Chapter IX



Augustine: City of God, X. viii.-xii.; XXL ii.-viii.; Trinity, HI. ii.-ix. Hume: On Miracles. Campbell: Reply to Hume. Conybeare: On Miracles. Mozley: On Miracles. Neander: Life of Christ, Book IV. Trench: The Gospel Miracles. Channing: Evidences of Revealed Religion. Christlieb: Modem Doubt, Lecture V. Fisher: Theistic Belief, IV.-VI. Twesten: Dogmatik, g 24. Shedd: History of Doctrine, I. 164 sq. Dorner: Christian Doctrine, gg 53-56. Steinmeyer: Miracles of Christ. Penny Cyclopaedia: Art. Miracles. Bruce: Miraculous Element in the Gospels. Milller: Sin, IV. iii., iv. Nitzsch: Dogmatics, 107.

The government of God is occasionally administered by means of miracles. The miracle is an extraordinary act of God. It does not differ from the ordinary course of nature, because it requires a greater exertion of Divine power, but because it requires a different exertion of it. To cause the sun to rise, and to cause Lazarus to rise, both alike demand omnipotence; but the manner in which omnipotence works in one instance is unlike the manner in the other. The possibility of the miracle rests upon the fact mentioned in the Westminster Confession (V. iii.), that "the Creator is free to work without means, above means, and against means, at his pleasure."

Whenever the ordinary method by natural means is inadequate to accomplish the Divine purpose in the government of the universe, or any part of it, God employs the extraordinary method by miracle. The rule which Horace lays down for introducing the supernatural into poetry, applies to its introduction into theology:

"Nec dens intersit, nisi dignns rindice nodus

The miracle occurs only when there is an occasion requiring it. When, for example, it became necessary, on account of its great wickedness, to destroy the world of mankind more suddenly and swiftly than was possible by natural causes, God miraculously opened the fountains of the great deep, and the flood destroyed them all. The miraculous judgments recorded in the Old Testament were sent for the purpose of controlling, and "governing human creatures, and all their actions." The birth of Jesus Christ, the promised Redeemer of man, a God-man, was impossible by the method of ordinary generation; hence, the miraculous conception. In the future history of the world, certain events are to be brought about miraculously, because they cannot be by ordinary physical laws. The resurrection of the bodies of all men is one of them. The sudden dissolution and reconstruction of this material world at the end of the redemptive economy (1 Cor. 15: 24; Matt. 25:31-46), cannot be effected by the present slow and gradual operation of natural laws. There must, therefore, be a miraculous interference similar to that by which the world was first created, and by which it was whelmed in the waters of the deluge.

The miracle, consequently, is to be expected under the government of an intelligent and wise God. Says Channing (Evidences of Revealed Religion), "To a man whose belief in God is strong and practical, a miracle will appear as possible as any other effect, as the most common event in life; and the argument against miracles drawn from the uniformity of nature will weigh with him, only as far as this uniformity is a pledge and proof of the Creator's disposition to accomplish his purposes by a fixed order, or mode of operation. Now it is freely granted, that the Creator's regard or attachment to such an order may be inferred from the steadiness with which he observes it; and a strong presumption lies against any violation of it on slight occasions, or for purposes to which the established laws of nature are adequate. But this is the utmost which the order of nature authorizes us to infer, respecting its Author. It forms no presumption against miracles universally, in all imaginable cases; but may even furnish a presumption in their favor. We are never to forget that God's adherence to the order of the universe is not necessary and mechanical, but intelligent and voluntary. He adheres to it, not for its own sake, or because it has a sacredness which compels him to respect it, but because it is most suited to accomplish his purposes. It is a means, and not an end; and like all other means must give way when the end can best be promoted without it. It is the mark of a weak mind to make an idol of order and method ; to cling to established forms of business when they clog, instead of advancing it. If, then, the great purposes of the universe can best be accomplished by departing from its established laws, these laws will undoubtedly be suspended; and though broken in the letter, they will be observed in their spirit, for the ends for which they were first instituted will be advanced by their suspension."

Miracles are not unnatural events; they are natural to God. The miracles of Christ wear no appearance of magic and artifice, like the tricks of a juggler. They are not whimsical and extravagant, like the miracles attributed to him in the apocryphal gospels; or like the ecclesiastical miracles of the Papal church. "A miracle," says Feltham (Resolves, xxxiii.), "when God pleases, is as easy to him as a natural cause. For it was at first by miracle, that even that cause was natural. And all the miracles that we have heard of in the world are less a miracle than the world itself." Says Richter, "Miracles upon earth are nature in heaven."

Miracles are natnral to a personal deity, but unnatural and impossible to an impersonal. All the arguments against them by Spinoza, Banr, and Strauss proceed upon the pantheistic assumption that the Infinite is impersonal, and that everything occurs through the operation of an impersonal system of natural law. But if the existence of a personal Infinite is conceded, it would be strange and unnatural, if there were never any extraordinary exertion of his omnipotence. Miracles are tokens of a Person who can modify his plans, and make new arrangements in space and time. They are the natural accompaniments of personality and free will. If a human person should never by the exercise of will enter upon a new course of action, but should pursue through his whole existence one unvarying tenor like an animal led by instinct, or a machine propelled mechanically, we should doubt his personality. He would come under the suspicion of being only a brute or a machine.

Miracles, as Paley argues, are to be expected in connection with a revelation from God. "Mr. Hume states the case of miracles to be a contest of opposite improbabilities; that is to say, a question whether it be more improbable that the miracle should be true, or the testimony false. But in describing the improbability of miracles, he suppresses all those circumstances of extenuation [favoring circumstances] which result from our knowledge of the existence, power, and disposition of the Deity. As Mr. Hume has represented the question, miracles are alike incredible to him who is previously assured of the constant agency of a Divine Being, and to him who believes that no such Being exists. This, surely, cannot be a correct statement." Paley: Evidences (Preface).

The laws of nature are being continually modified in their action, by the interference of the human will. A stone falls to the ground in a perpendicular line by the operation of gravity. Taking this material force, only, into view, there is and can be no variation from this. But a stone can be made to fall in a cnrve, by human volition. In this case, there is still the operation of the force of gravity, but with this an accompanying voluntary force that defleets the stone from the perpendicular. If there were only a single solitary instance of such an alteration of nature by will, it would be regarded as supernatural.

The laws of nature are also being continually modified in their action, by the intervention of the Divine will. The striking differences in the seasons are examples. This winter of 1885 is remarkably different from that of 1884. But there is the same system of nature and of natural laws, and these in themselves considered, apart from any influence of a personal will, are invariable in their operation. On the hypothesis that there is no Creator and no God, one physical year should be & facsimile of another. Why this difference between two winters, unless an element of personal will be combined with that of impersonal laws? Physical properties and laws, in themselves, are invariable in their operation. The occasional variety, therefore, that is witnessed in the general uniformity of natural phenomena, implies Divine volition modifying the general system.

Consider, as another example of the modifying influence of the Divine will upon natural properties and laws, the difference in the longevity of individuals. A person of feeble constitution lives to old age; one with a vigorous constitution dies in early manhood. If nothing but physical properties and laws determines the event, the former person must necessarily die before the latter. But if the personal will of the Author of nature can modify the action of nature, then the former may outlive the latter. The race will not be to the swift, nor the battle to the strong.

Physical nature is full of examples that go to prove the presence of a personal will, in impersonal nature and matter. Cut off a snail's head, and it will grow out again; but cut off a crab's head, and it will not grow out again. Cut off a crab's claw, and it will grow out again; cnt off a dog's leg, and it will not grow out again. Roget: Physiology, II. 587. Why this difference in the operation of the very same properties and laws of animal substance? The properties and laws themselves will not account for it. The modifying power of a will above them explains it. Molecules of matter in atmospheric air are very elastic. If pressure is removed, they recede from each other indefinitely. Air in an air-pump becomes extremely rarefied. Molecules of matter in a fluid are less elastic. If pressure is removed, they recede from each other, but much less than in the case of air, or a gas. Molecules of matter in a solid are still less elastic than those of a fluid. The removal of pressure makes very little change. Herechel: Preliminary Discourse, §§ 239-243. Why should molecules of matter have these different degrees of elasticity, but from the will which created them from nothing?

The reality of miracles implies the superiority of mind to matter. The denial of a power above material laws and phenomena is materialism. It is equivalent to asserting that matter controls mind. He who denies the supernatural, affirms that nature and matter are the ultimate basis of the universe. The conflict consequently between the believer and the disbeliever, is a conflict between the spiritual and the material, the intellectual and the sensual. It is therefore a conflict between civilization and barbarism.

The position of the materialist is, that matter moves mind, and that material motion explains mental phenomena. This is incompatible with the miracle. The position of the spiritualist is, that mind moves matter, and that mental motion, or volition, explains material phenomena. This is compatible with the miracle. That the latter position is the truth, is proved by the following facts: 1. Thinking tires the body; but digging does not tire the mind. 2. Feeling in the mind causes the molecular change in the brain, not vice versa. Shame causes the blush, not the blush shame. 3. The human tear in its purely physical or healthy state is insipid; in its morbid state, as affected by grief, is salt, pungent, and corrosive. 4. The saliva when affected by gluttonous appetite, that is, by a mental desire, is greatly increased in quantity, compared with the secretion from mere hunger. 5. Teasing bees in a hive generates heat in the swarm. Kirby and Spence: Entomology, II. 214. Bees have adaptive intelligence, and the irritation of this affects their material organism.

The assertion that the miracle is impossible proceeds upon the hypothesis, that nothing can happen but what is now happening. The present is the norm for all the past, and all the future. The local is the rule for universal space. The skeptic assumes that the phenomena which he now witnesses are the only phenomena that are possible. This implies that his experience is the only criterion. It not only makes man the measure of all things, but a class of men. For the experience of even a great majority of mankind, does not constitute universal experience. There is nothing in the structure of the human intellect that supports this assumption. On the contrary, the mind repels the proposition, that the experience of certain generations of men is an infallible index of all that is possible in all time, and throughout the vast universe of being. "All reasoning from analogy or similitude, is from the habitual association of ideas, and consequently can amount to no more than this: That the thing appears so to us, because it always has appeared so, and we know of no instance to the contrary. I have seen the sun set to-night, and conclude that it will rise again to-morrow; because my own experience and the tradition received from others have taught me to associate the idea of its rising again, after a certain number of hours, with that of its setting; and habit has rendered these ideas inseparable. But, nevertheless, I can give no demonstrative reason from the nature of things why it should rise again; or why the Creator and Governor of the universe may not launch it, as a comet, to wander forever through the boundless vacuity of space. I only know that during the short period, and within the narrow sphere, which bound my knowledge of this universe, he hath displayed no such irregular exertions of power: but still that period, and that sphere, shrink into nothing in the scale of eternity and infinity; and what can man know of the laws of God or nature, that can enable him to prescribe rules for Omnipotence?" Knight: On Taste, TL iii.

The miracle is a suspension of a law of nature, in a particular instance. Hume defines the miracle to be "a violation of the laws of nature;" "a transgression of a law of nature by a particular volition of the deity." Essay on Miracles, Pt. I. This is incorrect. When our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead, he merely suspended in that particular instance, and in that only, the operation of the chemical action by which putrefaction goes on. He did not violate the law. This would have required that he should cause the same chemical action that was putrefying the flesh, to stop the putrefaction. Christ in working this miracle did not undo, or revolutionize any law of nature. The general course of nature was undisturbed. Another corpse lying beside that of Lazarus, like all the other corpses in the world, would have continued to putrefy by chemical decomposition.

But the mere suspension of a law of nature in a particular instance, is not sufficient to account for the miracle. Christ, by virtue of the control which he had over natural law, might have arrested the process of decomposition, and yet Lazarus would not have come forth from the tomb, any more than he would if he had been embalmed or petrified. Over and above this power to suspend existing natural laws, there must have been the exertion of a positively reanimating power. Christ must have been able to create or originate physical life itself. Lazarus was made alive from the dead, by the exertion of an energy of the same kind by which the first man was made on the sixth day; that is, by the operation of mere mind itself, apart from matter and its laws.

The explanation that a miracle is the effect of an unknown law of nature, higher than the ordinary law, is untenable, because: (a) It supposes two systems of nature that are contrary to each other. If the iron axe of Elijah's pupil was made to swim, not by the suspension of the law of gravity in that instance, but by the operation of another natural law, it is plain, that this latter law is exactly contrary to the law of gravity. But this would imply two systems of nature; one in which gravity of matter is the law, and one in which levity of matter is the law. This destroys the unity of the material universe. (b) The miracle could not be accounted for upon this theory, except by supposing that one of these two systems of nature is superior to the other. If the two systems were equal in force, the result of their collision would be an equilibrium, and nothing would occur. But if one is superior to the other, the latter must be overcome and disappear. The higher system would annihilate the lower, aud finally all nature would become miraculous (so-called). If it be said that the two systems are kept apart, and do not come into collision; that each system is a distinct circle, having its own centre; then it is impossible that a miracle could happen at all. Everything in the circle where gravity is the natural law must occur accordingly. The iron must sink in every instance. And everything in the circle when a force contrary to gravity prevails must occur accordingly. The iron must swim in every instance. If it be said, that there is no system or circle where such a higher natural law prevails, but that this force is originated in each instance for the particular purpose of working a miracle, there are these objections: First, it is improper to denominate a few exceptional instances a " law." Secondly, it is unnatural to suppose that the Creator would call a new material force into being, to bring abont what he might accomplish by the simple suspension of an existing force, and by the exertion of a single volition of his own. (c) A miracle, by the very definition, must be exceptional, solitary, and sporadic. It is the effect of a single volition. Miracles are disconnected from one another. They do not evolve out of each other, but are wrought, one at a time. Consequently, a miracle cannot occur by a law y because this implies a connected series, and an endless series so long as the law remains in existence. Miracles would be as numerous and constant, if there were a law of miracles, as the phenomena of gravitation. When God made the hand of Moses leprous (Ex. 4: 6, 7), he did it by an omnipotent volition. This, from the human point of view, was a single separate act of the Divine will. And when he healed the leprosy, this was a second volition. Neither miracle was effected by a force operating continuously like a law of nature.

The argument of Hume against the credibility of miracles begins with asserting, that a miracle " contradicts uniform experience." This is begging the point. The question between the disputants is this: Does the miracle contradict the uniform experience of mankind? By the word "uniform," Hume must mean "universal;" otherwise his argument would fail. A single experience of a miracle would be as good as a thousand, in logical respects. Mill s0 understood his use of the term. He states it thus: "Whatever is contrary to a complete induction is incredible." But a complete induction would embrace all the particular facts. li one were omitted, it would be incomplete. "Uniform experience," consequently, would involve an experience covering all the phenomena upon earth from the beginning of human history. It must be more than the experience of the majority of men. It must include that of the minority. In this case as in politics, the minority have rights which the majority are bound to respect. The miracle cannot be decided by a majority vote. That a miracle contradicts the experience of all men in the eighteenth century, is not sufficient to prove that it contradicted the experience of all men in the first century. The induction of particulars must be absolutely complete, in order to evince incredibility. It is not enough to show merely that the miracle contradicts the experience of the disbeliever and of his contemporaries.

There is nothing in physical science that justifies the position, that there never has been and never will be a miraculous event in all space and all time, because there is nothing in physical science to prove the necessary and eternal immutability of nature. That things have been as they are for a million of years, does not prove that they will be the same for a billion of years, and forevermore. All that physics teaches, is, that there is nothing in nature and natural forces that can work a miracle. This, the theologian is as ready to say as any one. But by what right is it inferred, that because in matter and nature there is no power able to raise the dead, there is no power anywhere? Physics has examined only physical nature. It may affirm with reference to this, but not beyond this. And to deny that there is anything beyond this is begging the question. To infer respecting the supernatural power of God and the probability of its exercise, from the experience of only a portion of mankind—even though it be the greater portion thus far— is unwarranted. In the future, the experience of the greater part of mankind, or of the entire whole, may be reversed, for all that the objector knows. It is a general law, that substances contract by cold. Water contracts by cold down to 39° Fahrenheit; at which point it begins to expand, and and on reaching 32° it freezes—which is a great expansion. This law is reversed, Ilume might say "violated," at 39°. Suppose that the whole human race had never been in a climate below 40°, and had known nothing of a chemistry by which artificial cold can be produced. If they should infer a so-called necessary law of nature from "experience," in this instance, as Hume has in that of miracles, they would assert it to be impossible that water should expand by cold. And the testimony of fifty witnesses living eighteen centuries before Ilume's day and generation, to the effect that they had seen the law of contraction by cold actually reversed, would be liable to the same species of objection as that which now seeks to invalidate the testimony of the twelve apostles and others, that a man was raised from the dead eighteen centuries ago. It might be said that the fifty witnesses of the expansion of a substance by cold were more likely to be deceived, than that a phenomenon so contrary to the present universal experience of mankind should have occurred. Locke (Understanding, IV. xv.) relates that "a Dutch ambassador entertaining the king of Siam with the particularities of Holland which he was inquisitive after, amongst other things told him that the water in his country would sometimes in cold weather be so hard that men walked upon it, and that it would bear an elephant if he were there; to which the king replied, 'Hitherto, I have believed the strange things you have told me, because I look upon you as a sober, fair man, but now I am sure you lie.'"

Hume concedes the possibility, that is, the conceivability of a miracle. Inquiry, IV. "The contrary of every matter of fact, is still possible." But he denies the demonstrability of a miracle. In order to establish this denial, he defines a miracle so as to exclude all testimony to it. His definition of a miracle is, that it is an event that never has been seen by an eye-witness. His language is as follows: "It is a miracle, that a dead man should come to life, because that has never been observed in any age or country. There must, therefore, be an uniform [invariable] experience against any miraculous event, otherwise the event would not merit that appellation." Inquiry, Section X. That is to say, if an event was once an object of the senses, this takes it out of the category of the miraculous; for a miracle, by the definition, is something that "never has been observed," never was the object of the senses. It is impossible, consequently, to prove a miracle; for the proof of the miracle would be the destruction of the miracle. If the event was seen, it was not miraculous. The sophism in this argument of Hume is so patent, that it is strange that is should have acquired so much reputation as it has. The point in dispute, namely, whether a miracle has ever been an object of the senses, is settled in favor of the skeptic, by this definition of a miracle.

There are two observations to be made respecting Hume's position that a miracle is possible, but undemonstrable. 1. The admission that a miracle is possible amounts to nothing, if a miracle is incapable of being proved. A thing that is possible, but indemonstrable, is practically equivalent to an impossibility. 2. It is logically inconsistent, to assert the possibility and deny the demonstrability of an event. Anything that is conceivably possible is conceivably demonstrable. If there is nothing in the nature of an event to prevent our conceiving that it might happen, there is nothing in its nature to prevent our conceiving that it might be observed to happen. If there be no absurdity in supposing that an event might occur, there is certainly none in supposing that it has occurred; and if it has occurred, there is no absurdity in supposing that it has been seen.

The miracle is a part of a great whole which is supernatural: namely, the person of the Redeemer, and the work of redemption. If there is no incarnation, and no redemption, no need of the miracle. But if there is, then the miracle is necessary and natural. Hence the person of Christ, his incarnation and resurrection, is the real battleground. The Old Testament miracles are connected with the Jehovah-Angel, or the redeeming God. Those of the New Testament are connected with the Jehovah-Logos, or Jesus Christ. Here is the point from which both faith and unbelief take their departure. He who believes that God incarnate has appeared on earth to save man from sin, will have no difficulty with the miracle. He who disbelieves this, cannot accept it. It is the first step that costs. If the human mind does not stumble over that Divine-human Person who is "set for the fall and rising again of many," it will not stumble over the supernaturalism that is naturally associated with Him.