Saturday, November 23, 2013

Cessationism, Miracles, and Atheism: Understanding the Difference


For what seems like dozens of posts at this point, Steve Hays has criticized John MacArthur, Fred Butler, others, and myself for rejecting the modern claims by Charismatics that miracles workers still exist in the Church today. Steve has accused us of adopting the very same presuppositions employed by naturalistic atheists and skeptics in our reasoning. Perhaps some readers actually think Hays has a good point. After all, I realize that many of the young men at Triablogue are simply eager to follow someone they think is really, really smart. And it appears that Steve Hays is really, really smart. Richard Dawkins is really, really smart too, but he constructs some of the dullest arguments I have ever read. What I want to do in this post is point one, once again, the extraordinary fallacious nature of Hays’ accusation by pointing out where the differences rest between our argument and the argument from skepticism.

In order to get started, I want to quickly look at the skepticism of the famous empiricist, David Hume. Hume argued that there are two kinds of propositions: Relation of Ideas or Matters of Fact. The first set of propositions would include things like math while the second set would include all empirical knowledge, things known through the senses. Hume was convinced that all empirical knowledge was based on the relation of cause and effect. Now, this is far more complex than it might appear. My challenge is to simplify it at the risk of oversimplification. Because Hume denied God as the cause of all things we witness in the universe, and because he was an empiricist, he was forced to conclude that the human mind could never find the cause behind the event. Hume believed that all inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reasoning. Hence, we know that fire burns through custom, not reason. The empiricist is unable to account for the uniformity of nature based solely on his empiricism. He cannot provide an adequate account for why the universe exists, empirically speaking that is. This is why Hume concluded that we have no empirical basis to believe that the Sun will rise tomorrow. Empiricism, by its very nature, has no predictive power.

Empiricism can in no way predict natural phenomena because it denies that true knowledge of the relationship between the general and the particular exists. Because miracles are events that are highly improbable, no one should believe reports that they actually occur. The issue comes down to one’s procedure for how they reason from the particular facts of experience to general truths. This is called induction. Hume’s skepticism is anchored in his empiricism. Because sooner or later, every inductive generalization presupposes a proposition that can never be proved (empirically speaking), it follows that logical justification for induction is impossible. Of course Hume is engaging in inductive skepticism in order to attack the enterprise of induction. The problem with Hume’s skepticism is his epistemological presupposition that all knowledge comes through the senses. Why Steve Hays knowingly associates the cessation argument with skepticism on any level is curious to say the least. One can only conclude that Hays really doesn’t understand Hume or the role of such presuppositions in one’s worldview or he uses these tactics deliberately. The former would be an indictment of gross ignorance while the latter an indictment of malevolence.

A second form of skepticism is rational skepticism popularized by Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677). Within this scheme, the argument against miracles contends that miracles are violations of natural laws. But natural laws are immutable. It is impossible to violate immutable natural laws. Therefore, miracles are impossible. But that is not what Christian theism believes, is it? The truth is that Montaigne is correct in that true knowledge is impossible in a vacuous empiricism or rationalism. The Epicureans and the Stoics were both wrong. The answer to Spinoza’s argument is easily discovered. It is wrong to think of the uniformity of nature as impersonal, natural laws. Christian theism rejects the idea that there is anything impersonal involved in the ordering of the universe from its beginning to its future end. Because it rejects impersonal natural laws, Christian theism embraces the view that the most minute activities in the universe are ordered and held together continually by the power of the omnipotent God revealed in Scriptures.

I now want to pick up Hume’s argument where we leave Spinoza. Hume argues that we simply don’t have enough reliable witnesses, of good moral character, who testify to a miraculous event. Hume also noted that human beings love bizarre tales. Finally, Hume notices that miracles are usually reported among unenlightened people groups. Hume’s issue with miracles has nothing to do with this arrogant and obnoxious cloak. Hume denies not just miracles, but the miraculous. Because the miraculous cannot exist in empiricism, it is necessary to explain these so-called miracles. This is Hume’s way of maintaining his empiricism. It is Hume doing what Paul said all unbelievers do: they suppress the knowledge of God within and around them.
Now, what Steve Hays attempts to do is extend Hume’s argument against human testimony to the cessationist. Hume argues that the particular reports of miracles should not be believed because these men have questionable character, or, they love the bizarre, or they are simply unenlightened. The skeptic argues that enlightened men should not believe in the highly improbable. Miracles are highly improbable and therefore, enlightened men should not believe that miracles occur.

You may be asking where Hays is wrong in his accusation that cessationists are skeptics in sheep’s clothing. Hays is wrong on several accounts. First of all, cessationism does not deny the possibility of modern miracles. We believe God can perform miracles today. In fact, when presented with the right kind of evidence, rather than rejecting a miracle claim and resorting to some far-fetched naturalistic explanation, we will rejoice that God has performed a miracle. Suppose a person was cured of terminal cancer. The skeptic would conclude that mistake took place in the diagnosis or that something strange had indeed taken place but the cause must have been naturalistic even if we don’t understand it. The believer will not resort to such outlandish and foolish explanations. The cessationist will rejoice in the Lord. But there is quite a long distance between believing that God performs miracles and that miracle workers are still present in the Church today. Hays continues to forget this basic distinction.


The skeptics’ worldview and hence his presuppositions are antichrist. They are set in opposition to God at every junction. Miraculous causes and supernatural effects are precluded out of hand and exchanged in preference for outrageous naturalistic rationalizations of all varieties. The cessationist insistence that the modern claim of miracles be examined for validity has nothing to do with belief in the possibility of the miracle. Instead, it has everything to do with biblical discernment, with truth, and with the public testimony of the Christian community. In short, it has to do with the reputation of Christ Himself in the world. The fact that we witness thousands and even millions of false reports of miracles and miracle workers, in the name of Christ is sufficient cause for the Church to establish a protocol for validating when God has actually performed something extraordinary. It is a dishonor to the Christian community and to men like Steve Hays when we not only sanction, but facilitate hundreds of millions of Pentecostals and Charismatics making false and outrageous claims about the God of Scripture across the globe. False reports of miracle workers insult, defame, and scandalize the Christ we claim to know, to love, and to serve with all our heart, soul, mind, and body. What Steve Hays calls skeptics in sheep’s clothing, we call biblical discernment. 

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