Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 4

Problem: Personal testimony is not only unbiblical, it also creates a conflict in Biblical texts.
 
In the CRI article referenced earlier, I explained why various texts used to support the idea of “personal testimony” in the Bible are wrong. To this I can add that personal testimony – which encourages the measuring of behavior as a criterion for conversion – creates an obvious conflict with many Biblical texts in which Biblical characters are (or seem to be) “behaving badly” – which in turn either compels us to defend these figures, or live with an epistemic inconsistency.

I don’t need to name too many of these Biblical examples: Whether it’s Abraham lying to Pharaoh about Sarah; whether it is Jesus or Paul using harsh language against their opponents, doesn’t matter: If we’ve encouraged nonbelievers to check behavior in order to validate the truth of Christianity, we’ve set ourselves up for the task of defending not only our behavior, but that of Biblical figures. (Of course, as noted, many such charges against Biblical figures are either blown out of proportion, or false; but that is beside the point.)

Relatedly, my ministry vice president made an excellent point. Josh McDowell once said that “no one can argue” with your personal testimony. More specifically, he has said:

For example, let's say a student comes into the room and says, 'Guys, I have a stewed tomato in my right tennis shoe. This tomato has changed my life. It has given me a peace and love and joy that I never experienced before, not only that, but I can now run the 100-yard dash in 10 seconds flat.' 

It is hard to argue with a student like that if his life backs up what he says (especially if he runs circles around you on the track). A personal testimony is often a subjective argument for the reality of something. Therefore, don't dismiss a subjective experience as being irrelevant. 

Indeed? My ministry vice president ministers to inmates in his local jail, and he  encountered an inmate who gave a glowing “personal testimony” of how his life had been changed – by converting to Islam. I met such inmates myself while I worked as a prison librarian. By McDowell’s logic, this inmate and his conversion to Islam suggests that Islam is a valid faith; we can’t dismiss his subjective experience as being irrelevant.

But in fact, we should – because following this line, any time any professing Christian feels depressed, or falls into sin, or even shows an uncritical nature, it is an argument against Christianity. Likewise, if anyone becomes a Scientologist, a Mormon, or even an atheist, and finds their lives positively “transformed” it is an argument “for” their belief system – and by default, against Christianity, since the implication of McDowell’s point is that Christianity does the best (if not the exclusive) job when it comes to transforming lives.

I’ll have one more entry before we turn to a positive case for how evangelism ought to be conducted.

Comments

Anonymous said…
J.P... Thank you for these article series, I always had an apprehension about using personal testimony as an apologetic but you explain why very clearly. I am a Christian and have been so for several years now however I cannot point to a specific time where my life was radically changed. This presents the problem also that not every Christian has a testimony that would be necessarily convincing. Is Christianity less true for me? Of course not.

Thank you again for your posts and all your hard work.

God bless

Tony
Joe Hinman said…
God told Jeremiah he would make a new covenant in which the law would be written on the heart and the a piori condition for being part of Israel would be that one is in a personal relationship with God,That is expressed" in 31:34

"No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, 'Know the LORD,' because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest," declares the LORD. "For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more."[NIV]

That does not mean you just have my relationship with God, you must have your own. Nor does it mean you must have a dramatic testimony because that is a mold, having your own relationship means it's the way you and God work it out not the way you imitate a mold.

What I really advocate is following the leading of the Spirit. If you feel led to tell your testimony do it. If you feel led to make logical arguments do so. If you don't know what God is leading you to do then do what you know to do.
Joe Hinman said…
I see a far bigger problem with 'christians not really understanding the erudition they try to tap into for arguments than I do with talking about experiences.
Weekend Fisher said…
If we talk to enough people, sooner or later we're going to come across someone whose faith was either helped or shaken by the behavior of believers. I ran across one this morning by accident, who said (through tears) that she doesn't believe in God anymore because of the extra-marital shenanigans of some of the "leaders" at her church. The truth of any faith doesn't depend on the life of its followers -- but those lives will still forever be part of the picture. And for the other side, part of my early journey to faith was that the Christian I had met treated me so much better than all the non-Christians in my life. The messenger is often viewed as testimony for or against the message; it's just the way it is, and therefore is not only valid but necessary for our awareness.

As for the tomato: replicate that. And for the inmates: Islam is a tree you will know by its fruit. Christianity is a different tree with different fruit. I wouldn't deny for a moment that Islam can change peoples' lives. Let the reader understand.

When it comes to Christianity, the good news is Christ showing God's love for the world, and a new covenant based on forgiveness. It is absolutely founded in the world of objective facts; whether the ripples reach us personally is still part of that picture and part of our credentials to carry that message.

Take care & God bless
WF
Joe Hinman said…
I agree with you Fisher, wise words.
J. P Holding said…
>>If we talk to enough people, sooner or later we're going to come across someone whose faith was either helped or shaken by the behavior of believers.

Then it's not a very solid basis for evangelism, is it?

>>> The truth of any faith doesn't depend on the life of its followers -- but those lives will still forever be part of the picture.

And it was our mistake to allow that to happen.

>>>And for the inmates: Islam is a tree you will know by its fruit. Christianity is a different tree with different fruit. I wouldn't deny for a moment that Islam can change peoples' lives. Let the reader understand.

Understand what, exactly? That my point is valid? Because that's all that can be taken from it. Amen?

Weekend Fisher said…
JP Then [behavior of believers] is not a very solid basis for evangelism, is it?

You're having a different discussion with Joe than the related point here. Evangelism isn't about us, & that's a good thing for people to understand. But we're always going to be part of the picture. If we're like a 450-lb person advocating a health system, we're going to have credibility issues. If we present the message of forgiveness and come across as a jerk, we get the "noisy gong / clanging cymbal" effect that St Paul wrote about. We are ambassadors; how we conduct ourselves can support -- or undermine -- the One we represent. It will always be that way.

Re: Christianity v. Islam (Jesus and Mohammed): If people can see different fruit, they will more easily see that they're dealing with different trees.

Take care & God bless
WF

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