Thursday, November 28, 2013

Naturalizing miracles

Even if we say that it was a miracle, though, that doesn’t at all concede the continuation of miracle-workers. Similarly, if someone gets healed as an answer to prayer, neither does that mean that the gift of healing has continued. That part of my comment got left out of your citation: “MacArthur certainly believes that God can and does heal today. He simply believes that the gift of healing is not given today. So God heals, but not through healers.”

i) One problem is that MacArthurites oscillate between divergent criteria. On the one hand, they frame the issue in terms of the continuation or discontinuation of certain "gifts." On the other hand, they frame the issue in terms of the continuation of direct miracles but discontinuation of indirect miracles. But those are not equivalent propositions. For instance, Phil Johnson says There are two kinds of miracles noted in Scripture. 1. Some are remarkable works of God apart from any human agency, where God unilaterally intervened or where miraculous events happened apart from any human agency. 2. The other kind of miracle involves a human agent, who from the human perspective is the instrument through which the miracle comes.

However, God using a human agent as an instrument through the miracle comes is not equivalent to a "gift" for working miracles. What if God empowers someone to heal someone else just once? That involves human agency. But if that's a one-time event, is that a gift of healing? Why must human agency involve a gift of healing? 

ii) Another problem is the ad hoc, hairsplitting distinction, where you say answered prayer is never miraculous. But what is your justification for that false dichotomy?

By collapsing all answered prayers into providential rather than miraculous answers, you're unable to distinguish between three qualitatively different kinds of answered prayers. Let's take some examples:

a) A teenager is hours late arriving home. His Christian parents are very worried. They pray that nothing bad has happened to him. They pray that God will return him safely home. Turns out his car broke down on a deserted road. So there's nothing miraculous about his belated homecoming. 

Of course, the parents are still thankful to have him back safe and sound. And it's possible that their prayers had a counterfactual effect. Absent their prayers, perhaps he would have been murdered by a serial killer.

b) A woman has advanced macular degeneration. Her ophthalmologist tells her that her condition is medically incurable. She will soon go blind.

She has the prayer chain at her church intercede for her. Next week she returns to the ophthalmologist. Her eyesight has been restored. Her ophthalmologist has no explanation. Her recovery is scientifically inexplicable. 

c) Although this is presented as a true story, it will suffice to treat it as a hypothetical illustration:

Early in my ministry I heard teaching on how to pray specifically while attending a seminar in Southern California. In a few weeks, I was to return to Colorado to start my ministry at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden with Ray Womack, a fellow Campus Crusade worker. Unknown to anyone, I wrote a prayer request in my prayer notebook and began to pray specifically that God would provide for me and Ray a white house with a white picket fence, a grassy front yard, within two or three miles from campus, for no more that $130 per month. I told the Lord that this request was a reasonable one on the grounds that (a) we wanted a place that provided a home atmosphere for students, accessible from campus, that we could afford and (b) I was experimenting with specific prayer and wanted my faith to be strengthened.I returned to the Golden area and looked for three days at several places to live. I found nothing in Golden and, in fact, I only found one apartment for rent for $135/month about twelve miles from Campus. I told the manager I would take it and she informed me that a couple had looked at the place that morning, they had until that afternoon to make a decision, and if they did not want it, I could move in the next day. I called late that afternoon and was informed that the couple took the apartment, the last available one in the complex. I was literally back to ground zero.Now not a single person knew I had been praying for the white house. That evening, Kaylon Carr (a Crusade friend) called me to ask if I still needed a place to stay. When I say yes, she informed me that earlier that day, she had been to Denver Seminary. While there, she saw a bulletin board on which a pastor in Golden was advertising a place to rent, hopefully to seminary students or Christian workers. Kaylon gave me his phone number, so I called and set up an appointment to meet the pastor at his place at nine the next morning. Well, as I drove up, I came to a white house with a white picket fence, a nice grassy front yard, right around two miles from Campus, and he asked for $110 per month rent. Needless to say, I took it, and Ray and I had a home that year in which to minister.This answer to prayer, along with hundreds of others I and my Christian friends have seen, was an event that was (1) contingent and did not have to happened according to natural law; (2) very improbable; and (3) independently specifiable (a number of features of the event were specified in my prayer prior to and independent of the event itself taking place).

Because a MacArthurite is precommitted to a cessationist explanation, he must arbitrarily consign each case to "providence." He can't allow himself to draw any qualitative distinction between these three very different types of answered prayer. 

In my judgment, that kind of statement is light-years away from the kind of deistic/naturalistic rationalism that you seem to want to pin on cessationists. 

i) When MacArthurites exhibit the same dismissive attitude towards testimony evidence for modern healers, miracle-workers, or "prophecies," then that replicates the reflexive disbelief of secular debunkers. 

ii) When, moreover, MacArthurities always opt for a naturalistic explanation over a miraculous explanation in the case of modern charismatic miracles, that replicates the presumptive naturalism of secular debunkers.  

iii) Another problem is that you're taking God's existence for granted. However, the cessationist paradigm argues for God's existence from miracles. In the argument from miracles, God's existence is a conclusion rather than a given. 

If, however, you explain away many "extraordinary" events as the result of natural processes or natural forces, and if you fail to distinguish between providence and coincidence miracles, then you reject a direct and primary evidence for God's existence. 

Saying that the mysterious absence of cancer might simply be owing to an extraordinary working of God’s meticulous providence isn’t a concession to naturalism. 

You're using words ("extraordinary working of God's meticulous providence") without defining your terms or unpacking the key concepts. How do you define providence in contrast to a miracle? For instance, the Westminster Confession explicates the concept of providence by reference to second causes (WCF 5.2). 

On that definition, to say that someone with stage-4 pancreatic cancer was providentially healed in answer to prayer means the cancer disappeared through second causes.  It followed a natural chain of cause and effect. No skips or jumps. No outside intervention. There was no interruption in the causal continuum–in contrast to a miracle, which is discontinuous with the chain of second causes. 

My question is, why should we believe that's how it happens? Do you know a natural mechanism by which stage-4 pancreatic cancer is reversible? Can you identify a continuous natural process by which that occurs? Can you describe the incremental steps by which a dying cancer patient undergoes sudden and complete remission? 

(Perhaps some day medical science will discover a natural explanation for spontaneous remission. In that event, I'd reclassify this as a coincidence miracle.)

And, of course, I don’t at all deny any of the miraculous works that God has done that are recorded for us in Scripture. Jesus’ miraculous healings, the resurrection, even the divine inspiration of Scripture are all things we believe firmly. I hope you would acknowledge that that separates us from the rationalists and naturalists who would seek to explain away even the biblical miracles because they truly cannot abide supernaturalism. Even us “MacArthurite cessationists” are supernaturalists!

i) A basic problem is that MacArthurites define a miracle, not by reviewing biblical events, then classifying different types of biblical events, but by starting with the opposing position (continuationism), then coming up with an armchar definition which will excludes whatever continuationism maintains. It's a reactionary, makeshift definition. Take Phil Johnson's definition: In a Biblical sense “a miracle is an extraordinary work of God that involves His immediate and unmistakable intervention in the physical realm in a way that contravenes natural processes.”

ii) Apropos (ii), given their reactionary, defensive definition, MacArthurites shorten the list of Biblical miracles. Do all of Christ's miracles fit the definition? The draught of fish? Cursing the fig tree? Performing exorcisms? Dispelling fever? The coin in the fish's mouth? Curing internal bleeding? What about other Biblical miracles like the earthquake which freed Paul and Silas? What about natural disasters: the flood (Gen 7), destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19), plague of boils (Exod 9), plague of hail (Exod 9), and plague of locusts (Exod 10), or other divine judgments involving natural mechanisms: the fate of Korah and his cohorts (Num 16:31-33); God sends a deadly plague (e.g. Num 11:33; 14:37; 16:46-50; 25:8-9; 1 Sam 5:6ff.; 24:15). 

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    RE: cessationists denying agency when healing comes through prayer

    Would they also deny human agency in the following cases where prayer was used or would have been instrumental in healing others?

    1 Kings 17.21-24 Elijah raising the widow’s son

    2 Kings 3.32-37 Elisha raising the Shunammite’s son

    Acts 9.40-41 where Peter prays before raising Tabitha

    Acts 28.8 Paul prays before healing Publius’s father of recurrent fever and dysentery

    Mark 9.18-29 where Jesus explains that the disciples were unable to heal the boy of the demon because “This kind cannot come out by anything but prayer” or “prayer and fasting (as some manuscripts)

    The elders praying over the sick person in James 5.14-15 would seem to fall into the same category.

    If these examples admit that God healed through the prayer of the person and that it was through agency, I don’t see how cessationists can legitimately exclude post-apostolic prayers of individuals or groups over a person as use of human agency and prayer.

    RE: God healing once through a person/gift of healing

    I think it is possible for God to use a person to heal who may never had done this previously or may never afterward. The gift in 1 Corinthians is “gifts of healings” (both nouns are plural not singular) which may suggest that each healing is a gift in itself. Furthermore, if charismata can be occasional (for the moment) as well as permanent in persons, then it is possible for a person to exercise a gift they don’t normally because the Spirit has chosen to use the person in that moment.