Monday, August 12, 2013

Ghost Hunters

I'm going to comment on this post by Fred Butler:

My internet pal, Steve Hays, has been busting my chops as he is championing charismatic claims of the miraculous against the cessationist claims of fraud.
Let's just say I think that description reflects a certain amount of poetic license.
I guess what surprises me about Steve’s commentary is that I believe he knows better. Take for example when he states, “I think part of the problem is that many members/followers of the MacArthur circle don’t seem to have much experience debating atheists.”  What sort of debating is he looking for? If he means a formal  Bahnsen/Stein style debate, then yes, I can’t think of any right off hand that involves a “MacArthurite” and any well-known atheist evangelist in a public forum.If he means, on the other hand, interactions with atheists in general in which they challenge our Christian faith and we challenge their atheist faith, then that is one of the most gratuitously ignorant statements I’ve ever read from Steve. He genuinely believes us MacArthurites are that out-of-touch?
First thing I'd note is that Fred doesn't present any counterexamples. And unless I'm mistaken, "MacArthurites" like the Pyromaniacs and the speakers at the Strange Fire conference haven't had anything approaching the frequency or depth of engagement with atheists that I've had, both in my book-length reviews of atheist literature as well as impromptu debates.
But perhaps Fred has something else in mind. He doesn't say.
I’m fairly confident James White is a cessationist in the same fashion as we MacArthurites, and I don’t recall his cessationist understanding of spiritual gifts being a factor when he has debated atheists in the past. I don’t recall David Hume being a factor, either.  I bet K. Scott Oliphint is a cessationist, also; and he just wrote the newest, popular treatment about Van Til’s apologetic theology. Would Steve say he is arguing like an atheist? Heck, I’d bet Van Til was a cessationist. What am I supposed think about his apologetics in light of Steve’s claim of atheism?
i) I'm struck by how quickly Fred segues from MacArthurites to non-MacArthurites. The logical connection isn't obvious.
ii) But since he brings it up, we need to distinguish between Christians who happen to be cessationists and cessationistis who write detailed defenses of cessationism. (Same thing with charismatics.) In the nature of the case, I can only judge a cessationist by the arguments he uses. If he doesn't argue for cessationism, there's nothing more to say in that regard.
iii) There are also differences in how different cessationists make their case. For instance, you have "high altitude" cessationists like Richard Gaffin and O. P. Robertson. They don't discuss the charismata at ground level. They don't investigate or evaluate testimonial evidence for modern miracles. Rather, they bomb the target from 40,000 feet in the air. They approach the issue from the abstract framework of redemptive-historical theology.
iv) By contrast, a cessationist like Warfield does approach the issue from a church historical perspective. And, as a matter of fact, his naive reliance on Conyers Middleton does fall afoul of my criticism. He seems unaware of the fact that Middleton was probably a closet Deist.
v) To my knowledge, Oliphint hasn't studied the evidence for modern miracles. But if he took the dismissive attitude towards testimonial evidence that some MacArthurites do, then, yes, I'd have the same criticism. 
Steve chides our skepticism, insisting that we argue exactly like all the internet atheists trying to debunk the claims of Scripture. He goes on to challenge our skepticism by saying we haven’t read such-and-such book, author, or testimonials and thus it is concluded our opinion is misinformed, or lacking any real knowledge to be a well-rounded, meaningful criticism of charismatic claims of healing and the supernatural.But do I really need to read Craig Keener’s two volumes on miracles and every charismatic commentary on 1 Corinthians 12-14 in order to offer a biblically informed critique of what is passed off as speaking in tongues and healing the sick in charismatic/Pentecostal circles? Why?
I've already answered that question, but to repeat:
i) Cessationism posits a universal negative. It's not confined to debunking sensational claims in Charisma magazine. So the scope of the research needs to bear some correspondence to the scope of the claim. 
ii) In my experience, MacArthurites often reason like this:
"There is no credible evidence for modern prophecy, faith-healers, &c. It's all thirdhand reports."
When, however, you ask them for their sources, when you ask them if they've read more scholarly monographs on the subjects, they respond by exclaiming:
"How dare you suggest I need to read Craig Keener, Rex Gardner, et al.!"
The obvious problem is that MacArthurites are guilty of circular reasoning. On the one hand they say there's no good evidence. On the other hand, when you ask them if they've studied the best sources, they take umbrage at the question and assure you that they don't need to since there's no good evidence. Well, how do they know that there's no good evidence if they studiously avoid the best sources?
Sorry, but that's exactly like Dawkins. Reading sophisticated, erudite defenses of Christianity is a waste of time because Christianity is bunk. And he knows that because…? 
That argument can cut many ways. I can offer the same response to those who may deny the existence of a vast underground network of high velocity bullet trains that travel at 10,000 mph and can transfer top secret military personnel from LA to DC in 30 minutes.  Or those who claim the earth is hollow or extraterrestrials are abducting human women in order to harvest their ovaries to produce human-alien hybrids.I mean, has Steve read all of Whitley Strieber’s books? Has he examined ALL of Richard Hoagland’s photographic evidence from the Apollo missions that show mechanical alien debris strewn across the surface of the moon? Has he watched ALL of the Ghost Hunters TV series? If you haven’t, why should anyone be so dogmatic that those individuals are kooks? Does Steve not realize how he is aping the arguments that are straight from the pages of the Skeptical Inquirer?
Several issues that need to be disambiguated:
i) Life is short, so we have to prioritize our time. We make snap judgements about what is worth studying.
ii) Some positions are so intuitively implausible that there is no best representative to study. They attract kooks. Take Scientology. Take L. Ron Hubbard. 
iii) I'm entitled to have an opinion about ufology without having done much reading on the subject. If, however, I pose as an expert witness at a conference, then it is incumbent on me to do some in-depth research. To acquaint myself with how ufologists argue for their position and field objections. 
iv) If you want to examine whether or not hauntings are for real, Ghost Hunters is hardly the most reliable source of information. That's pulp entertainment. I've never said you should bone up on everything the other side has to say. To the contrary, I've always said you should focus on the most able exponents. So Fred's example backfires. 
v) The problem with Fred's analogy is whether a position that's espoused by scholars of the caliber of Craig Keener, Gordon Fee, Graham Twelftree, and Max Turner (among others) can be honestly compared to Ghost Hunters
Dan Phillips on August 12, 2013 at 7:34 am said:
I’m just surprised you continue to engage him so seriously. He’s “arguing” like a four-year-old. I don’t see the percentage in engaging him as if he’s not. I mean I admire you, but I just don’t see it ending well. A few proverbs come to mind.
Dan's attitude is a good example of why many young people walk away from the church and never look back. 


  1. "First thing I'd note is that Fred doesn't present any counterexamples."

    If Fred did provide counter examples, would you modify or retract your particular statement in this regard?


    With regards to Dan Phillips, folks should read your Debunking Continuationism post. They'll see that you're not arguing like a four-year-old.

  2. Dan Phillips said:

    I’m just surprised you continue to engage him so seriously. He’s “arguing” like a four-year-old. I don’t see the percentage in engaging him as if he’s not. I mean I admire you, but I just don’t see it ending well. A few proverbs come to mind.

    I respect Dan. But I don't think his allegation against Steve is quite fair. People may dispute Steve's reasons and arguments, but he has offered reasons and arguments on the topic.

    I suspect it's more the case that Dan (among others) doesn't appreciate Steve's tone. If so, to begin with, this isn't anything new. I'm pretty sure nearly every Tblogger has had their tone called into question. Whether our tone is justifiable depends in part on each particular instance (including this one on the current topic). But I'll leave all this aside for the moment since I think it'd detract from another point I'd like to make now: If someone doesn't like a person's tone, then why not tune out their tone, and focus on the arguments themselves?

    It seems to me Fred Butler has been engaging the arguments themselves. But I don't think Dan has attempted to engage Steve on this topic so far, has he? If not, then, with all due respect, I don't quite follow how declining to engage an argument and at the same time alleging someone is "'arguing' like a four-year-old" is altogether different to, well, "'arguing' like a four-year-old"?

  3. Patrick, I don't think it's the tone simply because TeamPyro has addressed the inadequacy of dismissing someone's argument over tone in the past. I think they even have a tone police article. They often, or have in the past, been accused of having an unloving tone.

    1. Thanks, Mark. That could be true. I wouldn't know without hearing from them directly.

      That said, it's possible for someone to believe it's inadequate to dismiss an argument due to tone, but (unknowingly or knowingly) behave differently when they have to deal with it themselves.

      But in any case, I think the tone bit was less important than what I wrote in the first and last paragraphs.