Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The truth is out there

I'm going to comment on Fred's latest unresponsive response to me:

Before getting specific, I'll make a basic observation. Fred disregards the distinction between evidence for an event and the interpretation of an event. Take folk remedies like herbal medicine. Suppose a primitive tribe resided in the Amazon jungle for several centuries. By trial and error, that tribe might well discover the medicinal properties of certain fauna and flora. However, the tribe couldn't offer a scientific explanation for its folk remedies.

Indeed, the medicine man is usually a witchdoctor. The witchdoctor could have some genuine remedies which operate according to natural principles. Yet he'd ascribe their efficacy to magic. 

Now, a pharmacologist could confirm the medicinal value of these folk remedies without buying into the folkloric explanation. The evidence for the event is independent of the interpretation. An observer can be a reliable eyewitness, but an unreliable interpreter of what he observed. 

Although I used a hypothetical example, there are real world counterparts. For instance: 

A prescientific culture can hit upon some genuine remedies, even if the explanation it offers for their efficacy is pseudoscientific. Don't confuse the discovery with the interpretation. 

None the less, UFO believers still claim they have evidence. Not only their very own eye-witness testimony, but also photographic and video evidence and even in some cases, tangible evidence in the form of debris, or landing spots, or even implants that have been removed from abductees.Yet, even with that weight of crushing evidence, I still remain unconvinced that what UFOs there may be jetting around in the atmosphere, they are extraterrestrial in origin.
i) Fred's analogy involves a disanalogy. If extraterrestrial visitors were real, they'd be natural creatures using physical technology. So, at that level, that's a case of comparing one natural explanation with a natural alternative.  Which natural explanation is more plausible? That we are visited by aliens from outer space, or some other natural explanation? That's not comparable to a miraculous healing, or premonitory dream. 
ii) Also, the true identity of UFOs doesn't preclude a supernatural explanation. Indeed, I've suggested that some cases are probably a hitech variation on Old Hag syndrome. To that extent, Fred's comparison backfires, for some abduction stories invite a supernatural explanation–which is analogous to a miracle. 

I can also say the same about all the claims of the miraculous that are said to be happening. I remain unconvinced that a major portion of it is the Spirit of God working through gifted individuals.
Notice how Fred subtly skews the issue. Why must it be the Spirit of God working through a gifted individual? If the Spirit of God works through an individual who is not gifted, is it not miraculous? Is miraculous healing in Jas 5:14-15 indexed to a "gift of healing"? 
None the less, charismatics attempt to challenge us MacArthurite naysayers with the evidence. They trot out the countless eye-witness, baffled medical doctors, and in some cases the before and after X-ray pictures to document the proof that such-and-such a person was healed or healed some other person.
That's the kind of evidence that cessationists often demand. So how do they respond when we rise to the challenge? They move the goal post. 
The current go to charismatic apologist for such “evidence” is quasi-evangelical, Craig Keener, professor of NT at Ashbury Theological seminary.
How does Fred define a "quasi-evangelical," in distinction to a mere evangelical? 
Charismatics and their sympathizers elevate Keener’s books on miracles to almost an infallible status.
Hold your breath while Fred burns a straw man.
In the online discussions leading up to and after the Strange Fire conference, whenever us MacArthurites even dared to question the legitimacy of modern day faith healing claims, someone would always drop Keener’s name thinking it would silence cessationist opposition immediately.  I guess folks believe when they ask “what about Keener’s books on miracles?” cessationists are to just bow their trembling heads and confess that they have no answer.
Fred is rewriting history. What actually happens is that MacArthurites reflexively deny any evidence for charismatic miracles. They don't even bother to familiarize themselves with the best literature on the subject. Fred himself had to be bullied into reading Keener's monograph.
Yet, as I have noted on previous occasions, Keener’s work is fraught with some problems. The most glaring in my mind is the fact that he attributes miracle working power and miraculous happenings to heretical individuals and aberrant groups. For example, Roman Catholics, metaphysical cultists like the Bethel Redding group, and false teachers like Oral Roberts.
Yes, that's Fred's pat answer. And he passes over in silence my counterarguments. I do appreciate his tacit admission that he has no rebuttal to my counterarguments. All he can do his push the replay button. 
He goes on to write how he believes God, being the benevolent deity He is, will work miracles among theologically unorthodox people, even among non-Christians, because God is loving and compassionate on His creatures desiring to alleviate suffering and misery among humanity. Sort of a continuationist ecumenism. I am not as accommodating as he is.
i) In Scripture, God often shows mercy to non-Christians. In theological jargon, that's called common grace. For instance:
…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust (Mt 5:45). 
16 In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 13:16-17).
ii) In Scripture, God sometimes performs miracles among non-Christians. For instance:
4 Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. 5 The Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring out the people of Israel from among them (Exod 7:4-5). 
21 And the Lord sent an angel, who cut off all the mighty warriors and commanders and officers in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land. And when he came into the house of his god, some of his own sons struck him down there with the sword (2 Chron 32:21; cf. Isa 37:36-38). 
11 And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword.12 At that time Joshua spoke to the Lord in the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the sons of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel,“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,    and moon, in the Valley of Aijalon.”13 And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,    until the nation took vengeance on their enemies.Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in the midst of heaven and did not hurry to set for about a whole day. 14 There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel (Josh 10:11-14). 
When the Philistines captured the ark of God, they brought it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it into the house of Dagon and set it up beside Dagon. 3 And when the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord. So they took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But when they rose early on the next morning, behold, Dagon had fallen face downward on the ground before the ark of the Lord, and the head of Dagon and both his hands were lying cut off on the threshold. Only the trunk of Dagon was left to him. 5 This is why the priests of Dagon and all who enter the house of Dagon do not tread on the threshold of Dagon in Ashdod to this day.6 The hand of the Lord was heavy against the people of Ashdod, and he terrified and afflicted them with tumors, both Ashdod and its territory. 7 And when the men of Ashdod saw how things were, they said, “The ark of the God of Israel must not remain with us, for his hand is hard against us and against Dagon our god.” 8 So they sent and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “What shall we do with the ark of the God of Israel?” They answered, “Let the ark of the God of Israel be brought around to Gath.” So they brought the ark of the God of Israel there. 9 But after they had brought it around, the hand of the Lord was against the city, causing a very great panic, and he afflicted the men of the city, both young and old, so that tumors broke out on them. 10 So they sent the ark of God to Ekron. But as soon as the ark of God came to Ekron, the people of Ekron cried out, “They have brought around to us the ark of the God of Israel to kill us and our people.” 11 They sent therefore and gathered together all the lords of the Philistines and said, “Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there. 12 The men who did not die were struck with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven (1 Sam 5). 
iii) To take one more example, God healed Naaman when Naaman was still a pagan (2 Kgs 5:1-19). As a result, Naaman converted to the true faith. But that wasn't a precondition of his healing. 
Notice, that I'm just responding to Fred on his own grounds. That doesn't mean I think God works miracles through Oral Roberts or the Redding cult. 
When someone raised the specter of Keener’s work against cessationism on some Facebook forum, I left a remark asking if the commenter agreed with Keener’s affirmation of the miraculous happening among those heretical groups. Steve, always alert to such online obscurities, wrote a head-wagging response chastising my even raising this problem. He noted Kathryn Kuhlman as an example, because Keener has an extended section in his book on her specifically and he lays out the “medical evidence.”
Fred is rewriting the history of the thread. I didn't offer Kuhlman as an example. Rather, I was responding to Fred. He likes to bring up Kuhlmann because he thinks that she really proves his point. This is how the exchange actually went down. 
Fred Butler11/07/2013 2:10 PMWhat is my narrative? I'm lost. Both Peters and Tada sought to be healed by continuationists. A particular continuationist that your hero Keener even documents in his book. Both Peters and Tada left their encounter with the continuationist unhealed. Along with a scores of other individuals who were in their same condition. What happened? Why? Oh sure, some third world kid somewhere dipped in the river and was healed of her cholera, so you can't deny the continuation of the gifts. 
steve11/07/2013 2:34 PMFred,
i) What makes you think continuationism has a single narrative on this issue? What makes you think continuationism is that monolithic?

ii) You're evidently taking the position that if the "gift of healing" continues, then a healer can heal any patient the healer tries to heal.

if so, what makes you think that's the continuationist narrative rather than your own interpretation of what the "gift of healing" entails?

Some continuationists stress the sovereignty of God. Others claim the sick must exercise faith. On either interpretation, a healer would not be able to heal every patient they lay hands on.

So that's something you're putting into the continuationist narrative rather than something you're getting out of the continuationist narrative.

iii) Since you allude to Keener's discussion of Kathryn Kuhlman, Keener furnishes documentation of medically verified healings. So that's not "some third world kid somewhere dipped in the river and was healed of her cholera."

Continuing with Fred:
Those individuals Keener never mentions, but he does provide, as Steve points out, “medical evidence” of Kuhlman’s claims. But it really isn’t “evidence;” It’s more like eye-witness testimony from medical doctors, a lot of it taken from Jamie Buckingham’s hagiographies on Kuhlman’s career.
I'd point out that you can read that section for yourself in the Google book edition of Keener's monograph:
Just input Kuhlman in the search box, and it will pull up the pages. Study the documentation for yourself. Draw your own conclusions.
Kuhlman first equated the natural ability of the human body to heal itself with the “miraculous.” Certainly we can all marvel at the human body’s capability to heal itself and recover from some of the most catastrophic injuries. But that is not the supernatural gift of healing. Certainly not in the supernatural, miracle type Keener is suggesting.
That confuses the evidence for an event with the explanation of an event (see above). Kuhlman's interpretation is irrelevant to what happened. And that's where medical corroboration is useful. 
Moreover, while she paid lip-service to the medical profession as “miracle workers” like in the setting of a bone for example, she did so only for the purposes of covering her failures, or in the broader case, the victim’s failure.
Even if we accept Fred's jaundiced characterization, that's irrelevant to what the doctors actually said. 
You see, it’s that sort of “evidence” that is compelling to me, the kind brushed off by Keener and his fans.
This is Fred's exercise in misdirection. Evidence that something didn't happen in one case doesn't cancel out evidence that something happened in another case. A nonevent isn't counterevidence. If there's evidence that something happened in one case (e.g. a miracle), the fact that something didn't happen in a second case isn't evidence to the contrary in the first case. Those are two independent events. If Jesus healed no one outside the borders of Palestine, does that negate his healing anyone inside the borders of Palestine? 
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that we concede all of Fred's examples. Suppose we say Kuhlman was a charlatan. Suppose we say all reported miracles among Roman Catholics are bogus. 
That doesn't create any presumption against other cases that Keener documents. How does Fred imagine that falsifies the evidence in cases that don't fall under his strictures? His inference is patently illogical. 


  1. With the exception of Naaman, all of your examples are of God using miraculous acts as forms of judgment against unbelieving (pagan) people. None of those examples indicate God using miracles in a benevolent way as His common grace in Matt. 5:45 and Acts 13:16-17 indicate. In the case of Naaman, it appears the miracle was used to testify that Elisha a was a true prophet of God (1 Kings 5:8) and thus to convert Namman to the true God (vs. 17). That seems to be a different purpose than a benevolent deity conveying common grace to pagans via natural occurrences. IOW, I am not aware of cases where God uses miracles in a benevolent manner as a means of displaying His common grace to pagans. Whenever miracles occur among pagans it appears God uses them to highlight either His judgment or to point people to Him as the one and only true God. Am I mistaken here?

    1. MSC

      "With the exception of Naaman, all of your examples are of God using miraculous acts as forms of judgment against unbelieving (pagan) people. None of those examples indicate God using miracles in a benevolent way as His common grace in Matt. 5:45 and Acts 13:16-17 indicate."

      i) Assuming for the sake of argument that that's true, how does distinguishing between benevolent and malevolent divine miracles support Fred's cessationism? Do benevolent miracles cease, but malevolent miracles continue?

      ii) Fred was vague on the scope of his objection. Is he saying God wouldn't perform miracles in general among non-Christians, or just that God wouldn't perform beneficial miracles among non-Christians? And even if he's confining his claim to the latter, isn't that an ad hoc distinction?

      iii) Common grace establishes a principle of general divine benevolence. Why would that principle distinguish between benevolent providence and benevolent miracles?

      iv) It was beneficial for the Egyptians to become disillusioned with the state religion. It was beneficial for Egyptians to discover that Yahweh was the true God. It was beneficial for Egyptians to lose faith in the cult of Pharaoh. It was beneficial for Egyptians to learn the hard way the impotence of idolatry.

      "In the case of Naaman, it appears the miracle was used to testify that Elisha a was a true prophet of God (1 Kings 5:8)…"

      i) To the contrary, it's because Elisha already had a preexisting reputation as a prophet and miracle-worker that Naaman sought him out in the first place. At most, that recognition was something for Elisha to lose, not gain.

      ii) And this would be a case of a beneficial miracle for a pagan, leading to his conversion.

      "That seems to be a different purpose than a benevolent deity conveying common grace to pagans via natural occurrences."

      Miracles can involve natural occurrences. Some of the Egyptian plagues were natural occurrences. What makes them miraculous is their specificity in time and place.

      "IOW, I am not aware of cases where God uses miracles in a benevolent manner as a means of displaying His common grace to pagans."

      i) You're confounding a specific application with a general principle. You have it backwards. You need to begin with the general principle.

      ii) In any case, how does that support Fred's cessationism? Fred doesn't think God is performing miracles through Christians for the benefit of other Christians. Likewise, Fred doesn't think God gives special guidance (e.g. revelatory dreams to modern-day Christians. So the benevolent/malevolent, Christian/non-Christian distinctions break down.

      "Whenever miracles occur among pagans it appears God uses them to highlight either His judgment or to point people to Him as the one and only true God."

      And how does that support Fred's cessationism? For instance, Fred doesn't believe that God uses dreams and visions to prepare Muslims for the Gospel–yet that would be pointing them to the one and only true God.

    2. MSC,

      Wouldn't the book of Jonah qualify as a set of benevolent (for Nineveh) miracles, done with the intention of bringing about conversion?

  2. John Calvin believed that God sometimes answered the prayers of non-Christians:

    There is one psalm which clearly teaches that prayers are not without effect, though they do not penetrate to heaven by faith (Ps. 107:6, 13, 19). For it enumerates the prayers which, by natural instinct, necessity extorts from unbelievers not less than from believers, and to which it shows by the event, that God is, notwithstanding, propitious. Is it to testify by such readiness to hear that their prayers [i.e. non-Christians'] are agreeable to him? Nay; it is, first, to magnify or display his mercy by the circumstance, that even the wishes of unbelievers are not denied; and, secondly, to stimulate his true worshippers to more urgent prayer, when they see that sometimes even the wailings of the ungodly are not without avail. [Calvin's Institutes third book, chapter 20 section 15]

    Also, I've collected most of Steve's recent posts on cessationism and continuationism in chronological order at the following blog:

    Steve Hays on Cessationism

  3. First of all, I am not defending Fred. I agree he has not made his case well. However, I am not convinced you have either. You state:

    "iii) Common grace establishes a principle of general divine benevolence. Why would that principle distinguish between benevolent providence and benevolent miracles?"

    I have no objection here except to look for Biblical precedent and I see none unless someone points it out. I am not convinced you have pointed out any bonafide examples.

    I do not speak for Fred, but I think one of his concerns is that many of the miracles examples Keener used came from non-Christian contexts. I will state the matter this way, assuming that miracles still occur (which I do), it seems a distinction should be made between supernatural occurrences whose immediate source is divine and those whose immediate source is Satanic. Would you make such a distinction? If so, by what criteria would you test the spirits? How would you know that Egyptian magicians did miracles (assuming they were supernatural) via the hand of God or the hand of Satan? Could Hindus perform miracles at the hand of God? Furthermore, if Hindus did perform miracles at the hand of God would God do this in order to confirm in their minds that these miracles supported their pagans beliefs and practices?

    Let's consider another example closer to home. Is there reason to believe that God would perform miracles that relate directly to Roman Catholic beliefs and practices so as to confirm to Romans Catholics that He stands behind their beliefs and practices? For example, miracles connected to statuary of Mary or Christ; or things like the stigmata, assuming all such occurrences are in fact supernatural?

    Again, I am not defending Fred's form of cessationism nor I am I defending any particular view of my own, I am just trying to ask questions about these matters because the Strange Fire conference and ensuing debates have raised the questions for me.

    1. Since you're raising questions I've already answered, I have to assume you haven't been closely following either my recent or past analyses. For instance:



    2. MSC,

      We aren't always going to be able to discern where a miracle came from or, if we know the source, what that source intended to do with the miracle. Genesis 4:15 refers to God's beneficent intervention in Cain's life, but doesn't give us much information about his relationship with God at the time or afterward, nor does the passage tell us much about God's reasons for doing what he did. Similarly, the gospels sometimes refer to individuals healed by Jesus, or benefited by his miracles in some other way, who disobeyed a commend he directly gave them or manifested unfaithfulness in some other way shortly after the miracle (e.g., Luke 17:11-19). We don't know much about the relationship those people had with God at the time or God's reasons for performing miracles in their lives. We can think of a lot of possibilities, but we can't always demonstrate that one of those possibilities is probable. We've discussed miracles among non-Christians many times in the past, including discussions of why God might perform such miracles and how Christians should evaluate them. See, for example, my posts on near-death experiences and related phenomena and my review of Craig Keener's book on miracles. Even where we don't know just what to make of a miracle in its immediate context, we can judge it by a larger context, such as other miracles and systems of miracles.

  4. Steve said:
    "ii) And this would be a case of a beneficial miracle for a pagan, leading to his conversion."

    You said that common grace as a general principle could lead to benevolent miracles for non-Christians. Obviously, the healing of Naaman was a benevolent miracle, but it led to his conversion. It seems to me that common grace, at least the way most Reformed theologians have framed it, is not something that directly leads to conversion. Rather it is something that occurs in the natural world apart from Special Revelation. IOW, it seems to fall under the category of General or Natural Revelation. Miracles of the sort that we see in Scripture generally fall under instances of Special Revelation. Of course that may be disputed and I think more careful definitions of miracles are needed, perhaps different categories of miracles. That may be helpful in framing the this debate better.

    But as far as common grace is concerned, I am also thinking here of the distinctions D. A. Carson makes about the different categories of Divine love in his book, "The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God" where he speaks of benevolent providence (p. 17) but not benevolent miracles. Thus, if common grace is a form of Natural revelation, then we would not expect God's acts in creation to directly lead to conversion rather damnation (cf. Romans 1-2). In either case, I am open to what you have to say about all this