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Summary Review of In Defense of Miracles (1999, 2005)

Richard Carrier


[Part 1 of a more comprehensive Review of In Defense of Miracles.]


In 1997, InterVaristy Press published In Defense of Miracles: A Comprehensive Case for God's Action in History (1997), edited by Gary Habermas and R. Douglas Geivett. This is a well-composed defense of miracles which makes arguments that need to be addressed. It is not really a defense of miracles as such, but makes a cumulative case for Christianity, centering on the resurrection and incarnation of Christ, drawing on fourteen different authors and responding to two critics. R. Douglas Geivett, Gary Habermas, Richard Purtill, Norman Geisler, Francis Beckwith, Winfried Corduan, Ronald Nash, J.P. Moreland, W. David Beck, Stephen Davis, David Clark, Robert Newman, John Feinberg, and William Lane Craig, all line up against David Hume and Antony Flew.

However, apart from the usual plethora of faulty arguments typical of all Christian apologetics, this work suffers from two major faults: first, with the exception of the long-dead Hume, who could not benefit from the advances in historical method or the many discoveries of the past two centuries, none of the contributors are historians. Considering how crucial historical method is to the issue, the complete absence of contributions by experienced historians leaves much to be criticized. As a result, the Christians fail to adequately account for the historical context within which ancient Christian literature was written, and show little understanding of proper historical method. Related to this is a lack of serious contact with scientific literature relating to hallucination, delusion, psychosomatic illness and recovery, and other relevant aspects of human psychology.

Second, at no point are actual miracle-accounts from the modern and middle ages ever addressed in any detail. Since this is what I expected the book to include, I was disappointed to find it lacking. I was unable to see how they would apply their methods to miracles that they are not required to believe in order to justify their faith. Can there be any unbiased applications of their own thinking? Although one chapter deals with miracles in other religions, this is cursory and largely avoids the issue of which Christian miracles we are entitled to doubt. An analysis of medieval and modern miracle accounts is needed to prove that their methods can be consistent with their own common sense. After all, if there are well-attested miracles that justify Catholicism, for example, then these authors ought to convert. But this kind of question was avoided like the plague.

A third, but less significant, fault is that the one modern skeptic allowed to have his say (Antony Flew) clearly composed his contribution prior to seeing any of the others, and consequently his chapter wastes a lot of space arguing points which the other contributors already concede. This makes his essay hardly worth including, although he makes a few essential points about epistemology and historical method which did need to be added to Hume's rather outdated argument. Normally, I would not expect them to even include Hume and Flew, but if they are going to go to this length, they really ought to give Flew a better chance to say something useful. Moreover, what I would really expect here is a contribution by a skeptical historian. Although Flew has some skill and experience as an historian, his expertise lies in the biography of Hume, not in ancient history. This book would have been much more interesting had they included a chapter by a skeptic of the ancient Christian miracle accounts who was actually an expert in the relevant history.

Nevertheless, the book contains a virtual treasure of bibliographical notes. Although this device is used by the authors to cite each other's works ad nausium, even this makes the book a valuable reference, for believers and doubters. It is also well written and nicely organized (although I was disappointed to find that it lacks an index). This is the very best that contemporary Christian apologetics can offer on this subject and it martials the works and arguments of all the leading Christian scholars today. Although the book includes two articles by skeptics, there is no skeptical rebuttal of any kind, and the content is almost entirely pro-Christian. It should not be mistaken for anything more than a Christian apologetic work, but we cannot fault it for this, because it does not claim to be anything else.

For a more detailed summary of the virtues and faults of this book, see What's Good and Bad, and for even more in-depth discussion, see my treatment of particular chapters categorized under the Philosophical Problem and the Historical Problem, in this review's Table of Contents. Note that all sections of this review were originally written in 1999 and then updated in 2005.

OTHER REVIEWS: I also looked for reviews in print, but these are mainly laudatory, excessively brief, and are all Christian-oriented. For example, The Expository Times (109.6, p. 188: March, 1998) and The Stone Campbell Journal (1.1: April, 1998). But most recently Evan Fales wrote a critical review, "Successful Defense? A Review of In Defense of Miracles," for Philosophia Christi (3.1, pp. 7-35: 2001), and responses from the authors follow that. If anyone is aware of other reviews that contain any substantial discussion, please let me know of them. There are, of course, several summaries available on the web, which are all found at Christian websites, but most are little more than promo material (e.g. see the Calvin Web, First Things, and the InterVarsity Press promo page).