Essay I. The Miracles of Scripture
Compared with those reported elsewhere,
as regards
Their Nature, Credibility, and Evidence

Introduction. On the Miracles of Scripture

{3} I PROPOSE to attempt an extended comparison between the Miracles of Scripture and those elsewhere related, as regards their nature, credibility, and evidence. I shall divide my observations under the following heads:—

1. On the Idea and Scope of a Miracle.

2. On the antecedent Credibility of a Miracle, considered as a Divine Interposition.

3. On the Criterion of a Miracle, considered as a Divine Interposition.

4. On the direct Evidence for the Christian Miracles. {4}

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Section 1. On the Idea and Scope of a Miracle

{4} A MIRACLE may be considered as an event inconsistent with the constitution of nature, that is, with the established course of things in which it is found. Or, again, an event in a given system which cannot be referred to any law, or accounted for by the operation of any principle, in that system. It does not necessarily imply a violation of nature, as some have supposed,—merely the interposition of an external cause, which, we shall hereafter show, can be no other than the agency of the Deity. And the effect produced is that of unusual or increased action in the parts of the system.

It is then a relative term, not only as it presupposes an assemblage of laws from which it is a deviation, but also as it has reference to some one particular system; for the same event which is anomalous in one, may be quite regular when observed in connexion with another. The Miracles of Scripture, for instance, are irregularities in the economy of nature, but with {5} a moral end; forming one instance out of many, of the providence of God, that is, an instance of occurrences in the natural world with a final cause. Thus, while they are exceptions to the laws of one system, they may coincide with those of another. They profess to be the evidence of a Revelation, the criterion of a divine message. To consider them as mere exceptions to physical order, is to take a very incomplete view of them. It is to degrade them from the station which they hold in the plans and provisions of the Divine Mind, and to strip them of their real use and dignity; for as naked and isolated facts they do but deform an harmonious system.

From this account of a Miracle, it is evident that it may often be difficult exactly to draw the line between uncommon and strictly miraculous events. Thus the production of ice might have seemed at first sight miraculous to the Siamese; for it was a phenomenon referable to none of those laws of nature which are in ordinary action in tropical climates. Such, again, might magnetic attraction appear, in ages familiar only with the attraction of gravity [Note 1]. On the other hand, the extraordinary works of Moses or St. Paul appear miraculous, even when referred to those simple and elementary principles of nature which the widest experience has confirmed. As far as this affects the discrimination of supernatural facts, it will be considered {6} in its proper place; meanwhile let it suffice to state, that those events only are connected with our present subject which have no assignable second cause or antecedent, and which, on that account, are from the nature of the case referred to the immediate agency of the Deity.

A Revelation, that is, a direct message from God to man, itself bears in some degree a miraculous character; inasmuch as it supposes the Deity actually to present Himself before His creatures, and to interpose in the affairs of life in a way above the reach of those settled arrangements of nature, to the existence of which universal experience bears witness. And as a Revelation itself, so again the evidences of a Revelation may all more or less be considered miraculous. Prophecy is an evidence only so far as foreseeing future events is above the known powers of the human mind, or miraculous. In like manner, if the rapid extension of Christianity be urged in favour of its divine origin, it is because such extension, under such circumstances, is supposed to be inconsistent with the known principles and capacity of human nature. And the pure morality of the Gospel, as taught by illiterate fishermen of Galilee, is an evidence, in proportion as the phenomenon disagrees with the conclusions of general experience, which leads us to believe that a high state of mental cultivation is ordinarily requisite for the production of such moral teachers. It might {7} even be said that, strictly speaking, no evidence of a Revelation is conceivable which does not partake of the character of a Miracle; since nothing but a display of power over the existing system of things can attest the immediate presence of Him by whom it was originally established; or, again, because no event which results entirely from the ordinary operation of nature can be the criterion of one that is extraordinary [Note 2].

In the present argument I confine myself to the consideration of Miracles commonly so called; such events, that is, for the most part, as are inconsistent with the constitution of the physical world.

Miracles, thus defined, hold a very prominent place in the evidence of the Jewish and Christian Revelations. They are the most striking and conclusive evidence; because, the laws of matter being better understood than those to which mind is conformed, the transgression of them is more easily recognised. They are the most simple and obvious; because, whereas the freedom of the human will resists the imposition of undeviating laws, the material creation, on the contrary, being strictly subjected to the regulation of its {8} Maker, looks to Him alone for a change in its constitution. Yet Miracles are but a branch of the evidences, and other branches have their respective advantages. Prophecy, as has been often observed, is a growing evidence, and appeals more forcibly than Miracles to those who are acquainted with the Miracles only through testimony. A philosophical mind will perhaps be most strongly affected by the fact of the very existence of the Jewish polity, or of the revolution effected by Christianity. While the beautiful moral teaching and evident honesty of the New Testament writers is the most persuasive argument to the unlearned but single-hearted inquirer. Nor must it be forgotten that the evidences of Revelation are cumulative, that they gain strength from each other; and that, in consequence, the argument from Miracles is immensely stronger when viewed in conjunction with the rest, than when considered separately, as in an inquiry of the present nature.

As the relative force of the separate evidences is different under different circumstances, so again has one class of Miracles more or less weight than another, according to the accidental change of times, places, and persons addressed. As our knowledge of the system of nature, and of the circumstances of the particular case varies, so of course varies our conviction. Walking on the sea, for instance, or giving sight to one born blind, would to us perhaps be a {9} Miracle even more astonishing than it was to the Jews; the laws of nature being at the present day better understood than formerly, and the fables concerning magical power being no longer credited. On the other hand, stilling the wind and waves with a word may by all but eye-witnesses be set down to accident or exaggeration without the possibility of a full confutation; yet to eye-witnesses it would carry with it an overpowering evidence of supernatural agency by the voice and manner that accompanied the command, the violence of the wind at the moment, the instantaneous effect produced, and other circumstances, the force of which a narrative cannot fully convey. The same remark applies to the Miracle of changing water into wine, to the cure of demoniacal possessions, and of diseases generally. From a variety of causes, then, it happens that Miracles which produced a rational conviction at the time when they took place, have ever since proved rather an objection to Revelation than an evidence for it, and have depended on the rest for support; while others, which once were of a dubious and perplexing character, have in succeeding ages come forward in its defence. It is by a process similar to this that the anomalous nature of the Mosaic polity, which might once be an obstacle to its reception, is now justly alleged in proof of the very Miracles by which it was then supported [Note 3]. It is important to keep this remark {10} in view, as it is no uncommon practice with those who are ill-affected to the cause of Revealed Religion to dwell upon such Miracles as at the present day rather require than contribute evidence, as if they formed a part of the present proof on which it rests its pretensions [Note 4].

In the foregoing remarks, the being of an intelligent Maker has been throughout assumed; and, indeed, if the peculiar object of a Miracle be to evidence a message from God, it is plain that it implies the admission of the fundamental truth, and demands assent to another beyond it. His particular interference it directly proves, while it only reminds of His existence. It professes to be the signature of God to a message delivered by human instruments; and therefore supposes that signature in some degree already known, from His ordinary works. It appeals to that moral sense and that experience of human affairs which already bear witness to His ordinary presence. Considered by itself, it is at most but the token of a superhuman being. Hence, though an additional instance, it is not a distinct species of {11} evidence for a Creator from that contained in the general marks of order and design in the universe. A proof drawn from an interruption in the course of nature is in the same line of argument as one deduced from the existence of that course, and in point of cogency is inferior to it. Were a being who had experience only of a chaotic world suddenly introduced into this orderly system of things, he would have an infinitely more powerful argument for the existence of a designing Mind, than a mere interruption of that system can afford. A Miracle is no argument to one who is deliberately, and on principle, an atheist.

Yet, though not abstractedly the more convincing, it is often so in effect, as being of a more striking and imposing character. The mind, habituated to the regularity of nature, is blunted to the overwhelming evidence it conveys; whereas by a Miracle it may be roused to reflection, till mere conviction of a superhuman being becomes the first step towards the acknowledgment of a Supreme Power. While, moreover, it surveys nature as a whole, it is not capacious enough to embrace its bearings, and to comprehend what it implies. In miraculous displays of power the field of view is narrowed; a detached portion of the divine operations is taken as an instance, and the final cause is distinctly pointed out. A Miracle, besides, is more striking, inasmuch as it displays the Deity in action; evidence of which is not supplied in the {12} system of nature. It may then accidentally bring conviction of an intelligent Creator; for it voluntarily proffers a testimony which we have ourselves to extort from the ordinary course of things, and forces upon the attention a truth which otherwise is not discovered, except upon examination.

And as it affords a more striking evidence of a Creator than that conveyed in the order and established laws of the Universe, still more so does it of a Moral Governor. For, while nature attests the being of God more distinctly than it does His moral government, a miraculous event, on the contrary, bears more directly on the fact of His moral government, of which it is an immediate instance, while it only implies His existence. Hence, besides banishing ideas of Fate and Necessity, Miracles have a tendency to rouse conscience, to awaken to a sense of responsibility, to remind of duty, and to direct the attention to those marks of divine government already contained in the ordinary course of events [Note 5].

Hitherto, however, I have spoken of solitary Miracles; a system of miraculous interpositions, conducted with reference to a final cause, supplies a still more beautiful and convincing argument for the moral government of God.

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Notes

1. Campbell, On Miracles, Part i. Sec. 2.
Return to text

2. Hence it is that in the Scripture accounts of Revelations to the Prophets, etc., a sensible Miracle is so often asked and given; as if the vision itself, which was the medium of the Revelation, was not a sufficient evidence of it, as being perhaps resolvable into the ordinary powers of an excited imagination; e.g., Judg. vi. 36-40, etc.
Return to text

3. See Sumner's "Records of Creation," Vol. i.
Return to text

4. See Hume, On Miracles: "Let us examine those Miracles related in Scripture, and, not to lose ourselves in too wide a field, let us confine ourselves to such as we find in the Pentateuch, etc. It gives an account of the state of the world and of human nature entirely different from the present; of our fall from that state; of the age of man extended to near a thousand years," etc. See Berkeley's "Minute Philosopher," Dial. vi. Sec. 30.
Return to text

5. Farmer, On Miracles, Chap. i. Sec. 2.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home


Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.