Miracles: New Essential Reading On The Topic

What do I think of the two volumes of Craig Keener’s “Miracles”? Let’s talk about it on Deeper Waters.

For my birthday back in September, my in-laws got me the two-volume set of Craig Keener’s “Miracles.” There are 884 pages of content here and several pages of notes. The message you should definitely get from that at the start is that Keener is not taking a lazy approach. Keener has done plentiful research on the topic of miracles. I can say without reservation that from now on, anyone who has not dealt with the claims found in this book is not qualified to speak on the topic of miracles.

To the surprise of most people, Keener spends relatively little time on the miracles in the gospels at the start and answering questions concerning early Christian claims of miracles. Why? Because he is not writing this to explain how the early Christians saw miracles, as important as that is, or the historicity of the miracles, also an important question, but rather to deal with the treatment of modern thinking today in regards to miracles. Many will say we cannot take the gospels and Acts seriously if they contain miracles since we all know miracles don’t happen. Well, all of us except these ignorant religious people. Educated people know better!

Keener is educated. It seems that he didn’t get that memo.

Of course, he does spend some time looking at the miracles and in conjunction with his main claim that miracles are possible and in fact ongoing, he states on page 25 that none of the sources in antiquity responding to the claim that Jesus did miracles tried to deny that. (Note also to some others out there ignorant on another related front, none of them tried to deny that he even existed) Most of them would say he did his miracles by dark powers. This is an important claim. They realized that strange happenings were connected with the ministry of Jesus and could not be denied. This would mean it was part of the essential historical kerygma, something central to the teaching of the early church, and something so well-attested that no one wanted to deny it.

In fact, Paul in his epistles in Romans 15:18-19 speaks about working wonders, and there is no doubt that Paul wrote Romans. In 2 Corinthians 12:12, Paul lays claim to his right to be called an apostle by telling the Corinthians that he worked miracles amongst them. Note this is a letter where his credibility is being called into question. It will not help that credibility to make a claim that his opponents know to be false. He is appealing to knowledge that they already have.

Of course, when miracles come up, the question asked is “What about Hume?” As one who has done internet debates, I’ve reached the point several times in the debate when miracles comes up that I will say “Okay. Go ahead and give Hume.” You would think that no one else really said anything worthwhile about miracles after Hume came out, as if he put the nail in the coffin with an argument that no one has dealt with.

The reality is its more likely that in philosophy everyone and their mother has dealt with Hume. His argument was criticized then and it is being criticized now. People who automatically assume Hume is the last word are more likely looking for something to cement their beliefs that they already hold and are unwilling to go looking further. It is odd that these people will usually tell us about science being so much better since it can correct its mistakes and relies on the latest study (Which is true by the way, that is the way science works), but they seem to reject that when it comes to philosophical dialogue.

Of course, Hume being 200+ years old does not make him wrong. I am a Thomist, for instance, and I realize Aquinas was around 800 years ago. That does not make him wrong. The difference is I have also done some of the reading in Thomistic thought since then. I realize that people have critiqued Aquinas since his own time. (Yes people. Back in the medieval period, the theologians critiqued one another’s arguments and wanted only the best ones) There are several people who still hold strongly to Thomistic thought today, like myself, but it also does not mean we have to hold everything he did. (I’m Protestant, for instance, although some have argued that Aquinas would be considered a Protestant today as well. That is not the purpose of this review of course.)

In dealing with Hume, Keener does admit that he is not a philosopher, but his sources are the philosophical sources. This is important to admit. Keener knows when he is not speaking from his area of expertise, so he has gone to others who are experts and shared their thoughts. Most devastating is a critique he shares from David Johnson in Cornell University Press:

“The view that there is in Hume’s essay, or in what can be reconstructed from it, any argument or reply or objection that is even superficially good, much less, powerful, or devastating, is simply a philosophical myth. The most willing hearers who have been swayed by Hume on this matter have been held captive by nothing other than Hume’s great eloquence.” (Page 169)

Ouch. That’s quite an indictment.

Looking at the question of history, one statement that has driven my research in this area is that that Bart Ehrman gave to my father-in-law, Mike Licona, in a debate at SES. Ehrman repeatedly made a statement along the lines of “History can only tell you what people do. It cannot tell you about the actions of God.” Keener says in a statement that seems to have Ehrman in mind on page 186 that

“History as history might not pass judgment on whether or not an occurrence (such as the resurrection) was a miracle ( a theological judgment involving philosophic questions about God’s existence and activity), but it can seek to address whether or not an event literally happened.

In a radio debate on Unbelievable? with Licona, Ehrman was stating that historians can agree universally upon a number of events in history, but they don’t agree on the resurrection. How can we treat it as historical then? The problem would be that too many historians are likely approaching with presuppositions beforehand that state miracles cannot happen. Therefore, they come to the account of the resurrection and can say “I don’t know what happened, but I know right off it wasn’t resurrection.” This is no longer doing history. It is doing philosophy under the guise of history.

It is not fair history to come to the data beforehand saying “The conclusion of a miracle cannot happen” and then looking at the data and construing it in such a way to exclude the miracle. In that case, it is clear that the belief one holds is influencing the data rather than the other way around. Of course, for the sake of argument, it could be that the resurrection did not happen, but that needs to be determined on historical grounds and not philosophical ones.

Before we get back to Hume, Keener wants to point us to the Majority World, that is, the world that has not been saturated with Enlightenment thinking. On page 212 Keener states “The claim that no one in the modern world believes in miracles (a claim once seriously offered by some scholars as an answer to the question of miracles, as I have noted) is now too evidently irresponsible to be seriously entertained.”

Will Keener back this statement? Yes. It is a strong statement in the face of academia and if Keener is correct, as I believe he is, it is not because of new data or arguments per se, but it is because of an unwillingness on the part of the academy to consider perspectives apart from their own. It has been by an arrogance that has written off too many people as “uneducated” and thus not worthy of contributing to the conversation.

And sadly, this is shown well in Hume. On pages 223-4, we have a quote from Hume:

“I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all of the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No indigenous manufacturers amongst them, no arts, no sciences.”

Some could answer “Okay. Hume was a racist. It doesn’t mean he’s wrong.” On its face, no. It doesn’t. There is something important here. Hume is automatically excluding the testimony of anyone that is not amongst his circle of people he considers educated. Who are the educated? Those are the ones who don’t believe in miracles. If anyone believes in them, surely he cannot be educated. He must be some backwater person. Therefore, all educated people don’t believe in miracles. It is a lovely piece of circular reasoning.

Hume goes on to say

“Not to mention our colonies, there are Negro slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity, tho’ low people without education will start up amongst us [whites], and distinguish themselves in every profession. IN Jamaica indeed they talk of one Negro as a man of parts and learning, but ’tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.”

To say “‘Tis likely” indicates that Hume has heard a claim and has not bothered to really investigate it. He has just made an assumption based on his prior notion of the black race. Keener, however, does know who the Jamaican is and says “The Jamaican whom Hume compares with a parrot stimulating speech was Francis Williams, a Cambridge graduate whose poetry in Latin was well known.”

Sound like an uneducated parrot with slender accomplishments to anyone else? I didn’t think so.

Okay. But surely today claims or miracles aren’t common. If they are, it must be amongst the Pentecostal movement (Of which I am not one) and we know they really like to talk about miracles! No. In fact, under the sub-heading on page 239 of “Such claims not limited to Pentecostals” Keener writes “But those who would simply reject all healing claims today because Hume argued that such claims are too rare to be believable should keep in mind that they are dismissing, almost without argument, the claimed experiences of at least a few hundred million people.”

So let’s give a quick synopsis then of the data that Keener has because it covers several hundred pages all over the world. Keener admits he is not a doctor, but he tries to get medical documentation of such claims. Even if he does not have them, he realizes that we should not reject testimony ipso facto just because it disagrees with our beliefs. People may be wrong about seeing a miracle or interpret some event wrongly or have a psychosomatic healing. Some of these do not fall into this category. If someone knows someone who is blind, as an example, and prays for them, and they suddenly regain their sight, would that person not be justified in believing a miracle has taken place? Keener says some healings could be coincidence, but that they are consistently connected with prayer goes against the idea that they are coincidence.

Keener also points out that many people in these settings are in fact educated. He has testimonies of his own wife who is quite educated. PH.D.s and doctors and others all claim to have seen such events. Again, even if some people are uneducated who see these claims, they may not have the full knowledge of the natural world, but they know enough to know when something happens that does not normally happen.

Keener also readily admits that miracles do not always take place. I took special note to highlight several times in the book that he makes a claim along those lines. There are people who are not healed in response to prayer. That does not negate the fact of the many people who are. If just one of these numerous numerous claims is true, then it seems that the idea that miracles do not happen is highly suspect, and it is quite likely that more than one is true. (Indeed, I found myself praying for the healing of the loved ones in my life. My own wife suffers from depression and when I read about people being healed of depression, I made it a point to pray more for that. I realized in my own thinking I too had taken on more of skepticism than I realized. If God can raise His Son from the dead as I proclaim, then healing depression is simple. Of course, if He does not, then I must just trust He has some reason. He is not obligated to tell me what it is)

Keener also looks at healing ministries. One noted case he looks at is Kathryn Kuhlman. Many of you, like me do get suspicious hearing that name, but Keener wanted to be objective in his analysis. He does point out that Kuhlman said that not everyone gets healed and that she has no problem with modern medicine. God gave us brains and we should use them. She would not have objected to someone checking with a doctor to see about their healing.

In fact, he points out that some journalists sent to investigate the claims of Kuhlman came out believing the cases after research. Of course, not all cases are bona fide. Healing doesn’t always happen and there could be times someone thought themselves healed when they were not. Keener’s warning for times like this is that you do not look at the false reports and lump all the reports in with them.

Keener also does in fact tell of times when people had fingers grow back and legs grow right before the eyes of people. So in answer to the question of “Why doesn’t God heal amputees?” Keener would reply “Who says He doesn’t?” Keener has some cases of such events taking place. It is more likely that those who do not find such cases do not find them because they have not really looked, or perhaps think the only people worth listening to with such a claim would readily have access to YouTube and film such an event, because everyone knows when a miracle is going to take place after all.

Keener spends most of book 2 dealing with objections to his idea, and these are quite weak. He does point out objections even from Christians who would often want to discredit healing ministers who came through an area. Now of course, one should always be cautious. One must also realize that healing does not mean all the particulars of theology are correct. There are healing at Lourdes, a Catholic site, and there are healings in Protestant communities. Still, too many have stacked the deck in advance by saying they will only accept natural explanations or some natural explanation must be forthcoming eventually and one day we’ll find out what it is. Such thinking would fall into a “Naturalism-of-the-gaps” paradigm.

Also, there is the stigma against miracles in the academy where one by claiming a miracle has happened can automatically have their intellectual stature lowered. Such an approach encourages scholars to not really be open to the claims of miracles, which is a tragedy for the history department since one is no longer doing history at that point but more philosophy. Keener contends we need more openness to opposing ideas in the academy. I agree.

Keener also takes the time to answer the question of “What about video tapes?” I find such an objection quite absurd, as one does not normally know when a miraculous event will take place, nor can one set one up as if God was a machine to respond the way we want Him to when we want Him to. Still, there is an obvious problem with video tapes we all know about today.

A show my wife and I have watched together numerous times is “Fact or Faked?” It has a group of investigators trying to see if an event normally caught on video tape is in fact a paranormal event or if it is a mistake or a hoax. There are some times where they approach someone about the video they’ve made and asked “Is this a hoax?” and get the answer of “Yes.” People do hoax videos quite often. We live in a day and age where we can go to a Cinema and watch events that would supposedly be “filmed” that we know are not real. We know about what photoshop can do. Yet with all of this, some people still think that if there had been video tape, that would conclusively settle the matter. Keener does point to some sources on video, but I will contend that to those who are not open, the response will be “faked!”

Finally, Keener ends by looking at cases in the appendices of exorcisms, demonic activity, visions and dreams, and how people saw the natural law in antiquity and later on prior to our time. Each of these sections is worthwhile in themselves. Going through these sections, as well as the rest of the book, I found myself thinking that I need to realize that God could be active in far more ways than I realize. No doubt, I’ll still be skeptical of a lot of claims, but I’ve found myself for my own research asking people if they know of any miracle claims, and it’s quite amazing to see how many people do have such examples.

Overall, Keener’s book is essential reading on the topic of miracles and the question of if they have them today. No one in the academy will be able to argue against the possibility of miracles without dealing with Keener’s excellent research.

In Christ,
Nick Peters

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9 Responses to “Miracles: New Essential Reading On The Topic”

  1. Dan Says:

    The irony is delicious that Keener is probably the leading Christian expert today in racial reconciliation issues. Scholarship has moved on since the 1800s in more ways than one.

  2. apologianick Says:

    There actually is a section where he says that his wife was given a prophecy a number of times while living as a refugee in the Congo that she would marry a white minister from the West.

  3. apologianick Says:

    I’d like to add something to this.

    In a surprising turn of events, Allie and I have been making plans to go to Baltimore for Thanksgiving to see her grandmother with stage 4 breast cancer. The condition is terminal and Thanksgiving together is a dying wish.

    We just got a phone call.

    Allie’s grandmother is cancer-free. She is completely cured.

  4. Mannix Fortz (@mannixfortz11) Says:

    Wow, miracles really happen! I also have a neighbor, single, and a retired teacher. Doctors told the family that her breast cancer is advanced, and that only miracles can save her. In fact the doctors gave her some months to live. Chemo therapy was still recommended chemo anyway, and she underwent with one session but don’t want to have a second one anymore, as she said, she would surrender everything to God and if God’s willing, she will be healed.

    For almost 7 years now, my neighbor with an advanced breast cancer, is still there and continue to live a normal life. I’m not sure that she is healed, though, but having years of life instead of months, had made me believed that miracles indeed happened!

  5. Thomas Says:

    I think one of the main issues here is the implication of accepting miracles. If highly credentialed academics told everyone that miracles are indeed a possibility, it might cause way too many people to more closely examine things like the Resurrection and abandon atheism in a number that is too high for some people’s comfort.

  6. Atheism’s New Clothes By David Glass « Deeper Waters Says:

    [...] In fact, Dawkins says the last word was written on this by Hume. (It’s strange that for the new atheists who claim to want to use the latest research, that they look at the 18th century and don’t look to see if any interaction has taken place since then.) I refer the reader to my review of “Miracles” by Craig Keener that can be found here. [...]

  7. The Virginity of Mary « Deeper Waters Says:

    [...] The main objection is still the objection of miracles. Of course, if one does not believe in miracles, one will not accept the virgin birth or more importantly, the resurrection. For the one skeptical of that, I recommend this. [...]

  8. Sense and Goodness Without God: Part 8 | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] indicated earlier has made a strong case they are still ongoing. You can find my review of his book here and listen to the interview that I did with him […]

  9. The Trouble With Internet Debates | Deeper Waters Says:

    […] more than quote David Hume. Have you read the critiques of Hume? Have you considered a work such as Miracles by Craig […]

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