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Last week I traveled to Arlington TX to B. H. Carroll Theological Institute (bhcarroll.edu). Founded in the 1990s, the institution exists to provide graduate-level theological education for men and women who are called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church. My professor, Dr. Bruce Corley, was founding president and continues in retirement to help direct the effort. I can’t begin to describe how influential he has been on a generation of scholars and church leaders. B. H. Carroll is the second largest seminary in Texas with students around the world in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China. They have a great model for how to do education in this technological world. They keep overhead low and are making a difference in the lives of many people.
Every spring BHCTI holds a colloquy for its PhD students. There have been many times I have wanted to attend but final exams and grading have typically interfered. But this time I got a special dispensation to turn my grades in just a wee bit late. Thanks to my dean.
In addition to sharing with these pastors and church leaders about The Voice Bible project, I had the privilege of listening and responding to Dr. Craig Keener, professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky.
The topic for the colloquy was “Jesus and Mighty Works.” Much of the discussion has centered around Dr. Keener’s two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011). It is the best book available on miracles as a modern phenomenon. Dr. Keener brought together a staggering number of accounts from the modern world about miracles that are taking place now in order to help us understand the miracles in the Bible. Keener said that these two volumes (1100 pages) began as a footnote in his Acts commentary regarding eyewitness accounts of miracles. Some people (known as cessationists) have claimed that miracles stopped centuries ago when the Bible was complete. Dr. Keener offers ample evidence to the contrary. Others are skeptical about miracles because they have never seen one, but Keener finds easily over 200,000,000 people who claim to have had direct experience with ‘extranormal’ events. He interviewed scientists, doctors, and eyewitnesses from several continents.
In the 18th century David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that miracles are impossible because they violate natural law and are only testified among uncivilized and uneducated folks. Keener does a masterful job at deconstructing Hume’s argument and showing that his perspective is based on an ethnocentric bias against non-whites. Essentially, Hume rejected the testimony of the majority of people in the world because they were not educated in western culture. He then declared that “uniform human experience” tells us that miracles do not occur. Apparently, the “us” Hume was referring to were Scottish professors living in the 18th century. “Uniform human experience” only applied to Hume and his friends.
If you are curious whether miracles are still happening today, you will be amazed at the evidence Keener produces. Not only are miracles still happening but they are more common than you think.
I want to summarize and respond to chapter six in Craig Blomberg’s book, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Baker Academic, 2014). The chapter has to do with the miracles in the Bible. For many people miracles are a stumbling block to trusting in the reliability of the Bible. Because they have never seen one or experienced one for themselves, some people conclude miracles can’t occur. Others think science itself and philosophy have proven miracles are impossible. Still others think they can explain the miracles in the Bible as myths and legends. It is this last group—those who think the biblical miracles are simply myths and legends—that most interests Professor Blomberg.
Now Craig is not disinterested in the question of science and miracle. He deals it with throughout the chapter as he engages the broader question of how to understand the miracles in the Bible. Indeed,
“Philosophers of science are also increasingly stressing that the miraculous by definition lies outside the bounds of science because it cannot be tested or experimentally reproduced in a laboratory” (p. 179).
I’m sympathetic with Craig’s straightforward statement that miracles cannot be defined out of existence as a violation of nature law. While Craig seems amenable to the notion that a miracle involves the temporary suspension of natural law, I’m more comfortable with the claim that a miracle involves the invocation of a higher law. Craig mentions this as a possibility early in his chapter. To offer a simple and probably flawed example, everyone knows that gravity is what keeps our feet firmly planted on mother earth. But Bernoulli’s principle and the laws of aerodynamics make it possible for us to leave the ground and wing our way to new places without suspending or violating gravity. Gravity is still at work on us and on the plane (otherwise flight would be impossible). Temporarily and with a great deal of energy expended, these other laws of the physical universe make air travel possible. I suspect that the miracles we see in the Bible belong more to this category than any other. God, as the maker of nature and its laws, invokes a higher law for a higher purpose for a brief time. Frank Tipler, a physicist who teaches at Tulane, appears to make this argument in The Physics of Christianity (Doubleday, 2007).
After introducing the chapter, Blomberg points to the exhaustive collection of modern miracle accounts in Craig Keener’s book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011). Keener has brought together hundreds of reports of well documented healings of people with serious, chronic conditions from across the world. Modern medicine appears to have no explanation for these healings. Keener concludes that New Testament-like miracles are happening today all over the world. Blomberg agrees and points to several events near to him which appear to him to be miraculous. But the fact that miracles occur among people who practice faiths other than Christianity does not bother Blomberg; in the end these reports call into question the claim that atheism and naturalism are the best explanation for the world as it is. In fact, Blomberg memorably states:
Even the occurrence of just one extraordinary event that naturalism cannot explain demonstrates that naturalism is not a comprehensive worldview that can account for all that happens in the universe. . . . But atheism has to be able to account for every scientifically inexplicable event apart from God for it to be necessarily true. Thus it takes at least as much if not more faith, not founded in empirical evidence, to be an atheist than it does to be a Christian.
Blomberg spends the bulk of the chapter rehearsing many of the miracles of the Old and New Testaments, showing how unique they are from the kinds of legends and myths found in ancient literature dealing with gods or God. After cataloging most of the Old Testament miracles, Blomberg categorizes them into four groups: (1) events that show Yahweh’s superiority to other so-called gods; (2) interventions at critical moments to protect God’s people and demonstrate God’s covenant faithfulness; (3) judgment against rebellion in Israel serious enough to jeopardize God’s people; and (4) events that authenticate something new in God’s dealing with his covenant people. In each case, Blomberg distances these OT accounts from the kinds of claims made about other gods in the ancient near east.
He does much the same with the miracle stories in the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. After briefly relating many of these stories, he shows how these are different from the kinds of miracle stories found in Greco-Roman religion and culture. According to Craig, the claim that this or that legendary account is parallel to what is found in the New Testament is not convincing. The only convincing parallels come from post-New Testament sources where it is more likely that stories about Jesus have been borrowed in order to build up the reputation of another. The closest parallels to New Testament miracles are found in the Old Testament.
Blomberg points to the resurrection as the miracle which could not be mythical or legendary. It is the very nature of myths and legends that they take time to develop, often generations. Yet within a very short period (no more than a year if not less) reports of an empty tomb and resurrection appearances were central to the gospel. Paul, our earliest writing theologian, says it is of primary importance that Christ died for our sins and was raised on the third day and that he appeared to hundreds of witnesses (1 Cor 15:3ff.). This is the gospel he preached, but it was also the gospel he opposed no more than a year or two after Jesus’ execution. The speed with which the resurrection stories circulated demonstrates they were not legends as traditionally understood. If the chief miracle of the New Testament was not a myth, then we may well question whether accounts of Jesus healing the sick and feeding the multitudes ought to be classified as legends.
In the end Craig hopes that believers will avoid two extremes. One the one hand, he is concerned about those who claim miracles ceased at the end of the apostolic age. Miracles continue today, he says, all over the world. They are not occasional and random. They are happening regularly especially in the Majority world. On the other, Craig warns that abuses and “quackery” (209) often follow powerful and influential religious movements. Charismatics need to be careful not to try to imitate the Spirit by their own strength and in their own flawed wisdom. Cessationists should be mindful not to try to limit how God is working in the world today. Both need to examine themselves carefully in light of Scripture.
This chapter, as well as the other chapters in Blomberg’s book, is well worth reading if you have questions about the Bible’s reliability and concerns about the miracles. While I find myself in friendly agreement with much of what Craig writes, there are a few places where I must stand in friendly disagreement. I’m not sure Blomberg’s arguments will convince many close-minded skeptics who have concluded a priori that miracles cannot happen. What I do think he accomplishes is a fresh challenge to those open-minded enough to reconsider the quality and quantity of biblical and modern miracles.