The importance of testimony

I was really delighted to see the new Church of England project iTestify launched this summer. (I was also a tad disappointed, since I was thinking of doing something similar myself!).

The idea is simple – short, video testimonies of up to 3 minutes.

Recorded on your phone or tablet and sent to us here we would hope to build a site of faith stories to inspire and encourage.

There’s not much we ask for format wise other than the films being with who you are (Christian name will do) and where you live (town/city rather than full postcode) and then how it is you came to faith in Jesus Christ.

Screen Shot 2014-09-22 at 10.08.42This looks like a potentially significant mission resource in our postmodern context. For one thing, people love stories, and are much more open to hear stories of other people than any more formal explanation of belief. Secondly, it highlights the importance of personal experience, which in some parts of our culture appears to be the unquestionable authority. Thirdly, telling our story side-steps (for the moment) getting into debates about truth claims, and provokes interest in faith by another route. (The debate about truth claims still needs to be had; there is good evidence that 18–35s are still interested in the apologetic questions about Jesus and his teaching.)

Of course, at one level none of this is new. The good news about Jesus first spread to non-Jews by those driven from the Jerusalem persecution ‘gossiping’ their experience to their neighbours (Acts 11.20). But testimony is assuming even more importance in the move from modernity to post-modernity, where ‘authority figures’ (like Billy Graham for a previous generation) have less credibility. Instead, people increasingly make decisions on the basis of ‘social proof‘—something must be true if all my friends believe it—which is probably the sole reason why Facebook makes any money at all! Companies have long realised that it is highly effective to get individuals to testify to their friends about a product as part of their promotion.

Beyond this, testimony also has substantial theological significance. In his outstanding Models for Scripture, John Goldingay proposes four ways in which Scripture presents itself: as witnessing tradition; as authoritative canon; as inspired word; and as experienced revelation. He presents these four pairs as an approach that gets round the narrowness of claiming Scripture is ‘authoritative’ simpliciter, since this is a category which suits commandments—and there is a lot else in the Bible!

In exploring testimony, Goldingay notes a number of important issues. First, it is clear that someone’s testimony is just that—the testimony of that person. It will always have a personal perspective, and presents the events it relates as interpreted from that person’s perspective—interpretation is always an essential element of the testimony. Secondly, and in some tension with this, testimony makes an explicit claim to factuality. Yes, this is my interpretation of reality—but it is an interpretation of reality, and in that regard it invites further exploration and scrutiny. Testimony points beyond itself to that to which it testifies.

All four model-pairs can be applied to the whole of Scripture, but each also finds particular expression in certain parts. The theme of witnessing and testimony is particularly prominent in the Johannine material—the gospel according to John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation. This can been seen easily in the occurrence of words with the martyr- stem (to testify, witness, and so on): there are 67 occurrences in the gospels, of which 47 are in John; nearly a third of the 57 occurrences in the epistles come in the letters of John; and there are a further 19 occurrences in Revelation.

(We need to overcome our problem in English, that testimony comes from the Latin testus but witness comes from a German route. We often miss the importance of testimony/witnessing, which are all from the same route in NT Greek.)

Testimony plays a key part in John’s gospel from the beginning. John the Baptist arrives on the scene in chapter 1 primarily as a witness more than a baptiser—his baptism of Jesus is assumed rather than stated (perhaps John expected you to have already read Mark’s gospel…?). John’s testimony is divided into two parts, the first in John 1.15, and the second in John 1.19–27, and this idea of ‘double testimony’, derived from the test of true witness in Deut 17.6, is returned to in John 5.31 and following. Jesus’ testimony is not valid if it stands alone; but in fact ‘there is another [the Father] who testifies in my favour’. The notion of testimony ‘in my favour’ (as the TNIV puts it) indicates something important about its use in John; testimony is crucial when the truth is contested, and as Andrew Lincoln argued in Truth on Trial, this is especially so in the context of a court trial scene, and idea constantly in the background throughout the gospel.

Thus, in the wonderful narrative of the healing of the man born blind in John 9, the witnesses in the drama are brought on one by one, and carefully cross-examined, before a verdict is reached. The centre-point of the drama is the appearance of the man’s parents, who duck the question and refer the Pharisees back to the man himself. His appearances bracket this on either side, and he is convicted on his second appearance on the grounds simply of his testimony: ‘One thing I know. I was blind, but now I see!’ (John 9.25).

IMG_5849Testimony also finds its place in the context of conflict in the Book of Revelation. The whole book is shaped by the theme of cosmic conflict, and the dramatise personae appear to be lined up on two sides which continuously clash with one another. Into this steps the figure of Jesus, who (uniquely in the New Testament) is described as the ‘faithful witness’ (Rev 1.5, 3.14). Expressing its theology by means of its structure, Revelation includes the phrase ‘testimony to Jesus’ seven times, and, against using the notion of two-fold testimony, includes the name ‘Jesus’ 14 times (= 2 x 7). ‘The saints’ also occurs 14 times, since their calling is to be faithful witnesses just as Jesus was. They attain victory not only by ‘the blood of the lamb’ but also by ‘the word of their testimony’ (Rev 12.11). In fact, the ‘testimony of Jesus’ (about Jesus? by Jesus?) is given a central theological importance in relation to who God is, the nature of the gospel and the work of the Spirit in what appears to be a programmatic assertion that ‘the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy’ (Rev 19.6).

If testimony has theological and scriptural significance, it is also of practical importance. Arun Arora, Director of Communications for the Church, explains the aims of the iTestify project:

We hope to launch this as a website with faith stories uploaded early in 2015.

  • iTestify seeks to encourage Christians across the country to tell their story of faith in a 3 minute film.
  • From ancient times Testimony has served two purposes: enabling the individual to recount the story of God’s faithfulness in their lives (up). Inviting others through story to hear of God’s action in the our own lives (out). Encouraging people within the body of the Church of the continuing work of the Spirit (in).
  • Traditionally testimony has been delivered as part of services especially prior to baptisms in the Anglican tradition and more widely in the free church tradition as part of attesting to the work of God.
  • This would be a website based campaign where individuals can upload their own stories of faith of up to 3 minutes recorded on phone or tablet to a central website.
  • The site would then become an on-going resource for individuals, churches and others both as an encouragement and also as a place where stories of faith can be played, shared on social media and utilised for services.
  • It’s open to any individual with a smartphone and a testimony.

As he notes, the sharing of testimony function as part of worship and builds up the faith of the community as well as functioning as invitation to others to discover more for themselves. Last Sunday, I interviewed Kim and asked her to share her story, which I mentioned in my exploration of being lost and found. I wonder if we all ought to be sharing testimony as a matter of course when we gather for worship.

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3 thoughts on “The importance of testimony”

  1. What value is testimony without proof?

    Testimony is not fact. It’s simply what the believer believes, or wants you to believe, which isn’t always the same thing.

    Few of us are willing to be swayed by testimony unsupported by any kind of evidential proof. That’s Christianity’s biggest problem. How do you persuade someone to believe what you believe when you have nothing tangible to show them to back up your extraordinary claims?

    Show me something truly miraculous that can be explained by no other agency than God and I’ll be perfectly willing to consider his existence as possible, likely or even certain. But if you waffle on about your own emotions and how you ‘just know’ that God is there, all you do is convince me that Christians have a problem with reality and their religion is just pure escapism.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. It’s exactly what I was looking for in my own studies. It appears to be in human nature to want tangible proof of things. We see this even illustrated in Jesus day. However, as you pointed out, we also hold value to the “personal experience.” This also brings up questions about how does one define a credible witness.
    It’s all a very fascinating and important subject and I appreciate all the other links to scriptures.


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