Wednesday, October 09, 2013

900 foot Jesus

Fred Butler has pried away some spare time to respond to us on the issue of modern miracles:

I appreciate the fact that unlike some MacArthurites, Fred argues for his position. His post is mainly directed at some comments by Jason Engwer, but I will weigh in.

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.
I never used that argument. Rather, I've pointed out that MacArthurites often resort to skeptical tactics to dismiss modern miracles which are indistinguishable from the tactics of Hume and secular debunkers. That doesn't suggest or imply that MacArthurites have to be influenced by Hume. 
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.
And I've quoted MacArthurites doing that very thing.
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...]
What about Fred's digression? His response is circular. Remember that MacArthurites classify Biblical miracles as sign-gifts whose function is to certify the messenger. So although Fred believes in Biblical miracles because he believes in the Bible, his position also commits him to believing in the Bible because the Bible was attested by sign-gifts. Therefore, he can't simply exempt Scripture from testimonial evidence in general. On the one hand he believes in Biblical miracles because the Bible attests them. On the the hand, he believes in the Bible due to miraculous attestation. So his cessationism ironically creates some parity between the case for Biblical miracles and the case for modern miracles, given the function which cessationism assigns to miracles (i.e. to accredit the messenger). Given that paradigm, you can't discount the one without discounting the other.
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…Other passages of Scripture imply that miraculous activity can be produced by our demonic enemy designed specifically to lead people into theological error. 
I don't deny that. I doubt Jason does, either. On the other hand, I believe Jason does object to defaulting to a demonic explanation. I think he regards that as an easy out in too many cases. 
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.
Let's briefly comment on a few of these examples:
i) I've never bothered to investigate Aimee Semple McPherson. I'm quite open to the possibility (or probability) that she was a charlatan.
Over against that, Robert Godfrey, in one of his church history classes, did a sympathetic presentation of "Sister Aimee." He didn't treat her as a fraud. Godfrey's a church historian, and president of a Reformed seminary. I also assume that he's a Reformed cessationist. So it's not as if he's predisposed to vouch for her sincerity. As a church historian, I assume his assessment of her is based on scholarly sources regarding her life and work. 
ii) Likewise, I never did an in-depth study of Wimber. As I recall, he was asked (by Peter Wagner) to speak at Fuller Seminary. When he was there, sensational things began to happen. That's ironic because by that time, Fuller had gone liberal. This was a throwback to a primitive supernaturalism that liberal seminary profs. would disdain.
My off-the-cuff impression of Wimber is that he was a sincere, but theologically unsophisticated Christian. As such, he probably said a number of questionable things, and exercised poor judgment in some of his associations. But that's distinct from whether genuine miracles occurred under his ministry. I have no firm opinion, not having researched the issue. I don't think he's a reliable theological guide. For a sympathetic analysis of Wimber's theology:
iii) Kurt Koch thinks that Oral Roberts did have genuine healing ability. Koch attributes that to Roberts having been healed by an Indian witchdoctor when he was  a young man. As a result, Koch thinks that occult ability was transmitted to Roberts. I have no firm opinion. Certainly his "seed-faith" doctrine was a fundraising gimmick. 
The "vision" of the 900 foot Jesus was a fiasco. It was a fundraiser for a medical center, which became a boondoggle–bankrupting ORU. The 900 foot Jesus turned out to be a white elephant in disguise.
Whatever his paranormal abilities, if any, Roberts was a conman. 
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) I have my own take on Catholic miracles:
ii) I don't know the source of Jason's interest in Lourdes. However, I can think of one possible source. A few years ago, Jason and I reviewed a book edited by John Loftus. One of the contributors used Lourdes as a test-case for Biblical miracles. It was an argument from analogy. He took the position that reported miracles at Lourdes are better attested than Biblical miracles. But if reported miracles at Lourdes are bogus, then so much the worse for Biblical miracles. That may have peaked Jason's interest in Lourdes, as a way of challenging the secular debunker on his own grounds.
Jason has also taken in interest in the Shroud of Turin. Of course, that's not unusual among evangelical apologists (e.g. Gary Habermas). Although the Shroud is currently a Catholic relic, if the Shroud is authentic, then that association is adventitious (like the bronze serpent). I have no opinion about the authenticity of the Shroud.
He [Keener] 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…I personally see no precedent from Scripture in which God worked in such a fashion among the purveyors of a false Gospel…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. 
i) Consider a counterexample. The Bible records a number of revelatory dreams. In several cases, pagans are the recipients of these revelatory dreams: Abimelech (Gen 20:3-7), the Egyptian baker and cupbearer (Gen 40), Pharaoah (Gen 41), Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 2, 4), and Pilate's wife (Mt 27:19). We might include the Magi (Mt 2:12). 
God is the direct source of these miraculous disclosures. And these are true revelations rather than delusive revelations. 
So there is Biblical precedent for God miraculously revealing himself to and through adherents of false religions. 
ii) That's only a problem if you artificially restrict the function of miracles to accrediting doctrine. And, ironically, that's how Hume frames them, then deploys that framework to conclude that reported miracles from competing religions cancel out one another.  


  1. Here's my response to Fred, awaiting moderation at his blog:


    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.

  2. Fred has responded to me at his blog. Here's my second reply to him, awaiting moderation at his blog:

    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.

  3. Fred said:

    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.

    Hm, I think it's a bit unclear what Fred is suggesting here.

    If he's suggesting working "many wonderful works and miracles" is incompatible with or mutually exclusive to salvation in Christ (i.e. Jesus "knowing" a person), then I'm afraid I don't see how the passage bears this out. I would think Fred would agree at a minimum this passage affirms it's possible for unbelievers like false prophets to work miracles in Jesus' name. But this doesn't therefore likewise mean believers cannot work miracles in Jesus' name. At least not without some sort of explication from Fred.

    Besides, the Bible itself records the apostles and others performing "many wonderful works and miracles" (e.g. Joshua stopping the sun, Elisha's works).

    Also, the Bibles records other disciples of Jesus (not only the apostles) doing "many wonderful works and miracles". See Luke 10:17-20: "The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, 'Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!' And he said to them, 'I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."

    Fred might instead suggest working miracles is unlikely to be compatible with salvation in Christ. But, of course, "unlikely" is not the same as "never". If this is what Fred means, then it doesn't rule out that a bona fide Christian could perform "many wonderful works and miracles".