An Interview with Craig S. Keener on Miracles

Craig S. Keener (PhD, Duke University) is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. He is the author of many books, including The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver, and commentaries on Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation. Last year Baker Academic published the first volume in his 4-volume commentary on Acts.

Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts was recently given the ‘Apologetics/Evangelism’ Award of Merit from Christianity Today. It was winner of The Foundation for Pentecostal Scholarship’s 2012 Award of Excellence and named Book of the Year (2011) by Christianbook.com’s academic blog. We recently got a chance to ask Dr. Keener some questions about his award-winning book.

How did your book Miracles originate?

It started as a footnote in my Acts commentary. I was astonished at how often scholars simply dismissed a narrative’s historicity because of miracle claims, when in fact the same kinds of miracle claims abound today. In the footnote I planned to gather several references to works that surveyed many of these miracle reports, but by the time I began finding such works I had encountered so many sources that my footnote had grown into a chapter. When the chapter grew into about 200 pages, I proposed it as a book, unaware that it would further mushroom into five or six times that number of pages.

It is one of the most fascinating studies I have ever undertaken, and once I started, I couldn’t stop.

In the book you engage with David Hume’s argument that uniform human experience precludes miracles. Briefly describe the influence of Hume and how you respond to him.

Most people who discount the possibility of miracles recycle, knowingly or unknowingly, the popular argument of David Hume, who in turn was recycling the arguments of some earlier deists. Scholars understand Hume’s argument in various ways, but a central element of his argument was that we cannot trust miracle claims, because they violate uniform human experience. Of course, that is a circular argument, because it assumes what it hopes to prove—that human experience regarding miracles is in fact uniform. It is that uniformity that miracle claims challenge, so an excuse to dismiss such reports before examining them is very convenient for his case—though it violates his own empiricism.

My primary response to this argument of Hume is to highlight how non-uniform human experience on the matter really seems to be. We know a lot more than Hume knew in his day. For example, in one Pew Forum survey just a few years ago, you find hundreds of millions of people believe that they have witnessed divine healing. You don’t have to agree that all of these are genuine miracles—actually, few of us would make such a sweeping claim—to recognize the problem this raises for Hume’s argument. Hume wants to start with the a priori assumption that human experience uniformly opposes miracles, because, he reasons, there are no credible eyewitness accounts of miracles. When there are hundreds of millions of people claiming to have experienced miracles, you can’t simply dismiss all of them a priori.

Your book details accounts of the miraculous in modern times from a variety of cultures. How does this contemporary evidence impact how we view the biblical accounts of miracles?

Hume rejected vast amounts of evidence; for example, he dismisses all miracle claims from the Majority World, in keeping with some of his assumptions now recognized as racist. There are massive accounts of healings, including instant cures of blindness, raisings from the dead, and so forth, from all over the world today. Again, one does not have to accept all accounts credulously, but neither can one simply dismiss all accounts on the basis of uniform human experience; such a dismissal assumes what it hopes to prove without examining any claims. Historians, journalists and others depend on eyewitness claims all the time; testimony is an epistemological approach appropriate in some disciplines. If these hundreds of millions of eyewitness claims addressed some question other than miracles, there would not likely be much debate, and the witnesses would not be simply dismissed as naïve, deceptive, or the like. Such dismissal of so much testimony seems a high price to pay to maintain an assumption based on the worldview of an eighteenth-century philosopher. Someone making an argument against miracles today would have to come up with an argument different from Hume’s. However people wish to explain miracle reports, experiences such as these plainly do occur, and therefore may have occurred also in the ministries of Jesus and his followers reported in the Gospels and Acts.

How have perspectives from other cultures informed your work?

I have drawn on large numbers of accounts from Africa, Asia and Latin America as well as from the West. Most striking to me were dramatic accounts from people that I know personally. Some involve the instant healing of blindness, for example, the Western witnesses for a case in India, an African friend in Africa, another case where two of my students witnessed it. Some involve raisings from the dead—about ten accounts came from people in my own immediate circle, one the raising of my wife’s sister in Africa after three hours with no detectable breathing. Again, people may choose to interpret these in various ways. Personally I do believe it is noteworthy, however, that all these cases I encountered involved prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.

[Watch Dr. Keener discuss his book Miracles in the first of six videos on YouTube]

Comments

  1. Wow, sounds like a book that’s interesting to get and worthy of reviewing!

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