Thursday, October 21, 2010

Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 1: The Destructive Practice of Personal Testimony (Section 2)

Continuing from yesterday

Reason Two: Evangelism based on personal testimony ties the validity of our conversion to our subjective experience.

I just rounded off an article for the next E-Block, on Tony Campolo, that sums it up:

Campolo admits that his own conversion resulted in a temporary zeal that lasted but a month, and that others have told him the same. [GOI 26-7] He also notes – but seems unconcerned – that converts who used to be addicts compare their conversion experience to “a psychedelic high, but without the drugs” [GOI 24]. Such comparisons should warn Campolo that what he is seeing in such experiences is likely to simply be manufactured, merely emotional reactions to a momentous life decision – but it does not.

I think most of us have met Christian friends who are “down” for one reason or another – whether it be personal tragedy, or sin, or just ho-hum daily depression of the non-clinical sort. We have also found that it is as such low points that people frequently question their salvation. “I don’t feel saved” is a line we may have heard. Or, “I just don’t feel close to God right now.”

Personal testimony, as a means of evangelism, is at the root of this disconnect. It tells us that when we become Christians, we will “feel” cleansed of our sins, and have a “personal relationship” with Jesus as though he were a friend. Certain Skeptics, like Robert Price in particular, have framed this in terms of Christians having Jesus as an “imaginary friend.” They are not often right – but in this case, the truth hits close to home.

In contrast, our faith should be rooted not in subjective experience, but objective history. If Jesus rose from the dead, and that is historically sure, then personal tragedy and the like must be interpreted in light of that history.

To use an example we’ve used before, let us suppose that the freedom of America, and our freedom as Americans, was dependent on the historic fact of Washington crossing the Delaware River. How absurd would it be for an American citizen to say they “don’t feel like an American” because of some personal tragedy they have experienced, or because they may have broken a law or committed some misdemeanor? Although the latter may result in a restriction on freedoms within our rights and identities as Americans (just as sin causes us to lose rewards in heaven, or perhaps here on earth), it does not make us non-Americans, or does not mean America is obliged to be returned to England. Such a view would be nonsensical.

Of course, a person who is committed to irrationality could easily deny a historical event or its significance anyway, but the key here is “committed to irrationality.” The point is that subjective experience as a basis for salvation enables a far easier road to denial and doubt.

Note as well: I am not saying that the “historical model” is a 100% ironclad guarantee that faith will not be jettisoned or weakened in the face of tragedy, sin, etc. There is no such thing as a 100% ironclad guarantee in this framework, because free will never leaves the equation. But I do say it will provide far better grounding that the subjective experience model which personal testimony engenders.

It is for that reason, as well, that personal testimony ought to be abandoned as our primary model for evangelism. But we still have three reasons more to go, and the next one will be posted tomorrow.


  1. You are absolutely right that touchy-feely personal testimony, at least as it is done nowadays, has little to no biblical precedent. However, a purely objective-historical approach could also be damaging, as it tends to sidestep questions of epistemology, and it ties a person's faith to what evidence is available in a given time and place.

    We are fortunate to have access to volumes of historical documents, lexicons, alternative translations, and scientific proofs (i.e., that the universe certainly had a beginning) unknown to people fifty years ago, and still unknown in many parts of the world today. Plus, many people are not intellectually equipped and/or lack the time and resources to get to the bottom of these very complex issues.

    For this reason, William Lane Craig takes a two-prong approach. He argues that the historical and philosophical evidences for God are sufficient, but not necessary. God provides the inner testimony of the Spirit as a self-authenticating, non-inferential witness. Craig uses the example of a Christian attending a university in the Soviet Union who would not have access to any of the evidences for Christianity but could nonetheless trust in the internal witness of the Spirit. Craig even addresses how we deal with other faiths which claim the same phenomenon.

    There might be some difficulties with Craig's approach, but he does effectively deal with the problem of the ephemeral nature of evidence.

  2. I'd say that a circumstance such as you describe in which epistemic questions are sidestepped reflects an abandonment of the objective approach rather than being a manifestation of it. As I do allow, there's no ironclad guarantee here precisely because of such sidestepping. But then again, anyone prone to do that under the objective approach wasn't likely to be someone persuaded by the "personal testimony" approach either. I'm not Calvinist, but I certainly think there are some people "destined" to be lost causes that way.

    I also have some serious questions about those who appear to be not "intellectually equipped". Aside from such exceptions as infants or the mentally incompetent, I tend to see this more as failure of effort than failure of intellect.

    The "access to information" point has some merit, but by the same token, access also used to be limited to anti-Christian material. In such circumstances, the "best evidence" was the Biblical record, and a rational person was warranted in deciding in its favor. The objective approach would still have been of better value -- and in any event, as I once told an atheist, much of that is "recovered" knowledge that we never should have lost (eg, meanings in Greek).

    Finally, as might be evident, I strongly disagree with Craig's use of internal witness. From an epistemic perspective this is no more useful than the Mormon "burning in the bosom". If that same Soviet student later converts to Mormonism on that basis, what will Craig end up doing but appealing to the evidence against Mormonism -- and thus end up showing that the appeal to "internal witness" was of no epistemic worth? (I wrote on this with respect to Mormonism at -- and do not see how Craig's appeal can escape the same criticisms.)

    Again, I acknowledge that the historical-objective approach is no automatic process for conversion, but it avoids far more pitfalls than any appeal to subjective experience or "internal witness".

  3. I think a non-evidential approach can be rationally warranted (I follow Plantinga on this), but that doesn't automatically equate to taking subjective experience as the evidence of a position's truth.

    I.e. there is a difference in feeling rationally compelled toward a belief despite sufficient evidence, and using subjective experience as evidence for a belief. I don't know if WLC keeps on the right side of the path with this, but it is possible.

  4. @ Martin: Aye, I wish I could discuss this with Craig at some point.

  5. Mr. Holding, thanks for the in-depth response to my original comment.

    Craig is largely following Plantinga's approach to rationality, justification, warrant, etc. A Reformed epistemic approach like Plantinga's is actually quite conducive to a worldview that takes historical evidences seriously, without failing to acknowledge the philosophical difficulties with pure empricism, evidentialism, etc. (This is in contrast to the approach of Cornelius Van Till and Greg Bahnsen, which is indifferent if not outright hostile to historical evidences.)

  6. @Lemuel: Interesting. I had no idea of the connection of Plantinga with Reformed epistemology. Thank you.

    While I'm not a presupper like Bahnsen I will always appreciate how well he cornered Gordon Stein. ;)

  7. @ J. P. Holding: Together with Alston and Wolterstorff, Plantinga is pretty much the founding father of Reformed Epistemology. His Warranted Christian Belief is a philosophical masterpiece of religious epistemology.