Basing your life on what on other people tell you they saw?!


The Bible doesn’t seem to make any apologies for requiring us to base our entire lives on testimony, that is, on what other people tell us they saw and heard.  The famous Doubting Thomas refused to believe until Jesus stood physically in front of him and invited him to touch the wounds in his body.  But Jesus immediately made clear that real blessing is found in believing without seeing Christ’s physical resurrection body: ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’.  And then the Gospel writer asserts that we are expected to believe through the testimony about Jesus which the Gospels give us: ‘these [signs] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God’ (John 20.24-31).

This is deeply counter-cultural for many of us.  In the Western world since the Enlightenment, there has been a very strong line of thought that says that the way to true knowledge is to refuse to let your thinking be guided by anyone outside yourself.  Have you ever spent time with someone who tells you that their big problem with Christian faith is that they can’t trust the Bible, but the more you listen to them you begin to suspect that their issue is not so much with the Bible itself but with the entire notion of trust in anything that claims to bring truth to them?  A whole mix of self-centred sinful inclinations and bad experiences of having their trust in others abused can lead someone to that point.

For many people like that, ultimately the way to bring them to the point where they begin to contemplate trusting in the Bible’s testimony about Jesus is to walk alongside them, earning their trust, demonstrating that Christians are people who deserve their trust and won’t abuse it.  For some, it will be that growing experience of sharing in the life that we have together in Christ that will begin to make it plausible that they could build their life on the testimony of others.

But it’s also helpful for us to have some awareness of the philosophical currents swirling around this issue.  Here we’re in the territory of epistemology – the philosophy of knowledge.  In recent years, a number of philosophers have been pushing back on the whole notion that trusting in testimony for our knowledge is epistemologically dubious.  For example, someone may say, “I’ve got a scientific mind.  I believe it if it can be scientifically verified.”  But every time someone performs a scientific experiment, they are making assumptions based on what other people have told them were the results of experiments that they performed.  Science only progresses through trusting the testimony of others.  And this philosophical point gets ethical, too.  Ultimately, if someone refuses to base their beliefs on the testimony of others, they are effectively claiming that their own view of the world is always superior to other people’s.

Why does the truth of Jesus come to us in the form of testimony?  

We can give a number of different answers to that question, but here is one.  When knowledge is presented to us in the form of testimony, we are put on the spot.  Will we insist that our own view of things is always superior and that we have a god’s-eye view of things?  Or will we accept that we are finite creatures whose perspective is always limited and flawed, who need to receive the testimony of others in order to attain true knowledge?  The person who simply won’t accept testimony is exercising the same self-centred human reflex that rejects a gospel message which insists that we have no righteousness of our own but must receive the righteousness of another.

Tim Ward

Chris Rimmer