Thursday, August 15, 2013

Pentecostal Claims, Biblical Discernment, and the Nature of Evidence: Another Response to Steve Hays

i) Notice how Ed's knee-jerk skepticism about testimonial evidence repristinates the position of Hume and his followers. Yet the Bible places great stock in the value of eyewitness testimony.

ii) Ed acts as though you can only assume one of two attitudes towards testimonial evidence: blind credulity or reflexive incredulity. He acts as though every witness is equally trustworthy or equally untrustworthy. But there are standard criteria for sifting testimonial evidence. 

This is one of the basic problems besetting some members of the MacArthur circle. Their cessationism commits them to radical skepticism regarding the possibility of historical knowledge. They're like the minimalist school in Biblical archeology (e.g. Hector Avalos). That's what happens when you adopt a purely reactionary posture. 

Steve raises a legitimate question on the nature of evidence. After all, evidence is an important component of any claim to true knowledge. Does it follow that a call for rigorous examination of testimonial evidence for modern signs and wonders is parallel to Humean skepticism? Is Hays right to conclude that the Bible would place great stock in the value of these sorts of testimonies coming from the Charismatic/Pentecostal camps? Let’s answer this first charge before moving on to the others.

David Hume was an empiricist and a skeptic. Hume’s non-Christian worldview coupled with his philosophical empiricism led him to skepticism. The basic problem with empiricism is it’s self-referential incoherence. When I say that all knowledge comes through the senses, I am required in the first place to be omniscient and in the second place to show how this specific knowledge came through my senses. Hume’s empiricism is one more worldview that cannot establish the preconditions necessary for the intelligibility of human experience. Chance plus empiricism equals skepticism and irrationalism in every case. Is this the kind of skepticism we display when we insist that empirical claims of signs and wonders must be tested empirically as well as exegetically? I do not think any objective reader of these Ping-Pong blogs would agree. In the first place, my skepticism is not a knee-jerk reaction. Hays is forgetting that I spent years in this stuff and was a blind advocate of these phenomena for some time. My position is anything but a knee-jerk. The old saying, “been there, done that” applies in my situation. That rules out the possibility of any knee-jerk reaction on my part.

Second, does the Bible place as much stock in eyewitness testimony as Hays implies? Numbers 35:30 points out that one witness of a murder is considered insufficient for capital punishment. This is again reaffirmed in Deut. 19:15. A single witness is simply not enough to bring a man to judgment for his iniquity. Scripture is replete with the need for multiple witnesses. Even Jesus Himself said, If I alone testify about Myself, My testimony is not true (Jn. 5:31) It seems clear then that a single eyewitness testimony was always viewed as insufficient where Scripture is concerned. In addition, eyewitness testimony is only as reliable as the witness giving it, is credible. What we are saying is that we have had enough false reports by faith healers and miracle workers and we have, to my knowledge, no verifiable credible reports from them that we cannot help but begin on skeptical ground, so far as empirical testing is concerned. Given enough of Benny Hinn’s failed prophecies and it only seems reasonable that one would probably be wise to pay little attention to that man as soon as his lips begin moving. How many professed faith healers and miracles workers do we have to show to be frauds before we establish the view that when a man comes along making the same claims that dozens of frauds before him have made, that he is likely one of these fellows given that he has so much in common with them. That Hays would buy into the manufactured nonsense that modern prophets are different that ancient prophets and that false prophecy today is viewed by God differently than it was in ancient times is most outrageous and egregious. Such foolishness destroys any rational and biblical standard for discernment. While Satan is very pleased to create a framework where discernment is impossible, such a state of affairs is contrary to Christian theism at its most basic levels.

In addition, and for the record, cessationists do not assert that healings or miracles are beyond the pale of possibility. We admit that they can and sometimes they do occur. We glorify God for his marvelous grace and mercy when He heals the sick and injured. What we assert is that there is no credible or reliable evidence to suggest that genuine “faith healers” and “miracle workers” are walking among us in contemporary times. Not only does the empirical evidence support our conclusion, but biblical exegesis shows this to be the case as well.

I agree with Hays that there are criteria for sifting the evidence to support empirical claims of signs and wonders. We need credible eyewitnesses, and we need more than one. That would be helpful. The report needs to contain the details of the miracle that took place. These details need to disclose the person’s name and the ability of some credible investigator to examine the case. The person must have been certified to have this condition by a doctor or multiple credible witnesses familiar with the person. We must be able to rule out natural explanations for the cure. The condition must be demonstrable. A physician must certify that the person no longer has the condition. In order for this kind of testimony to support that there is in fact a “faith healer” among us, we require a number of stories just like this one and that such stories surround this person’s ministry and life as a matter of routine. If we could get to this point, we could at least make some progress. But like a plane with far too great a payload, she flies down the runway but never leaves the ground. So it is with these arguments and claims for modern faith healers and miracles workers. Claim upon claim is accompanied by one obscure story after another, lacking just those components necessary for reliability and credibility. Craig Keener writes a book, but in the process fails to seal the deal by leaving out precisely those things we desperately to need to put a punctuation mark at the end of the story!

Does this process for verifying miraculous claims in the name of Jesus Christ really place those who make it in the position of radical skepticism when it comes to historical knowledge? I think that such a statement is more than a little extreme. Is it true that I must accept the claims of every Charismatic faith healer I see on TV if I am to avoid radical skepticism? Is it true that my method for examining the evidence for these claims must be the same as my method for examining the phenomena of history? The credibility of the witness plays a very large role in second-hand testimony be it current affairs or the facts of history. The gospel of Thomas is a perfect example. According to this witness, Jesus made live birds from His clay ones. In another case, He smote a child with death. In another case, Jesus strikes critics of his parents with blindness. How are we to think about these claims? Are we even open to the possibility that they could be correct? When we first encounter them on the page, are we not repulsed and do we not find them repugnant? And we do so even without bothering to examine the evidence. How can we do this? We can do this because we already have enough evidence before us that has proven itself reliable and therefore we know that any counterevidence must be false.

Empirical evidence for an empirical truth-claim is after all something that any rational human being would expect. It seems reasonable enough to me. We are not, like Hume, ruling out the possibility of the miraculous based on some presupposition. We are Christian theists, after all, presupposing the truth of God. Hence, we not only argue for the possibility of the miraculous, we argue for its actuality. Hays’s attempt to associate our view with Hume is clearly an ad hominem. Hays would claim that we are ruling out miracles based on our theological bias. But that would not quite be true either. It would be closer to say that we rule out “faith healers” and “miracle workers” based on theological bias. But one would have to ask if that is really true. Let’s say that genuine faith healers and miracle workers continued in unbroken fashion down to present day. Would Hays presume that cessationists would hold to their view despite irrefutable evidence to the contrary? The Bible is true. To deny such irrefutable evidence would be irrational and incongruent with Scripture. It would make Scripture out to be a lie. 

There is a remarkable difference between being good discerners, being good critical thinkers, and being radical skeptics. Hays loves to muddy the water with such techniques and tactics when he argues. Perhaps this is why one writer says arguing with him is like arguing with a 4-year old. I would not go that far, but I would say that these discussions should always be in a spirit of Charity and mutual respect. That does not mean we should avoid pointing out the nature of the error and its consequences. But it does mean that we should not resort to name-calling, to straw men, or to comparing God-fearing men to radical God-hating skeptics like David Hume. I am certain that such behavior between Christians, even on a blog is a clear violation of Christian principles. And if you can’t defend Christian truth and your own position without violating such simple Christian principles, perhaps you shouldn't be trying to defend them at all.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your post! I was searching for testimonies of miracles and healings, and found your website. I'm an evangelical Christian, but not charismatic or Pentecostal. I do not believe in "faith healers" either. The ones I have seen are absolute frauds! I am VERY scientifically and logically minded. But I do believe healings are SOMETIMES possible and SOMETIMES done through SOME people. I believe I have credible testimonial evidence among people I KNOW and TRUST. This is not because of who they are or because of any permanent "gifting" they received but only because GOD decided to do it through them on a specific occasion. Otherwise they are NO DIFFERENT than you or me or anyone else!