Identity & Communication Event held on 3-20-2004

"Tell 'em Who You Are!"


A Comma and A Period: Searching for the Theological Underpinning for a Slogan

by The Rev. Joseph David Stinson

A Comma and A Period: Searching for the Theological Underpinning for a Slogan


I have no doubt that God still speaks today, but how?  I suspect I've been invited to speak today because I will express a contrarian’s view, but in any case, here's my take on the United Church of Christ's God is Still Speaking campaign from a theological perspective. I want to raise an objection or two or at least ask for some conversation about whether we're going down a very slippery slope here. 


As to the slogans themselves, I remember when I first saw the materials.  I tried to imagine a Catholic from Bloomfield seeing this in the local paper or receiving it in the mail. What would he or she think?  What does Gracie Allen have to do with church?  If you spend a half an hour with it you might get an inkling about what the campaign is trying to communicate, but it is so indirect that most people will not understand it. A person who takes a casual look at the materials may not even realize they are from a church.


After I began to think about the slogans, I made the assumption that its origins were in Pastor John Robinson's famous sermon to the departing Pilgrims.  'For I am very confident - the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy Word."  It is widely known by ministers in our denomination and often quoted.  It is also widely misunderstood, but I thought at first it was ‘behind' the slogan God is Still Speaking. Now I'm not so sure.  And this is what gives me pause and makes me urge all of us to think carefully about this campaign and what it might signal. 


A friend, an ordained UCC (retired) minister in Vermont wrote me:


When you have the time, I'd like your thoughts on the UCC's "God is Still Speaking" identity campaign. Apart from the fact that it seems to be borrowed from Henry Blackaby's "Experiencing God," it has inherent theological problems. The Reformers considered Scripture Alone totally sufficient. Is this new slogan an amendment, in light of our great 21st century theological insights? I must have missed something. Once you open the door to people who have heard God speaking directly in their hearts and consciences, or by other Special Revelation, you get Mormons and other such charismatics.  This sort of mystic Gnosticism is so risky, it should be left outside the door of the church - yet here we have the church officially promoting its use.


Maybe the UCC should aim for a constituency with an intelligence that could grasp Pastor Robinson's farewell to the Pilgrims in July of 1620? "And if God should reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His—by "instrument," I presume he meant himself—to be as ready to receive it as ever you were to receive any truth by my ministry.  For I am very confident - the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from his holy Word."   Which isn't the same as "God is Still Speaking."[1]


These comments about Parson Robinson are, of course, precisely to the point.  Many in our church quote "more light and truth" to mean pretty much anything they want. I know that is a misunderstanding of Robinson.  You cannot assume that everything a charismatic preacher claims is from God is from God.  You cannot assume everything the Democratic (or for that matter, Republican) national committee advocates harmonizes with Christian mission.  But many in our church do.  That is a problem.


The book which my friend alluded to is very interesting given its use of the slogans used in the UCC campaign.  As of 1998 the book had sold close to 2 million copies.  The language in it, about God’s still speaking, is so strikingly similar to the UCC campaign that any source critic would have to conclude there is some connection between our slogans and the theology of the book.  Now the first thing you’ll note as I tell you some of the conclusions the book makes is that this is not what the UCC means. But when you open the door to what used to be called ‘continuing revelation’ without careful safeguards, all kinds of things result.  The book is entitled, Experiencing God: How to Love the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God, by Henry T. Blackaby and Claude V. King.[2] Let me share with you some thoughts about the book in a 1998 review by the Rev. Thomas Williamson.[3]


The book is premised on the idea that God is still speaking today in the same way God spoke in biblical times to Noah, Abraham, and Moses. Blackaby states that God still reveals specific instructions just as when telling Noah how to build the Ark and when giving Moses the blueprints for the tabernacle.  With so many copies in print, as well as a Spanish edition and an Experiencing God Study Bible available, the influence and impact of this teaching should not be casually dismissed.

The theme of God’s still speaking is developed at great length with emphasis.

In the Old Testament God spoke at many times and in a variety of ways. Through Jesus, God Himself spoke to His people …. Now God speaks through the Holy Spirit. …Does God really speak to His people in our day? Will He reveal to you where He is working when He wants to use you? Yes! God has not changed. He still speaks to His people. If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience.[4]

When God spoke to Moses and others in the Old Testament, those events were encounters with God. An encounter with Jesus was an encounter with God for the disciples.  In the same way an encounter with the Holy Spirit is an encounter with God for you.[5]

Note how Blackaby clearly states that God gives revelation to us in precisely same way the Lord did to Moses and Jesus, only now through the Holy Spirit versus direct communication with God. Blackaby appears to teach that God's revelation continues today just as when the Old and New Testaments were written.

Williamson says, “One looks in vain for a disclaimer in which Blackaby explains that God is no longer speaking today in the same manner as He did when He inspired the Bible…. This certainly appears to place extra-Biblical revelation on the same level as the Bible itself.”

For those having trouble hearing God's voice and knowing what God wants them to do, Blackaby teaches that revelation comes from the church. He goes so far as to imply that we should not say no to the church. Speaking of his own ministry, Blackaby says:

The people of God at this church had a need for a leader. As they prayed, they sensed that God put me there purposely to meet that need. I, too, saw the need and realized God could use me there. As a servant of Jesus Christ, I did not have an option to say no.[6]

Note the important word, "sensed," a word Blackaby uses frequently. It is not always clear how one knows or senses which commands come from God and which from ego—a very old problem for prophets.  Williamson writes, “With all these new revelations from God coming through, with God still speaking to us today as He did to Moses and the other prophets of old, the question may arise as to just who decides what is a true word from God and what is not. The careful reader will finally find that the pastor becomes the spiritual guru.”

When God wants to reveal His will to a church, He will begin by speaking to one or more individuals. Because of the nature of his call and assignment from God, this is often the pastor, although it may be another member of the body. The pastor's job is to bear witness to the church about what he senses God is saying.[7] 

In other words, the clergy decide when God is really speaking and when God is not. Blackaby’s thinking leads to authoritative and manipulative methods of control over followers.

Williamson notes, “The objective basis of our faith, God's complete and all-sufficient revelation in the Bible, has been replaced by the quicksand of uncertainty as we seek to hear God speaking through the Bible, prayer, circumstances and the church.” Blackaby tells us,

If you know that God loves you, you should never question a directive from Him. It will always be right and best. When He gives you a directive, you are not just to observe it, discuss it, or debate it. You are to obey it.[8]

Again, Williamson: “A statement such as this, in the context of the teaching that God is speaking to us through the church and that we do not have the option to say no, sets people up to be manipulated and totally controlled by the church leadership. This may not be Blackaby's intent, but the potential is certainly there for someone to use his teaching in that manner, to get control over his followers.”

            I’m certain that when the elders of our denomination approved the slogan and the Comma and Period Campaign, there was no thought of Henry Blackaby.  I’m sure he and they come to far different theological conclusions. But when you talk about God speaking outside of the norms of Scripture, well, all kinds of conclusions can be supported.  Are we not concerned about this? 

Those of you who remember your Puritan history will remember the strange case of Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomian Crisis in Boston in the 1630s. Her case was about exactly the same issue. Yes, I know we’ve revised the history of that case and apologized for all those things the old Puritan men said to poor Mrs. Hutchinson, but the theological issue was and still is significant.  Her minister John Cotton stood by her until she got to this part about a claim that God spoke directly to her.  She did not claim God spoke to her through the revelation of Scripture, but that God spoke directly to her.[9] Shortly thereafter the Bay Colony dispatched her to Rhode Island.  Eventually she came to New Rochelle, New York and had a parkway named after her.  It is not an insignificant issue, how God speaks to us.  Most of us grew up knowing that God spoke to the church through the voice and text of Scripture.  Yes, Scripture requires interpretation, but we start with the text.  We do not start with ourselves and subjective experiences.  Do you know this is one of the distinctive doctrines of the Mormons, that God is still speaking beyond the witness of Scripture?  God spoke through the prophet Joseph Smith, in the Book of Mormon and still speaks through their council of Apostles.  Most of us are probably uncomfortable with that idea of continuing revelation because we don’t agree with their conclusions. But by what authority will we premise our conclusions?  Eventually, if God is talking to every Tom, Dick and Jane, we have no normative guide to say this is really God speaking or not. Have we come to that? 

My friend the retired minister, asked me, “Isn't this campaign one of the results of singing "In the Garden" too often as a youth?  ‘And he walks with me and he talks with me/ And he tells me I am his own/ And the joy we share as we tarry there/None other has ever known.’ Dubious.  This hymn is not included in the New Century Hymnal. Maybe it is omitted because of the theology, which would make the identity campaign ironic."


God's Word speaks to us, but does God speak to us today apart from the Biblical Word?  We may say that we think God is telling us something, but usually we do not mean that God speaks to us using objective words in an understandable voice.  “So, what does it mean to say "God is still speaking"?  Is it to speak metaphorically (general revelation)?  Or does it to refer to a literal new Word (special revelation)? Jude 3 and Revelation 22:18-19 caution us that the canon is closed and we cannot add to it—although many cult leaders have tried, Joseph Smith and, lately, Henry Blackaby. Is this a way of referring to a direct encounter, a theophony or christophony? Or unmediated mystical experience? All of that should make us very cautious.”[10]


Subjective or general revelation refers only to what we may be able to learn about God outside of Scripture.  Scripture teaches that in our fallen state it is entirely possible for us to distort and corrupt general revelation.[11] Remember Jeremiah’s caveat, “The heart is deceitful about all things.”[12]  We must verify the accuracy of our subjective revelation by comparison with Scriptural revelation. I fear a goodly number of our churches and clergy have forgotten this central point of biblical theology recovered by the Reformers. "Scripture alone" was the Reformation's battle cry. One suspects in the sloganeering of the UCC a lack of familiarity with Reformation doctrine, and especially a lack of confidence in Scripture, which gives us everything we need for life and godliness and equips us for every good work.[13] 


I want to point out that if we start doing our theology this way, what will stop us from becoming—heaven help us!—right wing bigots?  It has never occurred to most of the liberals that when you start using experience and feeling as your authorities, you have nothing authoritative from which to argue. My feelings are just as normative as yours, even if we come to completely different conclusions. 


My suspicion is that many want to imagine God is still speaking beyond the actual words of Scripture.  This would allow us to promote all kinds of social issues without having to find scriptural warrant.  The sub-slogan of this God Is Still Speaking campaign is a quip from that famous theologian Gracie Allen.   She said, “Never place a period where God placed a comma."  You can see how low we have stooped.  While she may not have been the airhead she played, nonetheless that was her persona on stage.  I know she was married to a man who played God, but….  Here, the denomination that produced Edwards and the Niebuhrs, appeals a ditzy actress for our motto? 


Let me close with that famous quotation from H. Richard Niebuhr, his critique of liberalism that in his day was playing fast and loose with Scripture.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”[14]  The farther away from Scripture you go to hear God speaking, the stranger and more unrecognizable will be the God who speaks.  We need to think very clearly about the consequences before we go any farther down this path. 


—The Rev. Joseph David Stinson

20 March 2003

[1] In an e-mail to the author from the Rev. David Brown. I am indebted to him for helping me think through this paper.

[2] Blackaby and King, Experiencing God: How to Love the Full Adventure of Knowing and Doing the Will of God.  (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1994).

[3] Thomas Williamson.  I found his reviews on the web: Blackaby.htm.  And:

[4]Blackaby, op cit., p. 36.

[5] Ibid., p. 77.

[6] Ibid., p. 106.

[7] Ibid., p. 166.

[8] Ibid., p. 148.

[9] Note Perry Miller.  The American Puritans: Their Prose and Poetry,  (Garden City: Doubleday, 1956), pp. 48-50.  Miller, commenting on Winthrop’s Journal and the Antinomian Crisis occasioned by Hutchinson wrote, “Direct revelation had come to an end with the completion of the Bible, and though God continues to indicate His wishes through the providential management of the world, no mortal can pretend that he or she receives commands in so many words.”

[10] David Brown.

[11] John 3:19-20, for example.

[12] Jeremiah 17:9 and Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts…”

[13] Another note from my retired friend:  “The UCC hears God speaking, I believe, in terms of the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy (tend the sick, feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, harbor the stranger, minister to prisoners, and bury the dead) and does not hear God speaking in terms of the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy (convert the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel those in doubt, comfort those in sorrow, bear wrongs patiently, forgive injuries, pray for the living and the dead. Strange, isn't it, that the denomination's whiz kids seem to hear God speaking only in one way, and not in both ways.” 

[14] Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America  (New York: Harper and Row, 1937), p. 193.