A philosophical perspective on miracles – part 3

This is the third 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 third article:

Frank Turek:
Why is there such a strong anti-supernatural bias, particularly in the academic world?

Tim McGrew:
Well there’s lots of reasons for that. One of them has to do with academic fashion, the kind of culture of following along in the footsteps of people around you, and the people who trained you. We see this in an almost comical way when it comes to clothing fads and fashions, but it really comes home to you when you look at the way people drift towards certain perspectives. In the humanities we are particularly subject to this phenomenon, to the extent that even a passing familiarity with Christianity is considered to be non-essential for an education.

Frank Turek:
Hmmm…

Tim McGrew:
For example, I had a colleague once, a truly brilliant guy, degree from a fine school, promising career ahead of him, and he asked me what I was reading. I held it up and said, “It’s a book of the four gospels.” And he looked at me…”Four gospels?” He’d never heard of them. That is part of the explanation.

Another part of the explanation is something Thomas Nagel brings out in his book “The Last Word.” He says he disbelieves in God not just because the arguments he has are better than those of the other side but also because he doesn’t want to believe in God, he doesn’t want the universe to be like that. He says, I think his line is, “I have a cosmic authority problem.” And that’s a remarkably candid admission but I do think that many people if they were asked would be reluctant to take seriously the idea that this is the way the universe is because that would upset a whole lot of other things that they hold and it’s always hard to make large scale changes in your beliefs. And that’s something Christians are subject to as well, I don’t mean to say that only skeptics have a hard time changing lots of their beliefs, Christians do as well, but also there’s an academic culture of just not taking them seriously at all.

Frank Turek:
I’m reminded also of the famous admission by Richard Lewontin who basically said we cannot believe in miracles because we cannot allow a divine foot in the door. And when you fast forward to Thomas Nagal whom you brought up who wrote the book “The Last Word” in 1997…well, as you know his more recent book “Mind and Cosmos” he’s really struggling with this issue now. Because he realises that naturalism can’t explain so many aspects of reality. And his atheistic colleagues are getting real worried, that he’s making too much sense. You notice that Tim?

Tim McGrew:
Yeah I think they have a death watch out for him, “Oh, when’s he going to jump the shark here?”

Frank Turek:
I know (laughs). I always say to folks, the greatest miracle in the Bible is the first verse, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” If that verse is true every other verse is at least believable because if God can create the universe out of nothing then He can do whatever He wants that’s not logically impossible inside the universe. He can walk on water, He can part water, He can raise Jesus from the dead, He can make axe-heads float, He can do all this. And everything seems to indicate that the first verse of the Bible is true so lesser miracles are much easier to believe if the greater miracle of all has already to occurred…so to have this anti-supernatural bias is in my view to close your mind off and to do so dogmatically. And that’s why I like your very reasoned approach that you take in the new book coming out, the Four Views book, which again is called?

Tim McGrew:
Four Views on Christianity and Philosophy.

Frank Turek:
OK, it’s coming out in a few weeks friends, or actually in about a month, so you need to get that. Tim is a major contributor to it. And Tim, let’s deal with the question you quite frequently get regarding sort of an objection to this whole idea…the New Testament writers were naive and gullible, you just can’t trust them. How do you respond to that?

Tim McGrew:
I think the first thing I would say is that by far the bulk of the New Testament was written by two highly educated people, Paul and Luke. So if we’re going to go all snobbish about educational attainments these two guys were in the upper echelons of education for their time. Paul with rabbinic learning but also with a knowledge of Greek writing, sometimes quoting Greek playwrights and poets. Luke obviously an extremely highly educated person, his vocabulary shows you that, the precision with which he handles the Greek language shows you that and if you put the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts together, then you put together the Pauline epistles, you have got most of the New Testament right there. So the very first thing to say is that’s a misfire.

The second thing to say, and maybe the even more important thing, is just how much sophistication does it take to distinguish a dead man from a living one? Do you need a higher degree to do that? Is it the kind of thing where if we’d had Galen on the spot we would have believed him because he was a Greek physician? But ordinary people, people who lived in an agrarian society, didn’t they see enough death? For example in the lambing season if you’ve got a lamb that’s stillborn can you distinguish it from the ones that get up and start gamboling around? These people saw a lot of death, they were probably a lot closer to it than most of us unless we’re undertakers. So I think that’s kind of an odd objection. We’re not talking here about some nuance of quantum mechanics, you don’t need to be a physicist to say, that’s what we should expect. We’re talking about dead bodies and living men. It’s not that hard.

Frank Turek:
And the issue of the virgin birth, or the virgin conception I should say, I think you point this out elsewhere, is that they didn’t have any problem knowing where babies come from. In fact Joseph was ready to break it off with Mary not because he didn’t know where babies come from but precisely because he did know where they came from.

Tim McGrew:
Exactly. So it’s not that this came as news to the first century Jews. In fact CS Lewis had a friend Austin Farrer who got so frustrated with this stupid chronological snobbery that he actually put a question on the Triposts, the exams at Oxford that said, “Just how ignorant was the first century Jew?”

Frank Turek:
Hmmm…And?

Tim McGrew:
Really they didn’t know where babies came from? And students had to write their reasoned responses to that question. I would have loved to have seen some of the responses.

Frank Turek:
(Laughs)

Tim McGrew:
But that was the question that was put forward…how ignorant? How?

Frank Turek:
And they go from scared, scattered, skeptical disciples because they knew He was dead to the most overwhelming, excited, peaceful missionary force the world has ever known. Twelve people turned the world upside down. And it was precisely because they knew dead men always stayed dead unless, as you said earlier, Someone intervenes. And in this case obviously the Being who created the universe and created the human body of Jesus can resurrect the human body of Jesus if He decides to do so. And He did. Now by the way, Tim, why is a resurrection more plausible on a character like Jesus than say just an average Joe?

Tim McGrew:
Wow, tons of reasons. Can we start with the fact that the entire arc of Old Testament prophecy imbued with the promise of this coming Messiah, leads to Jesus and to nobody else, points to Jesus and to nobody else. To take nothing else, take Isaiah 53. Read it aloud to a skeptical friend of yours. Don’t tell him where it’s from, he’ll see that you probably have a Bible in your hand, and just say, “Who’s this talking about?” And they’ll immediately say, “That’s stupid. Of course it’s Jesus.” And then you tell them, even on the most skeptical dating of this book, it was written centuries before the era of the New Testament and the birth of Jesus. That alone ought to be enough to draw people up short and make them say, “Whoa! Really?”

Then you have the fact that He has a very distinctive message, one that you could not have predicted by trawling through the Old Testament and pulling out passages. Yes, He seems to be the fulfillment of prophecy but also His life, His character and HIs message were not things you and I could just cobble together by reading the Old Testament. There is a very interesting question here. If there were a God and He wanted to act, where would He do it? And the answer is to certify a message of unprecedented religious importance for us, and that’s exactly the kind of thing that Jesus is offering. Now that doesn’t by itself prove that His message is true but that’s the kind of place you’d expect a miracle if God worked a miracle at all.

Frank Turek:
That’s right. You quote the Roman poet Horace who said this, “Let not a god intervene unless there be a knot worthy of a god’s untying.”

Tim McGrew:
Right.

Frank Turek:
That’s just very well said. God is not going to do a miracle for no good reason.

Tim McGrew:
Right. Don’t bring him in because you can. Or just to do some kind of circus trick. If it’s really something important, something worthy, then OK. That’s where God should come in if God comes in at all.

Frank Turek:
And God I think has come in, and we’re going to talk more with my friend Timothy McGrew of Western Michigan University…after the break.

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