Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Part 2: Closer Look at the UCC's God Is Still Speaking Ads

The United Church of Christ is putting itself on television again and thereby launching a new phase of its "God Is Still Speaking" (GISS) advertising campaign. What is the theology behind the campaign and its three commercials, "Steeple," "Bouncer," and "Ejector"? That's the subject of this 5-part series. These observations are taken from a paper I presented at the 2006 National Gathering of Faithful & Welcoming Churches and again at a 2007 regional meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society.

The slogan, "God is still speaking," explains why the UCC gives great significance to today's revelation from God But emphasizing "today's" revelation over the "old" revelation of Scripture is a dangerous hermeneutic.

In a study resource for the "Ejector" ad, Stillspeaking campaign director Ron Buford connects the past and present theology of the UCC—invoking our ancestors' example to take on the responsibility of listening to the new things of God:
We introduced the phrase, "God is still speaking," as a 21st century shorthand for [Pilgrim pastor] John Robinson's famous words…["God has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word"]... [It] reminds us to take the Bible seriously, even though we may not take it literally.

Today, Robinson's words call us to question, explore, and make faith our own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God… Medical advances continually change our expectations… We expect them… Why don't we take the same open and inquiring approach to God?…

Like the calls to freedom heard by our Pilgrim, African, and other European forbearers, a mysterious God still calls to open and listening souls whispering, "Explore." And yes, new worlds will always appear, not only in science and technology, but [also] in justice, and peace, and relationships with God and all creation.

Our prayer for you… is that more light and truth will break forth for you and me from God's Holy Word in the world around us. May the illumination of the Holy Spirit advance our understanding of both the profane and the holy.
In a sermon once posted on the website, Rev. Dr. Arlene K. Nehring claims this about the famous statement of Pastor Robinson:
In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation could not be confined to scripture, to a creed, or to a catechism, neither could it be attributed exclusively to a pope, a particular religious body, or to a unique event or period in history. The word of God, Robinson argued, was more expansive than all of these.
Appealing to history can serve our agenda's today, but can also rebuke them. The 17th century Rev. Robinson may have believed that God’s future revelation "could not be confined to scripture," but he certainly believed it should not contradict prior, existing revelation already contained in Scripture.

What is often neglected is this—after his famous quote, Robinson went on to warn his soon departing Pilgrim flock to thoroughly examine any new truth—doing so on the basis of Scripture—before receiving it. According to the 1620 witness and recorder of the farewell sermon, Robinson said:
…We promise and covenant with God and one another, to receive whatsoever light or truth shall be made known to us from his written word; but [Robinson] withal exhorted us to take heed what we received for truth, and well to examine and compare it and weigh it with other Scriptures of truth before we receive it (emphasis mine).
In listening for the still-speaking God, Robinson advises that we also listen to what God has already said. If what God is supposedly saying today contradicts what God has already said, it should be rejected. If what God is saying today conforms to what God said in the past, we are obligated to adopt it.

But in no way does Robinson’s famous quote minimize the priority of Scripture, nor does it suggest that any future word of God will surpass or correct Scripture.

We appeal for a more balance approach in listening for God, one more in line with John Wesley’s quadrilateral of religious authority—Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. We have differing opinions on the exact way that God speaks today. But Scripture is not merely one of many ways that God speaks. Rather, it is the standard by which any “Word of God” today must be weighed.

Rev. Robert Thompson, President of UCC renewal movement Faithful and Welcoming Churches (FWC), succinctly makes the point:
We in FWC find ourselves uncomfortable with the UCC's "Still Speaking" campaign—not because we believe God is not still speaking, any more than we believe others in the UCC do not believe God has spoken. We do, however, unashamedly prioritize "has spoken" over "still speaking" because it is far too easy for individuals, institutions, and generations to equate their contemporary innovations with God's voice. Our opinions—most particularly the newest ones—must pass the test of consistency with the canon of holy Scripture.

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