One of the most influential visions of Christian apologetics in the history of Western Christianity comes from Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana, where the figure of the apostle Paul encountering Stoic and Epicurean philosophers at Athens (Acts 17) becomes inflected with the oratorical skills of a Ciceronian rhetorician:

the interpreter and teacher of the divine scriptures, the defender of the true faith and vanquisher of error, must communicate what is good and eradicate what is bad, and in this process of speaking must win over the antagonistic, rouse the apathetic, and make clear to those who are not conversant with the matter under discussion what they should expect.

This was a Ciceronian rhetorical ideal serving Christian ends in late antiquity, and its fulfillment has taken many different forms over the past two millennia. Within evangelical Christianity specifically, one way in which the truths of the Christian religion have been taught, interpreted, and defended, at least internally, has been through public testimony, particularly as a story of personal conversion. This too has a very long history. Part of my historical research examines such conversion stories as they relate to anti-atheist apologetics in early modern England (1680-1720). In my own upbringing in the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada such testimony very often accompanied adult baptism – I was once was lost, as Amazing Grace has it, and now I am found. I continue to cherish the public declaration that welcomes a new member into the Christian community. Yet there are serious problems for a Christianity which allows an all-too-human elision of testimony into an apologia, particularly where the story of conversion becomes little more than a platform for certain moral, social, or political views.

This brings me to a recent piece published by Christianity Today in which Rosaria Champagne Butterfield narrates her conversion, as she puts it, from a lesbian tenured radical professor to a heterosexual, married, and presumably no longer radical, evangelical Christian. What struck me is the way in which her testimony works as a kind of apology for certain positions within evangelical Christianity and has been treated as such by evangelicals themselves. Christianity Today even tagged the online article with the word “atheism”. As a lengthy interview with Marvin Olasky conducted at Patrick Henry College indicates, Champagne Butterfield embraces a view of her biography as exemplary for evangelicals and as an apologetic for what they (too) often call their “worldview”.

The arc of Champagne Butterfield’s story follows a fairly predictable trajectory. It begins with a self-description in which she embodies the bête noire of recent American evangelicalism: homosexuality, Marxism, and the liberal-radical secular academy. The fact that she begins her story by describing herself as dismissive of Christians and their intellectual capacities only adds another layer of contrast to what will become the rhetorical pivot upon which her story centres – not only does she find that Christians can think critically (huzza!), they can also do so without being overtly judgemental. When she finally gets around to reading the Bible, Jean Calvin’s commentaries on Romans 1:26-27, and subsequently attends a Reformed Presbyterian church, Christian conversion becomes a step into the evangelical “worldview” insofar as her new “identity” required her to shed her former self and its homosexual, Marxist-postmodern, secular trappings. A starker contrast, we are meant to see, could not be drawn.

If Champagne Butterfield’s testimony is meant as a kind of apologetic edification for evangelicals today, what exactly is it telling them? In her interview with Olasky, Champagne Butterfield merely says that her story is a reminder for the church to “count the cost” of publicly owning up to sin. Yet the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise; this is a rather glaring omission for someone who used to be a literature professor. Will Champagne Butterfield’s testimony exorcise the peculiarly evangelical spectres she mentions – Marx, Darwin, Freud – for younger evangelicals? Is her testimony-cum-apologia an effective solvent to the creeping secularism, liberalism, and atheism identified by many conservative evangelicals as the grease upon which American society is sliding toward its apocalyptic doom?

The answer to these questions will of course depend on evangelicals and on whether or not they will continue to be satisfied with simplistic characterizations which misrepresent the challenges against which they set themselves. It is more than a little surprising to find Champagne Butterfield cite Calvin as if his interpretation of the New Testament was somehow uncontested or uncontroversial, even within Protestant Christianity. It is also a little confusing to see Marxism and postmodernism thrown together, when at least one major strain of postmodern thought emphasizes incredulity towards all metanarratives, including the Marxist one. It is as if Marx, Darwin, and Freud are simply the symbolic heads of the monstrous hydra American evangelicals envisage as the eschatological beast.

By characterizing postmodernism and Marxism as “understandable allegiances” for “leftists”, Champagne Butterfield reinforces a whole range of standard evangelical assumptions which only obfuscate the relationship between what historian David Bebbington has called the “evangelical quadrilateral”: conversionism, Biblicism, crucicentism, and activism. Most glaring is Champagne Butterfield’s articulation of the longstanding Christian assumption that people believe something because they want to live a certain way – i.e. in order to live as they please, postmodern relativists, Marxist radicals, and atheists employ a supposedly irrational set of arguments as justification. Aside from the Reformation binary this argument continues to uphold, does it never occur to evangelicals that precisely the same argument might be levelled at them?

Champagne Butterfield suggests that the most crucial realization in her conversion derived from a reading of John 7:17, in which she came to see that action precedes understanding rather than, as she had apparently been taught as an academic, understanding precedes action. In other words, she had to give up allegedly sinful actions (homosexuality) in order to understand the truth of Christian doctrine (that homosexuality is lust and therefore sinful). While it is certainly possible to adhere to an Aristotelian view in which certain goods are internal to a particular set of virtuous practices, it is simultaneously the case that such practices, embodied as they are in various social institutions and communities, remain at odds with one another in contemporary society. Furthermore, given that reading is itself a practice, and one embedded in a series of other social practices, how can we know which practices will lead to the right understanding, particularly of Scripture? Echoing Alasdair MacIntyre’s now famous phrase: whose virtues should we adopt? which rationality?

When Christian testimony slides into public apology, that apology becomes something more than the confirmation of communal practices and beliefs. Today such an apology is open to criticism in the public sphere; and here the kinds of questions asked and the problems posed will be much more challenging than within the church. Living in an increasingly pluralistic society, neither today’s evangelicals nor those of the future are likely to be well served by a conventional story reaffirming cherished assumptions.

The apostle Paul preaching at Athens has been subject to different figurations for two millennia; it’s high time for evangelicals to realize his Areopagus sermon anew.

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About The Author

Kenneth Sheppard

Kenneth Sheppard's book, Anti-Atheism in Early Modern England 1580-1720, was published in 2015. You can follow him on Twitter.

14 Responses to Evangelical Testimony and Christian Apologetics

  1. A few thoughts:

    1. I certainly share your concern that Butterfield’s story will be used ungraciously as another salvo in the culture war (given her relatively low-key media profile so far with one interview, one CT article, and a book that’s over a year old, she’s certainly bucking some trends so far.)

    2. Saying that an online article and an interview treading similar territory about one’s conversion experience does not exhaustively cover all aspects of one’s apologetic is kind of getting into non sequitur territory. It’s a personal story that hits the high points.

    3. It’s not surprising that someone who was evangelized by a conservative Reformed pastor ended up adopting a conservative Reformed faith.

    4. You are on a blog that has published a variety of reverse conversion stories with about the same amount of philosophical rigor as Butterfield’s CT article (though many others on this blog are more rigorous.)

    5. It is entirely possible that Butterfield does address the issues you raise in her book. Have you read it? (I want to but haven’t, so I can’t say.)

  2. AC says:

    Nice article Ken, I think Calvin is the perfect foil, from Augustine to the Reformers to the Puritans to the Great Awakening – a high view of grace & a low view of humanity has always been the foundation for the powerful resurgence of Orthodoxy… Only radical fundamentalism will effectively disarm radical progressivism, which is why liberal Christianity ultimately succumbs to or is devoured by a godless secular humanism

    As for the challenges Evangelicals face in the public sphere…this is my biggest axe to grind! Some of our best apologists are Calvinists or at least fundamentalists…

    I say, let’s have both sides come out swinging on an even playing field….whether it be Darwinism, Marxism, Atheism, Postmodernism…what ever ism you want to throw out there…..from the Evangelical side Biblical truth defeats all of it….of course we have some variation on non-essentials (and I don’t find Theistic Evolutionits too useful from an evngelical POV) but I think we need to look at the foundations and have complete separation (no sharptons, no liberation theologies, no lib christians like Wallis or warm&fuzzies like Olsteen)

    It’s time to lay down a dividing line – you’re either for orthodoxy or you’re a godless humanist…..if Christianity is to survive this is the way it has to be.

    We need to have our best go against the best of the anti-orthodoxy postmodernists on all the essential areas of natural/existential reality….remove the info control, the biased presuppositions & the false parameters and allow the public opinion to go the way of unfiltered, unskewed presentation of natural, historical & existential realities.

    I say go Ms. Butterfield!…..instead of casting a cynical & dismissive glance from high above the perch, your kind should be willing to come at her & her influences head on….that would make for a refreshing change of pace

    Your best point Ken is we don’t earn spiritual life by giving up our sins…’s not a percise formula, but rather a natural-spiritual phenomon/progression that plays out uniquely for each regenerated one born of the spirit made dead to sin.

    While we were yet sinners…..

  3. AC says:

    Another blow, courtesy of the ‘Anti-God Patrol’

    I’m sorry David! I tried to be good, I just can’t ‘patrol’ myself, lol!!!!

    You know how you used to mess with CCM… I love messin’ with you guys…. I take great pleasure from it…. I guess my days are numbered, God Bless nonetheless

  4. Joseph Martin says:

    I appreciate your final comment that evangelicals should reconsider Paul’s sermon in Acts 17. I have two questions though about your critique of evangelical apologetics, since you might have read more about it than me.

    Do you think that evangelicals in the academy use testimony for Christian apologetics, or is this form of defending the faith only found in the typical evangelical layperson?

    And do you find the statement “apology within evangelicalism” to be an oxymoron?

    • Joseph Martin says:

      I meant on that last question, whether or not it possible to have an apology “within” something.

      • AC says:

        I think what Shep is eluding to, is that this young lady is allowing her influences to lead her & she is either a willful participant or unknowingly allowing a certain denomination to use her story as an apologetic or this denomination has influenced her so greatly that she naturally incorporated those apologetic elements into her personal story…. Either way it sounds like CT presented her story as an apologetic? I’m just speculating, I haven’t read the article or her book, but I’m a Calvinist :). So she’s fine with me! But as with most articles written for Patrol, I can’t pinpoint the main point???

  5. Dan Allison says:

    “Yet the question of how to read the Bible, how to determine what it teaches on subjects such as sin (or if it is in fact univocal on such questions), and how to embody that teaching, never seems to arise;”

    God hates sin. Take it to the bank.

  6. Michael Snow says:

    We evangelicals have an even bigger problem with our public ‘testimony’ of endorsing wars for which we ought to apologize (excuse my digression from ‘apology’). How clear one like Spurgeon was on such an issue would surprise many. I wish these quotes would see the light of day in our evangelical public circles.

  7. Patrick Sawyer says:

    Dr. Sheppard,

    I see you have a PhD. As one who is acquainted with the joy and misery of what it takes to get a PhD, I thought I would afford you the respect of your mental labors.

    In this post you allude to more than you actually say while demonstrating that you have a certain depth of insight about the particular thing in question. For instance, your comments around Marx, post modernism, and metanarratives are in this vein. There is a lot behind these concepts and how they intersect and diverge. It would take more energy than I want to exert in this format to have a nuanced, intelligent discussion with you (too bad we can’t get lunch) about these things as they specifically relate to your point. But let me just say while I think your point is perhaps worth making it doesn’t erode the argument that Butterfield is trying to make. She may be being a little sloppy in how she is siloing and grouping certain philosophical perspectives but her point is well taken in the main.

    In addition, when you challange Butterfield about the notion that people believe something because they want to live a certain way, you go on to say “Aside from the Reformation binary this argument continues to uphold, does it never occur to evangelicals that precisely the same argument might be levelled at them?” Actually, it is precisely this charge that cannot be leveled against them at the most fundamental level of their conversion. The natural man cannot discern spiritual things or know them (1 Cor 2:14). Man in and of himself does not want to believe in God and therefore live a certain way (for God). Man, in and of himself, loves the opposite of God and what He desires (John 3:19). Authentic Christians have been sovereignly regenerated by God which is the beginning of their wanting to live a certain way which is the EXACT OPPOSITE of what they naturally believed.

    A final qiestion: Do you doubt the veracity of Butterfield’s testimony (in any part of it)? Thanks.

  8. […] Evangelical Testimony and Christian Apologetics, Patrol Magazine’s Kenneth Sheppard answers with an emphatic “no.” In this […]

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