Hunter/Dogmatic Theology/I/III

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Outlines of Dogmatic Theology


30. Subject of Chapter. — The difficulties which are raised against the possibility of Miracles admit of a four-fold classification. The varieties of form that may be given to each class of objection are infinite; we here point out the general nature of the reply. Certain tests of true miracles will be mentioned, and it will be shown that a sweeping denial of their occurrence at the present day is baseless.

31. Faith and Reason. — The question which engaged us in the last chapter is, and has for some three centuries been the principal battleground between those who acknowledge and those who reject the claims made by the Christian Revelation. If miracles and prophecies are impossible, they have not occurred; but we cannot conceive a revelation demanding the absolute submission of men, if it be not accredited by these evidences: hence, if they be impossible, no revelation can do more than set before men a system of religious doctrine which they are at liberty to discuss, and accept or reject according to the judgment which their reason forms of its value. The term Rationalist is applied to all who believe that they are at liberty to deal in this way with the Christian Revelation. It is a misleading word, because it seems to imply that this school, and they alone, follow the guidance of Reason, while Christians abandon Reason in favour of some opposing principle or faculty called Faith. This is an utterly false representation. A Christian exercises Faith in believing the truths which God has revealed, but he is always ready to obey the Apostolic precept (I St. Peter iii. 15), and give a reason of the hope that is in him. In fact, he holds it to be most irrational to refuse to accept instruction which comes from a competent teacher, unless it recommend itself to his own reason. He must use his reason to scrutinize the grounds on which he believes in the teacher's competence, and if any part of the teaching seem to contradict what he learns from his reason, he must examine the matter, and, supposing him to be dealing with the Christian Revelation, he will find that the contradiction is only apparent. On the other hand, the proofs of the existence of the Christian miracles are so clear and manifold that probably they are felt to be conclusive by all who frankly and heartily admit the possibility of a revelation being made known by these means. If any man remain unconvinced when the reasons for believing the miracles that attest the Christian Revelation are set before him, it will generally be found that this man does not really believe in the possibility of miracles: he may not openly deny this possibility, but the denial is lurking in his mind, unsuspected perhaps by himself, and effectually hinders his giving fair consideration to the historical evidence, of the falsehood of which he is convinced beforehand.

32. Objections to Miracles classified. — The importance of the question of the possibility of Miracles is felt on all sides, and as may be expected, the literature of the subject is very large. We can do no more in this place than give the briefest sketch of different classes of difficulties that are raised by the opponents of Revelation, with indications of the line of answer. The precise shape that the objection takes may vary indefinitely, and the answer would require corresponding modification. Some of the difficulties are founded on the nature of God, and the mode in which He governs the world; others on the difficulty of attaining certainty as to past events; a third class urges that it is impossible to distinguish what occurrences are in accordance with the course of nature; and a fourth rests on the possibility of the agency of evil spirits. We will treat these four classes of objection separately, but first we remark that we by no means maintain that Miracles can always be recognized with certainty, but only that they can sometimes be recognized. The person who has discerned that certain Miracles have actually occurred will be ready to recognize the miraculous character in other events which would be ambiguous if they stood by themselves. A skilful connoisseur who has studied the undoubted works of a great artist will certainly recognize his hand in some newly discovered painting, although he may be wholly unable to convey to others the conviction which he feels: so a Christian may feel assured of the miraculous character of an occurrence which he would never dream of putting forward as calculated to convince one who did not agree with him as to the true character of other works which he has seen to be demonstrably the immediate work of God. (See n. 63.)

33. God unchangeable. — The first class of objectors urge that God is unchangeable; that in creating the universe He gave it fixed laws by which it should be regulated, and that any interference with these laws implies imperfection, as though the work of the Creator required patching, to meet unforeseen emergencies.

This objection, turning on the immutability of the infinite Being, is urged with at least as much force against the possibility of creation as against miracles, and it receives full consideration from philosophers (see Father Boedder, Natural Theology, 422, seq.) and theologians in the proper place. It may here be enough to say that when God works a miracle, this act does not involve any interior change in Him: the unchanging will that He has had from all eternity is manifested outwardly, and that is all: He can be called by the new name of Miracle-worker, but to receive a new name works no interior change in the person or thing to whom it is applied.

When the objector speaks of the unchanging laws of the universe, he uses a phrase which is liable to mislead. These so-called laws are nothing but a generalization formed by the human mind on observing the course of the universe. It is true that this is ordinarily uniform, because it is in truth the resultant of the interaction of various portions of matter, which God in the act of creating endowed with certain powers, and which exercise these powers as long as He pleases to conserve them in their being. If this conservation, which is in truth perpetual creation, were withheld, the creature would cease to exist, it would fall to nothingness, and the result might have the characters of a miracle: but this is not the way in which God acts, as St. Thomas teaches, (I. q. 104. a. 4.) Also, a miraculous effect might be produced if God exercised again His creative power, which was not exhausted by the initial act which brought the world into existence; but neither is this likely to be the way employed, for probably the quantity of matter in the world has remained unchanged, without increase or diminution, since the beginning. Physical miracles are therefore to be referred to the action of God Himself, acting either immediately, for He can by His immediate action do whatever He ordinarily does through the activity of second causes (St. Thomas, I. q. 105. a. 2.); or more probably using the ministry of good angels, through whom He exercises His ordinary providence over the world, as will be shown in its proper place, when Creation comes before us. (See St. Thomas, I. q. 110. a. I.)

If it be urged that such action of immaterial beings as we here suppose is inconsistent with that principle of Conservation of Energy, which is made the basis of modern physics, we answer that the proof of this principle is found in an induction from the results of experiment, and cannot claim greater accuracy than that of the fundamental instruments, the balance, pendulum, and the like; besides which, the precise physical circumstances of a miracle have never been measured with the care which would be needed to test the question. No rational man can pretend that the principle is proved in such a sense as to assure us that no man born blind ever received his sight. If it be said that if the balance and the rest were properly applied they would always show that no immaterial agent ever affects man's body, this is a mere unproved assumption, and amounts to a petitio principii. It may be said with equal fairness that the presence of an immaterial agent would make itself manifest, if the opportunity arose of testing the matter; and, experiment being out of the question, there is no means of deciding between these conflicting assertions.

Lastly, it is quite a misrepresentation to speak of a miracle as a patching up of an order which has been found to be imperfect. The ordinary course of nature is good in its place, and when the occasion arises the miracle is also good: the whole has been foreseen and fore-ordained by God from all eternity, as the means for carrying out the purposes of creation.

34. Testimony untrustworthy. — Secondly, it is objected that testimony is untrustworthy, so that we can never be sure that events happened in past times as related. Experience often shows us both that testimony is false and that miracles do not happen. Every religion professes to be founded in miracles, and men are apt to believe in miracles without ground.

This objector will scarcely maintain that we can never be certain regarding the occurrence of events separated from us by distance of time. To profess to feel prudent doubt whether an English King named Charles was beheaded in Whitehall, or a Roman Emperor named Julius stabbed in the Senate House would be the mere bravado of scepticism; yet no one who does not make this profession can deny that historical events may be known with certainty: much else may be uncertain, but some occurrences cannot reasonably be called in question. The objection, therefore, proceeds on a tacit supposition that miraculous narratives are more difficult of proof than others. But this supposition confounds two things: the facts, and their miraculous character. Julius Caesar was slain on the 15th of March in a certain year, as history tells us with certainty. History also tells us that he was living on the 1st of that same month of March, for his contemporaries saw, heard, and felt him on that day, and their experience has been transmitted to us with certainty. Supposing that they had had the same experience on the last day of the month, this experience would have taught them that Julius was alive on that day, and there is nothing to prevent the transmission to us of their later experiences by the same channels as told us of the events of the first day. That the restoration to life after the 15th would have been miraculous does not affect the possibility of our knowing that his contemporaries perceived him to be dead on one day, and to be alive on a subsequent day. History does not precisely record a miracle, but only records the sensible facts from which we conclude that a miracle was worked. We admit that testimony is sometimes false, and that miracles are opposed to general experience: but to say that they are opposed to universal experience is gratuitously to assume the point at issue; and to deny that testimony may sometimes be recognized as truthful is not the part of a reasonable man. That all religions profess to be founded on miracles merely shows the general conviction of mankind that miracles are possible; but we deny that any instance can be produced in which a proved miracle is opposed to the Christian Revelation; some apparent examples to the contrary will be discussed immediately. The proneness of men to see miracles can hardly have originated, except in some undoubted examples coming before them, and at most it merely shows the need of the greatest caution in examining the testimony before a miracle is admitted.

35. Miraculous character doubtful. — The third class of objections rests on the alleged impossibility of telling whether a given occurrence is beyond the powers of nature: there may be mere coincidence, or fraud, or some unknown properties of matter and of the human frame may have had a part in producing the effect observed. Occurrences may seem miraculous to the ignorant which a wider acquaintance with nature will show to be subject to fixed law.

To take the last point first, we admit that circumstances may occur in which savages could not prudently refuse to admit the claim of a stranger who came to them professing to be a messenger from God, and exhibiting in proof of his claim a power which they could not be blamed for regarding as imperative upon them, whereas in truth it was a natural power which his superior knowledge enabled him to wield. There are stories told of this sort, where an eclipse has been foretold and coming to pass has led the ignorant people to ascribe to some superhuman enlightenment what is really nothing but the exhibition of elementary knowledge of astronomy. In these cases, the assent of the savages is given blamelessly, although it could be withheld; they will never be constrained to believe falsehood; just as in the possible case of wonders being wrought by evil spirits, as we shall explain presently.

The suggestion of coincidence may be put aside, in such a case as we chose for our illustration: it is not so frequent an occurrence that men blind from birth suddenly gain the use of sight, that we can call it a mere coincidence if this happens at the instance when the word of a religious preacher falls upon their ear; and no suspicion of fraud can attach when the man has been long known to have been blind, and the occurrence takes place in the presence of watchful and powerful enemies of the preacher. Nor, lastly, can it be suggested with any plausibility that the words spoken had a natural power of restoring the wasted eyeballs. In this case at least there can be no doubt that the occurrence is superhuman.

36. Demonic Agency. — The three groups of objections which we have been discussing are those which have chiefly prevailed in modern times: they may be called respectively the Pantheistic, the Deistic, and the Materialistic objection — a Deist being understood, according to English usage, to be one who fully admits the being of God, but denies the existence of Revelation. We now come to discuss the Demonic objection, which is scarcely heard of at the present day, except sometimes when it is brought up ironically, and as it were ad hominem against the Christians, but which in former times was the ground ordinarily alleged for neglecting the evidence of miracles, both by Jews (St. Matt. ix. 34, and many other passages of the Gospels), and by heathen persecutors, as in the case of St. Januarius (Bolland. Acta Sanctorum, t. 6, Sept. 873), and by heretics. (Victor, De Persecutione Vandalorum, 2, 17; P.L. 58, 217.) The point of the difficulty is that since evil spirits have power to move matter and work wonders out of the ordinary course of nature, it is impossible to tell the source of any marvel that we meet with, or to know whose utterance it accredits. Moreover, it is said that miracles have been wrought by heretics, and therefore do not attest any one form of Christianity, but various forms; they therefore attest error.

Certainly, no Christian can deny the action of evil spirits in the world, for it is clearly taught in Scripture (Exodus vii. 22; Acts xvi. 16, &c.), as will be shown fully in its proper place: also, the story of a Novatian Bishop having in the year 449 worked a miracle is related by Socrates (Hist. Eccles. 7, 17; P.G. 67, 771), and cures are believed to have been wrought at the tomb of the Jansenist Abbe Paris, who died in 1727. But the defender of the Christian miracles as exclusively trustworthy, remarks that neither heathen nor heretic has succeeded in establishing a religion on the basis of miracles, which shows that there was always something about the marvels in question which distinguished them from Divine miracles; and that this is in accordance with what might be expected upon Christian principles, for God cannot consistently with His Holiness permit men to be invincibly led to believe that what is in fact error is the teaching of God addressed to them. (See Exodus vii. 12.) Further, it is part of the Christian dispensation that the motives leading to belief should not be such as to compel assent, but only such as render refusal to believe evidently wrong; and Christ Himself declared that there should arise false prophets working great wonders (St. Matt, xxiv. 24), so that if nothing of the sort happened we should have to contend with a serious difficulty, for a prophecy uttered by Christ would be falsified. As to miracles of heretics, those ascribed to Paris by no means abide the application of the tests by which true miracles are distinguished, and which are enumerated in our next paragraph; and we need have no difficulty in admitting the truth of the relation in Socrates, although it is hard to avoid the suspicion of trickery. According to the story, a scoundrel of a Jew (᾽Ιουδαἱὸς τις ἀπατεὠν) made his living by pretending to become a Christian, and being baptized. He took in the Arians and Macedonians, and then offered himself to the Novatians, asking Baptism at the hands of Paul, the Bishop of the sect at Constantinople. Paul prescribed a course of instruction and fasting, which quickened the catechumen's desire for the Sacrament. Paul yielded, and all was made ready for the ceremony, when the water disappeared unaccountably, with the result that the fraud of the Jew became known. Thus we see that the miracle, supposing it to have been one, was wrought by God in defence of the sanctity of holy Baptism; that is, of truth, and not of Novatian error. The New Testament plainly recognizes that the gift of miracles is not confined to saints (St. Matt. vii. 22; I Cor. xiii. 2), and St. Jerome teaches that miracles are wrought by God in view of the merits of Christ, and not of the man who is said to work them. (Comment, in loc. St. Matt.; P.L. 26, 49.) This doctrine is the basis of the teaching of St.Thomas. (2. 2. q. 178. a. 2.)

37. Criteria of Miracles. — It is worth while to set down the points insisted on by Pope Benedict XIV. as necessary to be attended to, before the cure of a disease can be admitted to have been miraculous: they will be found in the eighth chapter of the fourth Book of the great work De Canonizatione. First, the disease must be incurable, or at least difficult of cure: then it must not have reached a stage when natural cure is possibly imminent: thirdly, no treatment must have been used to which the cure can be ascribed: the cure must be sudden and instantaneous: it must be perfect: it must not have been attended with any such bodily change as might be a natural cause of the cure: and lastly, the disease must not recur. We may remark that Pope Benedict seems to have been quite alive to the nature of what in our own day have received the name of "faith-cures," when the mere expectation of a cure seems to suffice to fulfil itself. He quotes (n. 29) with approval a writer who says that he has known many cases where a disease has disappeared on the approach of a Religious or the application of a relic, but has subsequently returned with greater violence than ever. Such cures, of course, are not miracles, or at least cannot be known as miracles. Paley (Evidences of Christianity) successfully applies Benedict's criteria to discredit the miracles said to have been wrought at the tomb of the Abbe Paris: but the learned Archdeacon seems not to have been aware that this supposed wonder-worker was a heretic. Occurrences are met with which have some semblance of being miraculous, but it will generally be found that they totally fail to answer these conditions; in which case, whatever may be their real character, we cannot feel confident that there has been an extraordinary exercise of the Divine power.

38. Have Miracles ceased? — The attempt is sometimes made to throw doubt on all relations of miracles by the remark that nothing of the kind occurs at the present day. The reply is that the whole matter is in the hand of God, and that we cannot pretend always to see why He is pleased to act in a particular way at a particular time; nevertheless, if the fact were as stated, we might conjecture that a mode of accrediting a revelation which was suitable when that revelation was first made may become unsuitable under different circumstances; it is not in accordance with God's providence to force men's consents, and the disposition which leads them to refuse acceptance to the well-attested miracles of the old time would enable them to evade the force of miracles at the present day: that the existence of the Christian Church, though of a different order, is more persuasive than any physical miracle (see n. 68); and that the assertion is true only so far as relates to miracles publicly performed in great cities, like Jerusalem and Rome, for miracles have never ceased to be wrought, and still continue, in accordance with the promise of Christ. (St. Mark xvi. 17, 18.) This point will be mentioned again when we speak of the Holiness of the Church, (nn. 235, 255.) At present, it is enough to refer to M. Lasserre's books upon Lourdes.

39. Recapitulation. — In this chapter, we have discussed four classes of objection to miracles, have pointed out some criteria of assured miracles, and explained how far it is true that public miracles do not happen now with the same abundance as in former times.

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