The Theology of Miracles

maryI wanted to offer a response to some questions posed to me under this post over at Triablogue,

Woefully Naive and Theologically Pollyannish

Steve’s post was in response to some comments I made in this post of mine in which I linked to a rather stunning video that compares the bizarre behaviors of charismatic/Pentecostal spiritualism to Kundalini Hinduism. Steve Hays and Jason Engwer have both taken issue with the so-called MacArthurite arguments against charismaticism and the claims of modern day miracles.  Steve even has posted critical articles against the upcoming Strange Fire conference.

I want to zero in specifically upon Jason’s questions, because he raises the arguments of Craig Keener, the NT professor at Ashbury Seminary, who published a two volume defense of miracles with Baker academic back in 2011. Allow me to cite the entirety of his comment.

Jason writes,

If you want some examples of the evidence Fred is treating so dismissively, see here and here. Notice Keener’s references to medical documentation, corroboration from investigators who had debunked other cases, acknowledgment of Christian miracles by non-Christian sources who were in a good position to judge the matter, etc. If Fred is so dismissive of that sort of evidence, does he apply the same sort of reasoning in other contexts? Does he accept skeptical dismissals of Biblical miracles that are similar to his dismissals of modern ones? Does Fred apply the same sort of standards before he’ll conclude that God has answered one of his prayers? When people offer medical documentation and other such arguments for concluding that the human body shows evidence of intelligent design, for example, does Fred dismiss such arguments in a manner similar to how he dismisses the arguments for a modern healing? Does Fred dismiss all modern claims of evidence for demonic activity? If not, how does he justify accepting evidence for modern claims of demonic activity while rejecting the often similar evidence for miracles of a Divine nature?

I’d like to see Fred offer something more specific than dismissing Keener’s entire first volume as “utterly uncompelling”. For example, once Fred is done with the second volume, after reading all of Keener’s discussions of miracles he witnessed himself, maybe Fred could explain to us why we should think it’s probable that Keener was mistaken every time. The issue isn’t whether he might have been mistaken. Rather, I want to see Fred explain why we should think it’s probable that Keener was wrong in every instance, even to the point that his claims are “utterly uncompelling”.

Having read over the first volume of Keener’s work, I will say on the outset that he argues persuasively against the views of strict anti-supernaturalists. He uses David Hume as his main foil when he interacts with their claims. He does a good job showing how anti-supernaturalists in the vein of Hume reject the supernatural primarily on the basis of personal bias and presupposition. I would agree with Keener’s assessment.

Where I think Keener derails, however, is his suggestion that skepticism toward miracles in our modern day has its roots with David Hume’s skeptical philosophy.  Thus, if you are a cessationist, such as myself and the rest living in “MacArthurville” as Steve has so defined us, we have been unwittingly influenced by Hume’s skepticism. That is particularly true regarding alleged testimonies of miracles in third-world settings. The idea being that if the evidence of such miracles is merely the testimony of superstitious, mud-hut dwelling tribesmen, then such miracles cannot even be genuinely considered.

Keener, on the other hand, attempts to argue that just as the authenticity of the NT record of miracles is established by eye-witness testimony, so also must eye-witness testimony to modern miracles be at least considered. Why would Christians accept the testimony of ancient eye-witnesses who establish the credibility of the NT, yet not consider the testimony of modern witnesses, even if they are located in third-world venues? [The fact that it is called “God’s Word” has something to do with that, but I digress…]  To not consider such testimony is prejudicial. I guess if we want to put a liberal, progressive spin upon such thinking, it’s “racist.”

Perhaps racism may have played a factor in Hume’s skepticism when it came to third-world testimony, but it certainly isn’t mine as a cessationist affirming MacArthurite. Contrary to Hume, and by extension, cessationist critics like Keener, Hays, and Engwer, I don’t necessarily doubt every testimony concerning miraculous happenings. Whereas I believe a good portion could be spurious hearsay, that doesn’t mean all such testimony is.

The issue for me is not that supernatural occurrences happen in the world today. I certainly affirm an active, supernatural spirit world. The main point of contention I have with any miracle that people say happened is the supernatural SOURCE of that miracle. In other words, I don’t believe every instance is necessarily from God.

Throughout the portion of his book where he documents alleged testimony of modern-day miracles, Keener seems to be comfortable confirming miracles happening among groups I would consider not only heretical, but also cultic. For instance, he reports miracles happening among Catholics like Father Ralph DiOrio, the classic television style Pentecostal evangelists like Amiee Simple McPherson and Oral “900 foot tall Jesus” Roberts, and the real crazy charismatics like John Wimber and the Bethel Church in Redding which is a shaman healing lodge, rather than a Christian church.

While it may be true there were supernatural occurrences happening in a number of those incidents reported by Keener, that does not automatically mean it was a move of God. Keener seems content on merely supplying the testimony of “supernatural” phenomenon taking place, not attaching any particular theological explanation to the supernatural manifestation. He explains those claims of miracles among those of “incompatible religions” as the possibility of a supreme powers’ good will toward people of different faiths that doesn’t necessarily endorse any particular belief. He also suggests the work of alternative supernatural powers, such as evil spirits. Whatever the case, what matters is that we recognize and affirm a clear manifestation of the supernatural.

Jason appears to have a similar charitable perspective to alleged miracles among non-Christian faiths, particularly Roman Catholics. I find that to be odd, knowing what I have read of him in the past outlining the false gospel Catholicism promotes. His conclusion is that within Catholicism, there are Catholics who are genuine believers and the alleged miracle claims from Catholic circles is God working out of compassion on behalf of those Christians.

I personally see no precedent from Scripture in which God worked in such a fashion among the purveyors of a false Gospel. On the contrary, and I’d like to develop this point at greater length in a future post sometime, there are many who purported to perform miracles but are condemned for not “knowing Jesus,” as Christ’s famous words at the end of the Sermon on the Mount state (Matthew 7:21-23). Additionally, Deuteronomy 13 clearly suggests a false prophet could do signs and wonders, but if he led people astray away into a false understanding of what God had previously revealed, he was to be executed.  One should also note that Deuteronomy 13:3 says God uses such false prophets and their “signs and wonders” to test the people’s devotion to Him.

Other passages of Scripture imply that miraculous activity can be produced by our demonic enemy designed specifically to lead people into theological error.  That is why I am loathe to embrace the examples of Keener as being genuine works of God. There may be something supernatural happening, yet the vast majority are no where near the level of quality recorded for us in Scripture, and certainly not from God at all if they are tied to false religions.

This makes me wonder if Keener would affirm the so-called healings of Issam Nemeh, who as far as I can tell practices some form of mystical Catholicism. Is Keener, and Engwer “compelled” by the evidence this man presents? What about the comments by some You Tube troll called “Kundalinipsych” who writes under a video in which Keener himself is explaining his investigation into miracles,

Keener claims in an interview that I clicked through from: “all these cases I encountered involved prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.” That’s appalling. Does he mean that there are no claims of miraculous healing aside from Christian ones in all those hundeds of thousands of cases he mentions in this video? To say the least, I know for a fact that would be an entirely false and reprehensible claim — many other well-qualified researchers would dispute it utterly.  He must be a fundamentalist.

Well, what about it? As I noted above, Keener would probably respond by saying there are many non-Christian examples of miraculous healings, but then speculates that it could be a loving God who is doing such powers of mercy through false religions because it is in His nature to be merciful.  I am of a contrary opinion. I believe that God would never heal through a person who is then proclaiming a false religion that only assigns men’s souls to judgment, or a false teacher who may claim to speak for Christ, but proclaims an unbiblical and errant Gospel. Hence, such “healings” and “miracles” are the deception of demons.  I am of that opinion not because I carry with me Hume’s skepticism, but because my theology of miracles is grounded in the Word of God.

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14 thoughts on “The Theology of Miracles

  1. Thanks Fred.

    One thing that stands out among Charismatics is the acceptance of Catholics still in the Roman Catholic Church as long as they speak in tongues etc. IMHO, I never see Charismatics calling them to leave the false teachings of the Catholic Church?

  2. Pingback: The Theology of Miracles | hipandthigh – Charismatic Feeds

  3. Fred,

    You’ve changed your argument. You initially said that Keener’s first volume is “utterly uncompelling as a defense of modern day miracles”. You said that “miracles, in order to even be considered genuine, have to be in the category of undeniable by such debunkers like James Randi”. You said that “none of those kind of miracles are happening”. But now you’re adding qualifiers you didn’t suggest earlier. Now you’re allowing a lot of modern miracles, including miracles Keener discusses in his first volume, but you’re dismissing a large percentage of them as non-Divine. That’s a different position than you took earlier, and I was interacting with your earlier position.

    Keener’s view is more nuanced than you’ve suggested above. He discusses Hume as one influence among others. He allows for Christian cessationists and other critics of postbiblical miracles to have been influenced partly or entirely by sources other than Hume. His book is primarily responding to naturalistic tendencies in modern New Testament scholarship. There are implications for the cessationist/continuationist dispute, but that isn’t his focus. You say, “Keener seems content on merely supplying the testimony of ‘supernatural’ phenomenon taking place, not attaching any particular theological explanation to the supernatural manifestation”. In what context is Keener content? If he’s arguing for something like the modern reporting of miracles or the occurrence of miracles in the modern world in a dispute with skeptical New Testament scholars, then he can be content with something he wouldn’t be content with in a dispute with a Christian cessationist. As you acknowledge above, Keener mentions a variety of possible explanations for miracles within a Christian framework, including the demonic explanation. But that isn’t the focus of his book. It doesn’t follow that he isn’t concerned about the issue.

    You said that I hold the position that “the alleged miracle claims from Catholic circles is God working out of compassion on behalf of those Christians”. No, that’s not what I said. Rather, I offered that explanation for some miracles among Catholics, and I discussed other potential explanations.

    In my posts on Keener’s book, including the post you linked above, I give a series of potential explanations for modern miracles, and I provide some Biblical illustrations. Citing a passage like Deuteronomy 13 or Matthew 7 doesn’t refute anything I’ve argued.

  4. Jason writes,
    You’ve changed your argument. You initially said that Keener’s first volume is “utterly uncompelling as a defense of modern day miracles”. You said that “miracles, in order to even be considered genuine, have to be in the category of undeniable by such debunkers like James Randi”. You said that “none of those kind of miracles are happening”.

    Changed my argument? I never changed my argument. I still consider the evidence Keener provides as being uncompelling, especially on the level of genuine miracle workers and the quality of miracles that are recorded in Scripture and what Keener claims takes place today. I’ve always said that. You’re carrying on like I moved the so-called goal posts or something. None of those miracles he records would be in the category of “undeniable” so that Randi would hand over his 10 million dollars or whatever amount he is floating these days.

    continuing,
    Now you’re allowing a lot of modern miracles, including miracles Keener discusses in his first volume, but you’re dismissing a large percentage of them as non-Divine. That’s a different position than you took earlier, and I was interacting with your earlier position.

    I have always said there are supernatural workings happening in the spirit world. I have even noted that there are perhaps instances of individuals praying for someone and the person recovering. What Steve has termed, “intermediate miracles.” I have also always dismissed a lot of so-called “miracles” as non-Divine, if you mean non-Divine in the sense of them arising from demonic activity. I would especially say that about any and all alleged “miracles” that happen among false religions like Roman Catholicism and the vast majority of modern day charismatic groups like the IHOP cult. IOW, I reject, on the basis of Scripture, Keener’s speculation that miracles happening among cultic, non-Christian religious groups as God’s benevolence in spite of the false religion the person serves.

    continuing,
    You said that I hold the position that “the alleged miracle claims from Catholic circles is God working out of compassion on behalf of those Christians”. No, that’s not what I said. Rather, I offered that explanation for some miracles among Catholics, and I discussed other potential explanations.

    Thanks for the clarification. Didn’t mean to imply that that explanation was your only one. Just noted that you have a charitable perspective, which I take to mean what you state here, that it could be one possible reason why some miracles happen in Catholic circles. I happen to not be that charitable, nor would I even entertain such an explanation.

    continuing,
    Citing a passage like Deuteronomy 13 or Matthew 7 doesn’t refute anything I’ve argued.

    So does either of those passages have any relevance in shaping our understanding of the supernatural as it works itself out in our so-called modern world? I have always found it interesting that the excuse given by those standing in judgment before Christ is that we did “many wonderful works and miracles” and yet Jesus said he never knew them.

  5. I honestly don’t really understand why the Triablogue fellows are going off about cessationism under the guise of broad naturalism. Cessationists don’t doubt the miraculous, or even the modern miraculous. I’ve witnessed 2 genuine miracles in my life, but I’m still a cessationist.

    Cessationists disbelieve the claims that modern persons who claim to have the spiritual gift of “healings” actually do, on the basis of 4 points:

    1. Wrong and shallow definition of the gift.
    2. Testimonial evidence.
    3. False doctrine held by “healer”.
    4. Unbiblical manifestations of the gift.

    Point #1 is where the argument stands or falls, but the other 3 points strengthen the case.

    The same goes for tongues and prophecy.

  6. Fred wrote:

    “Changed my argument? I never changed my argument. I still consider the evidence Keener provides as being uncompelling, especially on the level of genuine miracle workers and the quality of miracles that are recorded in Scripture and what Keener claims takes place today. I’ve always said that. You’re carrying on like I moved the so-called goal posts or something. None of those miracles he records would be in the category of ‘undeniable’ so that Randi would hand over his 10 million dollars or whatever amount he is floating these days.”

    What you’re affirming above includes qualifications you didn’t include earlier. I quoted some of the relevant comments you made in earlier discussions, and you aren’t explaining why I should have interpreted those comments differently than I did. You refer to Randi’s having to “hand over his 10 million dollars or whatever amount he is floating these days”, but earlier, you said:

    “Now, am I saying James Randi would give over his million dollars to Peter for doing a genuine act of the supernatural? Well, no. He would probably worm his way out of any braggadocios claims and try to uncover a hoax. But it would had been still ‘undeniable.'”

    If Randi wouldn’t have to pay the money, then why are you raising the objection that Keener’s miracles wouldn’t result in Randi paying the money?

    And how are your comments in this thread consistent with your other remarks I quoted in my last post?

    You write:

    “I would especially say that about any and all alleged ‘miracles’ that happen among false religions like Roman Catholicism and the vast majority of modern day charismatic groups like the IHOP cult. IOW, I reject, on the basis of Scripture, Keener’s speculation that miracles happening among cultic, non-Christian religious groups as God’s benevolence in spite of the false religion the person serves.”

    Steve Hays and I have given you Biblical examples of Divine miracles occurring among unbelieving or doctrinally errant individuals. You aren’t interacting with those examples. And even if there were no such Biblical examples, we’d have to ask whether there’s a Biblical denial that such miracles can occur. You haven’t demonstrated that there is such a denial.

    So far, your use of the term “cultic” is too ambiguous to carry much significance. And the relevance of “the false religion the person serves” depends on factors you haven’t defined. For most miracle reports, we don’t have much information on the theology of the recipient. Even when we know that a person is affiliated with a particular group, we often don’t know how much of the group’s theology he’s familiar with, how much he agrees with it, or whether other relevant mitigating factors are involved. The situation is far more complex than you’re making it out to be.

    You go on to ask whether passages like Deuteronomy 13 and Matthew 7 have any relevance. Yes, they do, but not in any way that contradicts what I’ve argued. I don’t deny that there are false prophets today, that people can perform miracles without being Christians, etc.

  7. I would add a fifth reason to disbelieve modern persons who claim to have spiritual gifts of “healing”: the moral character of the person.

  8. Lyndon, can point #1 be expanded to include “purpose” of the gifts? Or maybe it’s just part of the definition, don’t know. Yea, I am trying to be specific, I know. The reason is that I believe the purpose is as important as the definition.

  9. Actually, “purpose” would make points #3 and 5 unnecessary.

    Hey, how about we call it the 5 points of cessationism? ;)

  10. Great post! Thanks for your blog. It seems to me that the main thing that many charismatics have no understanding of is the purpose of signs and wonders. They are a sign to authenticate the messenger of God. Steve seems to think that they are just acts of benevolence. The canon is closed and the purpose for signs ended when the scriptures where completed. A wicked generation seeks for a sign because it cannot be satisfied with only what God has chosen to reveal about himself.

  11. I would lump that in under #4 (which is my “catch all” category), meaning that no true manifestations of the Spirit ever accompanied false teaching or false teachers.

  12. Pingback: Articles on Cessationism and Contiuationism | hipandthigh

  13. Pingback: Articles on Cessationism, Continuationism, and Spiritual Gifts | hipandthigh

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