‘Hoist with His Own Petard’: Keener Turns the Tables on the Academic Elite

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

February 28, 2012

I recently wrote a review of Craig Keener’s wonderful (and lengthy!) new book, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Eerdmans, 2011).  Although the review will soon be available on the Themelios webpage, I thought I would mention one particular positive here.  As one might expect, Keener devotes a substantial portion of the book refuting Hume’s well known argument against the possibility of miracles.  The problem, as he so deftly points out, is that Hume’s argument is fallaciously circular.

Keener observes, “[Hume] argues, based on ‘experience,’ that miracles do not happen, yet dismisses credible eyewitness testimony for miracles (i.e., others’ experience) on his assumption that miracles do not happen” (109, emphasis his).  Put differently, Hume’s argument is based on the “uniformity of human experience against miracles” (112); a uniformity that he can establish only if he rejects, a priori, all eyewitness claims to miracles.  Thus, Hume assumes what he is trying to prove.

But, Keener goes even further. One of the reasons Hume was able to appeal to the supposed “uniformity of human experience against miracles” is because of the “lack of many comparable modern claims” (209) in his own day.  In other words, Hume and his contemporaries did not have access to the abundant miracle claims in the world around them.  Keener seeks to remedy this problem by devoting a significant portion of his book, chapters 7-12, to cataloging the variety of miracle reports available in our modern time.  This is a most fascinating section of the book and stunningly rich in detail and documentation.  Keener offers accounts from all over the world, but focuses mainly on the “majority world,” including Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Not only does this survey effectively refute Hume’s appeal to the uniformity of human experience against miracles, but it also effectively challenges traditional Western assumptions about religion in the developing world.  Anti-supernaturalists will often dismiss miracle claims from these parts of the world due to the fact that they view the inhabitants as primitive, uneducated, and, to some extent, gullible.  But, Keener points out that such an approach is blatantly “ethnocentric” and “derogatory” (222).

Thus, the academic elite in America and Europe find themselves in an ironic dilemma. While they are often quick to critique others for being ethnocentric, they find themselves guilty of these very charges when they reject the miracle claims of the non-Western world on the basis of its so-called “primitive” culture.  They are caught in the trap of their own political correctness.

With this turning of the tables, one cannot help but think of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet when Hamlet takes the letter ordering his own execution and replaces his name with the names of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  He then declares, “For ’tis sport to have the engineer Hoist with his own petard.”  Or as Prov 26:27 says: “He who digs a pit will fall into it himself.”

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