Dr. Craig S. Keener Responds to “Don’t All the Miracles Make the Bible Mythical?” (Chapter 6 of Can We Still Believe the Bible?)

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In today’s post, Dr. Craig S. Keener responds to chapter 6 (“Don’t All the Miracles Make the Bible Mythical?”) of Can We Still Believe the Bible? by Craig Blomberg.

Don’t miss other posts in this blog tour—a complete list can be found at CanWeStillBelieve.com.

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In his presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society several months ago, Robert Yarbrough commended Craig Blomberg’s new book. Yarbrough also rightly warned that Blomberg provides such concrete examples that everyone will disagree (as well as agree) with some point in the book. I am no exception, but like Yarbrough, I am happy to commend it.

I find particularly commendable Blomberg’s courage in taking on some of the powerful voices in evangelicalism—those who use their positions to define boundaries rather than investing in careful study of the biblical text. One could also note many other important contributions—for example, Blomberg’s sensitivity to the differences between the writing conventions of ancient and modern historians.

My focus here is chapter 6, which addresses miracles. Some of what Blomberg writes in a very readable way here develops his earlier published detailed research on the subject. He follows the biblical and historical evidence where he believes it leads, hopefully inspiring courage in more evangelical thinkers to do the same.

Despite possible quibbles about minor details, this chapter makes a forceful case for God’s direct activity in the world, both in the Bible and today. Most readers will find the substance of this chapter largely unobjectionable, though antisupernaturalists and, later in the chapter, hard cessationists may feel discomfort.

Blomberg begins by pointing out that those who criticize the possibility of miracles typically fail to be self-critical: they rule out miracles a priori before considering any evidence. Blomberg contends, however, that plenty of cases do exist for which supernatural explanations are more compelling than natural ones. That is, if one does not start from an a priori assumption either for or against miracles, one will find some convincing evidence for miracles. Granted, psychosomatic factors may affect many sorts of cases but not cases such as those of resuscitations from death or nature miracles. He allows that many cases in other religions could also reflect authentically supernatural activity, whether from other spirits or from the gracious action of God. Either of these explanations would challenge a conventional naturalistic worldview.

Blomberg offers accounts of miracles from his own family. His aunt, for example, had suffered from an injury for three decades and was on heavy pain medicine. After prayer for healing she awoke the next morning cured, and the cure endured for the remaining two decades of her life. He notes two cases where he and other elders in his church prayed for “patients with previously diagnosed cancerous tumors” (182), after which the specialists found no evidence of the tumors. He further recounts family experiences that include an angel encounter, an exorcism, an audible divine voice, and two accurate prophetic words to him.

Blomberg has found that many trustworthy friends recount such experiences. I certainly agree; once I started asking my friends about any healings they might have witnessed, I was quickly overwhelmed with the reports. My own immediate circle yielded about ten eyewitness accounts of prayer-related resuscitations from death, including one from a close family member who was apparently dead for three hours.

As to why miracles do not occur more regularly, Blomberg points out that if they did, skeptics would dismiss them as the regular course of nature rather than deeming them miracles. He is likely correct; even now, skeptics understand DNA exclusively naturalistically, although nothing inorganic in the universe rivals its complexity. We should also note that in the Gospels, Jesus’s miracles were signs of the already/not yet kingdom—promises of future hope. They were the foretaste of restoration, not its fullness. Yet even a single clear case of divine action, as Blomberg notes, challenges an exclusively naturalistic worldview.

Blomberg notes that the clearest non-Christian parallels to New Testament miracle accounts come from a much later period and probably depend on the earlier Gospels. Unlike these other accounts, the gospel sources come from a period when eyewitnesses remained alive. Not only multiple early Christian sources but also non-Christian sources, including one from the first century, report Jesus as a miracle worker. Alleged pre-Christian parallels for Jesus’s resurrection and virgin birth prove distant. We may add that we have strong eyewitness, contemporary reports of Christian miracles in the immediately succeeding centuries.

Although historical evidence is easier for earliest Christianity than for many Old Testament accounts, Blomberg also addresses these. Ancient Near Eastern sources do offer parallels for many of the OT miracle accounts, but an explanation is not difficult from a believer’s perspective. The accounts of Elijah and Elisha challenge the encroaching Baal worship of precisely their era in Israel’s history. Likewise, the plagues in Egypt strike against deities worshiped by the Egyptians, as the text specifically notes (Exod. 12:12; Num. 33:4). Most OT miracle claims fit some patterns, reinforcing the particular examples by their theological and historical coherence with the whole.

In treating modern miracles, Blomberg affirms positively the influence of the Azusa Street Revival and Pentecostalism on the subsequent spread of spiritual gifts. He acknowledges that every movement has some extreme elements, recognizing the dangers of prosperity preaching, celebrity cults, and the like. Nevertheless, he warns against throwing out the baby “with the bathwater” (210). Millions of believers today do experience spiritual gifts in sound ways.

Following what he rightly identifies as D. A. Carson’s “exemplary exegesis,” he argues against cessationism, which, he warns, rests on “fanciful exegesis” (210). No biblical evidence supports some cessationists’ distinction between natural and supernatural gifts. Soft cessationists accept miracles while rejecting a gift of miracles, perhaps merely a semantic difference with noncessationists on this point. Blomberg warns, however, that some hard cessationist criticisms of genuine miracles risk the unforgiveable sin of attributing the Spirit’s work to Satan (210; cf. 254n86).

At the same time, 1 Corinthians 12 makes clear that no single gift is given to all believers. Blomberg invites noncharismatics to embrace 1 Corinthians 14:39—encouraging prophecy and allowing tongues—and charismatics to embrace the next verse about not alienating outsiders with what would be deemed insane behavior. His hardest words in this context are for defenders of cessationism. He warns that they “risk quenching the Spirit (contra 1 Thess. 5:19)” (211), theologically limit what God might do, and inhibit people from experiencing what God might have for them. All noncessationists will appreciate Blomberg’s treatment of gifts, and hopefully many cessationists will consider his concerns.

In sum, Blomberg makes an important contribution on this subject, one that is marked by both careful thought and courage.

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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 Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, the bestseller The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Gift and Giver, and commentaries on Acts, Matthew, John, Romans, 1-2 Corinthians, and Revelation.