By: Shawn Ferguson
There are many categories of witnesses. There are character witnesses, expert witnesses, eyewitnesses, and lay witnesses; there are material witnesses, historical witnesses, and even Jehovah’s Witnesses. Of course, it will immediately be recognized that a common thread runs through each of these categories: a witness of any stripe provides evidence for or against a particular proposition, and this evidence is known as testimony. A witness is one who provides testimony that can be used in assessing the truth or falsity of a particular proposition.
All of this may seem obvious, and in a way it is, but sometimes we must spell out an obvious truth so that we can carefully examine its ramifications. It is a peculiar fact that relatively uncontroversial propositions often entail others that prove extremely controversial. A witness provides testimony, and testimony is used as evidence; this much is relatively uncontroversial. Another uncontroversial truth within the Body of Christ is that all members of the Body are called to be witnesses. This is a mandate from the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, and it has been taken more or less seriously from the moment it was first issued (see Matthew 28: 16-20; Luke 24:44-53; Mark 16:15-18). Many Christians are passionate about sharing their testimony with unbelievers and agnostic sceptics alike, with the admirable hope that the Spirit will use this testimony to convert hearts and change lives. This has always been, and always will be, a core function of the Body.
What hasbecome controversial in the modern church is what exactly “giving one’s testimony” involves. Many within evangelical Christianity think that all we need do is share our narrative. We tell of how the power of the Gospel and all the truth it contains has completely changed our lives for the good by bringing us hope and salvation. We tell our interlocutors what the Gospel means to us, how it has met our felt needs, and encourage them to try it on for size themselves. Through this, it is said, God’s Spirit will move powerfully and take care of the rest. To do anything more is to attempt to take matters into one’s own hands, to minimize faith and maximize reason. This practice is seen as misguided at best, and sinful at worst. After all, it is taken as axiomatic that, “you cannot argue someone into the Kingdom of God.”
But can this be correct? Why should we accept the proposal that the Spirit is limited to personal testimony in converting hearts and minds? Is this claim justifiable?
The truth is that I have yet to hear even one good reason why this so. All of the evidence, both scriptural[i]and experiential[ii], points to the fact that the Spirit is not limited to our narratives. People areargued into the Kingdom (that is, the Spirit does use arguments as well as testimony to bring about salvation), and people do sometimes have genuine difficulties in believing the Gospel that must be answered intellectually. C.S. Lewis is a prime example of this[iii], as are the countless Christians whom the Spirit moved to faith through their reading of his many books. Jesus regularly engaged in rational debate (Matthew 22:23-33; Mark 11:27-33), as did the Apostle Paul (Acts 17:2).
The reality is, the notion that narratives are the only valid form of testimony is hard to defend. As we have already seen, a testimony is just a form of evidence that can be used in assessing a truth claim, and our narratives are a form of testimony. It follows, therefore, that our narratives are themselves a form of evidence. This makes sense. What we are doing when we offer our personal testimony is attempting to provide evidence for the power of God in our lives, in the hope of convincing people that the Christian God is real. The reasoning is quite simple:
1. If God’s power is manifest in our lives, then God must exist.
2. God’s power is manifest in our lives.
3. Therefore, God exists.
This has just been an argument in disguise all along! This is as much an attempt to argue someone into the Kingdom as the more traditional arguments for God.
Keeping this in mind, what reason do we have to limit our argumentation for the reality of the Christian God to this one simple form? It can’t be that argumentation is futile, because that would disqualify all forms of argumentation, even personal narratives. So why would the Spirit prefer one form over the other? The limitation seems to be completely arbitrary.
The popular idea that only eyewitness testimony is valid testimony seems indefensible. While we are eyewitnesses to the power of the Gospel in our lives, we can alsobe expert witnesses by learning and presenting the classical arguments for God’s existence, the historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, etc.[iv]
Indeed in many cases other forms of evidence are necessary. Every Mormon, Jehovah’s Witness, Muslim, Hindu, and every other practitioner of any given belief system has a personal narrative, and they all involve claims of changed lives and future hope. Even the atheist has a narrative. How then does a genuine seeker navigate the competing claims, all of which seem equivalent from his perspective? What if a new Christian with a shady past sets about proclaiming the Gospel to her friends and family, and they assume that this is just another lapse in her judgement? Why should they take her claims seriously?
We must be ready to offer something more. Our testimony is only effective if it is thought to be reliable by the jury, and in many cases our personal narratives are viewed as dubious for varying reasons, often beyond our control. At this point, it is advisable to have other forms of testimony at hand.
Thank God we have such evidence available to us. Ours is a historical faith, a faith which stands or falls on a historical incarnation, life, crucifixion, and resurrection. There is good reason to accept these events as fact; there is good evidence for Christianity, evidence beyond our personal narratives and every bit as compelling. Let us step out in faith and use all of the tools that God in His wisdom has provided.
[iii] See C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: the Shape of my Early Life & The Pilgrim’s Regress.
[iv] See Part 3 of William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith.