The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The legendary literature of every nation upon earth tells the same stories of prodigies and wonders, of the appearances of gods upon the earth, and of their intercourse with men.
The lives of the Saints of the Catholic Church from the time of the Apostles to the present day are a complete tissue of miracles resembling and rivalling those of the Gospels. Some of these stories are romantic and imaginative; some clear, literal, and prosaic; some rest on mere tradition; some on the sworn testimony of eye-witnesses; some are obvious fables; some are as well authenticated as facts of such a kind can be authenticated at all.
The Protestant Christian rejects every one of them—rejects them without inquiry—involves those for which there is good authority and those for which there is none or little in one absolute, contemptuous and sweeping denial. The Protestant Christian feels it more likely, in the words of Hume, page 142 that men should deceive or be deceived, than that the laws of nature should be violated.
The Bible is equally a record of miracles; but as from other histories we reject miracles without hesitation so of those in the Bible we insist on the universal acceptance; the former are all false, the latter are all true. It is evident that, in forming conclusions so sweeping as these we cannot even suppose that we are being guided by what is called historical evidence. Were it admitted that, as a whole, the miracles of the Bible are better authenticated than the miracles of the saints we should be far removed still from any large inference that in the one set there is no room for falsehood, in the other no room for truth.
In many instances the authors of the lives of the Saints were their companions and friends. Why do we feel so sure that what we are told of Elijah or Elisha took place exactly as we read it? Why do we reject the account of St. Columba or St. Martin as a tissue of idle fable? Why should not God give a power to the saint which He had given to the prophet? We can produce no reason from the nature of things, for we know not what the nature of things is; and if down to the death of the Apostles the ministers of religion were allowed to prove their commission by working miracles, what right have we, on grounds either of history or philosophy, to draw a clear line at the death of St. John—to say that before that time all such stories were true, and after it all were false?
There is no point on which Protestant controversialists evade the real question more habitually than on that of miracles. They accuse those who withhold that unreserved and absolute belief which they require for all which they accept themselves, of denying that miracles are possible. They assume this to be the position taken up by the objector, and proceed easily to argue that man is no judge of the power of God. Of course he is not. No sane man ever raised his narrow understanding into a measure of the possibilities of the universe.
But the question about miracles is simply one of evidence—whether in any given case the proof is so strong that no room is left for mistake, exaggeration, or illusion, while more evidence is required to establish a fact antecedently improbable than is sufficient for a common occurrence.
"Let a worker of miracles," says Renan, "come forward to-morrow with pretensions serious enough to deserve examination. Let us suppose him to announce that he is able to raise a dead man to life. What would be done? A committee would be appointed composed of physiologists, physicians, chemists and persons accustomed to exact investigation; a body would then be selected which the committee would assure itself was really dead; and a place would be chosen where the experiment was to take place. Every precaution would be taken to leave no opening for uncertainty; and if under these conditions, the restoration to life was effected, a probability would be arrived at which would be almost equal to certainty. An experiment, however, should always admit of being repeated. What a man has done once, he should be able to do again, and in miracles there can be no question of ease or difficulty. The performer should be requested to repeat the operation under other circumstances upon other bodies; and if he succeeded on every occasion, two points would be established: first, that there may be in this world such things as supernatural operations; and, secondly, that the power to perform them is delegated to, or belongs to, particular persons. But who does not perceive that no miracle was ever performed under such conditions as these? but that always hitherto the performer has chosen the subject of the experiment, chosen the spot, chosen the public; that, besides, the people themselves—most commonly in consequence of the invincible want to see something divine in great events and great men—create the marvellous legends afterwards? Until a new order of things prevails, we shall maintain, then, this principle of historical criticism—that a supernatural account cannot be admitted as such, that it always implies credulity or imposture, that the duty of the historian is to explain it, and to seek to ascertain what share of truth, or of error, it may conceal."—J. A. Fronde.