Relying on our testimony

In Arguing with Friends I claim that one of the mistakes that Christians often make when having these big life conversations is they tend to go back to their testimony. I briefly explain why this is the wrong approach, but this article does a fine job of expanding and clarifying the basic problem with that approach. The article is summed up nicely in this quote,

No matter how much that well-meaning pastor wants to make talking about Jesus easy, it’s not. It’s not rocket science, but it does take a serious commitment to learning why we believe what we believe.

And, of course, this quote is certainly insightful,

A million opportunities will be missed if we continue to play by the post-modernist’s rules and buy into the idea that our experiences and feelings are equivalent to objective truth.

Read and enjoy the entire thing!

5 thoughts on “Relying on our testimony

  1. How do I know it’s true? I know it’s true by the self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit to my spirit. In a sense, what response can I give to the skeptic but that I know the witness of the Holy Spirit to be true? Is it not true in that sense that my experience of the Holy Spirit is objectively true? After all, it is the Holy Spirit who is doing the witnessing to my spirit! Now, you know Paul that I support you in your apologetic project. I ardently believe that Christians must pursue a well-reasoned faith, but I worry that somewhere along the way feelings and experience will be marginalized in a manner that they shouldn’t be marginalized.

    In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he presents a tightly reasoned argument against the false teachers in those churches. There’s no question in my mind that Paul employs a line of reasoning that is sophisticated, extensive and difficult sometimes to follow. But notice how much feeling pours out of almost every sentence in that letter, and how much Paul ties his argument to biographical experience. It sometimes even seems to me that feeling and experience drives his argument, gives it impetus and informs it, rather than the other way around.

    What do you think?

    • A couple of quick thoughts. First, by definition your experience of the Holy Spirit cannot be objectively true in the sense that objective is being used here. Something is objective if it is, “of or relating to … external phenomena as opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc ” (per the dictionary). Your experience certainly is true, I don’t argue that, but not in an objective sense.

      Secondly, one of the key points of the article, which I highlight in my final quote, is that many people are playing the postmodernist game which denies objectivity in the first place. This is one of the reasons personal experience is given such emphasis. Playing along with that game is unwise I think we’ll agree, and I think we will also agree that inverting the game by appealing only to objective reality and evidence is equally unwise. This article is merely speaking to one form of the problem not the other.

      Thirdly (and related to my previous point) we ought not swing to either extreme. Emotion and reason must balance each other out. If some people are swinging too far to one extreme (a la postmodernism) we do not fix the problem by attempting to negate that extreme. The apostle Paul was certainly a passionate thinker, but the key is that he was both passionate and a thinker. We need to be both. The article is highlighting the fact that many people get suckered into a lopsided Christianity.

      Lastly, I do not think that even you would rely solely on your internal witness of the Holy Spirit. You would share about it, certainly, but you would not stop the conversation there and say you have nothing further to offer. I’ve known you long enough to confidently walk out on that limb. As the article says, your testimony is a great place to start, but a lousy place to end (my paraphrase) considering our deeply postmodern society.

  2. I don’t like airing my thinking for all the world to see, but here goes, and I’m thinking aloud…

    When the ancient prophet said, “Thus saith the LORD…” there is nothing objectively true contained in that proposition, for there is nothing (necessarily) relating to external phenomena by which to evaluate it. It is subjective because it is merely the prophet’s experience of the Holy Spirit speaking to his spirit. When the prophet continues and declares what God has spoken, for example, “The whole land will be ruined, though I will not destroy it completely” (Jer 4:27), that is a subjective expression of a personal experience. Therefore, the Christian can begin an argument using scripture but it’s a lousy place to end (“considering our postmodern society”, and I agree with you in that sense).

    I’m asking a different question than Ickeeney when he asks, “how do I know that the transcendent experience I had while worshipping wasn’t just an emotional overload brought on by endorphins, chocolate, and looking at pictures of starving children.” I think he’s asking a good question, but I’m not talking about a transcendent experience while worshipping. I’m talking about the Holy Spirit witnessing to my spirit that Jesus is risen from the dead, for example, and my knowing that to be true. Can I know that independently of objective evidence? Yes, because the Holy Spirit has witnessed to my spirit that it is true. Should I stop there and cease to pursue objective evidence? No.

    In all of this I agree with you about the need for resisting extremes, but I continue to react to the statement in the article you referenced that feelings are “just” feelings. He also said, “I can’t really even use the argument that I know Jesus is real because He’s changed my life.” But that’s precisely Paul’s argument in Galatians 1 and 2: Look at my changed life! I agree that you can’t start and end with experience, but Ickeeney has relegated experience to a category that is less than “objective truth”, and I’m not convinced that’s a wise move.

  3. One final comment. I mean it. I’m preparing for a Bible study next week and came across this text from John 14: “Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and yet you still don’t know who I am? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words I speak are not my own, but my Father who lives in me does his work through me. Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do.”

    It seems Jesus answers Philip’s demand for objective evidence for the claims he is making by saying, “You’ve experienced me through relationship and you should know the truth of what I’m saying on that basis alone, but I realize what I’m saying is hard to accept, so if you really need objective evidence, then believe on the basis of the works and miracles I’ve done.”

    No, this event does not take place within an evangelistic or apologetic context, but there does seem to be an appeal in this instance to subjective, relational experience over objective truth anchored in hard, physical evidence. I’m not suggesting, contrary to Ickeeney, that the experiential have priority over the objective, only that Jesus seems to appeal to it in this case.

    • I think our perspectives are relatively close and it might be easier to explore the minor differences over coffee. Agreed?

      I’ll just offer a couple of quick points. In the Old Testament when the prophets presumed to make pronouncements on God’s behalf, their words were tested against an objective bar rather than simply accepted as true (Deut 18:20-22). Their subjective experience was not divorced from objective verification.

      I would agree with you that the relational is the real core of what Christianity is all about (I think Ickeeney implies as much) and I think that’s what Jesus was getting at. However, I do not think I would read Jesus to be saying that evidence is somehow “less than” relational. When John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus whether he is the one or if they should be expecting another, Jesus does not appeal to John’s relationship with Jesus (they were cousins, after all), but lists specific pieces of objective evidence (Luke 7:20-22). In one context perhaps the relationship needed emphasizing and in another context perhaps the objective evidence needed emphasizing, but on the whole I think Jesus clearly presents a balance between the two.

Thoughts? Objections? Let me know...

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