(August 1998 – Volume 4, Issue 7)
In a previous Think on These Things (Vol. 3, Issue 8, 9), we warned of certain errant views and teachings of Henry Blackaby and his book Experiencing God. We were recently surprised when David Hunt dismissed these concerns and threw his weight behind Blackaby. This greatly concerns us since on most issues we stand hand-in-hand with Hunt. More importantly, to many people Hunt’s word is law. Therefore, it is highly conceivable that many of Hunt’s 30,000 readers will uncritically read Experiencing God material and/or attend a seminar on the subject, whereby finding themselves taken in with Blackaby’s brand of mysticism and subjectivity. With all of this in mind, we have decided to write a response to Hunt. The following quote is the complete statement as found in The Berean Call, May 1998. Immediately following will be our response to what Hunt has written.
The Berean Call, May 1998
Question [composite of many letters]: We are very concerned about a course being taught in our church called Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God. The manual is by Henry Blackaby and Claude King and it seems to be promoting what TBC has referred to as “experience-driven spirituality” (5/95). Some might even call it occultism. What is your opinion of the manual?
Answer [as given by David Hunt]: We have recently reviewed Experiencing God. With more than 2 million copies sold, it has become very popular among Christians. After an initial cursory look, there did seem to be a number of potential problems with some of the statements made by the authors. For example, they write, “I come to know God by experience as I obey Him and He accomplishes His work through me” (p.19); “If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience” (p.36); “Prayer is two-way fellowship and communication with God. You speak to God and He speaks to you” (p. 87); “With God working through that servant, he or she can do anything God can do. Wow! Unlimited potential!” (p. 17).
Given what is clearly a ravenous appetite for mysticism today, in the world as well as within professing Christianity, those deeply concerned with the biblical health of fellow believers see such statements as highly toxic. Indeed, they are alarming at first glance. However, following a careful reading of the manual, these statements are not as some perceive them to be.
The heart of the manual seems to be a reminder to believers that at the time they received the gospel of salvation, they began “a personal encounter with the living Christ” (p. 212). That reality involves a developing personal relationship with God which will continue for all eternity. Since this is the thrust of the writing, the authors address the elements incorporated in a personal relationship: fellowship, intimacy, communication, love, obedience, service, knowledge, experience, etc. Experiencing God seeks to encourage these elements in every believer’s walk with the Lord, and for that we find the book valuable.
The major problem with the manual, it seems, is not its premise, but the confusion created by its more prominent terms and statements. Not enough care is taken in the wording, especially in view of today’s deceptive spiritual climate. When the authors use the term “experience,” such as in “knowing God by experience,” they mean, first and foremost, through God’s Word: “Interpret experience by Scripture. Look to see what God says and how He works in the Scriptures. Make your decisions and evaluate your experiences based upon biblical principles. Our experiences cannot be our guide.
Every experience must be controlled and understood by the Scriptures” (p. 13). . . . “The Bible is my guide for faith and practice” (p. 14). In other places in the manual, the term “experience” refers to what we have learned about God’s character throughout our walk with Him, i.e., God working personally and practically in our lives and proving Himself as revealed in His Word.
“Hearing from God,” as the authors address that subject, is far removed from the approach taken by today’s contemplative mystics and Christianized mediums. Blackaby and King state emphatically, “God speaks by the Holy Spirit through the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church to reveal Himself, His purposes, and His ways” (p. 37). Formulas, seeking signs and wonders, random Bible-verse picking, (fleece) methods, and claiming to have a word from God are all presented with caveats. In the manual, “two-way communication with God,” perhaps one of the most occult sounding phrases, is not the continual dialogue with God as promoted and taught by the various “Schools of the Prophets” cropping up all over the country. Again, the authors, seemingly oblivious to today’s subjective experiential bent in society and the church, have grounded this experience upon God speaking objectively through the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit’s ministry, one’s response in obedience, and God working in and through one’s life (p. 84). There are other seemingly problematic statements in the manual but all are clarified (to some degree) by biblical support. Thus, the authors cannot legitimately be accused of promoting mysticism.
In their encouragements related to one’s communion with God, Blackaby and King underscore the necessity of a growing, intimate love relationship with Jesus Christ as critical in recognizing His voice (according to John 10:4). While such an exhortation is beneficial to every believer, at times the authors give the impression that hearing from God, as Moses (and other prophets) did, could be the rule rather that the exception. Not only does that go beyond the promise of the Word; even the most compelling examples form the authors’ own lives fall far short of the experiences of Moses, “whom the Lord knew face to face” (Dt. 34:10).
Finally, it’s been reported that some Catholic meditative organizations are using the manual for contemplative, experiencing-God weekends. One reason for this is the almost incidental gospel introduced at the beginning of the manual (p. 8). The authors, writing primarily for believers, added an apparently hasty and even vague presentation of the gospel of salvation. This plays into the hands of mystically oriented groups who deny that salvation comes only by grace through faith alone in who Christ is and His finished sacrifice on the cross.
While we regard it crucial that more cautions should have been given, we commend the authors for challenging us to love God with our hearts and expecting God’s hand to be evident in blessing our lives and service.
A Response to David Hunt’s Support of Experiencing God
I would like to begin this essay by acknowledging that the Christian world owes many thanks to David Hunt. He is a man who has fearlessly, articulately and convincingly contended for the fundamentals of the faith. Certainly he has strengthened the heart of many a weary believer who has grown tired of the battle for truth. What an encouragement to find men like Hunt who will not back down, even when their views are scorned and mocked, and who spur us on to do the same.
Of course Hunt is not perfect, as he would be the first to admit. He calls himself a Berean, one who searches the Scriptures, not men’s opinions, for truth. He invites other Bereans to challenge him on his views. This, we believe, we must do in light of Hunt’s recent support (The Berean Call, May 1998) of Henry Blackaby and his book, manual and seminars on “Experiencing God.”
Hunt, in essence, has made the claim that the critics of Blackaby have simply misunderstood him. That while Blackaby may have been careless and sloppy in many of his statements, he nevertheless is biblical in his teachings. We beg to differ! Even as we are willing to give Blackaby the benefit of the doubt in some statements, we nevertheless believe that he is in error on several weighty issues. We will deal with two such issues below (for a more complete study see Think on These Things, Vol. 3, Issues 8 & 9).
The Issue of Experience and Scripture
We agree with Hunt and Blackaby that at the moment of conversion we begin “a personal encounter with the living Christ.” That Blackaby encourages an intimate relationship with Christ is not the problem; the problem is the methodology that he promotes. Hunt recognizes that Blackaby is on thin ice here but says, “The major problem with the manual, it seems, is not its premise, but the confusion created by its more prominent terms and statements. Not enough care is taken in the wording, especially in view of today’s deceptive spiritual climate” (emphasis mine). According to Hunt, Blackaby has a semantics problem, not a doctrinal one. And so, when Blackaby uses the word “experience” (in the context of “knowing God by experience”) he does not mean mystical, unbiblical or extrabiblical experiences, he means, we are assured by Hunt, experiences that are “first and foremost, through God’s Word.” Hunt then supplies supporting quotes from the Experiencing God manual.
But is this the case? Is Blackaby routing us back to the Word, grounding our experiences in Scriptures? Sometimes! But far too often he is taking his reader in another direction — that of the sovereignty of subjective experiences (what at least some of us would term mysticism). We rest our case on two pieces of evidence:
In the book, which I assume contains a more in-depth understanding of Blackaby’s views than the manual, from which Hunt takes his quotes, Blackaby says (all emphases mine): “Knowing God only comes through experience as he reveals Himself to me through my experiences with Him” (p. 5). “If you have trouble hearing God speak, you are in trouble at the very heart of your Christian experience” (p. 87). Apparently Hunt assumes that this means hearing God through Scripture, a faulty assumption, as the next quote proves: “When God gets ready to do something, He reveals to a person or His people what He is going to do” (p. 31). Just how could God reveal to a person (in Scripture) a specific task that He is going to perform today? Blackaby’s book and manual are absolutely riddled with such quotes — and this holds the key to its popularity. If Experiencing God was a book about how to know God through the study, meditation, and memorization of the Bible it would probably not be a best seller, there are plenty of such books. This is a book on how to “feel God” and how to feel His leading. You can feel God, according to Blackaby, when “He speaks to you in the Bible, prayer, circumstances, and the church” (fourth of Seven Realities upon which the book is based). We might be wise to ask at this point, “What does God feel like?” How do we know that a subjective experience is the presence of God, or some other of many possibilities? We don’t know, and with good reason; the Bible never tells us what an experience with God feels like.
I have found in my twenty-five years of preaching and teaching that many will loudly agree with general statements, but quickly backpedal when specifics or names are attached. Along with Hunt, I can say amen to many of Blackaby’s statements referring to God speaking to us through His Word. But is that what Blackaby is really teaching, as Hunt thinks? General statements can be taken either way, but Blackaby’s examples reveal his true meaning. Here are two of many:
- A story is told of a lady who awakened one night with Luke 4:24 running through her mind (pp. 105-106). She got up to read the passage, and “that morning the Lord spoke to Gail through the Bible. She realized that even Jesus had to leave His hometown in order to ‘preach the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other towns’” (v.24). She believed that the Holy Spirit was telling her to go with her husband to a different part of the country and begin a new ministry. On the basis of this mystical experience by the Word of God, she “obeys.” If this is “interpreting experience by the Word of God” as Hunt believes, he takes a different approach to the Word than I can live with. This is pure subjectivity that needs to be identified as such. Nowhere in Scripture are we taught to rip a verse out of context, apply it to our personal life, then declare that God has spoken to us. If nothing else this is poor hermeneutics.
- In many ways the most concerning, and potentially damaging thing that Blackaby does is misuse the Bible. Far too often he fails to examine carefully the grammatical, contextual meaning of the Scriptures he employs. The result is ignoring the meaning of a passage and twisting the Word to mean what he wants it to say. A case in point is Romans 8:26, 27 which is interpreted in a novel way to teach us that the Holy Spirit, “helps us know the will of God as we pray. . . The Holy Spirit’s task is to get you to ask for it” (pp. 110-111). Of course this passage teaches no such thing; rather it speaks of the Holy Spirit praying for us according to the will of God. That this is not just a sloppy use of Scripture is evident when a story is given in the manual (p.89) detailing how Blackaby hid a bike in the garage for his son’s birthday present, and then convinced his boy that what he wanted was a bike. In Blackaby’s application, God has in “His garage” things He wants to give us. When the holy Spirit convinces us that we want these things, and ask for them, God gives them. The Holy Spirit is said to do all of this through subjective impressions and feelings, not through proper study and application of Scripture. This is a serious error that will teach the followers of Experiencing God to spiritualize and misapply the very Word of God.
Story after story is used in Blackaby’s works, showing what he truly means by “experiencing God.” It is not a matter of unfortunate “terms and statements” (as Hunt seems to believe), it is a matter of the integrity of the Word of God.
The Issue of God Speaking Today
Hunt proclaims, “Hearing from God,” as the authors (Blackaby and Claude King) address that subject, is far removed from the approach taken by today’s contemplative mystics and Christianized mediums.” Yes, it is. We are not accusing Blackaby of being in a class with David Seamands, Karen Mains, or Richard Foster, but that does not mean that he is correct in his teaching concerning God speaking today. At issue is not whether the Bible is the Word of God — Blackaby, Hunt, Seamands, Mains, Foster, myself, and most of my readers would wholeheartedly agree with that. At issue is the subject of revelation. More to the point, is God speaking today, directly, infallibly, and independently of the Scriptures? Does He reveal Himself, His will, His truth, apart from the Bible? Without question Blackaby believes He does. Without question Hunt believes He does. Without question, under the sway of Charismatic influence, most Christians today believe He does. Without question I do not believe that Scripture supports such a thesis.
Concerning Blackaby, note the following quotes revealing his view of revelation, i.e. that God directly tells us (or at least confirms) what to do apart from Scripture: “When I present what I see as a biblical principle, you can depend on the Holy Spirit to confirm whether that teaching comes form God or not (p. 3). “Two years before, God had spoken to me through His Word that a time would come when I would need to leave my job” (Claude King, p. XII). King speaks, not of a carefully analyzed passage of Scripture from which he derived principles, but from a subjective experience he had while misusing Scripture. “When God reveals His work to you, that is His timing for you to begin to respond to Him” (p. 35). “When God reveals to you what He is doing, that is when you need to respond. He speaks when He is about to accomplish His purposes” (p. 81). “God reveals His purposes so you will know what He plans to do. If you are to join Him, you need to know what God is about to do. . . God speaks with a purpose in mind” (p. 99). “When God starts to do something in the world, He takes the initiative to come and talk to somebody” (p. 66). “When God speaks to you, you will be able to know He is the one speaking, and you will know clearly what He is saying to you” (p. 87). On and on we could go. It is obvious that Blackaby is not referring to Scripture alone when he writes of God speaking to us. God speaks to us in many ways and forms, apart from Scripture, we are told, but we are not told how we know it is God speaking and not Satan or our own emotions. Blackaby does not answer this, for indeed he cannot. Scripture gives no criteria by which to resolve that issue.
As for Hunt, it seems to be a little known fact that he is not a cessationist — at least in practice, (one who believes not only that the canon of Scripture is closed, and that tongues are not for this dispensation, but also that new revelation from God is no longer being given). His roots are in Pentecostalism, from which he has never totally broken. His closest ties are with Chuck Smith and the Calvary Chapels, a moderately charismatic denomination. He still believes in tongues, and apparently retains the Pentecostal/charismatic view of revelation (although he would deny the latter charge vehemently). So my initial shock at Hunt’s position on Experiencing God was an overreaction. Hunt is supportive of Blackaby because their view of revelation is the same. Hunt is a moderate charismatic, Blackaby a mystical Baptist (some call it Bapticostal).
The point is that both men hold an open view of revelation — God is still speaking today — not contrary to, but definitely apart from, the Scriptures. Such a position will lead to errors of doctrine and practice, but most importantly, it is unbiblical.
The Scriptures claim to be the Word of God (II Timothy 3:16,17; II Peter 1:20,21). They are inspired, once for all, by the Holy Spirit enabling prophets and apostles, while using their own personalities, to write God’s words as He intended (Hebrews 1:1,2; 2:3,4; Acts 5:12; II Corinthians 12:12). With the closure of Scripture, direct, infallible, authoritative revelation from God has ceased for this age (Revelation 22:18,19; Ephesians 2:20; 3:5; Jude 3,4; II Peter 3:2). It is instructive to note that at the time Paul wrote his pastor friend Timothy about how to lead the church of God, he did not encourage Timothy to focus on new revelations, impressions, feelings or hunches. Rather, he continually turned him to the Word of God and the doctrines contained within (II Timothy 2:2 – 14,15; 3:15-17; 4:2-4). May we do the same.