A philosophical perspective on miracles – part 2

This is the second in a series of 4 articles on miracles, based upon a podcast I listened to, and was inspired by, by Tim McGrew. The articles are really handy for defending the faith and they take a look at miracles from a philosophical perspective.

Links to all 4 articles are given below:

https://aeon01.wordpress.com/2016/09/01/a-philosophical-perspective-on-miracles-part-1/
https://aeon01.wordpress.com/2016/09/02/a-philosophical-perspective-on-miracles-part-2/
https://aeon01.wordpress.com/2016/09/06/a-philosophical-perspective-on-miracles-part-3/
https://aeon01.wordpress.com/2016/09/09/a-philosophical-perspective-on-miracles-part-4/

Listen to the interview here: http://crossexamined.org/podcast/

Following is the second article:

Frank Turek:
Tim you have written a pithy little article on the interaction between miracles and science. Can you give the article name from Slate Magazine?

Tim McGrew:
This came about as part of a symposium, with a lot of different people chiming in, some pro, some con. My essay was called, “Do miracles really violate the laws of science?” You can do a Google search for this with my name, which should pop up with the Slate article. It’s a short article, I had to write it under some wording constraints but that was ok, it was a fun article to write.

Frank Turek:
It was, and why don’t we address that right now. Do miracles somehow violate the laws of science? What would you say to that?

Tim McGrew:
The first thing I would say is no. Let’s talk about our definitions here. David Hume saddled the world with a false dilemma when he pitted miracles against the laws of nature. Basically, science tells us, and formulates in its laws, statements about what happens when nature is left to itself. Miracles, if they occur at all, occur because nature is NOT left to itself. So really, to say that a miracle is ruled out by the laws of nature is just to make a mistake about what the laws of nature tell us. When you consider the natural world as a closed system with no inputs from the outside we have sets of regularities and rules and we can do wonderful things with that…and I think everybody ought to be very excited about the successes of science in that way. But if something is intervening from the outside then the whole picture changes and you have to ask yourself what grounds do we have for believing that someone is intervening from outside of the system?

Frank Turek:
And you write in a longer piece as well, in a four views book…has that four views book come out yet Tim, the one you sent me an article on?

Tim McGrew:
It’s due on September 13th.

Frank Turek:
What’s it called, so our listeners can get it?

Tim McGrew:
I believe it’s called “Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy.”

Frank Turek:
You sent me an advanced copy and you write in it, science tells us what nature does when it’s left to itself…miracles, if they occur at all, occur precisely because nature is not left to itself and you go on to say this. Believers and skeptics agree that there is a stable causal order, a normal course of events in which virgins are not pregnant and dead men stay dead and precisely because they are agreed on this point it cannot be a significant piece of evidence against the occurrence of miracles. Some conception of the ordinary course of nature is required for us to even make sense of the notion of a miracle which otherwise could not be recognised for what it is. I think that’s a brilliant point, Tim. There’s no way for us to identify what a miracle is unless we have the background of regular, repeatable natural events. Miracles by definition would have to be rare events if they’re going to get our attention. If they were occurring regularly we would think they were some sort of natural phenomenon. But the very idea that they occur rarely and they’re against the backdrop of nature is what has them stand out so we can recognise them. Now with that in mind, what is the purpose of a miracle from a biblical perspective?

Tim McGrew:
Ok, the very first thing I want to say is I wish I could take credit for that point but the old books win again. That’s a point made vividly by one of Hume’s critics who wrote while he was alive…William Adams. Much as I would like to say that that’s my own brilliant idea, actually I’m just getting it from reading old books. Now as to the biblical purpose of miracles, they come out very clearly in a little interchange Jesus has with Nicodemus in John 3. You’ll remember that Nicodemus comes to Jesus BY NIGHT because he’s a little bit afraid and he says to him, “Rabbi, we know you’re a teacher sent from God because no man can do the works that you do unless God be with him.” These are signs of divine authority and they are to function to help us identify divine teachings and messages. After all, if there’s something we need to know, that God wants to communicate to us, we need to be able to separate it out from a fine-sounding philosophy or a brilliantly-written novel or play or poem. We need to rise above the level of human inspiration. How can we tell that? Because the messages are accompanied by signs that cannot be done by people working without the authority of God.

Frank Turek:
Hmmm….So the sign confirms the sermon, the miracle confirms the message or the messenger…and friends, that’s why often you see in the Bible that miracles are bunched around certain people like Moses, Elijah and Elisha, and Jesus and the apostles. These miracles aren’t done for entertainment purposes, they’re done to confirm that these individuals are presenting new revelation from God and the people should take it as new revelation from God because miracles are poured out through these people. Now Tim, a lot of people will say, Well maybe miracles have occurred but why don’t we see more of them today? They seem to be occurring throughout the Bible, some will say, but we don’t seem to see them today. What do you say to that?

Tim McGrew:
Ok, there are a couple of different issues entangled here. One of the things that I would want to say is we don’t see them scattered evenly throughout the Bible. As you said, they tend to bunch or to use CS Lewis’s phrase, we find them at the “great ganglia of history” where things are coming together. So if you were to use the scriptures as your sort of rule of thumb in what you should expect, you should not expect them to be salted evenly through all of history from biblical times onward.

The second thing I want to say is there’s a distinction between saying the special gift of working miracles is current today and saying miracles happen today. Many Christians believe in prayer and believe God can work miracles in answer to prayer who would not believe that somebody like Benny Hinn is specially commissioned to work miracles.

Frank Turek:
Hmmm…

Tim McGrew:
So that’s a distinction that some people slide over, I think that needs to be recognised.

The third thing that I would say is that if miracles were to happen we would expect them to happen only in places where they were really most needed…and curiously enough there is a rather substantial amount of contemporary testimonial evidence to the occurrence of miracles particularly in places where the church is under persecution, or where you might think that they’d be in the greatest need of some kind of a sign. Now I’m no expert in that and speaking candidly, I’ve never witnessed a miracle, but when I read a work like my good friend Craig Keener’s two volume work on miracles and I read all of the documentation he’s amassed, it makes me wonder if I need to get out more.

(NOTE FROM NAOMI:
While in the John Cade Unit, where I was placed because my faith in Christ was defined as mental illness, I experienced intense persecution and two miracles in quick succession. The miracles occurred after I had been fasting for two weeks, as part of seeking God with all my heart. The situation was that a nurse wanted to take blood samples and urine from me while I was very dehydrated and could produce neither naturally. I prayed to Jesus to help the lady with her samples. At that point, suddenly, blood flowed into the test tube and dilute urine was soon copiously produced into the bottle the nurse had given me. I was astonished and comforted as I knew Christ was honouring my fast and protecting me under great duress.)

Frank Turek:
Hahaha, yes. If we look at Craig Keener’s two-volume, hernia-inducing work…it’s very voluminous, these two volumes. If just half of what he says in there….ten percent of what he says in there is really true and I have no reason to doubt any of it, miracles are occurring today. But as you pointed out Tim, I don’t think there are people out there with the gift of miracles, I think miracles occur when God wants to do them for particular reasons. You say in particular areas where they’re more needed today. I think another insight that you were probably about to get to as well is the almost counter-intuitive impact of miracles on some people in the New Testament, particularly Caiaphas and others. Can you comment on that a little bit?

Tim McGrew:
Yes…so, I think it’s a really important distinction to make between the evidence FOR a miracle and the willingness of someone to respond in a reasonable way to that evidence. People have vested interests. They have their way of seeing things, they have their system of belief and maybe they have their way their life is going and they’re pretty happy with it. And then along comes a miracle and it RUINS things. If you want to see a really vivid, dramatic portrayal of that, there’s a novel by Graham Greene, a mid-20th Century author, called, “The End of the Affair.” The main character is a skeptic and he disbelieves in God but is angry at Him. But he deliberately slams the phone down before he can hear someone that he knows telling him that a miracle has occurred because he doesn’t want to hear that word. People are resistant to things, and they’re irrationally resistant. We know this is a matter of general truth but it really comes home when you read the New Testament and you see people say in John 12 who, once a notable miracle has occurred with Lazarus being raised and there’s no denying it, what do they do? Well they start making plans to kill Lazarus again!

Frank Turek:
(Laughs)

Tim McGrew:
Wow! Really? It’s no wonder Gamaliel had to tell them in Acts 5, you’ll end up fighting against God (see Acts 5:34-40).

Frank Turek:
(Laughs). It’s true, they don’t want to hear. I’m reminded of a quote from GK Chesterton, who said this, he said, “The believers in miracles accept them, rightly or wrongly, because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them, rightly or wrongly, because they have a doctrine against them.” In other words, they’re dogmatists.

Tim McGrew:
Yeah, that’s a quotation from “Orthodoxy” by Chesterton I think. It’s near the end.

Frank Turek:
Yes, yes. And it seems so many people out here have an anti-supernatural bias that regardless of what evidence you put in front of them they are not going to believe that any kind of intelligence or any kind of miracle worker was involved. And in fact we’re going to pick this up after the break. And when we come back we’re going to get into the issue of anti-supernatural bias, we’ll talk a little bit about science disproving the possibility of miracles, we’ll also get into amputees – why doesn’t God heal amputees – and some other questions as well. So don’t go away.

I hope you enjoyed part 2 of the five part series on miracles. Part 3 to follow within the next few days. May the Lord Jesus bless you now and always.

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