Monday, October 25, 2010

Restoring Apologetics to Evangelism, Part 1: The Destructive Practice of Personal Testimony (Section 4)

Continued from last week

Reason Four: Personal testimony is not only unbiblical, it also creates a conflict in Biblical texts.

In the CRI article referenced in Part 1 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 in a phone conversation yesterday. 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 recently 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.

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


  1. Unless Mr. McDowell made his point stronger than the bit you quoted, then "don't dismiss ... as irrelevant.", does have validity. Anecdotal evidence from qualified observers can be valid OR it can simply be mistaken. Further evidence must be gathered (or consulted) before it can be dismissed as irrelevant.

    So, the person of some other faith that has "positive life transformation" is evidence "for" their belief system, but as mentioned earlier, it is only the weakest sort of evidence. Which means it lays itself open to the same kind of apologetic treatment you prefer.

  2. @kamatu I agree. I just don't think all of that occurs to McDowell at all. I will never forget the time I went to him and he told me that he uses apologetics as a way to merely get back to giving his personal testimony; it told me all I needed to know about how much priority he truly gave to serious research. Ie, none.