Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Vetting miracles

(Posted on behalf of Steve.)

This is a sequel to my previous post:

  1. In case my previous post was unclear, McGrew won on points–as in a shutout where, by the end of the game, one team has 100 points on the scoreboard while the other team has 0.

    McGrew's opening statement pulled the rug out from under Zach's opening statement. As I recall, about the only thing McGrew's opening statement didn't address was Zach's claim about the "vanishingly low background probability" of miracles like the Resurrection. However, McGrew refuted that confusion (on Zach's part) later in the debate. Zach shot his wad with his prepared remarks. He had nothing left to say (besides repetition) after McGrew disarmed him.

    Now the reason I watched the debate is because Timothy McGrew is a world authority on the history and philosophy of miracles. In this post I'd like to spend more time considering his stated position. I still find some aspects of his position concerning.

  2. I don't object to vetting miracles. Some Christians are too gullible. To some extent, the church of Rome was built on bogus miracle claims. Hagiographies. Likewise, the charismatic movement is full of chicanery and wishful thinking.

  3. As a matter of apologetic strategy, it can sometimes be useful to adopt an artificially stringent standard. That leaves the unbeliever without excuse. Likewise, if an open-minded believer asked you for examples, it makes sense to lead with some of the best documented cases.

    And in apologetics, it's logical to focus on public evidence for public events. Mind you, private miracles could be just as probative for those who witness them, but that appeal is less accessible to outsiders. Yet we need to remember that this is artificially restrictive. It serves a purpose, but it shouldn't be the gold standard.

  4. Here's my basic concern: I think McGrew's criteria are quite sensible up to a point. Sensible in certain contexts. However, in their effort to preclude reasonable doubt, they generate a paradox:

    As a matter of policy, they are skeptical in the very situations where miracles are most apt to occur. According to the criteria, we should automatically doubt or discount reported miracles under the very conditions where, if they happen at all, most miracles will in fact occur. But wouldn't reported miracles be more credible if that's where they are more likely to occur?

  5. Let's begin with my understanding of his position. In the immediate context of the debate, the purpose of the filter is to eliminate most reported miracles so that an inquirer can focus on the strongest cases. The filter doesn't deny that many other reported miracles may be genuine.

    But it seems to me that his position is more far-reaching. From what I can tell, his position is that a reported miracle fails to merit direct, intrinsic, or independence credence unless it can pass the filter, as well as his additional fourfold criteria. For ease of reference, let's call miracles that survive the vetting process "vetted miracles."

    As I understand his position, vetted miracles can also function as what we might call index miracles. They furnish a standard of comparison in relation to which some other reported miracles can be validated. If we are able to establish vetted miracles or index miracles, they can then be used to sponsor or anchor some other miracles. I'm not clear on how that connection is made.

    If that's correct, it lays a very brittle foundation for Christianity. If, apart from the Resurrection, or 5-6 miracles, all other miracles can only be credited by their connection with the index miracle(s), then that places crushing weight on one (or maybe a handful) miracle to support the entire edifice.

  6. McGrew defines a miracle as an event that would not have happened if the natural world was left to itself, as a closed system or isolated system, as opposed to divine agency. Outside intervention changes the way nature behaves. So the probability of miracles depends on whether we have good reasons to believe the system was not left to itself in that instance.

    I have no objection to that definition. I think it's a good working definition. Discriminating, but not too discriminating or indiscriminate. Hard to see how you could improve on it. It's challenging to come up with good definitions. If they are too narrow, they suffer from too many exceptions. Too many holes. But if they are too broad, they fail to demarcate one kind of thing and another. There'd be problems if his definition were either more expansive or more restrictive.

    I'd add that I think his definition allows for coincidence miracles, which is a plus.

  7. Distant in time and place

    i) As a rule, it's true that if the first report falls outside the bounds of living memory, it's less reliable. Likewise, if the reporter didn't have contact with anyone on the ground, it's less reliable. And that's useful in distinguishing the historicity of the NT from apocryphal traditions.

    ii) My only caveat is that if we make allowance for inspiration or revelation, then God can disclose events about the distant past or future. Likewise, God can boost someone's memory. Although it's often useful, in apologetic strategy, to treat the NT documents just like historical documents, we shouldn't make methodological naturalism the standard. That's an apologetic concession for the sake of argument. And it has some merit in its own right. Ordinary providence is the norm.

    But Christianity, if true, is a revealed religion. So we shouldn't permanently bracket the supernatural factors in the production of the record.

    Someone might object that this begs the question. But it would only beg the question if we gave no reason for belief in revelation. If true, then Christianity is ultimately a supernatural and not a natural phenomenon. So even if we temporarily bracket the supernatural claims at this preliminary stage of the argument, we need to reintroduce that dimension at a later stage. The credibility of the Christian faith isn't based on naturalistic considerations alone. Our apologetic stance must take into account the nature of the phenomenon we defend.

  8. Public, observable events

    In apologetics, it's logical to concentrate on generally accessible events and generally accessible evidence. Likewise, if Christianity is true, then we'd expect evidence for the Christian faith to be generally available.

    My only concern is if this emphasis is taken to imply that all the best evidence is the kind of evidence that's equally accessible to believers and unbelievers alike. For if Christianity is true, then many Christians will experience providential incidents that are significant for them, and not for others–like miraculous answers to prayer. I'm not saying that's frequent. Just that private miracles, if they occur, have the same evidential value for the parties concerned as miracles for public consumption.

  9. Statistical noise

    i) By this I understand McGrew to mean an event that could be explicable on either naturalistic or supernaturalistic terms. Put another way, I think he means an an event that appears to be anomalous or miraculous considered in isolation, but one that averages out over time, given a wider sample.

    If so, it's not a good candidate for a miracle. The evidence or the nature of the event doesn't single out a miraculous explanation.

    Take prayer for rain. A Christian farmer prays for rain–and it rains!

    But is that an answer to prayer, or is this the post hoc fallacy? After all, sometimes it rains after he prays, and sometimes it doesn't. So couldn't that be reasonably, maybe more reasonable, chalked up to coincidence rather than special providence? Like the old saying that you find a lost object in the last place you look. Success selects for that end-point, because you stop looking once you find it. By the same token, it's bound to rain sooner or later. You keep praying until it rains. If it rains, you stop praying. But if it rained sooner or later, you'd cease prayer sooner or later. So the timing in relation to prayer is just coincidental. Self-selection bias. Or is it?

    I suppose you could raise the same objection to prayer for miraculous healing. Some people are healed, and some people aren't. So is that an answer to prayer, or statistical noise?

    ii) That's a dicey issue because these are circumstances under which, if miracles occur, this is when we'd expect them to occur. Christians do pray for rain. In some cases, we'd expect rain to be an answer to prayer. Same thing with healing. If God is a prayer-answering God, then these are the kinds of situations in which he will sometimes act.

    iii) In addition, it's not necessarily random. Rain has complex effects. Whether or not to answer prayer may involve balancing the overall benefits. Same thing with healing.

    iv) Moreover, rain can be very opportune at a particular time and place. Sure, inevitably it will rain, but later may be too late to save the crops. So if it rains when and where it's needed, that's not necessarily random.

    v) Furthermore, from a Christian standpoint, providence isn't naturalistic in the godless sense. The outcome can be divinely prearranged.

    vi) Whether or not a healing is miraculous will depend on the specifics of the case. The prognosis. The timing of remission in relation to prayer. Is "spontaneous remission" really a naturalistic alternative to miraculous healing, or is that just a placeholder?

    vii) I think it's too strong to say that if the same event can either be explained naturally or supernaturally, the default explanation is natural. I don't think that ipso facto makes a natural explanation better. For even if it's naturally possible, that might be very convoluted. For instance, it's possible for a gambler to have an astonishing run of luck. But sometimes cheating is a simpler explanation.

  10. Self-serving events or high cost of getting it wrong

    i) These are reasonable criteria for lowering the credibility of the report in some instances or raising the credibility of the report in other instances.

    ii) But what about a situation where a reporter has nothing in particular to either gain or lose? That falls in-between these two criteria.

    For instance, take the cliche of the Christian mother who prays for a deathly ill child, who recovers. She shares the "miracle" with her friends. On the one hand she pays no price for that claim. On the other hand, she has nothing to gain by telling her friends. And she doesn't share her experience because she personally benefits from sharing her experience. Rather, she does so because she can't contain herself. She's so thankful and joyful. She wants all her friends to know how merciful God was.

    iii) Moreover, if miracles ever happen, then we'd expect some of them to happen in situations just like that. So it seems counterintuitive to be dubious about reported miracles in the very circumstances where many of them take place–presuming they ever take place.

  11. Confirm preexisting belief system

    i) That poses a similar dilemma. On the one hand, it's true that in that context, there's more credulity. Unreflective or even dutiful acceptance of sectarian miracles that are consistent with what you already believe. Not to mention the propaganda value of sectarian miracles.

    On the other hand, if God performs miracles, we'd expect them to cluster in the community of faith. If they happen at all, they will be more prevalent among God's people because God is blessing his people. He does more for believers than unbelievers.

    So there's a certain perverse logic that says we should be suspicious about reported miracles under the very conditions where most of them occur–if they ever occur. Shouldn't that setting enhance rather than diminish their probability?

    ii) Perhaps, though, the objection is that more true and false miracle claims will occur in that setting, so it's better to avoid that altogether so that you don't have to sort out which is which.

    However, we can finesse that by distinguishing between institutional miracles and personal miracles. Institutional miracles are purported miracles which are designed to authenticate a particular sect, religion, or denomination. By contrast, personal miracles occur to meet a need. Although they may bolster the faith of the individual, that's a side-effect, and not the primary purpose.

  12. To function as signs, miracles must be rare

    I think this is related to his position that the regular course of nature is a necessary backdrop for the recognition of miracles. If so, that's ambiguous.

    For instance, let's posit a billion Christians. Let's posit that every Christian will experience one, but only one, miracle in the course of a lifetime.

    Would miracles still be rare? That depends on the frame of reference or reference class. In terms of the sum total, miracles would no longer be rare.

    But the individual experience of miracles would be rare. If that's a once-in-a-lifetime experience, then the rest of your life–both before and after–is like the "regular course of nature." The miracle stands in contrast to that generally ordinary backdrop.

    Collectively, miracles would be frequent–but distributively, miracles would be rare.

  13. Finally, McGrew said:

    I took that stance since (a) a large proportion of the people present would not have claimed to experience a miracle and (b) I never have (to my knowledge).

    without denying that such things might happen simply to meet an individual need, I'm very cautious, partly because I believe (rightly or wrongly) that I've seen some people fool themselves about private miracles, partly because I am mindful of Luke 4:25-26.

    i) In one respect, that's circular. If you think that miracles must be rare, then most people in the audience cannot have that experience.

    ii) If someone is operating with an "Expect a miracle!" philosophy, then that's a recipe or self-delusion or disillusionment. If that's what McGrew has in mind, I agree. However, we need to draw some distinctions:

    a) I'm not necessarily praying for a miracle, but just a solution. I don't have a particular solution in mind. That's up to God. I didn't specify a miracle. I didn't ask for a sign. I simply have a need that only God can supply. How he provides for my need isn't what I pray about.

    A miraculous answer to prayer doesn't imply prayer for a miracle. Indeed, a miraculous answer to prayer might be surprising. The Christian didn't anticipate that kind of response.

    b) There are legitimate situations where Christians pray for a miracle. A stock example is prayer for healing in case the patient's condition is medically hopeless.

    c) Likewise, there are situations in which a desperate person will pray for a sign. Sometimes this is non-Christian prayer by someone who's at a crossroads in life. Ironically, "private miracles" like that might fit McGrew's criterion of a high-cost commitment. Take Muslims who say they converted to Christianity due to revelatory dreams. They have a lot to lose.


  1. His position seems light years better than the MacArthur/GCC/Pyromaniacs position on miracles, so that's a plus.

    But for me personally, and I would suspect many sober-minded, serious, non-charismatic/non-pentecostal believers miracles as defined by McGrew are wildly common in the community of faith.

    I can think, off the top of my head, of dozens and dozens of cases of amazingly, specifically answered prayers, sometimes with details and unexpected twists that simply could not have been humanly orchestrated, even if attempted.

    Of course this is anecdotal and I can't "prove it" to anyone outside the context, but then I don't suppose it was for them anyway.

    1. Thanks, CR. :-) It still might be helpful to post some of these (anonymized) stories if you have the time and inclination for it.

    2. Quickly - three experiences I'm personally aware of from two different local congregations in which I've served in two different states:

      1.) A couple my wife and I ministered with for several years in our local church were praying about and considering becoming overseas missionaries, very few people knew this, and a very small and private group came alongside them in prayer. In talking with the husband after they were affirmed by our local church he relayed to me two separate instances of Christian people who could have had no natural knowledge of this seeking of God's will and direction due to their geographic location, and who in fact had not been in contact with the couple for quite some time, who nevertheless for some reason unknown to themselves "felt compelled by the Spirit" or "felt led of the Lord" to reach out to the couple to encourage them to consider becoming missionaries.

      2.) An older gentleman in a Sunday School class I was teaching had been requesting prayer for his son who had been diagnosed with cancer. He was asking for healing for his adult son, and for strength and protection for himself and his wife as they prepared for the long and difficult road of helping their son who lived several states away.

      The class was in regular prayer for these things, when this man suffered a minor fall which caused some bruising to his side. He thought it was nothing, but he was encouraged to get checked out by his doctor. He was checked and sent home with a clean bill of health. The class continued praying for him and his wife and son, and he soon reported to the class that he had "felt like he needed to be checked again" so he had gone back to his doctor and requested a scan because he thought he might have bruised a kidney.

      The doctor scanned his injury-side kidney and everything was fine, but the doctor noticed a shadow on the other kidney, and scheduled another scan. Cancer. Long story short, it was early stage "luckily" found and removed with no further follow ups or complications. He attributed it to being bathed in prayer and God's sweet providential care.

      3.) A young married couple were in a financial bind due to the husband losing his job at a local factory which was shutting down and laying off. The husband was looking for work, but the town was small and there weren't many options. They and fellow believers were praying for a job, and for provision to help bridge their income gap. Unbeknownst to the couple the husband's former employer had been automatically paying in a small amount of money into a fund for several years, even though the husband was not making contributions from his pay, and an unexpected check arrived in the mail of just under $10,000 that helped them keep their bills current until the husband was ultimately able to find work - which turned out to be a better and higher paying position than his former job.

      These may not seem very amazing or compelling, but when you're alongside these people, and their obvious thankfulness and joy in the Lord is overflowing it's a precious blessing to share, and such things act as tokens of our great God and King's lovingkindness.