Holy Laughter and the Toronto Blessing, An Investigative Report

By James A. Beverley
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1995). 185 Pages.

Reviewed by Ted Bigelow
7.1 (Spring 1996) : 114-116

James A. Beverly, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Ontario Theological Seminary, published an article entitled "Toronto's Mixed Blessing" (Christianity Today [September 11, 1995]), but this book is broader, including detail of the "Toronto blessing's" connection with the Association of Vineyard Churches and the Word-Faith movement. The volume's purpose is to provide "guidance through the maze of issues that emerge . . . [from] Holy Laughter and The Toronto Blessing" (8). The author is clearly a "middle of the road" advocate of the phenomenon. He neither condones nor castigates all the movement's experiences or leaders, but does point out some of its inconsistencies. On the whole, however, his "middle of the road" approach impedes his attempt to provide guidance.

In his early chapters he accepts charismatic interpretations of events, based apparently on a predilection for experiences rather than biblical interpretations of those experiences. For example, a Vineyard pastor received "a powerful renewal, including the manifestation of Holy Laughter" (14) through the laying on of Rodney Howard-Browne's hands, and John Arnott (pastor of the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church) "had been anointed by the Pentecostal Claudio Freidzon" (14). He accepts these claims at face value apart from any consideration of biblical interpretation. His endorsement of other undefined phrases such as "Christians who needed a touch from God" (14), "renewing touch of the Holy Spirit" (15), and "slain in the Spirit" (19, 21) shows an uncritical defining of spiritual experience based on evangelical buzz words, not Scripture. As he passed a "woman waving her arms wildly" (18), Beverley credits the Holy Spirit—whom he also views as the source of the woman's frenzied behavior—with providing him safety. Yet he later criticizes foolish behaviors such as a woman "pawing the ground like an angry bull" (99).

Ultimately, the book's weakness is hermeneutical. After describing the woman who acted like a bull, Beverly writes, "What course in hermeneutics will explain this behavior? . . . It is hard enough for Christians to agree on the meaning of Scripture. Must we now spend valuable time sorting through the wilder manifestations?" (99). These words represent the broad approach of the book. Rather than comparing the religious phenomena of Holy Laughter and animalistic behaviors with Scripture, he devotes most space to the experiences themselves. Though instructing readers to have a "proper understanding of the basics . . . of the Christian faith" (30), he implies that people of a cessationist persuasion "have a lack of openness" (31) to these phenomena. He dismisses or at best minimizes the role of hermeneutics, which role is determinative in learning what scriptural authority dictates about life, including the Holy Laughter movement.

 This reviewer noticed no instance in which the author answered the natural question, "Does the Bible condone Holy Laughter, barking, or animal imitations?" Nor does he respond to the fallacy of Rodney Howard-Browne and others when comparing these actions to the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2 and 10. Instead, he proposes ten vague and arbitrary "Tests for Truth" (25 ff.), tests that are of little value in comparison to God's guidance through exegesis of relevant Scripture.

 Early in the book, Beverley commends leaders in the Holy Laughter movement for holding to "high Christology" (29) based on his "Christological Test" (26). Yet on the book's last page he notes only 143 references to Jesus in about 90 sermons at the Toronto Airport Vineyard, calling this "a lost opportunity in preaching to give a clear focus on the Son of God" (160).

 In responding to John MacArthur's Reckless Faith and its discussion of Holy Laughter, Beverley does not put MacArthur's words in proper context and does not substantiate his rebuttals. For example, he says, "These experiences [Holy Laughter, barking like dogs, etc.] are rooted in Christian worship and obedience to biblical faith" (86). But he does not tell where or how they are rooted.

The author has an extensive bibliography of works both for and against the movement, a bibliography that is well worth the price of the book about this recent development in the charismatic world. Subsequent to the book's publication, the Association of Vineyard Churches has disfellowshiped the Toronto Airport Vineyard Church because of the Holy Laughter activities in the Canadian church.