From CTS Journal, a publication of Chafer Theological Seminary, Fountain Valley, CA.

This article is the first of a two-part series on the so-called Toronto Phenomenon. We offer this article because it is an excellent example of applying the "Sufficiency of Scripture"--a distinctive of CTS to a modern religious movement.

The Toronto Phenomenon
(Part 1 of 2)

Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum


I have been asked, both verbally in public as well as in many letters, if I believe that the Toronto Phenomenon is truly a work of God. Frankly, that so many believers even need to ask this question shows how far the evangelical world has moved from the Word of God. How easily this departure has led to being "tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine." It has been my observation that over the last 10-15 years, more and more believers are becoming biblically illiterate; such illiteracy leads to seeking new spiritual experiences, no matter where they may come from, and to a lack of knowledge of Scripture to evaluate these experiences biblically. The church has, indeed, entered a sad state and one author's book, Christianity in Crisis, is very aptly named.

Is This a Charismatic vs. Non-Charismatic Issue?

I know that there are those who will read this editorial and, as a result, will cut off any and all support they have been giving to Ariel Ministries or Chafer Theological Seminary. In this sense, then, it is neither to my, Ariel's, nor CTS’s, advantage for me to write this article, and it would be more profitable either to stay neutral or to stay silent. But I would disobey my calling as a teacher of the Word, and would betray my gift of teaching, if I kept silent in the face of such a terrible deception and delusion being propounded upon the Christian world today.

Before dealing with the issue, I think another point must be clarified. When I receive criticism to my criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon by its supporters, one common notion is that the only reason I must be opposed to it is because I am not "Spirit-filled," or "Pentecostal," or "Charismatic." True, I am neither Pentecostal or Charismatic in the way these terms have been defined, though I believe I am Spirit-filled in the way the Bible defines the term. However, I refuse to allow this to become a Charismatic/Pentecostal vs. non-Pentecostals/non-Charismatic issue. The fact is that this has divided far more Pentecostal/Charismatic churches than it has divided other kinds. I have in my possession a large file of criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon. About half of the criticisms come from non-Charismatic/non-Pentecostal sources, but at least half if not more come from Pentecostal/Charismatic sources.

In fact, two acquaintances of mine who are Charismatic, and have been within the Charismatic movement for many years, have written to me stating that they had attended a Toronto-style meeting at a Southern California church, and the guest speaker was the pastor of the Toronto Vineyard. They pointed out that the many things they saw in these meetings--things that are now declared to be evidences of being Spirit-filled and divine supernatural acts from God--were in previous times considered demonic. And those doing these things, such as laughing uncontrollably or making animal sounds, would have been considered demonized; in fact, these two acquaintances formerly cast demons out of such people. What was once considered demonic has now become normative in certain circles.

Again, all of this shows that we are not dealing with the Pentecostal-Charismatic and/or non-Pentecostal/non-Charismatic issue. This is an issue which has divided the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement in and of itself. I want to make it clear that this is not an issue of difference between Pentecostal/Charismatics and non-Pentecostals/non-Charismatics, as the issue of tongues might be (even though that, too, may be questionable). Here, we deal with an issue that has divided the Pentecostal/Charismatic church itself more than any other group outside that circle. So, I refuse to allow anyone to excuse this with a simple wave of the hand and "You are only saying it because you are not Charismatic." The documented criticisms of the Toronto Phenomenon clearly falsify that kind of elementary dismissal.

As further evidence, while I was writing this very paper, the Association of Vineyard Fellowships, founded by John Wimber, expelled the Airport Vineyard Fellowship of Toronto from its association for "going over the edge" in encouraging people to "bark like dogs, swoon to the floor and laugh uncontrollably during services." So now this movement has even caused a split within the Vineyard Movement itself. While it is good to see that even the Vineyard Movement has a boundary they will not cross, their own criticisms of the phenomenon are based on a weak foundation. The Vineyard Movement has based their own teachings and doctrine largely on experience and not on the written Word of God. The question, then, is: On what grounds can the Vineyard Movement claim authenticity based on experience while the Toronto Phenomenon cannot? The Vineyard Fellowship itself is on very weak ground in their expulsion of the Toronto Vineyard. After all, this is only one group's experiences as over against another’s.

I have recently received reports from Jewish believers I know in Israel. The leader and founder of the Toronto Vineyard, who has been promoting this phenomenon, was invited by a group in Israel to come and promote this new phenomenon in Israel. He arrived on the same day as Yitzak Rabin was assassinated. Rather than doing the right thing and canceling the meetings, the promoters chose to continue as planned. That created a tragic contradictory scene. The whole country was literally in shock and in mourning for their slain leader. And here were a group of believers spending their time in uncontrollable laughter. Even if I allowed my experience to be a criteria for determining truth, this, alone, would have finalized in my mind the tragic error and ungodly origins of this phenomenon. It made some of my friends sick to have observed this. In my case, it made me sick only to hear about it. This should show how far away from the will of the Lord this whole experience is. But, again, the final criteria must be the Word of God.

The proper way of determining truth is to go to the Word of God first and not rely on other peoples' experiences. Furthermore, the Bible must be our final and only authority on all matters of both faith (what we believe) and practice (actions and experiences, etc.). Unfortunately, what has happened in recent years is that a new experience or phenomenon breaks out in some part of the church, and then people simply try to find verses to justify the activity rather than being willing to admit that the experience--no matter how wonderful or supernatural it felt--was simply not of God. A good example of this tactic is seen in some of the events surrounding the Toronto Phenomenon.

The Characteristics of the Toronto Phenomenon

Uncontrollable laughter

What are some of the characteristics of this Toronto Phenomenon? It includes uncontrollable laughter, referred to by its adherents as "holy laughter," which is often accompanied by falling backwards toward the ground. I have not seen where the laughter is, itself, defended by Scripture, but the falling back is often defended on the basis that when Jesus said, "I am," those who came to arrest him fell backward. They also make references to people like Daniel who, when faced with the presence of something supernatural, would fall to the ground. However, that is not quite in keeping with what is happening with the Toronto Phenomenon. For example, in terms of people who were truly in God's presence and were so overawed that they fell to the ground, they always fell forward and not backward. As for the Roman soldiers, that was not a blessing, but a judgment, and these were not believers, but unbelievers; barely a few hours later, these soldiers who fell backward were nailing Jesus to the cross. Clearly, they were not being blessed by any "slaying of the spirit" phenomenon.

Animal noises

Another characteristic of the Toronto Phenomenon is people making animal noises and acting like animals. The two most common such behaviors, so far, have been barking like a dog and roaring like a lion. In one case, it has been reported that someone was "swimming in the spirit" as he was lying on his belly and making like a fish. What scriptural justification do people make for this?

Some pull verses out of context that speak of God roaring like a lion. There are two problems with using verses of this nature: First of all, the Scriptures never say that God will make His own people roar like lions and act like animals; second, in those passages that view God as roaring like a lion, it is always in preparation for judgment, and not blessing. The roaring is against unbelievers. It is never said that He causes believers to roar like lions, or bark like dogs (I am beginning to wonder if someday in a mixed congregation of Jewish and Gentile believers, the Jews will be "mooing like cows" and the Gentiles will be "oinking like pigs"?). Another passage I have seen defenders use to try to justify the animal actions is Daniel four, where God made Nebuchadnezzar act like an ox. Here, again, this was not a blessing for Nebuchadnezzar, but a judgment on an unbeliever who saw himself as a god.

In other words, if you judge by way of Scripture, people acting like animals is not a sign of any divine blessing from God; on the contrary, if God is involved at all in such an event, it is a sign of judgment. The fact is that God is not involved at all. Satan is probably involved to a great measure (he, too, is symbolized by a lion in 1 Peter 5:8-9) and, for most people on the lay level who are involved, they have become self-deceived and deceived by false teachers and have become victims of mass hysteria and mesmerism.

Balaam’s donkey

The most relevant passage to all this is found in Numbers 22, where God made Balaam's donkey speak like a man. Now, this is a true work of God, something Toronto will never be able to duplicate.

That is pretty well the extent of the biblical evidence people have tried to use to defend the various practices, and anyone with even a small measure of biblical literacy should already be able to see through the fallacy of it all.

Proponents’ Comments

Most proponents defend the practice not on the basis of Scripture, but on the basis of their own experience. The most common evidence is that it makes them feel happy and joyful, though this does not take into account that any kind of emotional release of this nature will make one feel better. Even unbelievers can have this same experience. Furthermore, Satan would not be a very good deceiver if he made you feel bad, would he? Satan can give people joyful and happy experiences, and doing so would be in his best interest if that--rather than the Word of God--becomes the final authority for determining spiritual truth.

I read an article by a woman who had the experience of making animal sounds. She tried to defend the practice, and her conclusion was that God's intention is to strip His ministers and His people of "their dignity," just as Jesus was stripped of His dignity on the cross. It may be true that man stripped Jesus of His dignity on the cross, but that is hardly a base for deducing that God will strip His people of their dignity. On the contrary, God will certainly do what He must to strip people of their pride and humble them, but He will never strip them of their dignity in light of the fact that man still has the image of God in him. Another man wrote to me and said that what he sees is that God is now "taking back His church." How people making animal noises and uncontrolled laughter could possibly be construed as evidence that God "is taking back His church" is certainly a point beyond belief.

What should be noted, both in the woman's defense ("God is stripping His people of their dignity") and the man's ("God is taking back His church"), is that both are extremely subjective in their deductions. If you ask them a simple question: "On what basis do you say that this is what God is doing with all these animal sounds and actions?" they can only grow more subjective still. When I answered the man's letter, I pointed out to him that after defending all this with so many words, he never cited one Scripture to defend the practice. And that is the way it is with virtually all the defenders, who continually and dangerously prioritize experience over God's Word.

The Holy Scriptures:
The Only Authority to Validate Biblical and Spiritual Truth

Without going into any further detail about the phenomenon itself, we will apply the real biblical test to non-biblical experiences and those who make strange sounds.

Isaiah 8

Bind you up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples. . . . And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits and unto the wizards, that chirp and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? on behalf of the living should they seek unto the dead? To the law and to the testimony! If they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them (Isa. 8:16, 19-20).

In this section of Isaiah, one of the motifs 1 of Isaiah is the contrast between the Remnant (Jews who believe) and the non-remnant (Jews who do not believe). In verse 16, one crucial difference between the two groups is the place that the Scriptures have in their lives. The law is the Law of Moses, and the testimony is the words of the Prophets. What distinguishes the Remnant is that they believe that which Moses and the Prophets declared: this is the foundation of their faith and this is also their authority. The non-remnant rejects the Scriptures as the final authority and seeks to make God more "real in their experience" by going towards idolatry and looking at gods and goddesses that they could see, feel, and touch, creating a more visual picture while they worship.

In verse 19, Isaiah issues a warning that they are not to go after counterfeit spirits and teachers "that chirp and that mutter." In other words, Isaiah is warning people not to pursue supernatural things that cause them to make the strange sounds of chirping and muttering. Put into the context of the Toronto Phenomenon, the warning would be: Do not pursue after those who will get you to make strange sounds, whether it is uncontrollable laughter and giggles, barking like a dog, roaring like a lion, etc. Why? For while these experiences might come from the supernatural, not all that comes out of the supernatural is of God, as verse 19 clearly shows. Indeed, those who went after those "that chirp and that mutter" could well come out with great testimonies of experiencing the supernatural and feeling joyful and great. But Isaiah would not accept any of that as valid testimony.

The only valid testimony is what he declares in verse 20: "To the law and to the testimony!" In other words, back to the Law and the Prophets, back to the Scriptures, as the only final authority. And the closing phrase should not be missed: "if they speak not according to this word, surely there is no morning for them." Isaiah makes it quite clear: Regardless of the supernatural experiences others may have, if it does not align with the written Word of God that was already present in Isaiah's day, there is simply no morning light for them.

Isaiah 29

Tarry ye and wonder; take your pleasure and be blind: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink. For Jehovah has poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes, the prophets; and your heads, the seers, has he covered. And all vision is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray you; and he says, I cannot, for it is sealed: and the book is delivered to him that is not learned, saying, Read this, I pray you; and he says, I am not learned. And the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw nigh unto me, and with their mouth and with their lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which has been taught them; therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid (Isa. 29:9-14).

Isaiah introduces his comments by prophesying how people will become spiritually blind and, therefore, will stagger in spiritual blindness (29:9). They will certainly stagger as if they were drunken, but not with alcohol. People have become spiritually blind and are groping in their spiritual darkness, having no spiritual sight to see. Isaiah points out that this has all happened because of divine judgment and is not merely accidental or coincidental (29:10). What has happened is that because they refused to follow Isaiah's earlier admonition (Isa. 8:20), they have now been confirmed in their spiritual darkness and, therefore, have fallen into a spiritual sleep so that now they have no capacity to understand the Prophets. As a result, all of the prophecies of Isaiah and the Prophets that came before him have become to the populace as "a book that is sealed" (29:11). When it is presented to someone who is learned, although he has had the capacity and training to understand these things, because he chose to pursue that which "chirp" and "mutter," even for the learned one, the book has become like a sealed book that he can no longer understand.

Insofar as understanding spiritual truth, he has become like the one who is not trained or learned (29:12), and the trained and learned one has the same incapacity and inability to understand the Word of God as the one who is untrained and unlearned. However, it is then made clear that outwardly these people appear both religious and spiritual (29:13). They do continue drawing unto God with their mouths and they do honor God with their lips, but their hearts are far away from God. What makes their hearts far away from God is that whatever fear they have of the Lord is based upon man-made commandments and traditions, rather than that which God Himself had said and taught in the Scriptures.

Isaiah and Toronto

Applying this to the Toronto Phenomenon, one defense I have heard many times is, "How could this not be of God when they focus so much on Jesus?" But how does one know that they focus so much on Jesus? It is based on what they say verbally as you constantly hear them saying, "Praise the Lord," or "Praise Jesus," or some similar-sounding phrase. It is constantly repeated and what the Bible-based observer must realize is that this is merely a formula, much like those who recite a mantra in eastern religions. There is nothing concrete there. Just verbalizing the name of Jesus over and over again does not, by itself, prove anything. In fact, it fits this verse quite well: "and with their mouth and with their lips 2 do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me" (Isaiah 29:13b). Their heart is far from God in reality for the same reason: they have learned to fear God on the basis of man-made experiences, rather than on the basis of the Word of God (20:13c). They follow man-made doctrines and repeat constant phrases someone trained them to repeat, believing that this constant repetition is what makes them spiritual. As a result, more time is spent seeking further experiences than on actual study of the Word of God in its own context.

The result is even a further judgment where both wisdom and understanding begin to perish (29:14). More and more, as people seek deeper and deeper experiences, they spend less and less time actually in the discipline of studying the Word of God, and they reach a point where they begin to lack total understanding in the Word of God. While they constantly do "God-talk" and "Jesus-speak," when they begin to deal with the real concrete details of the Word of God, they are at a total loss. My observations with many personal contacts of people who get involved in these things is that the more experiential they become, the less they understand of the Word of God. I have seen verse 14 verified many times over.

--To be continued--

Arnold Fruchtenbaum received a B.A. degree from Cedarville College, a Th.M. from Dallas Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from New York University. He is the founder and co-director of Ariel Ministries, Tustin, CA, a ministry to Jewish people around the world. Arnold is also an adjunct professor at Chafer Theological Seminary. He holds Bible conferences in most English speaking countries around the globe. Dr. Fruchtenbaum’s bi-annual five week study of Israel is highly recommended and accepted for credit at CTS.

©1997 Chafer Theological Seminary, Anyone is free to reproduce this material and distribute it, but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's consent.


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