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Gregory Michna Loftus Miracles


Review of The Case Against Miracles (2020)

Gregory Michna

 

[This article was originally published in Socio-Historical Examination of Religion and Ministry, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 2020), pp. 228-234.]

 Review: John Loftus (ed.). 2019. The Case Against Miracles. United Kingdom: Hypatia Press. 576 pp.

In his excellent recent monograph on the politicization of miraculous claims and sensory evidence entitled, Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic, Adam Jortner writes, “This long-term war over religion and the supernatural formed a fundamental piece of the American religious firmament and represented a working out of the ideas of liberty and representative government rarely explored in American historiography.”[1] The war Jortner chronicles was one between philosophes and intellectuals of the transatlantic Enlightenment on one side, whose rigorous demand for sensory evidence contributed to a disenchantment that undermined traditional claims about divine activity in the temporal world, and a hodge-podge cast of Latter-Day Saints (i.e., Mormons), Native American revivalists, occultists, religious members of established churches, and others, who marshalled their own miracle claims using the same Enlightenment language regarding sensory evidence. The struggle between those seeking to disprove miracles in favor of a materialist worldview and theists hoping to utilize miracle claims in support of their deity continues today, as evidenced in John W. Loftus’ most recent edited volume, The Case Against Miracles.[2] Loftus envisioned the collection as a response to Lee Strobel’s 2018 book, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural.[3] However, Loftus’ book eschews the point-by-point response format often employed in theist-atheist debates by offering an anthology of articles critiquing the arguments traditionally utilized by theists.

The overarching thesis binding together the entries in this anthology is apparent from the opening line of Loftus’ introduction in which he writes, “This anthology is about miracles and why there isn’t enough objective evidence to believe in them” (p. 9). Threaded throughout many of the essays is an affinity for Section X: “Of Miracles” in David Hume’s 1748 treatise, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which defines miracles as “a violation of the laws of nature,” expanded by Loftus into the following definition: “A miracle is a supernaturally caused extraordinary event of the highest kind, one that’s unexplainable and even impossible by means of natural processes alone” (p. 13). Taking this as the conceptual grounding for the volume, Loftus and the assorted contributors who provided essays for The Case Against Miracles offer a range of arguments—from the philosophical and intellectual to specific historic deconstructions—suggesting that miracles fly in the face of reason and should be met with incredulity.

Loftus has structured the volume with three major divisions amongst the essays. The first section consists of seven essays responding to the apologetic claim that miracles are reasonable to believe. The second section, which outlines aspects of investigating miracle claims in its four essays, concerns itself particularly with the issue of biblical revelation, or prophecy. Finally, the last eight essays that make up section three each address key biblical miracles from the Noahic flood to the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth and Paul’s claims to have seen the risen Christ. The composition of the volume makes sense, beginning with a conceptual foundation for establishing Hume’s epistemic premises and defending his maxim before applying this heuristic to the biblical text and apologetic claims relying on miracles and prophecy. I will now comment on the standout aspects of essays, for better or worse, in each section since it is impractical to provide a detailed review of each essay in a book totaling 560 pages.

One common theme found across all of the essays in the first section concerning apologetic miracle claims by theists is that the authors believe that the burden of proof in the debate lies with theists rather than atheists. Applying Hume’s framework to the subject, David Corner presents a strong chapter in “Miracles and the Challenge of Apologetics,” suggesting that apologists must first present evidence that a “miraculous event” has occurred, cannot be explained by natural causes, and is not a natural anomaly to established facts. Only then can we be open to the epistemic possibility that we are dealing with a miracle, though Corner is adamant that apologists cannot meet these initial criteria. Next is an essay by Matt McCormick entitled, “God Would Not Perform Miracles,” which utilizes a deconstruction of the tri-omni elements traditionally ascribed to God by theists (omniscience, omnipotence, and omnibenevolence) to suggest that miracles are inconsistent with each of these divine attributes. John Loftus follows this essay with a piece on the contemporary atheist maxim, “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence,” suggesting that miracles require a double burden of proof in that they must be demonstrably impossible on naturalistic grounds alone while requiring the highest evidence as proof that they did occur.

One of the strongest essays in the first section is Darren M. Slade’s piece entitled, “Properly Investigating Miracle Claims,” which deconstructs the methodology—or lack thereof—in Craig Keener’s Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, a two-volume compendium of miracle accounts from the New Testament to the present.[4] Slade demonstrates problems in Keener’s methodology, including overt enthusiasm for recording stories and his inability to verify accounts independently, contrasting these drawbacks with the suggestion that we should employ methods found in forensics and law enforcement such as Criteria-Based Content Analysis (CBCA) and the ADVOKATE acronym for assessing witness testimony (pp. 129-130). Slade’s proposals are reasonable and set the standard for methodology in the area of investigating miracle claims. By contrast, Edward Babinski’s follow-up piece, “Assessing Keener’s Miracles,” meanders through a critique of various miracle claims made in Keener’s book and verges on ad hominem in his critique of Keener’s story about meeting his second wife (p. 167). The final two pieces of the section, by Loftus and Valerie Tarico, address “The Abject Failure of Christian Apologetics” and “Why Do Christians Believe in Miracles?”

R. G. Price opens the second section with an essay entitled, “Why the Romans Believed the Gospels,” which contextualizes the prophetic milieu and worldview that existed at the time of the Gospels’ composition to demonstrate that miracle claims were a requisite component to virtually any religion, as evidenced in the Orphic hymns and Sibylline oracles. This prophetic tradition, coupled with the fact that the Gospels themselves were written after the death of Jesus, ensured that the “way that the Gospels were written led many Roman scholars to view them as among the most credible accounts of the strongest examples of prophecy ever seen” (p. 243). The follow-up piece by Robert J. Miller deepens Price’s point by demonstrating some of the awkward efforts made by the anonymous Gospel writers to make Jesus fulfill prophecies that were explicit, paraphrased, or at times fabricated or overtly rewritten. Robert Conner’s piece, “The Prophetic Failure of Christ’s Return,” concerns the well-trod argument that the New Testament’s suggestion of an imminent return of Christ serves as evidence for the prophetic failure of the text and needs no further elaboration. Finally, David Madison’s piece exploring five “inconvenient truths” that challenge the reliability of the Bible is somewhat out of place with the other essays in this section as it is concerned primarily with rebutting the claim that the Bible is an accurate source of history.

Having established both the intellectual foundations for a materialist approach to miracles and the problems of biblical revelation and prophecy, the volume shifts in the final section to consider specific miraculous claims within the biblical text. The opening essay by Abby Hafer acts as a primer on many of the foundations of evolutionary theory, the scientific peer-review process, and examples that support the factual basis behind evolution. It is particularly readable and acts as a good starting point for the topic. Randall Heskett’s piece on Old Testament miracles firmly establishes them as folkloric and legendary stories from ancient Near Eastern culture, suggesting that many contemporary apologists misread them as historic accounts. Particularly in the area of cosmology, the evidence for a literal overworld/Heaven, earth, and underworld is apparent in the text and contradicts modern cosmology. The next piece on the miracle of Noah’s flood, by Clay Farris Naff, is interesting as a thought experiment in which the author attempts to walk through possible naturalistic explanations that could support the biblical account of a worldwide flood, though it makes for laborious and pedantic reading at times.

In “Jesus Christ: Docetic Demigod,” Robert M. Price ascribes logical inconsistencies to the doctrine of the Trinity, revealing an affinity, like many contemporary scholars, for an exaltation Christology in which Jesus of Nazareth ascended to the status of demigod in the earliest biblical texts. It was not until the Council of Nicaea and the challenge of Arianism that early church leaders attempted to codify the idea of the Trinity, which later church philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas eventually resorted to describing by analogy when logical descriptions failed. Robert Conner’s contribution, “Miracles of the Christian Magicians,” establishes the magical world inhabited by the biblical authors and the centrality of magical acts in the faith-healing of the historical Jesus. Considering the other essays, the understated argument in Conner’s essay is that we might discount the veracity of the Gospel account given the skepticism promoted by Hume.

The final three essays deal with the topics of the “first miracle” performed by Jesus when he transformed water into wine during the wedding at Cana, the topic of the historicity of the Resurrection, and Paul’s visionary claims. Evan Fales’ piece on Cana offers a model for deconstructing the various interpretations of the Cana miracle, concluding that the text would have probably read more as a parable to ancient readers in its use of symbolism. Loftus’ essay on the resurrection serves primarily as a response to Michael Licona’s recent apologetic monograph entitled, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.[5] As is common in debates surrounding the topic, Loftus chooses to focus on the problematic provenance of the Gospels and their unreliability as firsthand eyewitness testimony. Ending the volume is Robert Conner’s contribution on the missionary activity of Paul, which highlights the problematic and personal nature of visionary revelation and the possibility of medical explanations (e.g., temporal lobe epilepsy) for Paul’s visions and behavior. End material consists of a conclusion and an appendix added by Loftus to offer thoughts on a recently published addition to Hume scholarship by William Vanderburgh. To conclude this overview of the essays and sections, it is clear that a full critique or review of each piece would require a wide-ranging expertise in topics from contemporary science, philosophy, and an astonishing breadth of historical knowledge.

The greatest drawback to The Case Against Miracles lies in the publishing process, so this falls most significantly on David McAfee, editor at Hypatia Press. In his introduction, Loftus connects the book to his wider intellectual project as an atheist author, citing his intent in Unapologetic: Why Philosophy of Religion Must End to propose a method for teaching religion in the university classroom, and the ethos of his “Outsider Test for Faith” in treating all religion with the same standards of evidence (pp. 16-17). This suggests that Loftus envisions the title under review as an extension of other books that scholars of religion and religious philosophers might find useful in their teaching. The website for Hypatia Press states that it “was set up in 2017 to publish quality, irreligious and secular works.”[6] If that is the case, then it must be noted that the edited volume would benefit from a substantial typographic revision to ensure that footnotes are properly formatted to one particular style guide (SBL, MLA, or CMS) across chapters, as well as ensure that the text is free of spelling and grammatical errors and that there are no aberrations in paragraph formatting. Numerous instances of these editorial issues litter the text, and the presentation of the volume as a scholarly work suffers as a result. That is not to say that all of the essays are problematic—many are interesting, well-written, and demonstrate a scholarly approach to footnoting and documenting sources. Others appear amateurish in composition and detract from the overall presentation of the volume.

With this in mind, the reviewer’s recommendation is that scholars considering this book should selectively utilize individual essays rather than the book as a whole. General readers will find the book interesting and informative if they identify with the authors’ intellectual position while religious readers and persons of faith who participate in theist-atheist debates may find the tone taken by Loftus and a few other essayists to be pejorative or antagonistic. Loftus is admittedly unapologetic for his stance in the introduction as a caveat emptor, though it is worth pointing this out to potential readers. Loftus and the other contributors provide a wide survey of issues inherent in miraculous claims that will give any reader much to consider.

Notes

[1] Adam Jortner, Blood from the Sly: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2017), p. 17.

[2] John W. Loftus, ed., The Case Against Miracles (United Kingdom: Hypatia Press, 2019).

[3] Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).

[4] Craig S. Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, vols. 1 & 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[5] Michael R. Licona, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2010).

[6] “About Us,” Hypatia Press, accessed January 29, 2020, <http://www.hypatiapress.org/menu.php>.

References

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. 2nd ed. Edited by Eric Steinberg. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1993.

Hypatia Press. “About Us.” Accessed January 29, 2020. <http://www.hypatiapress.org/menu.php>.

Jortner, Adam. Blood from the Sky: Miracles and Politics in the Early American Republic. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2017.

Keener, Craig S. Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts. 2 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011.

Licona, Michael R. The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010.

Loftus, John W., ed. The Case Against Miracles. United Kingdom: Hypatia Press, 2019.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Miracles: A Journalist Investigates Evidence for the Supernatural. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.

Copyright ©2020 by the Global Center for Religious Research. The electronic version is copyright ©2021 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of the Global Center for Religious Research and Gregory Michna. All rights reserved.