-160.

(25) Holy Laughter, 160.

(26) Ibid., 155-156.

(27) Ibid., 157.