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Pursuing Presence, Not Signs: Balancing Pentecostal Experience with Biblical Teaching

Modern Day Signs, Wonders, and Miracles

The proclamation of the Word is validated, but not superseded, by the accompanying signs and wonders.

Among the more recent movements to occur in what is referred to as the Charismatic renewal is “The Toronto Blessing.”30 Not having attended it myself, I must rely on second-hand accounts of what took place there, and have learned that the unusual phenomena of signs and wonders described there included “holy laughter,” and “falling down under the power” and “even stranger animal noises.”31 The results were a huge influx of crowds, as an estimated 600,000 people visited Toronto Airport Vineyard Church by the end of 1995.32 Those participating in the services in Toronto reported feeling refreshed, having new revelations of the Father’s love toward them, and inner healing.33 But by the close of 1995, John Wimber, the founder of the Association of Vineyard Churches disassociated himself and the organization from the Toronto church.34 Over time, the church (now the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship) has dwindled in importance in the Charismatic renewal, and was followed by a revival in Pensacola, Florida at Brownsville Assembly of God. The Florida revival was characterized by some of the same phenomena present in Toronto, but with an added emphasis on repentance and forgiveness.35

Evaluating this account of the “Toronto Blessing” against our biblical criteria is not particularly encouraging. The first aspect of the miraculous is that it is externally observable, which cannot be said of inner healing, feeling refreshed, or receiving new revelations of God’s love. While it is true that the Holy Spirit may perform any or all of these acts, they hardly meet the biblical criteria for signs and wonders discussed earlier. Even the externally observable phenomena described as being present such as laughing, falling down, and the making of strange animal noises do not glorify God as creator. As for authenticating God’s message or messenger, it could be argued that such phenomena actually cast doubt upon the validity of the “messenger,” since many Christians, even those who believe in the existence of charismata, have rejected these phenomena.

Comparing the “miracles” of Toronto with a biblical account of the miraculous illustrates the chasm between the character of and the results of the ancient and modern miracles. When Peter and John met the lame beggar at the Beautiful gate, the man was healed and leaped for joy (Acts 3:7-9). Besides the man’s healing, the reaction of the crowd is significant. In Acts, all the people around were amazed and ran down to Peter and John. Peter used the occasion to preach the gospel, and despite being arrested with John and being put in jail (Acts 3:10-4:3) many more believed, and the number of men alone was 5,000 (Acts 4:4). While there were undoubtedly people in the community who rejected the Beautiful gate miracle, the strength of it rested in the widespread knowledge of the beggar in the community and because the miracle was externally visible. One hardly need ask whether the community would have responded in the same way if the beggar had testified to an inner healing.

A further question exists as to whether the observable phenomena actually inspire a sense of awe about God or of fear and amazement among Christians as well as unbelievers. The accounts of the “Toronto Blessing” indicate that a large number of people visited the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church, but whether the visits resulted in the multiplication of the Word of God is not clear, nor is the number of salvations. Overall, the “Toronto Blessing” does not fare well when measured against the biblical witness of signs and wonders, in terms of the character of the miracles or the effects they engender. We now turn to an examination of the interaction between the Word of God and the Spirit of God in narratives involving the miraculous.

Developing a New Word-Spirit Paradigm in Pentecostalism

Within Pentecostal and Charismatic circles an implicit and unexamined hierarchy has emerged in which personal spiritual experiences have been elevated to a quasi-authoritative status and are often given weight commensurate with that of the Scriptures. While Pentecostal and Charismatic theologies do not support this proposition, the populist nature of these movements naturally allows for more individualized Christian experiences—which are often left untested unless the Christian pursues greater involvement in the Church. This, in turn, leads to a similar lack of testing at corporate “outpourings” or gatherings where anecdotal evidence points to not only a lack of biblical testing of signs and wonders, but a lack of testing even of the Word of God when preached.

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Category: Living the Faith, Spring 2009

About the Author: Jessica Faye Carter, J.D. (Duke University), M.Div. (Princeton Theological Seminary), is a lawyer, entrepreneur, and nationally-recognized expert on cultural and gender diversity. She is the author of Troubling Her: A Biblical Defense of Women in Ministry (Purple Girl, 2010), Double Outsiders: How Women of Color Can Succeed in Corporate America (JIST Works, 2007), and “Known and Yet Unknown: Women of Color and the Assemblies of God.” LinkedIn. Twitter.

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