Miracles and the Historians
Published on: December 21, 2011
show comments
  • John Barker

    Most conventional religious thought centers on the interpretation of Scripture, as far as I know. Those who look within are sometimes tolerated or more often ignored or persecuted.This is understandable since the Romans and other ruling elites have never looked kindly on those whose inner visions disrupted the social order, even if there were a chance that a new and greater understanding of the human condition could emerge as a revelation. But as the world seems headed for another murderous round of ethnic and sectarian strife, we need to find a faith that finds a common humanity, which transcends the surface differences of creed and ethnicity.

  • Anthony

    But there are other, more flexible ways…In that case…the approach of faith cannot be undermined by historical scholarship – and at bottom isn’t it the approach of faith that for many believers override the claim of naturalistic tradition (perhaps a preference to accept more than one way to perceive reality).

  • Steven Carr

    ‘Keener spent time in Africa, where Christians claim to witness miracles in their everyday lives: “’

    Yes, Christians in Africa, Nigeria and the Congo in particular, claim children are performing witchcraft.

    As a result of this Christian testimony, children are being killed.

  • Richard

    Before the history there is the historian. Through what lens does he examine, select, and order his story? Is the lens itself myopic, or otherwise over-determining?
    Faith is not an apt lens when seeking to look historically, that is, beyond the remarkable poetry of Biblical recitals.

  • Jbird

    Miracles are by definition an act that confounds our understanding of this world and it’s laws. Water doesn’t transform into wine, the sun doesn’t stand still, and the dead do not come back to life. If all you believe in is what can be empirically proved, then you have a problem with this. If you believe in an omnipotent God who created this order, it’s natural laws and who exists beyond time and space and interacts with His creation as he sees fit and for His own glory. . . a little water into wine doesn’t seem like that big a problem at all.

  • Jbird

    I apologize for the back-to-back posts but I also want to mention something on Creation, Evolution, and the Scriptures.

    I read a wonderful book, “Should Christians Embrace Evolution”, it has some science in it, but the most interesting thing I got from it was that the whole logical structure of Pauline Theology begins to totally unravel when one begins to understand the implications of evolution, even theistic evolution (evolution as a means of God’s creation). because it means there was death before the fall of Adam. And, if you don’t believe that sin & death entered the world through one federal representative, Adam, how then can you argue, as Paul does, that we are redeemed by the works of the 2nd Adam, Christ Jesus. Embracing macro, inter species evolution causes the Christian to accept the idea that sin and death were built in at the beginning. And if we were created in sin and death than how can we be held responsible? Why would creation “groan” for redemption? There’s just a whole slew of issues that make a philosophical reconciliation of evolution and Christianity an impossibility.

  • David Taylor, MD

    Jbird: David Hume pointed out that miracles are violations of natural laws, but since we do not have perfect knowledge of natural laws, it is impossible to state with any certainty when an event is a “miracle”. I encounter this dilemma often in medicine, both when patients assume that their survival is due to a miracle (when our best guess is that we simply don’t know enough about the human body to say), and when I read about the miracles attributed to saints at places such as Lourdes (which, especially those from the 19th century, don’t seem quite so miraculous now…).

    On the other hand, if miracles are events caused by the various supernatural beings to whom we normally attribute them, who’s to say that even those events that conform perfectly to ‘natural laws’ aren’t, in this case or that, due instead to miraculous intervention? Hume did a nice job of pointing out how the whole notion of the miracle is a way of talking about our human limitations, not divine power.

  • Jbird

    Steven: accusations of witchcraft are not only a problem of Christians in Africa, the idea of evil witches has been around for centuries in various places on that continent, long before widespread Christianity. But hey, why let facts get in the way of a little demonization. As a recent example:

    In East Africa, at least 50 albinos (people with a rare genetic disorder that leaves the skin, hair and eyes without pigment) were murdered for their body parts in 2009, according to the Red Cross. An albino’s arms, fingers, genitals, ears, and blood are highly prized on the black market, believed to contain magical powers and are used in witchcraft.

    I failed to read the section of the Bible that notes the heeling power of albino genitalia. Perhaps instead of casting blame on Christians, who often work to stamp out superstitions such as these, you should promote working together to increase education in Africa (another thing Christians try to subsidize). local pagan ideas often mix with Christianity, especially in cultures that are relatively new to Christianity. The same thing can be seen in the conversion of barbarian tribes in Europe.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Someone mentioned Hume–OK, fine. However, in all of the history of philosophy the man who came closest to getting his arms entirely around the dichotomy between naturalism and faith was Spinoza, the God-intoxicated philosopher.

    Here is how he did it, as I understand it (but as Spinoza never came right out and said).

    God doesn’t need miracles, Spinoza said, if his creation is perfect, following from His own perfection. There is, however, one overarching miracle, the miracle of creation itself, and the fact that in creation all causes are consistent with first cause. The world makes logical sense in its own terms; that IS the miracle. And it is, of course, what allows science to exist at all.

    The historian who brackets the question of first cause can proceed without crediting “lesser” miracles. What he is doing, however, is completed suffused by that initial miracle, which created logic and causality in the first place. Just as it is possible for a person to drive a car with great skill without knowing the first thing about how an internal combustion engine works, it is possible for someone to be a great historian without ever having heard of Baruch Spinoza, or ever having had a worthy cosmological thought. But it is better to have heard of him, yes? One way to see Musil, perhaps, is that he goes back and forth between the curtain that separates those who accept the miracle of first cause and those who do not. Perhaps?

  • R.C.

    Miracles happen, just very rarely, except when clustered around some significant salvation-history event.

    This is exactly what an orthodox Christian would expect from Scripture. It’s perfectly clear that, in the thousands of years’ time mentioned in the Bible, miraculous events were notable partly for their extreme rarity. A man who wasn’t God Incarnate or a leader in the Exodus and Conquest of the Promised Land might expect to witness one in a lifetime if he spent some time in close proximity to God Incarnate or the Exodus or the Conquest. If he wasn’t in close proximity, his best bet was to hear a rumor of something spectacular that happened to a third cousin of his grandfather.

    So too today. I count myself very lucky to have one close family member to have received a night-time “locution” perhaps along the same lines that St. Joseph had in the “do not fear to take Mary as your wife” episode…but I don’t count such things to be “miracles” in the same sense as Elijah’s altar being pulverized on Mt. Carmel.

    The closest thing I can report which gets into that territory is the miraculous cure of a friend of my mother’s from Multiple Sclerosis. She went over the course of a day from a lifetime of taking rest-breaks just walking down a hallway, to complete cure, no sign it was ever there. A week later she was doing aerobics; six months later she was teaching aerobics.

    She’d been complaining to God that she no longer had the energy to teach Sunday School. God gave her the cure He needed to give her, to enable her to go on doing so.

    The thing occurred at a faith-healing service conducted by one of those itinerant faith healers whom I have always regarded probably fraudulent and whom I and the woman herself regard to have unorthodox theological notions. She was healed. She felt the thing happen. She had it confirmed by the doctors immediately thereafter. The cure has persisted now for a decade, no signs of recurrence.

    Interestingly she and I still regard the faith-healer personage as probably fraudulent and certainly wrong on some theological items. The way it happened seems to have had no relationship to the man. It was just: God told her to go there, she went there, God told her to leave, as she was leaving it happened. It’s all God, and has nothing to do with the man on the platform in the bad suit.

    So I know God is real and I know He still intervenes miraculously in history.

    I mean, sure, maybe my mother’s friend is a charlatan who’s been lying about her ailment for 20 years. Sure, maybe it’s just a coincidental total remission. A miracle “happening” is only observable in the sense of observing the natural-world facts it causes, and one can always cut God out of the picture by merely stating the natural-world facts without reference to Him.

    Imagine an Atheist and a Christian, fellow time-travelers, standing some distance away from the showdown atop Mt. Carmel. They witness Elijah’s trash-talking about Baal. They witness the water poured on the stones. They witness the apparent meteor-strike which pulverizes Elijah’s altar into slag and leaves the closer spectators with singed hair and ringing ears.

    Then the Atheist comments, “Obviously a meteorite, a comet fragment, something of that sort.” The Christian, himself a professional astronomer, concurs. The Atheist is surprised at this and says, “I thought you’d say it was miraculous!”

    The Christian replies, “Well, of course it was miraculous. You’re miraculous. The whole Universe is miraculous, since there’s no particular reason other than God that there should be something rather than nothing. (Always remembering that the laws of physics themselves are ‘somethings’ if they exist at all; that is to say, ‘something’ isn’t a term confined to material objects.)

    “And as for this particular bit of the Universe: How clever of God to ‘detonate,’ (to say it crudely) the Big Bang in such a way as to send those particular particles drifting through space on trajectories which caused them to form together into a body just big enough, but not too big, drifting through space on a path perfectly aligned to intersect with the position of the Earth here and now, producing the desired ‘fire from heaven.’ God can afford to be frugal with His miracles, because He plans ahead.”

    All of this is to say:

    1. Miracles happen, just rarely and mostly discreetly;

    2. When miracles happen, they can always be “explained away” if what one means by “explaining away” is describing the physical events in physical terms without reference to God;

    3. The failure to refer to God in such an explanation is perfectly acceptable if one is inducing on oneself, for practical reasons, the dog-like mind required of scientific observation. However, it is a philosophical error to go from “I have narrowed my scope of investigation to that which is observable and quantifiable” to “nothing which is not observable and quantifiable exists.”

    4. The great puzzle is always the “Why?” not the “What?” and an open-minded person who is not hampered by blind faith in Materialism/Positivism will be able to exercise a larger scope of his human reasoning powers than a person so hampered.

    5. The greatest “Why?” puzzle in human history is how a dejected crowd of misfit fishermen whose charismatic leader had been slain in a humiliating fashion suddenly became sufficiently invigorated and empowered and motivated that they endured torture and death and wound up converting, over four centuries, a large percentage of their own people and of the Roman Empire to the notion that that man had in fact risen from the dead and was, moreover, The Creator Of The Universe In Drag.

    6. The best rational explanation of this outlier event is that He actually was who He and His followers claimed, and really did what they claimed, and that this was why they and so many others went to their deaths over that proposition.

    7. That it involves “miracles” makes it no different, in a sense, than anything else you see around you, or the existence of the laws of physics and mathematics. That really obvious miracles (usually) haven’t been witnessed by you and me is exactly what we should expect: They’re rare, and a scientist can enter the laboratory content in the knowledge that the chances of the Almighty unexpectedly playing silly-buggers with his experimental outcomes are too slim to worry about.

  • JM

    The idea that claims of miracles (hypotheses that certain events were miracles) are not falsifiable (in a Popperian sense) is incorrect. Some miracles can be shown to have been of natural causes, falsifying the hypothesis as applied to them. Others, especially modern ones studied by the Catholic Church, are subject to rigorous attempts at falsficiation which fail (which does not mean they might not be falsified in the future). This sort of study of miracles is certainly scientific.

    The “naturaliistic” method, however, does not follow the scientific method if it assumes, a priori, that the cause is without supernatural intervention. In that sense, the naturalistic approach is no more rigorous than ID, unless it constrains itself to studying phenomena in which the naturalistic explanation is falsifiable.

    While science is “natural philosophy,” it can still recognize that it cannot explain (at the time of study) a given phenomenon. Staying within the paradigm of science, it requires the unsatisfying faith-based (or rule based) assertion that the causes are natural, but unknown.

  • Bill Swan

    What’s frustrating to me is that this “naturalistic tradition” that Keener is objecting to actually pervades all of the modern, western world including the evangelical Christian world. It’s in the air we breathe. Paul, drawing from the experience of the Galatians to prove his argument, writes, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”(Gal.3:5). According to Paul miracles were to be a commonplace occurrence for those who had heard and believed.

    Paul was advocating a complete transference into another “dimension” which Jesus declared was among us, the kingdom of heaven (or of God). This is a spiritual realm where human-kind’s real and persistent problems of wrong-doing, death, and the need to be loved, affirmed, and secured for eternity are dealt with handily. So obviously experiencing miracles would be considered simply part and parcel to those who have entered that “dimension”.

    I don’t think Paul is suggesting a constant diet of miracles on the spectacular level. These mostly distract from the really important things that are happening around us. Jesus himself tried to divert attention from his own performance of these (and the fact that he did these is really indisputable in my mind). I think Paul is talking about the kind of life-change miracles that are advocated in Jesus’ kingdom teachings. These kind of quiet, internal miracles are all around us and in us. I myself live by them and the hope of them.

    So my conclusion is that much of this debate about naturalistic tradition is just part of the flotsam and jetsam of a previous age and we need to move on to our true destiny.

  • Jbird

    Adam Garfinckle: Spinoza was right. God doesn’t need miracles if his creation is perfect. Two points about that, though, first, God doesn’t need to perform miracles now, He chooses to do so for his own glory. And second, while creation was declared “good”, unfortunately, someone came along and messed things up (Adam) and now humanity needs a miraculous savior.

  • Modern science has achieved a credibility and prestige of a kind. Certainly amongst certain select elites who aspire to be involved in an intellectually coherent discipline, but for many reasons and not just for its share of intellectual plausibility. One key reason is because of its control on the levers of academic power. Whilst there have been immense practical successes there have also been enormous failures; for the discipline has been and still is too often linked to and has become an instrument of violence and hatred. Armed with a more extensive humility the proponents of scientific materialism will serve the army of science far better and will cease the incoherence of jumbling it up with philosophical positions masquerading as scientific facts.

    Many Christians who have become convinced that the account of creation days in the Book of Genesis is true have as part of that process and continue to do so, addressed apparent evidence of science for an alternative paradigm, in fact some might say they were for a long perod of their lives brainwashed by it’s absolutist call. That process involves, particularly for those within science, addressing both the evidence of science against and the evidence of science in favour and suggesting alternative hypothesis based on that evidence. That form of scientific investigation, and the definition of it’s breadth and embrace is in itself a troubling challenge, that is, is it an Einsteinian type of science or what? Such a scientific investigatory approach is as much the goal for those in the field of science who are also Christians as it is any other member of society and the fact that the science laid bear promotes in that scientist’s view the cause of the christian viewpoint does not change the evidence based nature of their enquiry, and therefore the science of their approach. The record of the science examined, addressed and analysed by many Christians is science, it is just that the extrapolations from that record are not appreciated by many. Since when anyway was a contrarian position no longer a scientific one? Ask the leader of North Korea.

    The terminology you use when referring to revelation as “in, with and under” the Biblical text in itself in my view decapitates the very word revelation for it is then no longer revelation but just your own albeit considered views of the content. In that case, even the most rigorous historical scholarship cannot undermine the approach of faith because it is a faith centred on a human experience rather than an objective analysis accepting whatever comes and that is in my view difficult to square with any legitimate concept of historical christianity. In fact, it inevitably invites the opposite and beings disrepute too often to the name of Christian, for it is then only a matter of your opinion, which many think anyway.

  • Comment #7 by David Taylor is good. Thanks.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.