An excerpt from Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, by Craig S. Keener. From Pneuma Review Fall 2013.
From Part 3, “Miracle Accounts beyond Antiquity”
Chapter 7, “Majority World Perspectives”
A Multicultural Approach
Social scientists have noted that, despite a variety of interpretations, “people from all cultures relate stories of spontaneous, miraculous cures,” based on experiences that they have had.15 This observation has some relevance for how we approach biblical narratives involving healings. As Justo Gonzalez remarks in his commentary on Acts, the frequent denial of narratives’ historicity because of their miracle reports employs a questionable epistemological criterion. Bultmann denied that modern people who use scientific inventions can believe in miracles,16 yet “what Bultmann declares to be impossible is not just possible, but even frequent.” Miracles are, Gonzalez points out, affirmed in most Latino churches, despite the influence of the mechanistic worldview from much Western thought.17 Cuban Lutheran bishop Ismael Laborde Figueras notes that it is hard to find Latin American Christians who do not believe in miracles.18 Noted Latina theologian Loida Martell-Otero likewise emphasizes prayers for healing in the Latina community,19 and notes that Latinas’ experience helps shape their way of reading Scripture.20
Some Asian theologians have likewise complained that the approach of Bultmann’s school is irrelevant to Asian realities. Asian worldviews, Methodist bishop Hwa Yung notes, affirm miracles, angels, and hostile spirits.21 Indeed, pace Bultmann’s rhetoric, most religious Westerners also fail to see any contradiction between miracles and the use of modern science22—including a number of scientists.23 “Modern” worldviews are too diverse to fit any one paradigm,24 and despite his cultural assumption that his argument is true, Bultmann never provides a reason for it.25 Cross-cultural studies suggest that socialization rather than exposure to science accounts for most of the skepticism in some circles.26
Whereas fewer than 18 percent of Christians in 1900 lived outside Europe and North America, today more than 60 percent do, and an estimated 70 percent will by 2025.27 As the center of world Christianity has shifted to the Global South, the dominant Christian perspectives in the world have shifted with it.28 Although far from being the only groups involved in this shift, charismatic and Pentecostal forms of Christianity have been in the forefront of the recent expansion of Christianity, reportedly growing six times over in the three decades from 1970 to 2000.29 Not surprisingly, readings of Scripture in the Global South often contrast starkly with modern Western critics’ readings.30 These readings from other social locations often shock Westerners not only because others believe the early Christian miracle narratives to be plausible but also because these readers often take these narratives as a model for their ministries.
Thus Western scholar of global Christianity Philip Jenkins notes that in general Christianity in the Global South is quite interested in “the immediate workings of the supernatural, through prophecy, visions, ecstatic utterances, and healing.”31 Such an approach, closer to the early Christian worldview than modern Western culture is, appeals to many traditional non-Western cultures.32 Hwa Yung, the above-mentioned bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia, notes that the charismatic, Pentecostal character of Majority World churches reflects not so much direct influence by Pentecostals or charismatics as simply the worldview of the majority of humanity. They have simply never embraced the Western, mechanistic, naturalistic Enlightenment worldview that rejects the supernatural.33
Referring to the analogous issue of hostile suprahuman forces, noted scholar of African religion John S. Mbiti complains that most Western scholars “expose their own ignorance, false ideas, exaggerated prejudices and a derogatory attitude” that fail to take seriously genuine experiences pervasive in Africa.34 African psychologist Regina Eya warns that all claims to extranormal healing are dismissed by many Western scholars, the credible along with the spurious, because of the inappropriate application of traditional Western scientific paradigms to matters for which they were not designed.35 Danny McCain, a Western professor who has spent more than two decades teaching in Nigeria, notes that “nearly all African Christians and most African theologians,” regardless of their views on other critical issues, reject Western antisupernaturalism. He acknowledges the existence of some false claims, but complains that “it is arrogant and unprofessional for Western scholars to outright reject the miraculous, totally ignoring the testimonies of thousands of people,” based simply on their own lack of such experience.36
In addition to differing in their paradigms involving paranormal phenomena, many other cultures are in general more holistic, expecting spiritual beliefs to impinge on physical needs in ways that Western culture has often found uncomfortable.37 For example, the concern of religion for health in traditional African thought38 is likely a factor in the growth of African Independent Churches (AICs), most of which include a heavy focus on healing.39 Newer Pentecostal and charismatic churches are also filling the same niche, sometimes at the expense of older AICs.40 Because African culture has always connected healing with religion, African Christian movements that appropriated the biblical connection of healing with religion have grown, often challenging churchgoers in more Western churches who were secretly consulting diviners and traditional practitioners.41 Many newer churches have grown in Africa at the expense of more traditional ones, especially where the latter have refused to engage local cultures’ reigning cosmologies.42 In some areas, older mainline churches under indigenous leadership have likewise emphasized healing in a manner relevant to their African context.43 Western observers may appraise such developments positively or negatively,44 but what is minimally clear is that Africans from various belief systems are engaging issues that Westerners often ignore. At least some aspects of their interest in physical health are more in keeping with biblical cosmologies than much traditional Western Christian minimizing of the body is.45
Regardless of how we interpret miracle reports and other supernatural claims, their frequency in various sectors of today’s world indicates that large numbers of intelligent, sincere people believe that such cures are occurring today, including through their own prayers. This is true even in the modern West; how much more likely would this be the case in a generally less skeptical culture like the world of the first Christians? There is no intrinsically historical reason to think that the Gospel writers had to invent such miraculous claims, or that Luke had to invent them even in the eyewitness “we” material in Acts (Acts 16:18; 20:10; 28:4–6, 8–9; cf. 21:4, 11, 19).46 Nor is there any reason to insist that the reports must have originated in a reporter’s deception or imagination.
This excerpt is from Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, 2 volumes, Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2011. Used by permission. All rights to this material are reserved. Material is not to be reproduced, scanned, copied, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without written permission from Baker Publishing Group.
Footnotes appear in the full digital issue of Pneuma Review Fall 2013 and in the book from which this excerpt is derived.