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Systematic Theology - Volume I
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§ 3. Can a Miracle be known as such?

This is denied on various grounds.

1. It is said, if a miracle be an event which transcends the efficiency of second causes we must have a perfect knowledge of the power of such causes, before we can decide that a particular event is miraculous. But as such perfect knowledge is impossible, it must be impossible for us to decide whether it is a miracle or not. It must be admitted that in many cases the mere nature of an event does not afford a certain criterion of its character as natural or supernatural. To savages many effects which to us are easily accountable as the product of natural causes, appear to be miraculous. An adept in the arts of legerdemain, or a man of science, may do many things entirely unaccountable by the uninitiated, which they therefore cannot distinguish from miracles by anything in the mere nature of the effects themselves. But this objection applies only to a certain class of miracles. There are some events which so evidently transcend the power of nature that there can be no rational doubt as to their supernatural origin. No creature can create or originate life, or work without the intervention of means. A large class of the miracles recorded in Scripture imply the exercise of a power which can belong to God alone. The multiplying a few loaves and fishes so as to satisfy the hunger of thousands of men raising the dead, and giving sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf, not by the appliances of art, but by a command, are clearly effects which imply the exercise of almighty power. Besides, it is to be considered that the nature of the event is not the only criterion by which we are to determine its character. To prove an event in the external world to be miraculous, we have only to prove that it is not the effect of any natural cause, and that it is to be referred to the immediate agency of God. To produce this conviction moral evidence is quite as effective as any other. Such an event may be, as far as we can see, supernatural, either in its nature or in the mode of its occurrence, but that alone would not justify us in referring it to God. Much depends on the character of the agent and the design for which the wonder is wrought. If these be evidently bad, we cannot be convinced that God has wrought a miracle. But if both the character of the agent and the design of his work are good, then we are easily and rationally convinced that the wonder is really a miracle.

Lying Wonders.

2. This remark applies equally to another ground on which it is denied that we can certainly determine any event to be miraculous. An effect may transcend all the powers of all material causes and the power of man, and nevertheless be within the compass of the ability of superhuman intelligences. There are rational creatures superior to man, endowed with far higher capacities. These exalted intelligences have access to our world; they do exercise their powers in producing effects in the realm of nature; and therefore, it is said, we cannot tell whether an event, admitted to be supernatural (in the limited sense of that word), is to be referred to God or to these spiritual beings. Such is the latitude with which the words “signs and wonders” are used in the Scriptures, that they apply not only to works due to God’s immediate agency, but to those effected by the power of evil spirits. On this account many theologians regard the latter as true miracles. They are called “lying wonders,” says Gerhard,599599Loci Theologici, loc. xxiii. cap. ii. § 274, edit. Tübingen, 1774, vol. xii. p. 102. not as to their form (or nature), but as to their end, i.e., because designed to promote error. Trench takes the same view; he says it is not a matter of doubt to him that the Scriptures attribute real wonders to Satan. The question is not, Whether the works of the Egyptian Magicians and the predicted wonders of Antichrist are to be regarded as tricks and juggleries. It may be admitted that they were, or are to be the works of Satan and his angels. But the question is, Are they to be regarded as true miracles? The answer to this question depends on the meaning of the word. If by a miracle we mean any event transcending the efficiency of physical causes and the power of man, then they are miracles. But if we adhere to the definition above given, which requires that the event be produced by the immediate power of God, they of course are not miracles. They are “lying wonders,” not only because intended to sustain the kingdom of lies, but because they falsely profess to be what they are not. Thus Thomas Aquinas says:600600Summa, part 1, quest. cxlv. art. 4. edit. Cologne, 1640, p. 208. Demones possunt facere miracula: quæ scilicet homines mirantur, in quantum eorum facultatem et cognitionem excedunt.” They are only wonders in the sight of men.

The difficulty of discriminating between miracles and these lying wonders, i.e., between the works of God and the works of Satan, has been anticipated and provided for by the sacred writers themselves. In Deut. xiii. 1-3, Moses says, “If there arise among you a prophet . . . . and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or thine wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee, saying, Let us go after other gods thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet.” In Matt. vii. 22, 23, our Lord says, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” Matt. xxiv. 24, “There shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” In 2 Thess. ii. 9, the Apostle teaches us that the coming of the man of sin shall be “after the working of Satan, with all power and signs and lying wonders.” These passages teach that supernatural events, i.e., events transcending the power of material causes and the ability of man, may be brought about by the agency of higher intelligences; and that no such supernatural events are to be regarded as of any authority if produced by wicked agents, or for a wicked purpose. It was on this principle our Lord answered the Pharisees who accused Him of casting out devils by Beelzebub the prince of devils. He appealed to the design for which his miracles were wrought to prove that they could not be referred to a Satanic influence. Satan will not coöperate to confirm the truth or to promote good. God cannot coöperate to confirm what is false or to promote evil. So that the character of the agent and the design for which a supernatural event is brought about determine whether it is truly a miracle, or whether it is one of the lying wonders of the devil. From the Scriptures this criterion of miracles was adopted by the Church. Luther says, “Against authenticated doctrines, no signs or wonders, however great or numerous, are to be admitted; for we have the command of God, who said from heaven, ‘Hear him,’ to listen only unto Christ.” Chemnitz601601Loci Theologici, III. edit. Frankfort and Wittenburg, 1653, p. 121. says, “Miracula non debent præferri doctrinæ. . . . neque enim contra doctrinam a Deo revelatam ulla miracula valere debent.” Gerhard602602Ibid. loc. xxiii. cap. 11. § 276, edit. Tübingen, 1774, vol. ii. p. 107. says, “Miracula, si non habeant doctrinæ veritatem conjunctam nihil probant.” Brochmann also says,603603Theol. System. de Eccles. II. vii. dub. 12, Ulm and Frankf., 1658, vol. ii. p. 276, b.Ut opus aliquod sit verum miraculum duo requiruntur. Unum, est veritas rei; alterum, veritas finis.

To this it may be objected, that it is reasoning in a circle to prove the truth of the doctrine from the miracle, and then the truth of the miracle from the doctrine. We answer, however, (1.) That this moral criterion is needed only in the doubtful class of miracles. There are certain events which from their nature can have no other author than God. They transcend not only the powers of matter and of man, but all created power. The efficiency of creatures has known limits, determined, if not by reason, at least by the Word of God. (2.) It is not unusual nor unreasonable that two kinds of evidence should be dependent and yet mutually confirmatory. In the case of a historian, we may believe his authorities to be what he says they are, on account of his character; and we may believe his statements on account of his authorities. So we may believe a good man, when he says that the wonders which he performs are not tricks, or effects produced by the coöperation of evil spirits, but by the power of God, and we may believe his teachings to be divine because of the wonders. The Bible assumes that men have an intuitive perception of what is good; and it assumes that God is on the side of goodness and Satan on the side of evil. If a wonder, therefore, be wrought in favour of what is good, it is from God; if in support of what is evil, it is from Satan. This is one of the grounds on which Protestants give themselves so little concern about the pretended miracles of the Romish church. They do not feel it to be necessary to disprove them by a critical examination of their nature, or of the circumstances under which they were performed, or of the evidence by which they are supported. Not one in a thousand of them could stand the test of such an examination; most of them, indeed, are barefaced impostures openly justified by the authorities on the ground of pious frauds. It is a sufficient reason for repudiating, prior to any examination, all such pretended miracles, that they are wrought in support of an antichristian system, that they are part of a complicated mass of deceit and evil.

Insufficiency of Human Testimony.

There is still another ground on which the possibility of a miracles being known or proved has been denied. It is said that no evidence is adequate to establish the occurrence of a miraculous event. Our faith in miracles must rest on historical testimony. Historical testimony is only the testimony of men liable to be deceived. All confidence in such testimony is founded on experience. Experience, however, teaches that human testimony is not always reliable; whereas our experience, that the course of nature is uniform, is without exception. It will, therefore, always be more probable that the witnesses were mistaken than that the course of nature has been violated. This is Hume’s famous argument, of which Babbage says that it, “divested of its less important adjuncts, never has and never will be refuted.”604604Ninth Bridgewater Treatise, p.121. He evidently means that it cannot be refuted except mathematically, through the doctrine of probabilities. For he says on a subsequent page, that those who support the prejudice against mathematical pursuits, “must now be compelled to admit that they have endeavoured to discredit a science which alone can furnish an exact refutation of one of the most celebrated arguments against revelation.”605605Ibid. 132. He endeavours to prove the reverse of Hume’s proposition; that is, that on the doctrine of probabilities, it is unspeakably more probable that there should be a violation of the laws of nature (e. g., that a dead man should come to life) than that six independent witnesses should concur in testifying to the same falsehood. The argument may be valid in the view of mathematicians; but to ordinary men it seems to be a wrong application of the principles of that venerable science. As we cannot determine by the law of probabilities a question in æsthetics or morals, neither can God’s relation to the world, and the use of his power, as involved in the doctrine of miracles, be thus determined. It does depend on the validity of human testimony. However uncertain or unreliable such testimony may be, such events as miracles may happen, if consistent with the nature of God, and may be rationally believed. There may be proofs of their reality which no man can disregard. It is, however, as just remarked, a false assumption that human testimony is inadequate to produce absolute certainty. Men do not hesitate on the testimony of even two men to consign a fellow-man to death. In order that human testimony should command assent it must, (1.) Be given in proof of a possible event. The impossible cannot be proved by any kind of evidence. Professor Powell asks, How much testimony would be required to prove that two and two had, on a given occasion, made five? As no amount of testimony could prove such an impossibility, the argument is that no amount of evidence can prove a miracle. If miracles be impossible, that is an end of the matter. No man is so foolish as to pretend that the impossible can be proved. (2.) The second condition of the credibility of testimony is that the event admit of easy verification. If a man testify that he saw a ghost, it may be true that he saw something which he took to be a ghost; but the fact cannot be verified. The resurrection of Christ, for example, the miracle on the truth of which our salvation depends, was an event which could be authenticated. The identity between the dead and living Jesus could be established beyond the possibility of any reasonable doubt. (3.) The witnesses must have satisfactory knowledge or evidence of the truth of the facts to which they testify. Had the Apostles seen Christ after his resurrection only on one occasion, at a great distance, in an obscure light, and only for a fleeting moment, the value of their testimony would be greatly impaired. But as they saw Him repeatedly during forty days, conversed with Him, ate with Him, and handled Him, it is out of the question that they should have been mistaken. (4.) The witnesses themselves should be sober-minded, intelligent men. (5.) They should be good men. The testimony of other men, under these conditions, may be as coercive as that of our own senses. And it may be so confirmed by collateral evidence, natural and supernatural, by the nature of effects produced, and by signs and wonders and gifts of the Holy Ghost, as to render unbelief a miracle of folly and wickedness.

The fallacy of Hume’s argument has often been pointed out. in the first place, it rests on the false assumption that confidence in human testimony is founded on experience, whereas it is founded on a law of our nature. We cannot help confiding in good men. We know that deceit is inconsistent with goodness; and therefore know and are forced to believe, that good men will not intentionally deceive; and, therefore, by a law of our nature we are compelled to receive their testimony as to facts within them personal knowledge. Experience, instead of being the foundation of belief in testimony, corrects our credulity by teaching us the conditions under which alone human testimony can be safely trusted. In the second place, Hume assumes that there is a violent antecedent improbability against the occurrence of a miracle, which only a “miraculous” amount of evidence could counterbalance. It is indeed not only incredible, but inconceivable, that a miracle should be wrought without an adequate reason. But that God, on great occasions and for the highest ends, should intervene with the immediate exercise of his power in the course of events, is what might be confidently anticipated. Theism being granted, the difficulty about miracles disappears, but by theism is not meant the mere admission that something is God, whether nature, force, motion, or moral order; but the doctrine of a personal extramundane Being, the Creator and Governor of all things, who does according to his own will in the army of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; a God who is untrammelled by cosmical influences or laws.

In the third place, Hume’s argument assumes that our faith in miracles rests exclusively on human testimony. This is not the fact. The miracles recorded in the Scriptures are a competent part of the great system of truth therein revealed. The whole stands or falls together. Our faith in miracles, therefore, is sustained by all the evidence which authenticates the gospel of Christ. And that evidence is not to be even touched by a balance of probabilities.


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