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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Miracles Impossible and Incredible

Miracles Impossible and Incredible.

The Scriptures teach that the universe and all it contains, were called into existence in six days, by God's direct command. This Biblical cosmogony (Gen i. 1—ii. 4) is grand and sublime, but it page 272 is faulty and unscientific; it disregards those attributes of matter which, by their own inherent power, of necessity produce the changes and combinations that constitute the cosmos; therefore, it arbitrarily compresses within the limits of a few days what was effected by the gradual operation of myriads of millenniums, and it transforms into acts of personal agency what we are wont to regard as the result of clearly defined and unchangeable laws.

The same personal interference continues in Biblical history. For special ends, the eternal course of nature is altered, and miracles are performed. Yet the idea of miracles is absolutely opposed to our notions of the universe, as derived from a patient cultivation of the natural and historical sciences. It gains ground whenever men, unable to understand their position as a subordinate though organic part of mankind, consider themselves or their community as the chief end of creation and general government. For it rests virtually on the assumption that nature pays special regard to the deeds and destinies of individuals or single nations, and bestows aid and sympathy, or displays resistance and enmity, in accordance with the behests of a ruling power; whereas her whole economy is one and indivisible, embracing the universe, and working in majestic impartiality for all worlds alike. Therefore Spinoza justly used miracles and ignorance as convertible terms, and he added the weighty words fraught with significant meaning, "I believe the principal difference between religion and superstition to be this, that the former is founded upon wisdom and the latter upon ignorance; and I am convinced that herein lies the reason why the Christians are distinguished from other men not by an honourable life, nor by love, nor the other fruits of the Holy Ghost, but merely by an opinion; because, like all the rest, they fortify themselves only by miracles, that is by ignorance, which is the fountain of all wickedness, and thus convert faith, however true, into superstition"

Ancient nations felt strongly the influence of the divine power in nature; but as they had explored nature most imperfectly, all her remarkable or unusual phenomena appeared to them as direct manifestations of the deity, or as miracles, which inspired them both with terrifying awe and sublime veneration; and these feelings worked the more powerfully, the more vividly their youthful minds were affected by all impressions, and the more consistently they were accustomed to develope and to supply every new and great idea. The assumption to which we have alluded gave rise, among the Romans, to the fictions of prodigia or portenta, by which the gods were believed to announce impending calamities or important events—the sky appearing in a blaze of fire, or flaming torches illumining the air; spears or hands burning but not consumed; men of fire assailing and fighting with each other; flesh or worms, earth, stones, or blood raining from heaven; the water of rivers changed into blood; page 273 women giving birth to monstrosities; animals speaking, mules bringing forth young, and wonderful animals, as snakes with the manes of horses, starting up; trees springing from the soil full grown, and cut stems suddenly rising to an extraordinary height; rocks moving spontaneously; birds, in anguish without apparent cause, seeking refuge; marvellous or alarming sights and sounds produced by delusion of the senses; images of gods speaking, or shedding tears.

The Biblical miracles are founded on similar conceptions. By the command of God, heavenly bodies are said to have been arrested in their course (Josh. x. 12-14; Is. xxxviii. 8); yet we know that such a contingency would be inevitably followed by a complete derangement of the sidereal systems, and by the incalculable ruin of thousands of worlds. Occasionally even the Bible shows a gleam of the conviction of nature's immutable stability: "He has established the heavens for ever and ever: He gave a law, and they trespass it no" (Ps. cxlviii. 6); "He said to the sea, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no farther; and here shall thy proud waves be stayed" (Job xxxviii. 11); "I have placed the sand for the boundary of the sea by an eternal law, that it cannot pass it; and though its waves rage, they cannot prevail" (Jer. v. 22). But such incidental admissions do not materially influence the spirit and tenor of the narratives. According to Biblical accounts, the Divine will constantly changed those intrinsic properties of things which constitute their very character and essence. But if we read that the water of the Nile was converted into blood (Ex. iv. 9; vii. 17-20), and that ordinary water was at the marriage of Cana, changed into wine (John ii. 1-11); that the waves of the Red Sea were divided and stood upright like a wall (Ex. xiv. 21, 22), and the floods of the Jordan, touched by Elijah's mantle, opened a dry path (2 Kings ii. 13, 14); that an axe, which had sunk to the bottom of the river, rose by Elijah's will and swam on the surface (2 Kings vi. G), and that Christ walked on the water of the Lake Genesareth (Mark vi. 48, 49); that the men of Sodom and Bar-Jesus (Elymas) were suddenly struck blind (Gen. xix. 11; Acts xiii. 6-11), and blind men recovered as suddenly (Matt, ix. 28-30; xx. 32-34); that a staff became serpent and a serpent a staff, a healthy hand was by a word made leprous, and a leprous hand healthy (Ex. iv. 2-7); that the earth opened its womb to engulf alive rebellious offenders (Num. xvi. 30-33), and the dead were revived or raised alive from the grave (John vi. 1-44; Matt, ix. 18, 24, 25); that Moses was forty days on Mount Sinai without requiring any food whatever (Ex. xxxiv. 21), and that a limited supply of flour and wine was practically unlimited, and sufficed for the household of the widow of Zarephath a considerable time (1 Kings xvii. 14-16); that every vessel which could possibly be procured, filled itself spontaneously with oil by Elisha's command (2 Kings iv. 3-6); that 4,000 men, besides women and page 274 children, were satisfied by seven loaves and a few little fishes, and left over seven baskets of broken pieces (Matt. xv. 23-28); that a fig-tree, covered with leaves and capable of bearing fruit, instantaneously withered away (Matt. xxi. 19); that the ass of Balaam spoke (Num. xxii. 21, 30), a raven provided Elijah regularly with bread and meat (1 Kings xvii. 4-6), and a whale preserved Jonah in its womb three days and three nights, and then threw him on the dry land unhurt (Jonah ii. 1-11) : if we read all this, we might be led to the perplexing conclusion that there is nothing stable and fixed in nature, were we not taught by science to regard undeviating uniformity as nature's first principle. All reality is destroyed, and the things, devoid of a well-defined character, loose their intrinsic value and absolute existence. "The miracle changes the serious code of nature into a merry book of fairy-tales; but for this reason, miracle itself deserves to be ranked no higher than a fairy-tale." Disdaining, like fancy, to which it is largely indebted, the fetters of necessity, it capriciously confounds the qualities of matter, combines what is naturally incompatible, and disjoins what is inseparable. Every miracle "paralyses reason;" for it checks the specific work of reason, which consists in searching for laws and causes, and, by depriving it of the safe support of experience, renders it valueless even for pointing out the path of practical duty. The miracle attempts to sway nature, but not, like reason, by penetrating into its organism, but by misusing it for arbitrary ends. Unrestrained by any limit, and unshackled by any condition, it appears in power boundless and inexhaustible. Exercising a complete rule over matter, and reminding man of his own inborn yearning for the infinite, it is by unreflecting generations easily mistaken as divine. Hence the East is the home of miracles; because the East is more apt to confound fancy and reflection: these two faculties have indeed abstraction as a common element; but fancy defies or disregards reality, while reflection judiciously preserves and spiritualises it.

It is not only useless but objectionable to reduce the miracles by ingenious and strained interpretations, to the least possible number, or to explain their force away, by representing them as ordinary occurrences told in a marvellous or imaginative form. Thus it has been asserted that the Bible contains nothing that is opposed to the rules of nature, and that, for instance, the prolonged day in Joshua's time may be accounted for by the supposition that a large quantity of ice happened to be in the upper region of the air, and caused an unusually strong refraction of the solar rays; and this led to the vague and untenable opinion that all Biblical statements found to be in opposition to the laws of nature are "either poetical metaphors, or are related according to the opinions and prejudices of the writers, or have been inserted in the Scriptures by sacrilegious hands"—which principles manifestly deprive the narratives of Scripture of all definite meaning page 275 and value. Equally questionable is the device of separating the "end and essence" of the revelations from the accessory notions associated with them, and of insisting upon the truth of the former, while relinquishing that of the latter, a device which would open the floodgates to every variety of arbitrary distinction. Yet these views have been adopted by earlier and later writers, and among them by Reimarus, the famous "fragmentist" of Wolfenb¨ttel, who by attempting "natural explanations" of events which the authors of the Bible obviously meant to describe as supernatural, was misled to the most curious fancies, as for instance, that the thunder which accompanied the revelation on Mount Sinai was possibly produced by the sudden explosion of "a sort of gunpowder," while Moses communicated with Joshua, who was in the camp, by means of a speaking-trumpet. Who does not see that such principle, or rather absence of principle, renders all religious knowledge uncertain and fluctuating, and renounces beforehand all absolute truth?

It is equally unavailing to confine miracles to certain periods; Catholicism, in this respect more in accordance with the spirit of the Bible than Protestantism, which attempts an unsuccesful compromise between belief and reason, extends their operation beyond the limits of tradition, and supposes their constant and living manifestation. For the Biblical narratives do not simply contain miracles, but are throughout framed in a miraculous spirit. They are entirely compiled on the assumption of a perpetual and immediate intervention of God in the natural course of events. That extraordinary" offering of jealousy," (Num. x. 11-31), which is evidently an ordeal involving the regular and miraculous interference of God, is alone sufficient to disclose the wide chasm which separates the Biblical from the scientific notions beyond all possibility of agreement. Wonders are freely employed to remove difficulties, even where these might have been overcome by natural agencies. Whether Noah and his family are alone rescued amidst the universal destruction of living creatures, or Lot is by special messengers of God saved from the calamities which overthrew his entire district; whether Pharoah is, by unparalleled afflictions, forced to release the Hebrews, or the persons and the property of the latter remain untouched when the land is visited by appalling misfortunes; whether God personally guides and protects the patriarchs, or afflicts the women of Abimelechs's household with barrenness because that king took Sarah into his house (Gen. xx. 17, 18); whether he gives to the myriads of wandering Israelites food and water in abundance for forty years, or makes the hostile Syrian army hear a noise of vast numbers of horses and chariots, to delude them into the belief of large hosts approaching, in consequence of which they fly panic-stricken, leaving their whole camp behind them (2 Kings vii. 6, 7)—these and the numerous traits of a similar kind defy all laws both of reason and experience, and page 276 substitute phantasmagoric playfulness for sober historiography to such a degree that even the attempt at harmonising them with scientific results bespeaks the slothfulness of a mind equally unable to form an independent estimate of the antiquated past, and to keep pace with the growth of modern inquiry. By the direction of God," observes Spinoza, "I understand the fixed and immutable order of nature or the concatenation of natural things. The general laws of nature, by which everything happens and is determined, are nothing but the eternal decrees of God, which ever involve eternal truth and necessity. Therefore, whether we say that everything happens according to the laws of nature, or that everything is ordained by the will and direction of God, we say the same thing." These views, whether they be avowed or not, rule our lives and our thoughts. They must form the starting point of all future theories of philosophy and theology. Sometimes indeed the Bible records natural facts in connection with miracles; for instance, Moses threw a certain wood, which God had shown him, into the bitter waters of Marah, which then became drinkable (Ex. xv. 25), and similarly Elisha rendered salubrious for ever a deleterious spring of water by casting into it a quantity of salt (2 Kings ii. 20-22); Elisha leaned repeatedly over the dead boy, till the latter grew warm and returned to life (2 Kings iv. 34, 35); the Syrian general Naaman was healed from leprosy after bathing seven times in the Jordan (2 Kings v. 1-14); and the ten plagues of Egypt are all based on natural phenomena of almost regular occurrence in that country: but these facts, though affording to us valuable hints and explanations, were by the Biblical narrators not meant to remove the miraculous character of the events; they prove, on the contrary, that even where a natural explanation offered itself, and was suggested by tradition, it was rejected by miracle-loving generations, and set aside in favour of the assumption of extraordinary agencies. Yet, what natural basis can be discovered for the legends that Miriam became suddenly "leprous like snow" because she had spoken slightingly of Moses (Num. xii. 10); that a corpse which touched, the bones of Elisha, became alive and rose from the grave (2 Kings xiii. 21), or that diseases were cured, physical defects removed, and evil spirits expelled by touching the hand or garment of Christ (Mat. viii. 13-15), or "a handkerchief or apron" of the apostle Paul? (Acts six. 12); that a large number of fiery horses and chariots appeared to deliver Elisha from his pursuers? (2 Kings vi. 17); that fire came out of a rock by striking it with a staff, and consumed the meat and the cakes placed thereon by Gideon as an offering? (Jud. vi. 20, 21); that the sea raged because it bore the guilty Jonah, and became tranquil as soon as the latter was removed from the ship? (Jonah i. 12-15).

And yet the Bible itself lowers considerably the force and effect of miracles by attributing the power of performing them page 277 not only to Hebrews worshipping foreign gods, and to heathens controlled by the might of Jehovah, as in the instance of Balaam, but to idolaters who work in opposition to Jehovah Himself, as the magicians of Egypt (Ex. vii. 11, 22). The New Testament goes even farther; it supposes that miracles are performed by "false Christs and false prophets" (Mat. xxiv. 24) to such an extent "that if it were possible they might deceive the very elect; the enemy of the Church represented under the form of a beast rising out of the earth "did great wonders, made fire come down from heaven, and thereby deceived many men" (Rev. xix. 23); and "the spirits of the devils," which betray the kings of the earth and of the whole world, work miracles (Rev. vi. 14). Wonders, therefore, neither testify to the greatness of God, nor to the purity or truth of doctrines. It is, moreover, extremely difficult to distinguish between a true and a false miracle; all criteria that have been fixed, are either misty or fallacious.

The inference to be drawn from these facts is as decisive as it is significant. Can a gift that an idol is able to bestow, have any value or reality? Can those powers be supernatural which a Hebrew prophet shares with a priest of Baal?

Miracles are both impossible and incredible—impossible because against the established laws of the universe, and incredible because those set forth by tradition, are palpable inventions of unhistoric ages.

The notion of "rational wonders" which has been propounded is preposterous; for all wonders are irrational; they realise their character the more completely, the more irrational they are; for reason penetrates into the depth and essence of things, while miracles play lightly on their surface. The love of the miraculous, innate in human nature, and strongest in imaginative or enthusiastic minds, and in the early stages of development, is the parent of miracles; they germinate not in the quality of things but in the propensity of men. "Believe you that I am able to do this?" Jesus asked the blind men who came to him to be cured, and "they said to him, Yea, Lor" (Matt. ix. 28); a leper appealed to him saying, "Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean," and Jesus said, "I will," and the leprosy was immediately removed (Matt. viii. 2, 3). Miracles are desired and demanded when they are believed in; their origin lies neither in the sphere of metaphysics nor of theology; they can be explained only as psychological phenomena. Mohammed was pressed on all sides to perform miracles in vindication of his alleged mission; the incessant requests of both friends and foes, justified by the precedents of the Old and New Testament, almost brought him to despair; and in vain he insisted, that the greatest miracles are the creation, the animal and vegetable kingdom, heaven and the seas.

History rests on proofs and the internal evidence of facts; the Biblical narrative introduces elements lying beyond the test page 278 of ordinary examination, and often directly opposed to experience, reason and possibility. "While, therefore, the one possesses objective truth, the other may be accepted or discarded according to the individual principles of the reader.

The Scriptures habitually represent drought and famine, pestilence and earthquake, floods and every other disaster caused by the elements, as the results of idolatry and wickedness; they make the cessation of these inflictions dependent on the people's repentance and reformation, and hence they speak, for instance, of the "ignominy of famine" (Ez. xxxvi. 30): but the scourges of nature result from physical laws which, though they should never be thoroughly understood, certainly repudiate the notion of a direct influence of the moral upon the physical world. And with respect to the living creation, the conception of the Bible is so childlike, that it assumes the possibility of moral degeneracy in animals, usually supposes a simultaneous corruption of men and beasts, and includes the one and the other in the same exercises of penitence, fasting and humiliation (Jonah iii. 7, 8); nay, it imagines that even the earth, the abode of man, and the material from which his body was framed, may share the general depravity; and hence it couples the destruction of man, as in the deluge, with the destruction of the beasts, and at least the temporary devastation of the earth, if not, as in the punishment of Sodom and Gomorrah, its utter annihilation—all which notions are to us like strange and fanciful echoes of a remote past.

The veil which once covered and hid nature, has in a great measure been withdrawn. The awe which man felt at her grandeur, has thereby not been diminished; on the contrary, it has gained in force and reality. But inquirers have arrived at the conviction that they must renounce the hope of fathoming a power that rules her working; that she does not enable us to understand the distinction between "a primary cause" and "secondary causes," since, throughout her dominion, she reveals causes that we must consider as primary, and beyond which we cannot pass if we desire to penetrate into the genesis of things; and that, therefore, man's dignity and his happiness depend on the earnestness with which he explores nature's laws and obeys her suggestions and behests.—Dr. Kalisch.