Testimonies play a major role in evangelicalism today. They’re used to introduce a Gospel message in a non-confrontational way, to “bring to life” biblical truths, to express the genuineness of one’s Christian life, and to prove theological tenets. I think there can be problems with the overuse of testimonies in all of these areas, but today I want to focus especially on the last one: using your testimony to make a theological argument.
Personal testimonies are sometimes used as trump cards in debates. Maybe it’s an argument about whether churches should have altar calls. The debate goes back and forth until one person makes the clencher argument: “I was saved through an altar call. You can give reasons all day long for why altar calls aren’t good church practice, but my experience of the Holy Spirit there was real.” Or maybe the debate is over speaking in tongues. Again, here’s the winning blow: “I know a guy at my church who speaks in tongues. I’ve heard him. You can’t argue with my experience.”
Is that true? Can we really not argue with someone else’s experience? Somehow we’ve ended up in a postmodern era in which Scripture is open to interpretation, and one verse of God’s holy Word can have any number of different and even contradictory meanings. But my personal testimony? Never! It has a clear, singular meaning on which I am the final authority.
I believe this is a horrible fallacy with detrimental consequences. We don’t have a God’s-eye perspective on our experiences. We know that in other areas of our lives we’re constantly jumping to wrong conclusions, making unfounded assumptions, and misinterpreting data. What makes us think our testimonies are exempt from this?
One of my favorite scenes from C.S. Lewis’s The Horse and His Boy is that mountain walk where Shasta talks with Aslan about his life story. Shasta tells Aslan about all the suffering he has endured, bemoaning his difficulties and bad luck. But then Aslan unveils Shasta’s true story. He reinterprets all the incidents of “bad luck” to show how he, the great lion, was there all along, orchestrating each situation in a way Shasta had never realized. Shasta’s testimony needed to be corrected.
I imagine most of us need lots of revisions to the way we understand our own testimonies. In heaven we may laugh over how mistaken we were about what was really going on in certain episodes of our lives. But not everything will be a laughing matter. If we have used our misinterpreted personal testimonies to “prove” false doctrine, there will be grounds for weeping.
Personal testimonies are usually non falsifiable, but that doesn’t mean they are true. If anything, it should make us more wary of their use in theological debates. Our experiences are too shaky a ground to rest our faith upon.
The good news is that we aren’t left with the slippery footing of our personal testimonies. We have something far more sure: the testimony of the apostles in Holy Scripture. We have, for example, the testimony of John, who writes at the end of his Gospel, “This is the disciple who is bearing witness about these things, and who has written these things, and we know that his testimony is true” (John 21:24, emphasis added). As Ephesians 2:19-20 teaches, “the household of God” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”
The Christian faith doesn’t depend on your testimony or mine. There is a greater testimony on which to lean: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time” (1 Tim 2:5-6). Let us rest, not on our own testimonies, but on the testimony of Jesus.