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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

While I work on some baseline projects for Tekton, I'm going to repost a 2010 series that I originally posted on the Ticker blog back in 2010.  Looking at it again...it has only become more relevant today.

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I have a series of commentaries to offer on the process of modern evangelism and its relation (or rather, in practice, lack thereof) to apologetics. We’ll begin with a thesis that I want to not only rock the boat with, but perhaps sink it as well:

Personal testimony is a damaging, destructive, and undesirable form of evangelism that ought to be abandoned.

This is a hard thesis to swallow, I know. Every evangelistic program makes personal testimony the centerpiece of evangelism. “Jesus can change your life, like he did mine” is the theme of every evangelist from Billy Graham on down the line. But let’s face it, for all the respect Graham and others may have accrued, it is clear that their practices have in the long run produced a raft of shallow converts (who sometimes “walk the aisle” and “make a decision” multiple times in their lives) and a church that is slowly dying in the West, and may well disappear in the next 30 years. As the saying goes, it is not so much foolish to do something that does not work, but to do it again and again expecting different and better results.

Here I’d like to start by explaining why personal testimony has been, and always will be, such a regrettable and ultimately useless (in the long run) evangelistic practice. I’ll present five reasons why personal testimony needs to be abandoned as a practice in evangelism. Then I’ll move to describing what I think needs to be put in its place.

Background to start: Some years back I wrote an article for the Christian Research Journal titled “When Apologetics Was Evangelism” which you can read at http://www.equip.org/PDF/DA820.pdf . I’ll be referring to it frequently in these next few essays; in part what I say here is an update to, and continuation of, what I wrote there, after some years of reflection. I’ll still allow that personal testimony can have a certain limited use -- inasmuch as it is a form of evidence, albeit of the weakest, most questionable sort – but I’ll further develop in later essays some points about how I think evangelism should be conducted (obviously – no secret here – with a far more apologetic slant). For today, though, here is one of five reasons why personal testimony should be generally banished from our evangelistic arsenal.

Reason One: It has enabled the illogical, absurd argument that Christianity’s truth claims can be gauged by the behavior of confessed Christians.

We’ve seen it time and time again from all the doubting sources - one of the most recent ones is William Lobdell, author of Losing My Religion.

Here’s how it goes, simply put: Benny Hinn or Jim Bakker or my Christian Aunt Fannie did this or that or other nasty thing, and how can we believe in a religion where the people do that? It’s an absurd argument, for it is patent that just because Bakker ripped off millions, or Aunt Fannie kicked her cat, has no bearing on whether Jesus rose from the dead in first century Palestine. It may tell us how sincerely such Christians believe in and adhere to their system, or apply it to their lives, but it has zero effect on determining the factual basis for that belief.

And of course, no atheist seems to gauge the truth of their belief based on the actions of Stalin; contrarily, they may raise the specter of Bakker or Aunt Fannie, but if they do, why aren’t St. Francis or William Wilberforce or my nice Aunt Susie an argument for Christianity? Are they going to convert if we count the noses and find more good than bad? Then switch back if "bad" gains numbers, and back again when "good" is more numerous, and on and on? Somehow, I don’t think so.

We can go on about the obvious illogic of the argument for a while – it also runs into the matter of some who try to use the likes of Jim Jones as disconfirming evidence! -- but the main point here, today, is that this sort of argument has been enabled by the use of personal testimony as an evangelistic tool. When, “Jesus changed my life” becomes one’s argument for someone to convert, “well, he obviously didn’t change so and so very well” becomes a legitimate counter. It isn’t sound as a response, for the reasons noted above. And obviously, I am not saying people would not make this sort of absurd argument anyway, even without personal testimony playing such an important role: These critics don’t need our help to make illogical arguments and do quite well on their own with them. But the point carries a lot more force when it is assumed that changing of life and behavior is the basis for conversion – and the primary basis at that, as is presented in modern evangelism.

If I am right here, it may be justly asked why it is that some people have had their lives changed as a result of becoming Christians. There’s an answer for that, and it has little to do with whether personal testimony is a valid means of evangelism: It is inevitable that giving someone a purpose for living – as inevitably, even a watered-down form of Christianity can do – will give them new direction, new purpose, and a new lease on life. With that of course will come something that can be made into what we call a personal testimony. But this doesn’t really give personal testimony a leg up as a tool for evangelism, because what people are “converting” to in these situations is more like an emotional experience and a guarantee of a changed life than a contractual or covenantal commitment to Christ as Lord.

I venture to say that some such people may not even have crossed the line into salvation; but such would be beyond what can be rightly judged, in general, and it is safest to say what is in evidence, in the very least, which is that we get from these conversions mostly shallow converts with no epistemic basis for their life in Christ.

And that, in turn, shall be the focus of my second reason for abandoning the practice of personal testimony, which will be posted next time.

10 comments:

Hi JP,

What do you think of this comment by William Lane Craig and my response to it?

“Should the evidence [for the Resurrection] be refuted somehow, the Christian faith would not be refuted. It would only mean that one could not prove historically that the Christian faith is true.”

—William Lane Craig, in the Preface of his book, The Son Rises

Gary: So if there is no evidence that the dead body of Jesus of Nazareth was reanimated/resurrected by the Hebrew god, Yahweh, in circa 33 CE, how does William Lane Craig (WLC) know that the Christian belief system is true?

Answer: his subjective feelings!

WLC continues in the preface of The Son Rises:

In considering the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, it is important to avoid giving the impression that the Christian faith is based on the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. The Christian faith is based on the event of the resurrection. It is not based on the evidence for the resurrection. The distinction is crucial. The Christian faith stands or falls on the event of the resurrection. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then Christianity is a myth, and we may as well forget it. But the Christian faith does not stand or fall on the evidence for the resurrection.

…In point of fact, we can know that Jesus rose from the dead wholly apart from a consideration of the historical evidence. The simplest Christian, who has neither the opportunity nor the wherewithal to conduct an historical investigation of Jesus’ resurrection, can know with assurance that Jesus is risen because God’s Spirit bears unmistakable witness to him that it is so.

Gary: You see, dear Reader, evidence is irrelevant. MAGIC is the key to true knowledge. And that magical knowledge can be yours if you choose to believe the Christian supernatural tales like a child, or as WLC says, a simpleton, without insisting on evidence.

But couldn’t this same theory of discerning Truth be used by any belief system with any group of “simpletons”: “Don’t worry about the evidence, Believer. Just trust our holy book to be true. Just trust your FEELINGS about our holy book and about our god (or gods). That is all the evidence you really need to know that WE are right, and everyone else is wrong.”

As a former evangelical Christian, I believe that William Lane Craig is dead wrong. Subjective feelings can fool you. Subjective feelings told the people of Jonestown to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Subjective feelings told the people of Heaven’s Gate to commit suicide in their beds. Subjective feelings and subjective personal experiences are NOT reliable indicators of the truth, folks. Demand EVIDENCE. Always demand evidence for EVERY truth claim.

Typo:

My hypothetical question should read: So if there WERE no evidence ...

Sorry.

I think this is a totally invalid argument, soreness;'s testimony was a major part of my conversion. The problem is not that testimony is bad but that people don't moistness in the power of the Spirit. We have bought into the illusion of technique. modern tells us to believe,mahatma we can do it all, that we need to find the rivet approach and do it our right way that work and we can do that through Manitoulin reality through science.

Gary: I think you put too much of your usual spin on Craig's words, but at the end I am obviously at odds with Craig's conclusions.

Joe: I'm not saying or arguing that testimony can't be part of someone's conversion. I'm saying it should not be, in an ideal world.

oe: I'm not saying or arguing that testimony can't be part of someone's conversion. I'm saying it should not be, in an ideal world.

depends. if you say "I felt real strongroom that God exists." That is not a real basis for an appeal. If you say "I prayed for God to stop my brother from freaking out when he could not stop because he was on acid,he immateriality calmed down and went to sleep, that might be a reason to listen. I would not expect a testimony to convert some one in and of itself, But telling experiences of God's power in your life has always been a part of evangelism in the NT that and prophesy of Messiah are the reasons,

Gary: You see, dear Reader, evidence is irrelevant. MAGIC is the key to true knowledge. And that magical knowledge can be yours if you choose to believe the Christian supernatural tales like a child, or as WLC says, a simpleton, without insisting on evidence.

you are cynical about anything not your ideology, your brain washing tells you only accept sickness that backs your ideology, nothing else is true knowledge. empirical means first hand knowledge,if God is real then does stuff in your life this is first hand it is not magic. It's empirical,'that is empirical knowledge of God's reality. It is real.
It's proven. There is good solid scientific evidence you refuse to even considered though you know nothing about it you dogmatically assert it can't be true,

As a former evangelical Christian, I believe that William Lane Craig is dead wrong. Subjective feelings can fool you. Subjective feelings told the people of Jonestown to drink poisoned Kool-Aid. Subjective feelings told the people of Heaven’s Gate to commit suicide in their beds. Subjective feelings and subjective personal experiences are NOT reliable indicators of the truth, folks. Demand EVIDENCE. Always demand evidence for EVERY truth claim.

how many times did you drink poison cool-aid in your church? atheism teaches you to fear feelings and to dream emotions. O they shutter at he thought of feelings and yet vent their spleens expressing feelings of hated for God and Christians.

you do not have to fear feelings, subjective feelings will not lead to you drank poison if you know what you are doing and if you have a maturate balance of feelings and logic.It's when you never learn to control your feelings you fear them that you finally accept uncontrollable feelings and go off the deep end.

As an atheist i feared feelings,I refused to feel. I kept things bottled up and I told myself I was a Vulcan I was superior to others because i did not have emotions. when I got saved God showed me how to control my emotions and to learn to live with them, then you can understand how they help guide you, in conjunction with logic and reason.

a lot og scoientiofioc resarch shows the value ofinutative snese

"But telling experiences of God's power in your life has always been a part of evangelism in the NT"

Where do you think that's found, Joe?

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