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Miracles as Reality: An Interview with Craig S. Keener

An Interview with Craig S. Keener on the Miraculous and his Recent Book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts.

The Pneuma Review: As a New Testament scholar you have a great interest in the meaning of the biblical text but you also seem to have a great interest in miracles. Could you tell us a little bit about that?

Craig S. KeenerCraig Keener: Some estimate that 31 percent of Mark’s Gospel, or roughly 40 percent of his narrative, addresses miracles. To ignore the question of miracles is to ignore a hefty portion of the biblical text. Perhaps one-fifth of the Book of Acts addresses miracles, almost as much as the speeches, yet scholars often comment on the topic of the “speeches in Acts” while comparatively ignoring the miracles. I think this is a blind spot in our Western readings of the text since David Hume. Since Hume, scholars have often treated the miracle accounts in the Gospels as an embarrassment, neglecting them, explaining them away, allegorizing them in ways we wouldn’t do with most other narratives. Those are culturally circumscribed readings: when someone in the first century heard a healing report of Asclepius, for example, they understood that it was meant to invite faith in Asclepius’s power to help supplicants. Reports that the New Testament writers expected to generate faith are often treated very differently by scholars today, who are often captive to a very different worldview.


PR: How have the arguments of David Hume contributed to anti-supernatural thinking in the West?

David Hume

David Hume (1711-1776), a historian and philosopher known for his skepticism and empiricism.

Keener: Hume borrowed arguments of some earlier Deists against miracles, and some of the apparent gaps in his arguments are because he is taking some conventional Deist arguments for granted. In his own day, his essay about miracles was overshadowed by other works, especially one by Conyers Middleton. Deism eventually faded from fashion, but Hume’s prestige, based on his other essays, led to his miracles essay being widely influential. Many today do not realize the historic pedigree of their views, but their ready dismissal of the plausibility of miracles simply repeats Hume’s claim.


PR: What is the fallacy in Hume’s thinking?

Keener: There is more than one. Foundational is his argument from uniform human experience. The first part of Hume’s essay appeals to laws of nature, presumably extrapolated from human experience, in a prescriptive way that does not fit current understandings of laws of nature. In Hume’s own era, in fact, most English scientists speaking about laws of nature affirmed the reality of biblical miracles; it was not scientific evidence but Hume’s philosophic argument that eventually led much of culture to reject miracles, often (wrongly) in the name of science.

Reports that the New Testament writers expected to generate faith are often treated very differently by scholars today—scholars who are captive to a very different worldview.

The second part of his essay appeals to uniform human experience to rule out eyewitness evidence for miracles. Of course, as many philosophers have pointed out, this is a completely circular argument: humans don’t experience miracles, therefore humans who claim to experience them are incorrect, therefore there is no sufficient evidence for humans experiencing miracles. In constructing his understanding of uniform human experience, he dismissed miracle claims from other parts of the world; his other writings show that he was racist and pro-slavery, so his attitude is not surprising. He also dismissed miracle claims from the West when they came from religious people, whom he accused of bias and sectarian polemic. If his construction of uniform human experience was problematic in his own day, it should be completely rejected in our own. A Pew Forum survey suggests that roughly 200 million Pentecostals and charismatics in ten countries claim to have witnessed or experienced divine healing; roughly one-third of “other Christians” in these ten countries claimed the same. The survey did not even include countries like China, where some argue that half or more new converts to Christianity over a period of two decades became Christians as a result of “faith healing” experiences. Roughly half of U.S. physicians surveyed claim to have witnessed treatment results they considered miraculous. Whether or not one believes in miracles, and regardless of how many of these claims might represent actual miracles, one cannot make claims about “uniform human experience” excluding miracles without assuming what one hopes to prove.

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Category: Pneuma Review, Spirit, Summer 2012

About the Author: Craig S. Keener, Ph.D. (Duke University), is F. M. and Ada Thompson Professor of Biblical Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is author of many books, including Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011), the bestselling IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. In addition to having written more than seventy academic articles, several booklets and more than 150 popular-level articles, Craig is is the New Testament editor (and author of most New Testament notes) for the The NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible. He is married to Dr. Médine Moussounga Keener, who is from the Republic of Congo, and together they have worked for ethnic reconciliation in North America and Africa. Craig and Médine wrote Impossible Love: The True Story of an African Civil War, Miracles and Hope against All Odds (Chosen, 2016) to share their story. Twitter: @keener_craig

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