Chapter 5. On the Evidence for Particular Alleged Miracles

{228} 107. IT does not strictly fall within the scope of this Essay to pronounce upon the truth or falsehood of this or that miraculous narrative as it occurs in Ecclesiastical History; but only to furnish such general considerations as may be useful in forming a decision in particular cases. Yet considering the painful perplexity which many feel when left entirely to their own judgments in important matters, it may be allowable to go a step further, and without ruling open questions this way or that, to throw off the abstract and unreal character which attends a course of reasoning, by setting down the evidence for and against certain miracles as we meet with them. Moreover, so much has been said in the foregoing pages in behalf of the Ecclesiastical Miracles, antecedently considered, that it may be hastily inferred that all miraculous relations and reports should be admitted unhesitatingly and indiscriminately, without any attempt at separating truth from falsehood, or suspense {229} of judgment, or variation in the reliance placed in them one with another, or reserve or measure in the open acknowledgment of them. And such an examination of particular instances, as is proposed, may give opportunity to one or two additional remarks of a general character for which no place has hitherto been found.

108. An inquirer, then, should not enter upon the subject of the miracles reported or alleged in ecclesiastical history, without being prepared for fiction and exaggeration in the narrative, to an indefinite extent. This cannot be insisted on too often; nothing but the gift of inspiration could have hindered it. Nay, he must not expect that more than a few can be exhibited with evidence of so cogent and complete a character as to demand his acceptance; while a great number of them, as far as the evidence goes, are neither certainly true nor certainly false, but have very various degrees of probability viewed one with another; all of them recommended to his devout attention by the circumstance that others of the same family have been proved to be true, and all prejudiced by his knowledge that so many others on the contrary are certainly not true. It will be his wisdom, then, not to reject or scorn accounts of miracles, where there is a fair chance of their being true; but to allow himself to be in suspense, to raise his mind to Him of whom they may possibly be telling to "stand in awe, {230} and sin not," and to ask for light,—yet to do no more; not boldly to put forward what, if it be from God, yet has not been put forward by Him. What He does in secret, we must think over in secret; what He has "openly showed in the sight of the heathen," we must publish abroad, "crying aloud, and sparing not." An alleged miracle is not untrue because it is unproved; nor is it excluded from our faith because it is not admitted into our controversy. Some are for our conviction, and these we are to "confess with the mouth" as well as "believe with the heart;" others are for our comfort and encouragement, and these we are to "keep, and ponder them in our heart," without urging them upon unwilling ears.

109. No one should be surprised at the admission that few of the Ecclesiastical Miracles are attended with an evidence sufficient to subdue our reason, because few of the Scripture Miracles are furnished with such an evidence. When a fact comes recommended to us by arguments which do not admit of an answer, when plain and great difficulties are in the way of denying it, and none, or none of comparative importance, in the way of admitting it, it may be said to subdue our reason. Thus Apologists for Christianity challenge unbelievers to produce an hypothesis sufficient to account for its doctrines, its rise, and its success, short of its truth; thus Lord Lyttelton analyses the possible motives and principles of the human {231} mind, in order to show that St. Paul's conversion admits of but one explanation, viz., that it was supernatural; thus writers on Prophecy appeal to its fulfilment, which they say can be accounted for by referring it to a Divine inspiration, and in no other way. Leslie, Paley, and others have employed themselves on similar arguments in defence of Revealed Religion. I am not saying how far arguments of a bold, decisive, and apparently demonstrative character, however great their value, are always the deepest and most satisfactory; but they are those which in this day are the most popular; they are those, the absence of which is made an objection to the Ecclesiastical Miracles. It is right then to remind those who consider this objection as fatal to these miracles, that the Miracles of Scripture are for the most part exposed to the same. If the miracles of Church History cannot be defended by the arguments of Leslie, Lyttelton, Paley, or Douglas, how many of the Scripture miracles satisfy their conditions? Some infidel authors advise us to accept no miracles which would not have a verdict in their favour in a court of justice; that is, they employ against Scripture a weapon which Protestants would confine to attacks upon the Church; as if moral and religious questions required legal proofs, and evidence were the test of truth.

110. It is true that the Scripture miracles were, for the most part, evidence of a Divine Revelation at the {232} time when they were wrought; but they are not so at this day. Only a few of them fulfil this purpose now; and the rest are sustained and authenticated by these few [Note 1]. The many never have been evidence except to those who saw them, and have but held the place of doctrine ever since; like the truths revealed to us about the unseen world, which are matters of faith, not means of conviction. They have no existence, as it were, out of the record in which they are found; they are not found as facts in the world, influencing its course, and proving their reality by their power, but as sacred truths taught us by inspiration. Such are the greater number of our Lord's miracles viewed individually; we believe His restoration of the widow's son, or His changing water into wine, as we believe His transfiguration, on the word of His Evangelists. We believe the miracles of Elisha, because our Lord has Himself recognised the book containing the record of them. The great arguments by which unbelievers are silenced do not reach as far as these particular instances. As was just now noticed, one of the most cogent proofs of the miracles of Christ and His Apostles is drawn from their effects; it being inconceivable that a rival power to Cęsar should have started out of so obscure and ignorant a spot as Galilee, and have prevailed, without some such extraordinary and divine gifts; yet this argument, it will be {233} observed, proves nothing about the miracles one by one as reported in the Gospels, but only that the Christian story was miraculous, or that miracles attended it. Paley's argument goes little beyond proving the fact of the Resurrection, or, at most, that there were certain sensible miracles wrought by our Lord, such as cures, to which St. Peter alludes in his speech to Cornelius, yet without specifying what. Again, Douglas considers that "we may suspect miracles to be false," the account of which was not published at the time or place of their alleged occurrence, or if so published, yet without careful attention being called to them; yet St. Mark is said to have written at Rome, St. Luke in Rome or Greece, and St. John at Ephesus; and the earliest of the Evangelists wrote some years after the events recorded, while the latest did not write for sixty years; and, moreover, true though it be that attention was called to Christianity from the first, yet it is true also that it did not succeed at the spot where it arose, but principally at a distance from it. Once more, Leslie almost confines his tests to the Mosaic miracles, or rather to certain of them; and though he is unwilling to exclude those of the Gospel from the benefit of his argument, yet it is not easy to see how he brings them under it at all.

111. On the whole, then, it will be found that the greater part of the Miracles of Revelation are as little evidence for Revelation at this day, as the Miracles {234} of the Church are now evidence for the Church. In both cases the number of those which carry with them their own proof now, and are believed for their own sake, is small; and these furnish the grounds on which we receive the rest. The difference between the two cases is this:—that, since an authentic document has been provided for the miracles by which Revealed Religion was introduced, which are thus connected together into one whole, we know here exactly what miracles are to be received on warrant of those which are already proved; but since the Church has never catalogued her miracles, those which are known to be such do but create an indefinite presumption in favour of others, but cannot be taken in proof of any in particular.

112. On the other hand, that fables have ever been in circulation, some vague and isolated, others attached to particular spots or to particular persons, is too notorious to need dwelling on: it is more to the purpose to observe that the fact of such pretences has ever been acknowledged even by those who have been believers or reporters of miraculous occurrences. We have seen above [Note 2] that one of St. Martin's first miracles in his episcopate, as recorded by Sulpicius, was the detection of a pretended Saint and Martyr, whose tomb had been an object of veneration to the ignorant people. And in the very beginning of Christianity St. Luke, in speaking of the "many" who had "taken in hand to set forth in {235} order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us," seems to allude to the Apocryphal Gospels [Note 3], which ascribe a number of trifling as well as fictitious miracles to our Lord. And when St. Paul cautions the Thessalonians against being "soon shaken in mind or troubled, by spirit or by letter, as from himself, as that the day of Christ was at hand," he testifies both to the fact that spurious writings were then ascribed to him, and that they contained professedly supernatural matter.

113. What is confessed by Apostles and Evangelists in the first century, and by Martyrologists in the fourth, would naturally happen both in the interval and afterwards. Hence Pope Gelasius, while warning the faithful against several Apocryphal works, mentions among them the Acts of St. George, the martyr under Dioclesian, which had been so interpolated by the Arians, that to this day, though he is the patron of England, and in Chapters of the Garter is commemorated with honours which even Apostles do not gain from us, nothing whatever is known for certain of his life, sufferings, or miracles [Note 4]. Again, we are told by St. John Damascene, and in the Revelations of St. Bridget and St. Mathildis, that the Emperor {236} Trajan was delivered from the place of punishment at the prayers of St. Gregory the First; but Baronius says, concerning this and similar stories, "Away with idle tales; silence once for all on empty fables; be they buried in eternal silence. We excuse those who, accounting true what they received as fact, committed it to writing; praise to their zeal, who, when they found it asserted, discussed in scholastic fashion how it might be; but more praise to them who, scenting the falsehood, detected the error." [Note 5] Melchior Canus, again, a Dominican and a Divine of Trent, uses the same language even of St. Gregory's Dialogues and the Ecclesiastical History of Bede. "They are most eminent persons," he says, "but still men; they relate certain miracles as commonly reported and believed, which critics, especially of this age, will consider uncertain. Indeed, I should like those histories better, if their authors had joined more care in selection to severity in judgment;" [Note 6] though he adds that far more was to be retained in their works than was to be rejected. He does not, however, speak even in these measured terms of the Speculum Exemplorum, and the Aurea Legenda of Jacobus de Voragine; the former of which, he says, contains "monsters of miracles rather than truths;" and the latter is the production of "an iron mouth, a leaden heart, and an {237} intellect without exactness or discretion." Avowals such as these from the first century to the sixteenth, from inspired writers to the schools of St. Dominic and the Oratory, may serve to prepare us for fictitious miracles in ecclesiastical history in no small measure, and to show us at the same time that such fictions are no fair prejudice to others which possess the characters of truth [Note 7]. And in like manner, if it be necessary, exceptions might be taken to certain of the miracles recorded by Palladius in his Lausiac, and by Theodoret in his Religious History, and by the unknown collector of the miracles of St. Stephen, which a late writer has brought forward with the hope of thereby {238} involving all the supernatural histories of antiquity in a general suspicion and contempt. That Palladius has put in writing a report of a hyena's asking pardon of a solitary for killing sheep, and of a female turned by magic into a mare, or that one of the Clergy of Uzalis speaks of a serpent that was seen in the sky, will appear no reason, except to vexed and heated minds, for accusing the holy Ambrose of imposture, or the keen, practised, and experienced intellect of Augustine of abject credulity [Note 8].

114. Nor is there anything strange or startling in this mixture of fable with truth, as appeared from what was said on the subject in a former page. It as little derogates from the supernatural gift residing in the Church that miracles should have been fabricated or exaggerated, as it prejudices her holiness that within her pale good men are mixed with bad. {239} Fiction and pretence follow truth as its shadows; the Church is at all times in the midst of corruption, because she is in the midst of the world, and is framed out of human hearts; and as the elect are fewer than the reprobate, and hard to find amid the chaff, so false miracles at once exceed and conceal and prejudice those which are genuine. Nor would the difficulty be overcome, even if we took on ourselves to reject all the Ecclesiastical Miracles altogether; for the fictions which startle us must in fairness be viewed as connected, not only with the Church and her more authentic histories, but with Christianity, as such. Superstition is a corruption of Christianity, not merely of the Church; and if it discredits the divine origin of the Church, it discredits the divine origin of Christianity also. Those who talk even most loudly of the corruptions of the fourth and fifth centuries, seem, when closely questioned, still to admit that Christianity was not extinct, but overlaid by corruptions. If, then, the Church herself, and her miracles in toto, are to be included in that corruption, then of course the corruption was only deeper and broader, than if she is to be accounted as in herself a portion of Apostolic Christianity; and if such greater corruption does not compromise the divinity of Christianity, so the lesser surely does not compromise the real power and gifts of the Church. On both sides fanaticism, imposture, and superstition are admitted as existing {240} in the history of miracles; and on neither side must these evil agents be held to throw suspicion on particular miracles which have no direct or probable connection with them.

And now, after these preliminary considerations, let us proceed to inquire into the evidence and character of several of the miracles in particular, which we meet with in the first centuries of Christianity.

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Notes

1. Vid. supr. Essay i. pp. 9, 55, 91, 92; also pp. 187, 207.
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2. N. 28.
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3. Jones, On the Canon, part i. ch. 2, has collected the ancient and modern authorities in proof that St. Luke was alluding to the Apocryphal writings. Wolf denies it, Cur. Phil. in loc.
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4. Baron, Annal. 290. 35: Martyrol. Apr. 23.
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5. Emunctis naribus odorati. Annal. 604. 49.
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6. Loc. Theol. xi. 6.
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7. The illustration of this subject might be pursued without limit. Tillemont quotes from a writer of the thirteenth century the broad maxim: "Quand la raison se trouve contraire ą l'usage, il faut que l'usage cede ą la raison;" and proceeds to quote Papebrok as saying that we cannot too often repeat this excellent rule, "ą ceux qui trouvent mauvais qu'on accuse de fausseté diverses choses qui se sont introduites dans l'Eglise par l'ignorance de l'histoire." vol. vii. p. 640. The Bollandists say, "Nimiā profecto simplicitate peccant qui scandalizantur quoties audiunt aliquid ex jam olim creditis, et juxta Breviarii pręscriptum hodiedum recitandis, in disputationem adduci." Dissert. Bolland. tom. ii. p. 140. Vid. also Alban Butler's Saints, Introd. Disc. p. xlvii., etc., ed 1833. Bauer's Theolog. tom. i. art. ii. p. 487, and works there referred to. Benedict. XIV. de Canon. Sanct. iv. p. 1. c. 5, etc. Farmer, On Miracles, p. 320; also the passages from various authors quoted in Geddes' Tracts, vol. iii. pp. 115-118, ed. 1730; who also furnishes, though not in a good spirit, a number of specimens of the sort of miracles which such authors condemn.
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8. "Ambrose occupies a high position among the Fathers; and there was a vigour and dignity in his character, as well as a vivid intelligence, which must command respect; but in proportion as we assign praise to the man individually, we condemn the system which could so far vitiate a noble mind, and impel one so lofty in temper to act a part which heathen philosophers would utterly have abhorred … Under the Nicene system, Bishops in the great cities could stand up in crowded churches, without shame, and with uplifted hands appeal to Almighty God in attestation of that, as a miracle, which themselves had brought about by trickery, bribes, and secret instructions." Ancient Christ. part vii. pp. 270, 271. "He [Augustine] was the dupe of his own credulity, not the machinator of fraud." P. 318.
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