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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology
CHAPTER II: CREDENTIALS OF REVELATION.
21. Subject of the Chapter. — In the following chapter we shall explain the nature of Revelation, and show how its existence can be attested by miracles and prophecies.
22. Private Revelations. — We have seen (n. 18) that God can speak to His creature in such a way as to leave the recipient of the communication in no doubt as to the Source from which it comes; but such communications are exceptional, and do not now concern us, unless they are intended to be published and to command the acceptance of other persons. It belongs to Mystic Theology to discuss the precautions to be observed in order to guard against delusion in these cases; while Ascetic Theology discusses the continually occurring cases where the Creator speaks to His creatures, truly, but in a way which is not always easy to distinguish from the thoughts that are generated by the natural power of the mind. Those Divine communications, which are intended for the benefit of the recipient alone, need no public credentials.
23. Public Revelations. — But it is quite otherwise with Public Revelations, the name given to those Revelations which are received by one person, but are intended to be communicated by him to others, and to command their submissive acceptance. This submission cannot reasonably be demanded unless the person who claims the character of a Divine messenger produce full proof that he has warrant for his claim. Belief in every message that purports to come from God, without proof that the messenger is neither deceiver nor deceived, so far from being a duty or even a virtue, may easily be a sin of imprudence; as true a sin, though not as great a sin, as that of the man who rejects a message that comes to him from God through a messenger who shows such proofs of his authority as cannot prudently be called in question.
It is hard to conceive any mode in which such a messenger could be accredited, except Miracles and Prophecies, and the Christian Revelation claims to be accredited by these means. We must, therefore, proceed to consider the nature of Miracles, the possibility of recognizing them, and the manner in which they afford proof that a revelation is truly Divine. The same points will also be considered in regard to Prophecies. In this part of our subject, as in the preceding chapter, we postulate the existence of God, the all-perfect Creator of the universe. The justice of this postulate will be vindicated hereafter.
24. Nature of Miracle. — The nature of what is meant by Miracle will be best understood by an example. We will make a supposition, which we do not at present assert to have ever been realized; we put it as a supposition, which no one can show to be impossible; it involves no contradiction. Suppose then that an adult man who has been blind from his birth meets another man, who says to him, Receive your sight, and at this mere word the power of vision comes on the instant to him who had been blind. Such an event as this is well calculated to excite the marvel of bystanders, and of all who learn what has happened; the occurrence has therefore one of the elements that go to constitute a public miracle. It is marvellous.
What can be the cause of this man having suddenly gained the power of sight? The ordinary process of growth gives sight to some animals, such as kittens, which are born blind. The surgeon's knife removes a cataract, and gives or restores sight to the patient. But the case before us is ascribable neither to natural growth nor to human agency; it cannot be a mere coincidence that the recovery took place at the very instant that the command was received, but it must have been in some sense caused or occasioned by this word. But in the ordinary course of things, no such effect follows upon words; the occurrence is something, which is out of the ordinary course of nature. This is a second element in the idea of a miracle.
What then is the origin of this event? It is neither material nor human: it must, therefore, either come directly from God or from some spiritual beings other than those through whom, as Christians believe, the providence of God is exercised on the earth. I do not now assert the existence of such spirits, or beings distinct from matter: I am putting all conceivable suppositions; but no one can show that the existence of such spirits is impossible, as involving a contradiction, nor that the Christian belief is false, according to which some of these spirits are good, and act according to directions received from God; others bad, who are permitted by Him to exercise some part of their natural power; others perhaps neither good nor bad, in any marked degree, but who if they exist must for our purpose reckon as bad. Since good spirits act as ministers of God, their action may be spoken of as His; and therefore we may say that such an occurrence as we have supposed must be the work either of God or of evil spirits; and if the incident stand alone, we can say no more about it; it may be a Divine work, but we cannot say that it certainly is such, for want of full knowledge of the powers which evil spirits are allowed to exercise. We cannot be sure that what has occurred is a miracle in the proper sense of the word; it may be the work of God, but we cannot be sure that it is so; it may be supernatural, but it may also be merely preternatural.
25. Moral Miracles and Miracles of Grace. — The incident which we have been discussing, if a miracle at all, is a miracle in the physical order: it concerns a material object, a man's eye. But we may make another supposition, again without asserting more than its possibility; we do not here say that it ever was verified. Suppose a whole population devoted to practices the most attractive to human nature, suddenly to abandon these practices, at the word of a preacher, and to embrace a life full of incidents most repulsive to that nature; and further, to persevere in this way of living even though all who were detected as belonging to the association were put to death amid horrible torments. If this happened, we should say it was something out of accord with the ordinary course of human conduct; it would be a marvel calling for explanation, no less than the grant of sight to the blind man, and it cannot be an effect in ordinary course of the preacher's word. It must be either a moral miracle or possibly the work of an evil spirit.
Further, Christians believe that God ordinarily grants to men a certain measure of the peculiar influence called Grace, but that He sometimes may grant this favour in an altogether extraordinary abundance; they therefore speak of miracles of grace, as when a person embraces the true religion under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Christians may often notice cases which seem to be miracles of grace in this sense, but the matter is always involved in considerable obscurity, so that miracles of this class will seldom or never be capable of serving as credentials for a preacher, especially as their very possibility postulates much which cannot be proved until the whole Christian Revelation is established. It is otherwise with moral miracles, which are often less open to cavil than those of the physical order.
26. Probative Force. — So far we have been regarding the extraordinary occurrence as standing alone. Now suppose, what is certainly possible, that the man whose word was followed by the gift of sight, went on to declare that he was a messenger sent by God, and that God had granted sight to the blind man for the purpose of showing that this mission had His sanction. What now is the position of a bystander, or of one who, though not himself present, receives an authentic account of what has occurred? Are they to accept the message as the voice of God, and order their lives in accordance with it? Not necessarily. Prudence requires that they should look carefully into the matter; it would not be right to recognize the messenger as a Divine teacher without further consideration, any more than it would be prudent and right to neglect his claim altogether. The matter demanded inquiry. This inquiry will be directed to the question whether the message which purports to be a revelation, in any respect contradicts what is already known of the mind of God, either as He speaks in nature, or by previous ascertained revelations. If so, the new revelations must be at once rejected, as St. Paul teaches (Galat. i. 9): "If any one preach to you a gospel besides that which you have received, let him be anathema." (See also Deut. xiii. I 5.) Either the marvel was the work of an evil spirit, designed to perplex men and lead them from the truth, or this work is not so connected with the message as to afford sanction to it. Thus no one who accepts the Christian Revelation can hesitate whether it is a duty or even allowable to listen to the messages which are conveyed to men by spirit-rapping. These rappers uniformly deny the existence and eternity of Hell, and so they contradict a revelation which God has already made; so far, therefore, as these indications are not mere trickery, they come from evil spirits. This negative test will generally be sufficient, and perhaps all grounds for rejecting the claim of the messenger can be reduced to it; but if, after due inquiry, no reason is discovered for refusing to admit his claim, he must be received as a messenger from God, and his message adopted as the rule of our belief and life. From the nature of the case, even apart from the Divine veracity, it is impossible that a falsehood should ever come before us in such guise that we should be forced to regard it as truth, (n. 313.) God does not suffer us to be made the helpless victims of the malice of the devils or of the fraud or folly of men. We are never necessitated to believe a lie, as would be the case if a marvel attesting a falsehood came before us in such shape that we could not help regarding it as a Divine miracle.
27. Prophecies. — What has been said of miracles is easily adapted to the case of prophecies. A writer points out within a year or two the exact date, at least some two centuries after his time, at which a child was to be born who should by his influence revolutionize the world, although he himself was put to a violent death by his enemies; if all this comes about at the proper time, we feel that no human intelligence can have seen so far into the future, but that the writer must have been admitted to a share in the Divine foreknowledge. The probative force of a prophecy is of the same nature as that of a miracle.
28. Objections to Miracles. — So far we have exhibited the proof, belonging properly to Philosophy, which explains the doctrine laid down by the Vatican Council (Const, i. c. iii. on Faith, and the fourth of the corresponding Canons), that miracles are possible and that they can sometimes be known by us. (Denz. 1639.) It is hardly necessary to quote passages of Scripture to show that this doctrine is part of the Christian Revelation. It is enough to refer as to miracles to St. John x. 37, 38, where Christ says, "If I do not the work of My Father, believe Me not: but if I do, though you will not believe Me, believe the works;" and for prophecy, to Deut. xviii. 18 22, where we see that prophecy has for a principal purpose to accredit a messenger, and not so much to forewarn as to the future.
An immense number of difficulties have been raised against this doctrine of the possibility of miracles, their cognoscibility and their probative force, most of which, however, disappear when applied to a concrete instance such as we have supposed. The matter is, as will be readily understood, of first-rate importance, and much light is thrown upon it by the solution of the difficulties that have been raised; we will therefore devote a chapter to the discussion of the different forms that these difficulties have taken.
29. Recapitulation. — In the present chapter we have distinguished between public and private revelation, and said that public revelations must be attested by miracles and prophecies; these are shown to be possible, to be sometimes recognizable, and to have force to accredit one who claims to be a Divine messenger.