Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments

Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, there is an article by Stan Gundry. In it, he makes some interesting statements

Arguments in which both sides launch aggressive offenses and structure fortress-like defenses can be unnecessarily adversarial. I am not suggesting that such arguments have no place, but let’s acknowledge that their value is vastly over-ratedStories cover the same territory, but they are testimonialsand it is hard to argue with someone’s testimony.

I take issue with his presuppositions regarding testimonials, especially when the “goal” of the testimonial is to change our understanding and processing of Scripture. Let me give an example. If you have a minute, go and read Genesis 16 and 17, if you don’t have time, here’s a recap of the story.

God has promised Abram that he will be a great nation. His wife, Sarai, is, up to this point, barren. Sarai says to Abram,

Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

This is fairly interesting for a number of reasons, but the one that is most interesting to me is that Sarai is clear as to why she believes she has not given birth: The Lord hath restrained me from bearing. So, Abram goes into Hagar, and she conceives and Ishmael is born. Now, fast-forward thirteen years to the beginning of chapter 17. God comes to Abram again and makes the promise of a great nation, he changes his name to Abraham and he institutes circumcision. Then God says,

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? (Genesis 17:15-17)

And then Abraham says:

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

Thirteen years after he goes into Hagar, Abraham is still trying to sell Ishmael to God as the Son of Promise. God says, no way, but, I will bless him.

And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
(Genesis 17:20-21)

Now, we skip ahead to Genesis 25 and read this:

And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah: These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations. And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.
(Genesis 25:13-17)

We know a little more about Isaac. We know that he married Rebekah and that he had two sons, Jacob and Esau. We know that he became wealthy. We know his story in greater detail without having to look it up. But, here is my question; Ishmael had twelve sons, each a prince with castles and lands. If someone looked at the fruit of Abraham’s actions, his child with Hagar and his child with Sarah, which one would they conclude was more “successful”. Would they conclude that going into Hagar was such a bad thing after all? Could they even conclude that it was a good thing? Based on Ishmael’s life, would the modern church have told Abraham, go down into Egypt and purchase from the slave blocks one hundred Hagars and get them all with child and raise up an army of Ishmaels? I wonder.

This is just one of the problems with interpreting Scripture through the lens of personal experience. Last week, I read a piece by Bart Campolo with the following statement (this excerpt is from a letter someone had written Bart) :

When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and – after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason — rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a ‘cruel bastard.’ [Emphasis mine. the full article has been removed from the Youth Specialties site, but can be accessed via the Google cache here ]

When I read the article the first time, I remember thinking, rejected God forever?!? How does he know? And even if she never received Christ as her Savior, I reject the idea that it makes God a “cruel bastard” and I do think it shows the difficulty of our defining God based on our limited frame of reference.

I guess the closing thought is this: Hindsight isn’t 20/20. We like to think it is, but it’s just another perspective and full of it’s own pitfalls. In the end, it is Scripture and Scripture alone that instructs, corrects, reproves, and indoctrinates, and when we try to elevate our minds above it, we become the worst sort of fool. I should also say, that I’m not against testimony/personal experience and that I’m not saying it is worthless, quite the contrary. What I am saying is that we are never to use our perception as a lever to move Scripture. Instead, we should let Scripture bring clarity to our experience.

18 thoughts on “Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments”

  1. What I am saying is that we are never to use our perception as a lever to move Scripture. Instead, we should let Scripture bring clarity to our experience.

    This is right. We can’t bring our “alien norms” to the Bible and expect God’s priorities to align themselves with our own, as much as we may want them to… I feel sympathy toward people like Bart and their “stories” (I have stories of my own). But if our experience takes precedent over the Bible, what have we got left? God’s ways are mysterious and sometimes terrible, but “who else has the words of life?”

  2. What I am saying is that we are never to use our perception as a lever to move Scripture. Instead, we should let Scripture bring clarity to our experience.

    This is right. We can’t bring our “alien norms” to the Bible and expect God’s priorities to align themselves with our own, as much as we may want them to… I feel sympathy toward people like Bart and their “stories” (I have stories of my own). But if our experience takes precedent over the Bible, what have we got left? God’s ways are mysterious and sometimes terrible, but “who else has the words of life?”

  3. Your last sentance: totally agreed!

    But I think it’s also fair to suggest that we humans can wrongly interpret Scripture. Church history, with it’s MANY theological opinions and arguments, certainly shows us that. Scripture can be interpreted very differently in some areas, by two “sides” who both love Jesus dearly and want truth…only, they end up with a different take on an issue (Calvinism and Armenianism are a great example). Both of those camps hold to Scripture for their position, not to personal experience (though personal experience may sometimes play a part in why they hold to their side so dearly).

    So while being careful to make sure that personal experience does not trump Scripture, I think it’s also important that we not assume *our* interpretation of Scripture is infallible.

    Meaning, sometimes God can use personal experience to crack the ice of our wrong interpretation…

    That doesn’t make our word trump His, but rather makes us all the more humble, realizing/remembering *His* infallibility in all things.

  4. Your last sentance: totally agreed!

    But I think it’s also fair to suggest that we humans can wrongly interpret Scripture. Church history, with it’s MANY theological opinions and arguments, certainly shows us that. Scripture can be interpreted very differently in some areas, by two “sides” who both love Jesus dearly and want truth…only, they end up with a different take on an issue (Calvinism and Armenianism are a great example). Both of those camps hold to Scripture for their position, not to personal experience (though personal experience may sometimes play a part in why they hold to their side so dearly).

    So while being careful to make sure that personal experience does not trump Scripture, I think it’s also important that we not assume *our* interpretation of Scripture is infallible.

    Meaning, sometimes God can use personal experience to crack the ice of our wrong interpretation…

    That doesn’t make our word trump His, but rather makes us all the more humble, realizing/remembering *His* infallibility in all things.

  5. Ariel,
    Thanks for the read. I keep seeing the phrase “alien norms” turn up, is that a standard phrase used to describe an extra-contextual frame of reference or something like that?

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to stop by,
    G.

  6. Ariel,
    Thanks for the read. I keep seeing the phrase “alien norms” turn up, is that a standard phrase used to describe an extra-contextual frame of reference or something like that?

    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to stop by,
    G.

  7. Molly (or should I say “Molly” – if that is your real name 😉
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment (I’m sensing a trend as I read your comments elsewhere) I definitely agree with you about the value of personal experience, but I am beginning to think less and less that are there two disparate sides that desperately love Jesus. More and more I see people taking modern values of fairness and kindness and retconning God. Take the average Christian’s definition of love and if you apply it to John 3:16 it’s clear the God loved the world but he must have hated his son (by sending him to suffer and die.) I guess what I’m saying is that God holds us accountable for how we see him (I’m thinking of all the verses where he talks about having eyes but seeing not and ears but hearing not) It’s definitely something that I’m still chewing on.

    Anyway, thanks again for the read,
    Charles Churchill

  8. Molly (or should I say “Molly” – if that is your real name 😉
    Thanks for the thoughtful comment (I’m sensing a trend as I read your comments elsewhere) I definitely agree with you about the value of personal experience, but I am beginning to think less and less that are there two disparate sides that desperately love Jesus. More and more I see people taking modern values of fairness and kindness and retconning God. Take the average Christian’s definition of love and if you apply it to John 3:16 it’s clear the God loved the world but he must have hated his son (by sending him to suffer and die.) I guess what I’m saying is that God holds us accountable for how we see him (I’m thinking of all the verses where he talks about having eyes but seeing not and ears but hearing not) It’s definitely something that I’m still chewing on.

    Anyway, thanks again for the read,
    Charles Churchill

  9. Yes, I know what you’re saying, I think…I wonder if that’s something Christians in every age struggle with–defining God in ways that they can understand, in ways that compliment the values of their own culture. How else could the Crusades have happened, or the Inquisition, etc, etc, etc? But I guess that’s kind of my whole point…that we can’t think we are somehow immune to reading into the Scriptures our own cultural assumptions, including our ability to pendulum AWAY from our cultural assumptions and *still* read wrongly because we are reading in reaction. I’m not meaning to be depressing and suggest that we can’t know anything about God, mind you, and I’m a huge fan of the study of doctrine, etc… But I guess my only point is that it must come with a great degree of humility, this “knowing God” business.

    On the woman question, as we were discussing over at Scot’s jesuscreed blog, this subject is one of the main reasons I refused to listen to the “other side’s” arguments. I was convinced they were pro-women simply because they were making God who they wanted Him to be, that they were taking their cultural values into Scripture and twisting the Bible to make it fit into their prior assumptions. Whereas I just wanted to do/be whatever God wanted for me—and if that was to be silent, with a headcovering, then so be it!

    I still agree, btw, that arguments based on assumptions one brings IN to the argument, are still shaky, at best. But what began to change my mind in regards to women in the church wasn’t my decision that God oughta be fair, but was simply the Scriptures themselves. THEY started messing with my black-and-white views…Pauls list at the end of Romans, for example…what’s up with that? And so on…and then I started doing some more researching—things like the Roman Household Code, etc…man, it was as if a bomb was planted and blew up everything I thought…I was in COMPLETE fear and trembling, and that is no joke…so afraid that God was saying that my world was going to be bigger than being the silent helpmate…

    Now, I am doing cartwheels out here in the open, but at first, it was as if someone died. I am now at a place where I am convinced that women are not what I thought they were, that Piper and Grudem et all are well-intentioned, but have it dreadfully WRONG, and I have not come to that conclusion because I am a closet feminist, but exactly the opposite…I feel like the Spirit dragged me into this kicking and screaming… 🙂

  10. Yes, I know what you’re saying, I think…I wonder if that’s something Christians in every age struggle with–defining God in ways that they can understand, in ways that compliment the values of their own culture. How else could the Crusades have happened, or the Inquisition, etc, etc, etc? But I guess that’s kind of my whole point…that we can’t think we are somehow immune to reading into the Scriptures our own cultural assumptions, including our ability to pendulum AWAY from our cultural assumptions and *still* read wrongly because we are reading in reaction. I’m not meaning to be depressing and suggest that we can’t know anything about God, mind you, and I’m a huge fan of the study of doctrine, etc… But I guess my only point is that it must come with a great degree of humility, this “knowing God” business.

    On the woman question, as we were discussing over at Scot’s jesuscreed blog, this subject is one of the main reasons I refused to listen to the “other side’s” arguments. I was convinced they were pro-women simply because they were making God who they wanted Him to be, that they were taking their cultural values into Scripture and twisting the Bible to make it fit into their prior assumptions. Whereas I just wanted to do/be whatever God wanted for me—and if that was to be silent, with a headcovering, then so be it!

    I still agree, btw, that arguments based on assumptions one brings IN to the argument, are still shaky, at best. But what began to change my mind in regards to women in the church wasn’t my decision that God oughta be fair, but was simply the Scriptures themselves. THEY started messing with my black-and-white views…Pauls list at the end of Romans, for example…what’s up with that? And so on…and then I started doing some more researching—things like the Roman Household Code, etc…man, it was as if a bomb was planted and blew up everything I thought…I was in COMPLETE fear and trembling, and that is no joke…so afraid that God was saying that my world was going to be bigger than being the silent helpmate…

    Now, I am doing cartwheels out here in the open, but at first, it was as if someone died. I am now at a place where I am convinced that women are not what I thought they were, that Piper and Grudem et all are well-intentioned, but have it dreadfully WRONG, and I have not come to that conclusion because I am a closet feminist, but exactly the opposite…I feel like the Spirit dragged me into this kicking and screaming… 🙂

  11. The alien norms thing: yeah, it’s a theological phrase. And if I’d REALLY been awake in theology class that day, I’d remember who coined it. Personally, I like the action/adventure flavor it brings to questions of doctrine. 😉

  12. The alien norms thing: yeah, it’s a theological phrase. And if I’d REALLY been awake in theology class that day, I’d remember who coined it. Personally, I like the action/adventure flavor it brings to questions of doctrine. 😉

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