Thursday, December 19, 2019

Dembski on Thurman Scrivner

I'm going to comment on Dembski's assessment of Thurman Scrivner:

i) I think Dembski sets the bar too high for miracles. The purpose of many miracles isn't to prove God's existence but to provide for a need that's humanly hopeless. Of course, miracles like that are still a witness to God's existence, omniscience, and omnipotence, but they're limited to the need.

ii) Apropos (i), even in the case of miracles whose primary purpose is evidentiary, they are not designed to satisfy a Cartesian skeptic. Setting the bar artificially high is like skeptical thought-experiments (e.g. the Matrix, brain-in-vat). 

Reported miracles vary in their conclusiveness, and in some cases we ought to grant a strong presumption that this was a miracle. It needn't rule out every conceivable naturalistic explanation–although some miracles do so. The issue is not whether it's the only possible explanation but the best explanation, given the evidence at hand. 

Many would argue that there’s no way to predict who will receive a miracle and who will ask in vain. The decision is God’s alone and God’s plans and reasons are beyond our ability to understand. 


Later in his professional life, Scrivner began a healing ministry after hearing God’s voice speak to him for the first time in 1977...When asked how he knew it was his prayers alone that led to healing, Scrivner answered, “I just know that. I just know. Because God speaks to me.” He adds that the sound of God’s voice is “just like a normal man,” just like the interviewer’s (AT).

i) I'm highly skeptical of people who say God speaks to them on a regular basis. I think God speaks to some Christians on rare occasion, like an emergency. 

ii) Moreover, his ministry is so dangerous and damaging that I think his impression is delusional. 

Scrivner bases his belief on several key Bible verses. Others often interpret these verses very differently, saying that they refer specifically to Jesus or his disciples or to specific situations, and that applying them without qualification takes them out of context and distorts their meaning. Scrivner, by contrast, accepts the words at their most literal face value. To him there is no room for debate or discussion: anything other than his reading is simply misguided and wrong.

In Deuteronomy 28:1-2, Moses promises the people of Israel, “And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I commanded you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations and the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you…” Moses then lists both the many blessings in store for those who obey God and the even greater multitude of curses that await the disobedient. According to Scrivner, this passage affirms his belief that you have to do exactly what God commands in order to get a miracle.

i) That's a corporate threat/promise.

ii) Moreover, it's a promise to OT Jews, not to Gentiles under the new covenant. Even if, for argument's sake, God restores the promised land to ethnic Jews in the world to come, the promise is irrelevant to Christian Gentiles. 

Scrivner believes that the message of Romans 10:17 is that the faith we need for healing comes from the teachings of Jesus: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” 

That's a promise for salvation–contingent on faith, not a promise for healing, contingent on faith. 

Faith makes it possible to please God, who then rewards us by healing us, as explained in Hebrews 11:6: “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.”

But that doesn't say or imply a promise to heal on condition of faith. 

Not only do Scriptures tell Scrivner he can heal, but they also tell him he can do a better job of it than Jesus. He derives this conclusion from John 14:12-14, Jesus’ words to His disciples following the Last Supper: “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

I'll revisit that. 

Furthermore, according to Scrivner, anyone, not just Jesus, has the power to forgive sin. To justify that claim, and thus his own authority to forgive sins, Scrivner points to John 20:23, in which Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection and declares, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.”

This verse gives a good example of how Scrivner interprets Scripture and why his approach is controversial. Backing up to verse 21, we read, “‘As the father has sent me, even so I am sending you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive … etc.’” To many biblical interpreters, Jesus appears to be saying these words specifically and exclusively to his disciples, not to you or Thurman Scrivner or anybody else. Scrivner politely but firmly disagrees.


Standing beside his granddaughter’s hospital bed, Scrivner recited John 15:7: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Then he followed with an assurance of his own: “He is my God. He honors faith, and so I’m going to ask Him to raise that little girl up and make her well. And He will.”

Thurman fed his granddaughter by mouth against doctor’s orders based on his reading of Mark 11:24: “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” He prayed that she would be able to eat solid food and then gave it to her. He fed her applesauce and orange juice that day and she has been eating normally ever since. Furthermore, she seems to have recovered completely from her injuries.

Thurman Scrivner’s theology hinges on two points. First is absolute reliance on what the Bible literally says. The tricky part here is that people have to accept his interpretations of Scripture without question or variation, absolute and unwavering. Yet from Bible scholars on down, credible people see the meaning of Scripture very differently.

i). A basic problem with his face-value hermeneutic is the mismatch with his own experience. His prayers aren't uniformly answered. Even if he gets a few hits, that falls far short of how his prooftexts are worded. 

ii) He falls back on the lack of faith escape clause, yet his prooftexts don't condition the efficacy of healing prayer on the faith of who is prayed for but at best on who offers the prayer on their behalf.

What happens when you take the Bible out of context? We looked earlier at John 14:12-14, where Jesus speaks to his disciples following the Last Supper, “Truly, truly I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”

Many Bible students and scholars agree that these words are specific to the disciples, who were invested with healing powers to demonstrate they were acting in Jesus’ name as human representatives — deputies, if you will — designated specifically and personally by Christ. Of course, other interpretations are possible. What if Jesus, in talking of greater works performed by his disciples, was referring not to healing but to the suffering of martyrdom? Indeed, it’s not clear that Jesus’ miracles have been exceeded by his disciples, but their suffering for his name has in some cases been more extreme than crucifixion.

i) I have serious reservations about that interpretation. It's true, of course, that some promises which Jesus addresses to the disciples are exclusive to the disciples and not Christians in general. Many readers stumble because they fail to make allowance for that distinction.

ii) In Johannine usage, the works denote miracles, not martyrdom. Just consult standard commentaries. Moreover, martyrdom is hardly exclusive to the Eleven. 

iii) If the promise is exclusive to the Eleven, that excludes St. Paul. 

iv) It's a misleading way to phrase a promise restricted to just eleven people. 

v) Consider other promises in the Upper Room Discourse:

13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

14: 2 In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4 And you know the way to where I am going.” 5 Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” 6 Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14 If you ask me[e] anything in my name, I will do it.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live.

23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.

27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.

15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 

Are these exclusive to the Eleven just because they were the initial audience? Do these not extend to Christians in general? 

A better explanation is that Jesus frequently employs hyperbole in his teaching. Although Jn 14:12 isn't confined to the Eleven, the promise is hyperbolic.  The promise includes garden-variety Christians but not all (or even most) Christians–and even among the subset, not all (or even most) of their petitions are granted.

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