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ON THE STUDY OF THE EVIDENCES OF CHRISTIANITY.
THE investigation of that important and extensive subject which includes what have been usually designated as ‘The Evidences of Revelation,’ has prescriptively occupied a considerable space in the field of theological literature, especially as cultivated in England. There is scarcely one, perhaps, of our more eminent divines who has not in a greater or less degree distinguished himself in this department, and scarcely an aspirant for theological distinction who has not thought it one of the surest paths to that eminence, combining so many and varied motives of ambition, to come forward as a champion in this arena. At the present day it might be supposed the discussion of such a subject, taken up as it has been successively in all its conceivable different bearings, must be nearly exhausted. It must, however, be borne in mind, that, unlike the essential doctrines of Christianity, ‘the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever,’ these external accessories constitute a subject which of necessity is perpetually taking somewhat at least of a new form, with the successive phases of opinion and knowledge. And it thus becomes not an unsatisfactory nor unimportant object, from time to time, to review the condition in which the discussion stands, and to comment on the peculiar features which at any particular epoch it most prominently presents, as indicative of strength or weakness—of the advance and security of the cause—if, in accordance with the real progress of enlightenment, its advocates have had the wisdom to rescind what better information showed defective, and 95to substitute views in accordance with higher knowledge; or, on the other hand, inevitable symptoms of weakness and inefficiency, if such salutary cautions have been neglected. To offer some general remarks of this kind on the existing state of these discussions will be the object of the present Essay.
Before proceeding to the main question we may, however, properly premise a brief reflection on the spirit and temper in which it should be discussed. In writings on these subjects it must be confessed we too often find indications of a polemical acrimony on questions where a calm discussion of arguments would be more becoming, as well as more consistent with the proposed object; the too frequent assumption of the part of the special partisan and ingenious advocate, when the character to be sustained should be rather that of the unbiassed judge; too much of hasty and captious objection on the one hand, or of settled and inveterate prejudice on the other; too strong a tendency not fairly to appreciate, or even to keep out of sight, the broader features of the main question, in the eagerness to single out particular salient points for attack; too ready a disposition to triumph in lesser details, rather than steadily to grasp more comprehensive principles, and leave minor difficulties to await their solution, or to regard this or that particular argument as if the entire credit of the cause were staked upon it.
And if on the one side there is often a just complaint that objections are urged in a manner and tone offensive to religious feeling and conscientious prepossessions, which are, at least, entitled to respectful consideration; so, on the other, there is too often evinced a want of sympathy with the difficulties which many so seriously feel in admitting the alleged evidences, and which many habitual believers do not appreciate, perhaps because they have never thought or enquired deeply on the subject; or, what is more, have believed it wrong and impious to do so.96
Any appeal to argument must imply perfect freedom of conviction. It is a palpable absurdity to put reasons before a man, and yet wish to compel him to adopt them, or to anathematize him if he find them unconvincing; to repudiate him as an unbeliever, because he is careful to find satisfactory grounds for his belief; or to denounce him as a sceptic, because he is scrupulous to discriminate the truth; to assert that his honest doubts evince a moral obliquity; in a word, that he is no judge of his own mind; while it is obviously implied that his instructor is so—or, in other words, is omniscient and infallible. When serious difficulties have been felt and acknowledged on any important subject, and a writer undertakes the task of endeavouring to obviate them, it is but a fair demand that, if the reader be one of those who do not feel the difficulties, or do not need or appreciate any further argument to enlighten or support his belief, he should not cavil at the introduction of topics, which may be valuable to others, though needless, or distasteful to himself. Such persons are in no way called upon to enter into the discussion, but they are unfair if they accuse those who do so of agitating questions of whose existence they have been unconscious; and of unsettling men’s minds, because their own prepossessions have been long settled, and they do not perceive the difficulties of others, which it is the very aim of such discussion to remove.
Perhaps most of the various parties who have at all engaged in the discussion of these subjects are agreed in admitting a wide distinction between the influences of feeling and those of reason; the impressions of conscience and the deductions of intellect; the dictations of moral and religious sense, and the conclusions from evidence; in reference especially to the questions agitated as to the grounds of belief in Divine revelation. Indeed, when we take into account the nature of the objects considered, the distinction is manifest 97and undeniable; when a reference is made to matters of external fact (insisted on as such) it is obvious that reason and intellect can alone be the proper judges of the evidence of such facts. When, on the other hand, the question may be as to points of moral or religious doctrine, it is equally clear, other and higher grounds of judgment and conviction must be appealed to.
In the questions now under consideration, both classes of arguments are usually involved. It is the professed principle of at least a large section of those who discuss the subject, that the question is materially connected with the truth and evidence of certain external alleged historical facts: while again, all will admit that the most essential and vital portion of the inquiry refers to matters of a higher—of a more internal, moral, and spiritual kind.
But while this distinction is clearly implied and even professedly acknowledged by the disputants, it is worthy of careful remark, bow extensively it is overlooked and kept out of sight in practice; how commonly—almost universally, we find writers and reasoners taking up the question, even with much ability and eloquence, and arguing it out sometimes on the one, sometimes on the other ground, forgetful of their own professions, and in a way often quite inconsistent with them.
Thus we continually find the professed advocates of an external revelation and historical evidence, nevertheless making their appeal to conscience and feeling, and decrying the exercise of reason; and charging those who find critical objections in the evidence with spiritual blindness and moral perversity; and on the other hand we observe the professed upholders of faith and internal conviction as the only sound basis of religion, nevertheless regarding the external facts as not less essential truth which it would be profane to question. It often seems to be rather the want of clear apprehension in the first instance of the distinct 98kind and character of such inquiries, when on the one side directed to the abstract question of evidence, and when on the other pointing to the practical object of addressing the moral and religious feelings and affections, which causes so many writers on these subjects to betray an inconsistency between their professed purpose and their mode of carrying it out. They avow matter-of-fact inquiry—a question of the critical evidence for alleged events—yet they pursue it as if it were an appeal to moral sentiments; in which case it would be a virtue to assent, and a crime to deny: if it be the one, it should not be proposed as the other.
Thus it is the common language of orthodox writings and discourses to advise the believer, when objections or difficulties arise, not to attempt to offer a precise answer, or to argue the point, but rather to look at the whole subject as of a kind which ought to be exempt from critical scrutiny and be regarded with a submission of judgment, in the spirit of humility and faith. This advice may be very just in reference to practical impressions; yet if the question be one (as is so much insisted on) of external facts, it amounts to neither more nor less than a tacit surrender of the claims of external evidence and historical reality. We are told that we ought to investigate such high questions rather with our affections than with our logic, and approach them rather with good dispositions and right motives, and with a desire to find the doctrine true; and thus shall discover the real assurance of its truth in obeying it; suggestions which, however good in a moral and practical sense, are surely inapplicable if it be made a question of facts.
If we wore inquiring into historical evidence in any other case (suppose e.g. of Cæsar’s landing in Britain) it would be little to the purpose to be told that we must look at the case through our desires rather than our reason, and exercise a believing disposition rather than rashly scrutinize testimony by critical cavils. Those 99who speak thus on the question of religious belief, in fact shift the basis all belief from the alleged evidence of facts to the influence of an internal persuasion; they virtually give up the evidential proof so strongly insisted on, and confess that the whole is, after all, a mere matter of feeling and sentiment, just as much as those to whose views they so greatly object as openly avowing the very same thing.
We find certain forms of expression commonly stereotyped among a very large class of Divines, whenever a critical difficulty or a sceptical exception is urged, which are very significant as to the prevalent view of religious evidence. Their reply is always of this tenor: ‘These are not subjects on which you can expect demonstrative evidence; you must be satisfied to accept such general proof or probability as the nature of the question allows: you must not inquire too curiously into these things; it is sufficient that we have a general moral evidence of the doctrines; exact critical discussion will always rake up difficulties, to which perhaps no satisfactory answer can be at once given. A precise sceptical caviller will always find new objections as soon as the first are refuted. It is in vain to seek to convince reason unless the conscience and the will be first well-disposed to accept the truth.’ Such is the constant language of orthodox theologians. What is it but a mere translation into other phraseology, of the very assertions of the sceptical transcendentalist?
Indeed, with many who take up these questions, they are almost avowedly placed on the ground of practical expediency rather than of abstract truth. Good and earnest men become alarmed for the dangerous consequences they think likely to result from certain speculations on these subjects, and thence in arguing against them, are led to assume a tone of superiority, as the guardians of virtue and censors of right, rather than as unprejudiced inquirers 100into the matters-of-fact on which, nevertheless, they professedly make the case rest. And thus a disposition has been encouraged to regard any such question as one of right or wrong, rather than one of truth or error: to treat all objections as profane, and to discard exceptions unanswered as shocking and immoral.
If indeed the discussion were carried on upon the professed ground of spiritual impression and religious feeling, there would be a consistency in such a course; but when evidential arguments are avowedly addressed to the intellect, it is especially preposterous to shift the ground, and charge the rejection of them on moral motives; while those who impute such bad motives fairly expose themselves to the retort, that their own belief may be dictated by other considerations than the love of truth.
Again, in such inquiries there is another material distinction very commonly lost sight of; the difference between discussing the truth of a conclusion, or opinion, and the mode or means of arriving at it; or the arguments by which it is supported. Either may clearly be impugned or upheld without implicating the other. We may have the best evidence, but draw a wrong conclusion from it; or we may support an incontestible truth by very fallacious arguments.
The present discussion is not intended to be of a controversial kind, it is purely contemplative and theoretical; it is rather directed to a calm and unprejudiced survey of the various opinions and arguments adduced, whatever may be their ulterior tendency, on these important questions; and to the attempt to state, analyse, and estimate them just as they may seem really conducive to the high object professedly in view.
The idea of a positive external Divine revelation of some kind has formed the very basis of all hitherto 101received systems of Christian belief. The Romanist indeed regards that revelation as of the nature of a standing oracle accessible in the living voice of the Church; which being infallible, of course sufficiently accredits all the doctrines it announces, and constitutes them Divine. A more modified view has prevailed among a considerable section of Anglican theologians, who ground their faith on the same principles of Church authority, divested of its divine and infallible character. Most Protestants, with more or less difference of meaning, profess to regard revelation as once for all announced, long since finally closed, permanently recorded, and accessible only in the written Divine word contained in the Scriptures. And the discussion with those outside the pale of belief has been entirely one as to the validity of those external marks and attestations by which the truth of the alleged fact of such communication of the Divine will, was held to be substantiated.
The scope and character of the various discussions raised on ‘the evidences of religion,’ have varied much in different ages, following of course both the view adopted of revelation itself, the nature of the objections which for the time seemed most prominent, or most necessary to be combated, and stamped with the peculiar intellectual character, and reasoning tone, of the age to which they belonged.
The early apologists were rather defenders of the Christian cause generally; but when they entered on evidential topics, naturally did so rather in accordance with the prevalent modes of thought, than with what would now be deemed a philosophic investigation of alleged facts and critical appreciation of testimony in support of them.
In subsequent ages, as the increasing claims of infallible Church authority gained ground, to discuss evidence became superfluous, and even dangerous and impious; accordingly, of this branch of theological 102literature (unless in the most entire subjection to ecclesiastical dictation) the mediæval church presented hardly any specimens.
It was not perhaps till the 15th century, that any works bearing the character of what are now called treatises on ‘the evidences’ appeared; and these were probably elicited by the sceptical spirit which had already begun to show itself, arising out of the subtilties of the schoolmen.6565 Several such treatises are enumerated and described by Eichhorn. See Hallam’s Lit. of Europe, i. p. 190.
But in modern times, and under Protestant auspices, a greater disposition to follow up this kind of discussion has naturally been developed. The sterner genius of Protestantism required definition, argument, and proof, where the ancient church had been content to impress by the claims of authority, veneration, and prescription, and thus left the conception of truth to take the form of a mere impression of devotional feeling or exalted imagination.
Protestantism sought something more definite and substantial, and its demands were seconded and supported, more especially by the spirit of metaphysical reasoning which so widely extended itself in the 17th century, even into the domains of theology; and divines, stirred up by the allegations of the Deists, aimed at formal refutations of their objections, by drawing out the idea and the proofs of revelation into systematic propositions supported by logical arguments. In that and the subsequent period the same general style of argument on these topics prevailed among the advocates of the Christian cause. The appeal was mainly to the miracles of the Gospels, and here it was contended we want merely the same testimony of eye-witnesses which would suffice to substantiate any ordinary matter of fact; accordingly, the narratives were to be traced to writers at the time, who were either themselves 103eye-witnesses, or recorded the testimony of those who were so, and the direct transmission of the evidence being thus established, everything was held to be demonstrated. If any antecedent question was raised, a brief reference to the Divine Omnipotence to work the miracles, and to the Divine goodness to vouchsafe the revelation and confirm it by such proofs, was all that could be required to silence sceptical cavils.
It is true, indeed, that some consideration of the internal evidence derived from the excellence of the doctrines and morality of the Gospel was allowed to enter the discussion, but it formed only a subordinate branch of the evidences of Christianity. The main and essential point was always the consideration of external facts, and the attestations of testimony offered in support of them. Assuming Christianity to be essentially connected with certain outward and sensible events, the main thing to be inquired into and established, was the historical evidence of those events, and the genuineness of the records of them; if this were satisfactorily made out, then it was considered the object was accomplished. The external facts simply substantiated, the intrinsic doctrines and declarations of the Gospel must by necessary consequence be Divine truths.
If we compare the general tone, character, and pretensions of those works which, in our schools and colleges, have been regarded as the standard authorities on the subject of ‘the evidences,’ we must acknowledge a great change in the taste or opinions of the times from the commencement of the last century to the present day; which has led the student to turn from the erudite folios of Jackson and Stillingfleet, or the more condensed arguments of Clarke On the Attributes, Grotius de Veritate, and Leslie’s Method with the Deists, the universal textbooks of a past generation, to the writings of Lardner 104and Paley; the latter of whom, in the beginning of the present century, reigned supreme, the acknowledged champion of revelation, and the head of a school to which numerous others, as Campbell, Watson, and Douglas, contributed their labours. But more recently, these authors have been in an eminent degree superseded, by a recurrence to the once comparatively neglected resources furnished by Bishop Butler; of so much less formal, technical, and positive a kind, yet offering wider and more philosophical views of the subject; still, however, confessedly not supplying altogether that comprehensive discussion which is adapted to the peculiar tone and character of thought and existing state of knowledge in our own times.
The state of opinion and information in different ages is peculiarly shown in the tone and character of those discussions which have continually arisen, affecting the grounds of religious belief. The particular species of difficulty or objection in the reception of Christianity, and especially of its external manifestations, which have been found most formidable, have varied greatly in different ages according to the prevalent modes of thought and the character of the dominant philosophy. Thus, the difficulties with respect to miraculous evidence in particular, will necessarily be very differently viewed in different stages of philosophical and physical information. Difficulties in the idea of suspensions of natural laws, in former ages were not at all felt, canvassed, or thought of. But in later times they have assumed a much deeper importance. In an earlier period of our theological literature, the critical investigation of the question of miracles was a point scarcely at all appreciated. The attacks of the Deists of the 17th and early part of the 18th century were almost wholly directed to other points. But the speculations of Woolston, and still more the subsequent influence of the celebrated Essay 105of Hume, had the effect of directing the attention of divines more pointedly to the precise topic of miraculous evidence; and to these causes was added the agitation of the question of the ecclesiastical miracles, giving rise to the semi-sceptical discussions of Middleton, which called forth a more exact spirit of examination into such distinctions as were needed to preserve the miracles of the Gospels from the criticisms applied to those of the Church. This distinction, in fact, involves a large part of the entire question; and towards marking it out effectually, various precautionary rules and principles were laid down by several writers. Thus, Bishop Warburton suggested as a criterion the necessity of the miracles to the ends of the dispensation,6666 Div. Leg. ix. 5. which he conceived answered the demands of Middleton. Bishop Douglas made it the test—to connect miracles with inspiration in those who wrought them; this, he thought, would exclude the miracles of the Church.6767 Criterion, pp. 239, 241.
But it was long since perceived that the argument from necessity of miracles is at best a very hazardous one, since it implies the presumption of constituting ourselves judges of such necessity, and admits the fair objection—when were miracles more needed than at the present day, to indicate the truth amid manifold error, or to propagate the faith? And again, in the other case, how is the inspiration to be ascertained apart from the miracles? or, if it be, what is the use of the miracles? In fact, in proportion as external evidence to facts is made the professed demand, it follows that we can only recur to those grounds and roles by which the intellect always proceeds in the satisfactory investigation of any questions of fact and evidence, especially those of physical phenomena. By an adherence to those great principles on which 106all knowledge is acquired—by a reference to the fixed laws of belief, and our convictions of established order and analogy—we estimate the credibility of alleged events and the value of testimony, and weigh them more carefully in proportion as the matter may appear of greater moment or difficulty.
In appreciating the evidence for any events of a striking or wonderful kind, we must bear in mind the extreme difficulty which always occurs in eliciting the truth, dependent not on the uncertainty in the transmission of testimony, but even in cases where we were ourselves witnesses, on the enormous influence exerted by our prepossessions previous to the event, and by the momentary impressions consequent upon it. We look at all events, through the medium of our prejudices, or even where we may have no prepossessions, the more sudden and remarkable any occurrence may be, the more unprepared we are to judge of it accurately or to view it calmly; our after representations, especially of any extraordinary and striking event, are always at the best mere recollections of our impressions, of ideas dictated by our emotions at the time, of surprise and astonishment which the suddenness and hurry of the occurrence did not allow us time to reduce to reason, or to correct by the sober standard of experience or philosophy.
Questions of this kind are often perplexed for want of due attention to the laws of human thought and belief, and of due distinction in ideas and terms. The proposition ‘that an event may be so incredible intrinsically as to set aside any degree of testimony,’ in no way applies to or affects the honesty or veracity of that testimony, or the reality of the impressions on the minds of the witnesses, so far as it relates to the matter of sensible fact simply. It merely means this: that from the nature of our antecedent convictions, the probability of some kind of mistake or deception somewhere, though we know not where, is greater than 107the probability of the event really happening in the way and from the causes assigned.
This of course turns on the general grounds of our antecedent convictions. The question agitated is not that of mere testimony, of its value, or of its failures. It refers to those antecedent considerations which must govern our entire view of the subject, and which being dependent on higher laws of belief, must be paramount to all attestation, or rather belong to a province distinct from it. What is alleged is a case of the supernatural; but no testimony can reach to the supernatural; testimony can apply only to apparent sensible facts; testimony can only prove an extraordinary and perhaps inexplicable occurrence or phenomenon: that it is due to supernatural causes is entirely dependent on the previous belief and assumptions of the parties.
If at the present day any very extraordinary and unaccountable fact were exhibited before the eyes of an unbiassed, educated, well-informed individual, and supposing all suspicion of imposture put out of the question, his only conclusion would be that it was something he was unable at present to explain; and if at all versed in physical studies, he would not for an instant doubt either that it was really due to some natural cause, or that if properly recorded and examined, it would at some future time receive its explanation by the advance of discovery.
It is thus the prevalent conviction that at the present day miracles are not to be expected, and consequently alleged marvels are commonly discredited.
But as exceptions proving the rule, it cannot be denied that amid the general scepticism, instances sometimes occur of particular persons and parties who, on peculiar grounds, firmly believe in the occurrence of certain miracles even in our own times. But we invariably find that this is only in connexion with their own particular tenets, and restricted to the communion 108to which they are attached. Such manifestations of course are believed to have a religious object, and afford to the votaries a strong confirmation of their belief, or are regarded as among the high privileges vouchsafed to an earnest faith. Yet even such persons, almost as a matter of course, utterly discredit all such wonders alleged as occurring within the pale of any religion except their own; while those of other communions as unhesitatingly reject the belief in theirs.
To take a single instance, we may refer to the alleged miraculous ‘tongues’ among the followers of the late Mr. Irving some years ago. It is not, and was not, a question of records or testimony, or fallibility of witnesses, or exaggerated or fabulous narratives. At the time, the matter was closely scrutinized and inquired into, and many perfectly unprejudiced, and even sceptical persons, themselves witnessed the effects, and were fully convinced, as, indeed, were most candid inquirers at the time, that after all reasonable or possible allowance for the influence of delusion or imposture, beyond all question, certain extraordinary manifestations did occur. But just as little as the mere fact could be disputed, did any sober-minded person, except those immediately interested, or influenced by peculiar views, for a moment believe those effects to be miraculous. Even granting that they could not be explained by any known form of nervous affection, or on the like physiological grounds, still that they were in some way to be ascribed to natural causes, as yet perhaps little understood, was what no one of ordinarily cultivated mind, or dispassionate judgment, ever doubted.
On such questions we can only hope to form just and legitimate conclusions from an extended and unprejudiced study of the laws and phenomena of the natural world. The entire range of the inductive philosophy is at once based upon, and in every 109instance tends to confirm, by immense accumulation of evidence, the grand truth of the universal order and constancy of natural causes, as a primary law of belief; so strongly entertained and fixed in the mind of every truly inductive inquirer, that he can hardly even conceive the possibility of its failure. Yet we sometimes hear language of a different kind. There are still some who dwell on the idea of Spinoza, and contend that it is idle to object to miracles as violations of natural laws, because we know not the extent of nature; that all inexplicable phenomena are, in fact, miracles, or at any rate mysteries; that we are surrounded by miracles in nature, and on all sides encounter phenomena which baffle our attempts at explanation, and limit the powers of scientific investigation; phenomena whose causes or nature we are , not, and probably never shall be, able to explain.
Such are the arguments of those who have failed to grasp the positive scientific idea of the power of the inductive philosophy, or the order of nature. The boundaries of nature exist only where our present knowledge places them; the discoveries of to-morrow will alter and enlarge them. The inevitable progress of research must, within a longer or shorter period, unravel all that seems most marvellous, and what is at present least understood will become as familiarly known to the science of the future, as those points which a few centuries ago were involved in equal obscurity, but are now thoroughly understood.
None of these, or the like instances, are at all of the same kind, or have any characteristics in common with the idea of what is implied by the term ‘miracle,’ Which is asserted to mean something at variance with nature and law; there is not the slightest analogy between an unknown or inexplicable phenomenon, and a supposed suspension of a known law: even an exceptional case of a known law is included in some larger law. Arbitrary interposition is wholly different 110in kind; no argument from the one can apply to the other.
The enlarged critical and inductive study of the natural world, cannot but tend powerfully to evince the inconceivableness of imagined interruptions of natural order, or supposed suspensions of the laws of matter, and of that vast series of dependent causation which constitutes the legitimate field for the investigation of science, whose constancy is the sole warrant for its generalizations, while it forms the substantial basis for the grand conclusions of natural theology. Such would be the grounds on which our convictions would be regulated as to marvellous events at the present day; such the rules which we should apply to the like eases narrated in ordinary history.
But though, perhaps, the more general admission at the present day of critical principles in the study of history, as well as the extension of physical knowledge, has done something to diffuse among the better informed class more enlightened notions on this subject, taken abstractedly, yet they may be still much at a loss to apply such principles in all cases: and readily conceive that there are possible instances in which large exceptions must be made.
The above remarks may be admitted in respect to events at the present day and those narrated in ordinary history; but it will be said there may be, and there are, cases which are not like those of the present times nor of ordinary history.
Thus if we attempt any uncompromising, rigid scrutiny of the Christian miracles, on the same grounds on which we should investigate any ordinary narrative of the supernatural or marvellous, we are stopped by the admonition not to make an irreverent and profane intrusion into what ought to be held sacred and exempt from such unhallowed criticism of human reason.
Yet the champions of the ‘Evidences’ of Christianity have professedly rested the discussion of the 111miracles of the New Testament on the ground of precise evidence of witnesses, insisting on the historical character of the Gospel records, and urging the investigation of the truth of the facts on the strict principles of criticism, as they would be applied to any other historical narrative. On these grounds, it would seem impossible to exempt the miraculous parts of those narratives, from such considerations as those which must be resorted to in regard to marvellous or supposed supernatural events in general. Yet there seems an unwillingness to concede the propriety of such examination, and a disposition to regard this as altogether an exceptional case. But in proportion as it is so regarded, it must be remembered its strictly historical character is forfeited, or at least tampered with; and those who would shield it from the criticisms to which history and fact are necessarily amenable, cannot in consistency be offended at the alternative involved, of a more or less mythical interpretation.
In history generally our attention is often called to narratives of the marvellous: and there is a sense in which they may be viewed with reference to its general purport and in connexion with those influences on human nature which play so conspicuous a part in many events. Thus it has been well remarked by Dean Milman—‘History to be true must condescend to speak the language of legend; the belief of the times is part of the record of the times; and though there may occur what may baffle its more calm and searching philosophy, it must not disdain that which was the primal, almost universal motive of human life.’6868 Latin Christianity, vol. i. p. 388.
Yet in a more general point of view, when we consider the strict office of the critical historian, it is obvious that such cases are fair subjects of analysis, conducted with the view of ascertaining their real relation to nature and fact.112
From the general maxim that all history is open to criticism as to its grounds of evidence, no professed history can be exempt without forfeiting its historical character; and in its contents, what is properly historical, is, on the same grounds, fairly to be distinguished from what may appear to be introduced on other authority and with other objects. Thus, the general credit of an historical narrative does not exclude the distinct scrutiny into any statements of a supernatural kind which it may contain; nor supersede the careful estimation of the value of the testimony on which they rest—the directness of its transmission from eye-witnesses, as well as the possibility of misconception of its tenor, or of our not being in possession of all the circumstances on which a correct judgment can be formed.
It must, however, be confessed that the propriety of such dispassionate examination is too little appreciated, or the fairness of weighing well the improbabilities on one side, against possible openings to misapprehension on the other.
The nature of the laws of all human belief, and the broader grounds of probability and credibility of events, have been too little investigated, and the great extent to which all testimony must be modified by antecedent credibility as determined by such general laws, too little commonly understood to be readily applied or allowed.
Formerly (as before observed) there was no question as to general credibility. But in later times the most orthodox seem to assume that interposition would be generally incredible; yet endeavour to lay down rules and criteria by which it may be rendered probable, in cases of great emergency. Miracles were formerly the rule, latterly the exception.
The arguments of Middleton and others, all assume the antecedent incredibility of miracles in general, in order to draw more precisely the distinction that in certain cases of a very special nature that improbability 113 may be removed, as in the case of authenticating a revelation. Locke6969 Essay, Book i. ch. xvi. § 13. expressly contends that it is the very extraordinary nature of such an emergency which renders an extraordinary interposition requisite and therefore credible.
The belief in Divine interposition must be essentially dependent on what we previously admit or believe with respect to the Divine attributes.
It was formerly argued that every Theist must admit the credibility of miracles; but this, it is now seen, depends on the nature and degree of his Theism, which may vary through many shades of opinion. It depends, in fact, on the precise view taken of the Divine attributes; such, of course, as is attainable prior to our admission of revelation, or we fall into an argument in a vicious circle. The older writers on natural theology, indeed, have professed to deduce very exact conclusions as to the Divine perfections, especially Omnipotence; conclusions which, according to the physical argument already referred to, appear carried beyond those limits to which reason or science are competent to lead us; while, in fact, all our higher and more precise ideas of the Divine perfections are really derived from that very revelation, whose evidence is the point in question. The Divine Omnipotence is entirely an inference from the language of the Bible, adopted on the assumption of a belief in revelation. That ‘with God nothing is impossible,’ is the very declaration of Scripture; yet on this, the whole belief in miracles is built, and thus, with the many, that belief is wholly the result, not the antecedent of faith.
But were these views of the Divine attributes, on the other hand, ever so well established, it must be considered that the Theistic argument requires to be applied with much caution; since most of those, who adopted such theories of the Divine perfections, 114on abstract grounds, have made them the basis of a precisely opposite belief, rejecting miracles altogether; on the plea, that our ideas of the Divine perfections must directly discredit the notion of occasional interposition; that it is derogatory to the idea of Infinite power and wisdom, to suppose an order of things so imperfectly established that it must be occasionally interrupted and violated when the necessity of the case compelled, as the emergency of a revelation was imagined to do. But all such Theistic reasonings are but one-sided, and if pushed further must lead to a denial of all active operation of the Deity whatever; as inconsistent with unchangeable, infinite perfection.7070 See Mansel, Bampt. Lect. p. 185. Such are the arguments of Theodore Parker,7171 Theism, &c. p. 263, comp, p. 113. who denies miracles because ‘everywhere I find law the constant mode of operation of an infinite God,’ or that of Wegscheider,7272 Persuasio de supernaturali et miraculosa eademque immediata Dei revelatione, haud bene conciliari videtur cum idea Dei æterni, semper sibi constantis, &c.,—Wegscheider, Instit. Theol. § 12. that the belief in miracles is irreconcilable with the idea of an eternal God consistent with himself, &c.
Paley’s grand resource is ‘once believe in a God, and all is easy.’ Now, no men have evinced a more deep-seated and devout belief in the Divine perfections than the writers just named, or others differing from them by various shades of opinion, as the late J. Sterling, Mr. Emerson, and Professor F. W. Newman. Yet these writers have agreed in the inference that the entire view of Theistic principles, in their highest spiritual purity, is utterly at variance with all conception of suspensions of the laws of nature, or with the idea of any kind of external manifestation addressed to the senses, as overruling the higher, and as they conceive, sole worthy and fitting convictions of moral sense and religious intuition.
We here speak impartially and disinterestedly, since we are far from agreeing in their reasonings, or even 115their first principles. But we think it deeply incumbent on all who would fairly reason out the case of miraculous evidence at the present day, to give a full and patient discussion to this entire class of arguments which now command so many adherents.
In advancing from the argument for miracles to the argument from miracles; it should, in the first instance, be considered that the evidential force of miracles (to whatever it may amount) is wholly relative to the apprehensions of the parties addressed.
Thus, in an ‘evidential’ point of view, it by no means follows, supposing we at this day were able to explain what in an ignorant age was regarded as a miracle, that therefore that event was not equally evidential to those immediately addressed.. Columbus’s prediction of the eclipse to the native islanders was as true an argument to them as if the event had really been supernatural.
It is a consideration adopted by some eminent divines that in the very language of the Gospels the distinction is always kept up between mere ‘wonders’ (τίρατα) and ‘miracles’ or ‘signs’ (σημεῖα); that is to say, the latter were occurrences not viewed as mere matters of wonder or astonishment, but regarded as indications of other truths, specially adapted to convince those to whom they were addressed in their existing stage of enlightenment.
Archbishop Whately, besides dwelling on this distinction, argues that ‘the apostles would not only not have been believed but not even listened to, if they had not first roused men’s attention by working, as we are told they did, special (remarkable) miracles.’7373 Lessons on Evidences, vii. § 5. (Acts xix. 11.)
Some have gone further, and have considered the application of miracles as little more than is expressed in the ancient proverb, ‘θαύματα μώροις’—which is 116supposed to be nearly equivalent to the rebuke, ‘an evil generation seeketh a sign, &c.7474 Letter and Spirit, by Rev. J. Wilson, 1852, p. 21. (Matt. xii. 38.)
Schleiermacher regards the miracles as only relatively or apparently such, to the apprehensions of the age. By the Jews we know such manifestations, especially the power of healing, were held to constitute the distinctive marks of the Messiah, according to the prophecies of their Scriptures. Signs of an improper or irrelevant kind were refused, and even those which were granted were not necessarily nor universally conclusive. With some they were so, but with the many the case was different. The Pharisees set down the miracles of Christ to the power of evil spirits; and in other cases no conviction7575 As, e. g., John xi. 46; vi. 2-30; Matt. xii. 39. was produced, not even on the apostles.7676 Matt. xvi. 9; Luke xxiv. 21-25. Even Nicodemus, notwithstanding his logical reasoning, was but half convinced. While Jesus himself, especially to his disciples in private, referred to his works as only secondary and subsidiary to the higher evidence of his character and doctrine,7777 John xiv. 11. which was so conspicuous and convincing even to his enemies as to draw forth the admission, ‘Never man spake like this man.’
The later Jews adopted the strange legend of the ‘Sepher Toldeth Yehsu’ (Book of the Generation of Jesus), which describes his miracles substantially as in the Gospels, but says that he obtained his power by hiding himself in the Temple, and possessing himself of the secret ineffable name, by virtue of which such wonders could be wrought.7878 Orobio, a Jewish writer, quoted by Limborch (De Verit. p. 12-156). observes:—‘Non crediderunt Judæi non illa quæ in Evangelio, narrantur a Jesu facta esses negabant; se quia iis se persuaderi non sunt passi ut Jesum crederent Messiam.’ Celsus ascribed the Christian miracles to magic (Origen cont. Cels. i. 38; ii. 9.) as Julian did those of St. Paul to superior knowledge of nature. (Ap. Cyr. iii. 100.) The general charge of magic is noticed by Tertullian,. Ap. 23. See also Dean Lyall, Propædia Prophetica, 439. Neander, Hist. i. 67.117
All moral evidence must essentially have respect to the parties to be convinced. ‘Signs’ might be adapted peculiarly to the state of moral or intellectual progress of one age, or one class of persons, and not be suited to that of others. With the cotemporaries of Christ and the Apostles, it was not a question of testimony or credibility; it was not the mere occurrence of what they all regarded as a supernatural event, as such, but the particular character to be assigned to it, which was the point in question. And it is to the entire difference in the ideas, prepossession, modes, and grounds of belief in those times that we may trace the reason why miracles, which would be incredible now, were not so in the age and under the circumstances in which they are stated to have occurred.
The force and function of all moral evidence is nullified and destroyed if we seek to apply that kind of argument which does not find a response in the previous views or impressions of the individual addressed; all evidential reasoning is essentially an adaptation to the conditions of mind and thought of the parties addressed, or it fails in its object. An evidential appeal which in a long past age was convincing as made to the state of knowledge in that age, might have not only no effect, but even an injurious tendency, if urged in the present, and referring to what is at variance with existing scientific conceptions; just as the arguments of the present age would have been unintelligible to a former.
In his earlier views of miracles Dr. J. H. Newman7979 Essay on Miracles, &c. p. 107. maintained (agreeing therein with Paulus and Rosenmüller,) that most of the Christian miracles could only be evidential at the time they were wrought, and am not so at present, a view in which a religious writer of a very different school, Athanase Coquerel,8080 Christianity, &c. Davison’s transl. 1847, p. 226.118seems to concur, alleging that they can avail only in founding a faith—not in preserving it.
This was also the argument of several of the Reformers, as Luther, Huss, and others8181 See Seckendorf’s Hist. Luther., iii. 633. have reasonably contemplated the miracles as a part of the peculiarities of the first outward manifestation and development of Christianity; like all other portions of the Divine dispensations specially adapted to the age and the condition of those to whom they were immediately addressed: but restricted apparently to those ages, and at any rate, not in the same form continued to subsequent times, when the application of them would be inappropriate.
The force of the appeal to miracles must ever be essentially dependent on the preconceptions of the parties addressed. Yet even in an age, or among a people, entertaining an indiscriminate belief in the supernatural, the allegation of particular miracles as evidential may be altogether vain; the very extent of their belief may render it ineffective in furnishing proofs to authenticate the communications of any teacher as a Divine message. The constant belief in the miraculous may neutralize all evidential distinctions which it may be attempted to deduce. Of this we have a striking instance on record, in the labours of the missionary, Henry Martyn, among the Persian Mahometans. They believed readily all that he told them of the Scripture miracles, but directly paralleled them by wonders of their own; they were proof against any argument from the resurrection, because they held that their own Sheiks had the power of raising the dead.
It is also stated that the later Jewish Rabbis, on the same plea that miracles were believed to be wrought by so many teachers, of the most different doctrines, denied their evidential force altogether.8282 For some instances of this class of objections, see Dean Lyall’s Propædia Prophetica, p. 437 et seq.119
By those who take a more enlarged survey of the subject, it cannot fail to be remarked how different has been the spirit in which miracles were contemplated as they are exhibited to us in the earlier stages of ecclesiastical literature, from that in which they have been regarded in modern times; and this especially in respect to that particular view which has so intimately connected them with precise ‘evidential arguments;’ and by a school of writers, of whom Paley may be taken as the type, and who regard them as the sole external proof and certificate of a Divine revelation.
But at the present day this ‘evidential’ view of miracles as the sole or even the principal external attestation to the claims of a Divine revelation, is a species of reasoning which appears to have lost ground even among the most earnest advocates of Christianity. It is now generally admitted that Paley took too exclusive a view in asserting that we cannot conceive a revelation substantiated in any other way. And it has been even more directly asserted by some zealous supporters of Christian doctrine that the external evidences are altogether inappropriate and worthless.
Thus by a school of writers of the most highly orthodox pretensions, it is elaborately argued, to the effect, that revelation ought to be believed though destitute of strict evidence, either internal or external; and though we neither see it nor know it.8383 See Tracts for the Times, No. lxxxv. pp. 85-100. And again, ‘We must be as sure that the bishop is Christ’s appointed representative, as if we actually saw him work miracles as St. Peter and St. Paul did.’8484 Tract No. x. p. 4. Another writer of the same school exclaims, ‘As if evidence to the Word of God were a thing to be tolerated by a Christian; except as an additional condemnation for those who reject it, or as a sort of exercise and indulgence 120for a Christian understanding.’8585 British Critic, No. xlviii. p. 304. Thus while the highest section of Anglican orthodoxy does not hesitate openly to disavow the old evidential argument; referring everything to the authority of the Church, the more moderate virtually discredit it by a general tone of vacillation between the antagonistic claims of reason and faith;—intuition and evidence;—while the extreme ‘evangelical’ school, strongly asserting the literal truth of the Bible, seeks its evidence wholly in spiritual impressions, regarding all exercise of the reason as partaking in the nature of sin. But even among less prejudiced thinkers, we find indications of similar views,8686 Edin. Rev. No. cxli. thus a very able critic writing in express defence of the Christian cause, speaks of ‘that accumulation of historical testimonies,’ ‘which the last age erroneously denominated the evidences of Christianity.’ And the poet Coleridge, than whom no writer has been more earnest in upholding and defending Christianity, even in its most orthodox form, in speaking of its external attestations, impatiently exclaims, ‘Evidences of Christianity! I am weary of the word: make a man feel the want of it . . . and you may safely trust it to its own evidence.’8787 Aids to Reflexion, i. p. 333.
But still further: Paley’s well-known conclusion to the 5th book of his Moral Philosophy, pronounced by Dr. Parr to be the finest prose passage in English literature, more especially his final summing up of the evidential argument in the words, ‘He alone discovers who proves: and no man can prove this point (a future retribution), but the teacher who testifies by miracles that his doctrine comes from God,’—calls forth from Coleridge an emphatic protest against the entire principle, as being at variance with that moral election which he would make the essential basis of religious 121belief;8888 Aids to Reflexion, p. 278. to which he adds, in another place, ‘The cordial admiration with which I peruse the preceding passage as a masterpiece of composition would, could I convey it, serve as a measure of the vital importance I attach to the convictions which impelled me to animadvert on the same passage as doctrine.’8989 Ib. p. 338.
Some of the most strenuous assertors of miracles have been foremost to disclaim the notion of their being the sole certificate of Divine communication, and have maintained that the true force of the Christian evidences lies in the union and combination of the external testimony of miracles, with the internal excellence of the doctrine; thus, in fact, practically making the latter the real test of the admissibility of the former.
The necessity for such a combination of the evidence of miracles with the test of the doctrine inculcated is acknowledged in the Bible, both under the old and the new dispensations. We read of false prophets who might predict signs and wonders, which might come to pass; but this was to be of no avail if they led their hearers ‘after other gods.’9090 Deut. xiii. 1.
In like manner, ‘if an angel from heaven’ preached any other gospel to the Galatians, they were to reject it.9191 Gal. i. 8. And even according to Christ’s own admonitions, false Christs and false prophets should show signs and wonders such as might ‘deceive, if possible, the very elect.’9292 Matt. xxiv. 24.
According to this view, the main ground of the admissibility of external attestations is the worthiness of their object—the doctrine; its unworthiness will discredit even the most distinctly alleged apparent miracles, and such worthiness or unworthiness appeals solely to our moral judgment.122
No man has dwelt more forcibly on miraculous evidence than Archbishop Whately; yet in relation to the character of Christ as conspiring with the external attestations of his mission, he strongly remarks (speaking, of some who would ascribe to Christ an unworthy doctrine, an equivocal mode of teaching), ‘If I could believe Jesus to have been guilty of such subterfuges . . . . . . I not only could not acknowledge him as sent from God, but should reject him with the deepest moral indignation.’9393 Kingdom of Christ, Essay i. § 12.
Dean Lyall enters largely into this important qualification in his defence of the miraculous argument, applying it in the most unreserved manner to the ecclesiastical miracles,9494 Propædia Prophetica, p. 441. which he rejects at once as having no connexion with doctrine. We have also on record the remark of Dr. Johnson:—‘Why, sir, Hume, taking the proposition simply, is right; but the Christian revelation is not proved by miracles alone, but as connected with prophecies and with the doctrines in confirmation of which miracles were wrought.’9595 Boswell’s Life, iii. 169. Ed. 1826.
This has, indeed, been the common argument of the most approved divines: it is that long ago urged by Dr. S. Clarke,9696 Evidences of Natural and Revealed Religion, § xiv. and recently supported by Dean Trench.9797 Notes on Miracles, p. 27. Yet what is it but to acknowledge the right of an appeal, superior to that of all miracles, to our own moral tribunal, to the principle that ‘the human mind is competent to sit in moral and spiritual tribunal on a professed revelation,’ in virtue of which Professor F. Newman, as well as many other inquirers, have come to so very opposite a conclusion.
Again, it has been strongly urged by the last-named 123 writer, if miracles are made the sole criterion, then amid the various difficulties attending the scrutiny of evidence, and the detection of imposture, an advantage is clearly given to the shrewd sceptic over the simple-minded and well-disposed disciple, utterly fatal to the purity of faith.9898 See Phases of Faith., p. 154.
The view of miraculous evidence which allows it to be taken only in connexion with, and in fact in subserviency to, the moral and internal proof derived from the character of the doctrine, has been pushed to a greater extent by the writer last named; who asks, What is the value of ‘faith at second hand?’—Ought any external testimony to overrule internal conviction? Ought any moral truth to be received in mere obedience to a miracle of sense?9999 Ib. pp. 82, 108, 201, 1st Ed. and observes that a miracle can only address itself to our external senses, and that internal and moral impressions must be deemed of a kind paramount to external and sensible.
If it be alleged that this internal sense may be delusive, not less so, it is replied, may the external senses deceive us as to the world of sense and external evidence. The same author however expressly allows that the claims of ‘the historical’ and ‘the spiritual,’ the proofs addressed to ‘reason’ and to the ‘internal sense,’ may each be properly entertained in their respective provinces—the danger lies in confounding them or mistaking the one for the other.
Even in the estimation of external evidence, everything depends on our preliminary moral convictions, and upon deciding in the first instance whether, on the one hand, we are ‘to abandon moral conviction at the bidding of a miracle,’ or, on the other, to make conformity with moral principles the sole test both of the evidences and of the doctrines of revelation.
In point of fact, lie contends that the main actual 124appeal of the Apostles, especially of St. Paul, was not to outward testimony or logical argument, but to spiritual assurances:—that even when St. Paul does enter on a sort of evidential discussion, his reasoning is very unlike what a Paley would have exacted:—that all real evidence is of the spirit—which alone can judge of spiritual things; that the Apostles did not go about proclaiming an infallible book, but the convert was to be convinced by his own internal judgment, not called on to resign it to a systematized and dogmatic creed. And altogether the reasoning of the Apostles (wherever they enter upon the department of reasoning), was not according to our logic, but only in accordance with the knowledge and philosophy of the age.
Thus in this fundamental assumption of internal evidence, some of the most orthodox writers are in fact in close agreement with those nominally of a very opposite school.
It was the argument of Döderlein, that ‘the truth of the doctrine does not depend on the miracles, but we must first be convinced of the doctrine by its internal evidence.’
De Wette and others of the rationalists expressly contend,
that the real evidence of the divinity of any doctrine can only be its
accordance with the dictations of this moral sense, and this, Wegscheider
further insists, was in fact the actual appeal of Christ in his
teaching.100100 Jesus ipse doctrinam quam tradidit divinam esse professus
est, quantum divina ejus indoles ab homine vere religioso proboque bene cognosci potest
atque dijudicari.—Wegscheider, in Joh. vii. 17.
Nulla alia ratio et via eas [doctrinas] examinandi datur quam ut illarum placita cum iis quæ via naturali rectæ rationis de Deo ejusque voluntate ipsi innotuerint diligenter componat et ad normam sine omni superstitione examinet.—Wegscheider, Instit. Theol. Chris. Dogm., § p.
In a word, on this view, it would follow that all external attestation would seem superfluous if it concur with, or to be rejected if it oppose, these moral 125convictions.101101 Such was the argument of the Characteristics, vol. ii. p. 334. Ed. 1727. Thus a considerable school have been disposed to look to the intrinsic evidence only, and to accept the declarations of the Gospel solely on the ground of their intrinsic excellence and accordance with our best and highest moral and religious convictions; a view which would approach very nearly to rejecting its peculiarities altogether.
Thus considerations of a very different nature are now introduced from those formerly entertained; and of a kind which affect the entire primary conception of ‘a revelation’ and its authority, and not merely any alleged external attestations of its truth. Thus any discussion of the ‘evidences’ at the present day, must have a reference equally to the influence of the various systems whether of ancient precedent or of modern illumination, which so widely and powerfully affect the state of opinion or belief.
In whatever light we regard the ‘evidences’ of religion, to be of any effect, whether external or internal, they must always have a special reference to the peculiar capacity and apprehension of the party addressed. Points which may be seen to involve the greatest difficulty to more profound inquirers, are often such as do not occasion the least perplexity to ordinary minds, but are allowed to pass without hesitation. To them all difficulties are smoothed down, all objections (if for a moment raised) are at once answered by a few plausible commonplace generalities, which to their minds see invested with the force of axiomatic truths, and to question which they would regard as at once idle and impious.
On the other hand, exceptions held forth as fatal by the shallow caviller are seen by the more deeply reflecting in all their actual littleness and fallacy. But for the sake of all parties, at the present day, especially 126those who at least profess a disposition for pursuing the serious discussion of such momentous subjects, it becomes imperatively necessary, that such views of it should be suggested as may be really suitable to better informed minds, and may meet the increasing demands of an age pretending at least to greater enlightenment.
Those who have reflected most deeply on the nature of the argument from external evidence, will admit that it would naturally possess very different degrees of force as addressed to different ages; and in a period of advanced physical knowledge the reference to what was believed in past times, if at variance with principles now acknowledged, could afford little ground of appeal: in fact, would damage the argument rather than assist it.
Even some of the older writers assign a much lower place to the evidence of miracles, contrasting it with the conviction of real faith, as being merely a preparatory step to it. Thus, an old divine observes:—
‘Adducuntur primum ratione exteri ad fidem, et quasi præparantur; . . . . . . . signis ergo et miraculis via fidei per sensus et rationem sternitur.’102102 Melchior Canus, Loci Theol. ix. 6. about 1540.
And here it should be especially noticed, as characteristic of the ideas of his age, that this writer classes the sensible evidence of miracles along with the convictions of reason, the very opposite to the view which would now be adopted, indicative of the difference in physical conceptions, which connects miracles rather with faith as they are seen to be inconceivable to reason.
These prevalent tendencies in the opinions of the age cannot but be regarded as connected with the increasing admission of those broader views of physical truth and universal order in nature, which have been 127followed out to higher contemplations, and point to the acknowledgment of an overruling and all-pervading supreme intelligence.
In advancing beyond these conclusions to the doctrines of revelation, we must recognise both the due claims of science to decide on points properly belonging to the world of matter, and the independence of such considerations which characterizes the disclosure of spiritual truth, as such.
All reason and science conspire to the confession that beyond the domain of physical causation and the possible conceptions of intellect or knowledge, there lies open the boundless region of spiritual things, which is the sole dominion of faith. And while intellect and philosophy are compelled to disown the recognition of anything in the world of matter at variance with the first principle of the laws of matter—the universal order and indissoluble unity of physical causes—they are the more ready to admit the higher claims of divine mysteries in the invisible and spiritual world. Advancing knowledge, while it asserts the dominion of science in physical things, confirms that of faith in spiritual; we thus neither impugn the generalizations of philosophy, nor allow them to invade the dominion of faith, and admit that what is not a subject for a problem may hold its place in a creed.
In an evidential point of view it has been admitted by some of the most candid divines that the appeal to miracles, however important in the early stages of the Gospel, has become less material in later times, and others have even expressly pointed to this as the reason why they have been withdrawn; whilst at the present day the most earnest advocates of evangelical faith admit that outward marvels are needless to spiritual conviction, and triumph in the greater moral miracle of a converted and regenerate soul.
They echo the declaration of St. Chrysostom—‘If you are a believer as you ought to be, and love 128Christ as you ought to love him, you have no need of miracles, for these are given to unbelievers.’103103 . . . εἰ γὰρ πίστος εἶ ὡς εἶναι χρὴ καὶ φιλεῖς τὸν Χρίστον ὡς φιλεῖν δεῖ, οὐ χρείαν ἔχεις τῶν σημείων· ταῦτα γὰρ ἀπίστοις δέδοται.—Hom. xxiii. in Johan. To the same effect also S. Isidore, ‘Tunc oportebat mundum, miraculis credere,—nunc vero credentem oportet bonis operibus coruscare.’ cited is Huss in defence of Wickliff.
After all, the evidential argument has but little actual weight with the generality of believers. The high moral convictions often referred to for internal evidence are, to say the least, probably really felt by very few, and the appeal made to miracles as proofs of revelation by still fewer; a totally different feeling actuates the many, and the spirit of faith is acknowledged where there is little disposition to reason at all, or where moral and philosophical considerations are absolutely rejected on the highest religious grounds, and everything referred to the sovereign power of divine grace.
Matters of clear and positive fact, investigated on critical grounds and supported by exact evidence, are properly matters of knowledge, not of faith. It is rather in points of less definite character that any exercise of faith can take place; it is rather with matters of religious belief belonging to a higher and less conceivable class of truths, with the mysterious things of the unseen world, that faith owns a connexion, and more readily associates itself with spiritual ideas, than with external evidence, or physical events and it is generally admitted that many points of important religious instruction, even conveyed under the form of fictions (as in the instances of doctrines inculcated through parables) are more congenial to the spirit of faith than any relations of historical events could be.
The more knowledge advances, the more it has been, and will be, acknowledged that Christianity, as a real religion, must be viewed apart from connexion with physical things.129
The first dissociation of the spiritual from the physical was rendered necessary by the palpable contradictions disclosed by astronomical discovery with the letter of Scripture. Another still wider and more material step has been effected by the discoveries of geology. More recently the antiquity of the human race, and the development of species, and the rejection of the idea of ‘creation,’ have caused new advances in the same direction.
In all these cases there is, indeed, a direct discrepancy between what had been taken for revealed truth and certain undeniable existing monuments to the contrary.
But these monuments were interpreted by science and reason, and there are other deductions of science and reason referring to alleged events, which, though they have left no monuments or permanent effects behind them, are not the less legitimately subject to the conclusions of positive science, and require a similar concession and recognition of the same principle of the independence of spiritual and of physical truth.
Thus far our observations are general: but at the present moment some recent publications on the subject seem to call for a few more detailed remarks. We have before observed that the style and character of works on ‘the evidences’ has of necessity varied in different ages, Those of Leslie and Grotius have, by common consent, been long since superseded by that of Paley. Paley was long the text-book at Cambridge; his work was never so extensively popular at Oxford—it has, of late, been entirely disused there. By the public at large however once accepted, we do not hesitate to express our belief, that before another quarter of a century has elapsed it will be laid on the shelf with its predecessors; not that it is a work destitute of high merit—as is pre-eminently true also of those it superseded, and of others again anterior to 130them; but they have all followed the irreversible destiny that a work, suited to convince the public mind at any one particular period, must be accommodated to the actual condition of knowledge, of opinion, and mode of thought of that period. It is not a question of abstract excellence, but of relative adaptation.
Paley caught the prevalent tone of thought in his day. Public opinion has now taken a different turn; and, what is more important, the style and class of difficulties and objections honestly felt has become wholly different. New modes of speculation—new forms of scepticism—have invaded the domain of that settled belief which a past age had been accustomed to rest on the Paleyan syllogism. Yet, among several works which have of late appeared on the subject, we recognise few which at all meet these requirements of existing opinion. Of some of the chief of these works, even appearing under the sanction of eminent names, we are constrained to remark that they are altogether behind the age; that amid much learned and acute remark on matters of detail, those material points on which the modern difficulties chiefly turn, as well as the theories advanced to meet them, are, for the most part, not only ignored and passed over without examination or notice, but the entire school of those writers who, with infinitely varied shades of view, have dwelt upon these topics and put forth their attempts, feeble or powerful as the case may be—to solve the difficulties—to improve the tone of discussion, to reconcile the difficulties of reason with the high aspirations and demands of faith—are all indiscriminately confounded in one common category of censure; their views dismissed with ridicule as sophistical and fallacious, abused as infinitely dangerous, themselves denounced as heretics and infidels, and libelled as scoffers and atheists.
In truth, the majority of these champions of the evidential logic betray an almost entire unconsciousness 131of the advance of opinion around them. Having their own ideas long since cast in the stereotyped mould of the past, they seem to expect that a progressing age ought still to adhere to the same type, and bow implicitly to a solemn and pompous, but childish parade and reiteration, of the one-sided dogmas of an obsolete school, coupled with awful denunciations of heterodoxy on all who refuse to listen to them.
Paley clearly, as some of his modern commentators do avowedly, occupied the position of an advocate, not of a judge. They professedly stand up on one side, and challenge the counsel on the other to reply. Their object is not truth, but their client’s case. The whole argument is one of special pleading; we may admire the ingenuity, and confess the adroitness with which favourable points are seized, unfavourable ones dropped, evaded, or disguised; but we do not find ourselves the more impressed with those high and sacred convictions of truth, which ought to result rather from the wary, careful, dispassionate summing-up on both sides, which is the function of the impartial and inflexible judge.
The one topic constantly insisted on as essential to the grounds of belief, considered as based on outward historical evidence, is that of the credibility of external facts as supported by testimony. This has always formed the most material point m the reasonings of the evidential writers of former times, however imperfectly and unsatisfactorily to existing modes of thought they treated it. And to this point, their more recent followers have still almost as exclusively directed their attention.
In the representations which they constantly make, we cannot but notice a strong apparent tendency and desire to uphold the mere assertion of witnesses as the supreme evidence of fact, to the utter disparagement of all general grounds of reasoning, analogy, and antecedent 132credibility, by which that testimony may be modified or discredited. Yet we remark, that all the instances they adduce, when carefully examined, really tend to the very conclusion they are so anxious to set aside. Arguments of this kind are sometimes deduced from such cases as, e. g., the belief accorded on very slight ground of probability in all commercial transactions dependent on the assumed credit and character of the negotiating parties; from the conclusions acted upon in life assurances, notwithstanding the proverbial instability of life;—and the like: in all which we can see no other real drift or tendency than to substantiate instead of disparage the necessity for some deeply-seated conviction of permanent order as the basis of all probability.
A great source of misapprehension in this class of arguments has been the undue confusion between the force of testimony in regard to human affairs and events in history, and in regard to physical facts. It may be true that some of the most surprising occurrences in ordinary history are currently, and perhaps correctly accepted, on but slight grounds of real testimony; but then they relate to events of a kind which, however singular in their particular concomitant circumstances, are not pretended to be beyond natural causes, or to involve higher questions of intervention.
The most seemingly improbable events in human history may be perfectly credible, on sufficient testimony, however contradicting ordinary experience of human motives and conduct—simply because we cannot assign any limits to the varieties of human dispositions, passions, or tendencies, or the extent to which they may be influenced by circumstances of which, perhaps, we have little or no knowledge to guide us. But no such cases would have the remotest applicability to alleged violations of the laws of matter, or interruptions of the course of physical causes.133
The case of the alleged external attestations of Revelation, is one essentially involving considerations of physical evidence. It is not one in which such reflexions and habits of thought as arise out of a familiarity with human history, and moral argument, will suffice. These no doubt and other kindred topics, with which the scholar and the moralist are familiar, are of great and fundamental importance to our general views of the whole subject of Christian evidence; but the particular case of miracles, as such, is one specially bearing on purely physical contemplations, and on which no general moral principles, no common rules of evidence or logical technicalities, can enable us to form a correct judgment. It is not a question which can be decided by a few trite and commonplace generalities as to the moral government of the world and the belief in the Divine Omnipotence—or as to the validity of human testimony, or the limits of human experience. It involves, and is essentially built upon, those grander conceptions of the order of nature, those comprehensive primary elements of all physical knowledge, those ultimate ideas of universal causation, which can only be familiar to those thoroughly versed cosmical philosophy in its widest sense.
In an age of physical research like the present, all highly cultivated minds and duly advanced intellects have imbibed, more or less, the lessons of the inductive philosophy, and have at least in some measure learned to appreciate the grand foundation conception of universal law—to recognise the impossibility even of any two material atoms subsisting together without a determinate relation—of any action of the one on the other, whether of equilibrium or of motion, without reference to a physical cause—of any modification whatsoever in the existing conditions of material agents, unless through the invariable operation of a series of eternally impressed consequences, following in some necessary chain of orderly connexion—however imperfectly 134known to us. So clear and indisputable indeed has this great truth become—so deeply seated has it been now admitted to be, in the essential nature of sensible things and of the external world, that not only do all philosophical inquirers adopt it, a primary principle and guiding maxim of all their researches—but, what is most worthy of remark, minds of a less comprehensive capacity, accustomed to reason on topics of another character, and on more contracted views, have at the present day been constrained to evince some concession to this grand principle, even when seeming to oppose it.
Among writers on these questions, Dean Trench has evinced a higher view of physical philosophy than we might have expected from the mere promptings of philology and literature, when he affirms that ‘we continually behold lower laws held in restraint by higher; mechanic by dynamic—chemical by vital, physical by moral;’ remarks which, if only followed out, entirely accord with the conclusion of universal subordination of causation; though we must remark in passing that the meaning of ‘moral laws controlling physical,’ is not very clear.
It is for the most part hazardous ground for any general moral reasoner to take, to discuss subjects of evidence which essentially involve that higher appreciation of physical truth which can be attained only from an accurate and comprehensive acquaintance with the connected series of the physical and mathematical sciences. Thus, for example, the simple but grand truth of the law of conservation, and the stability of the heavenly motions, now well understood by all sound cosmical philosophers, is but the type of the universal self-sustaining and self-evolving powers which pervade all nature. Yet the difficulty of conceiving this truth in its simplest exemplification was formerly the chief hindrance to the acceptance of the solar system—from the prepossession of the peripatetic dogma that there 135must be a constantly acting moving force to keep it going. This very exploded chimera, however, by a singular infatuation, is now actually revived as the ground of argument for miraculous interposition by redoubtable champions who, to evince their profound knowledge of mechanical philosophy, inform us that ‘the whole of nature is like a mill, which cannot go on without the continual application of a moving power!’
Of these would-be philosophers, we find many anxiously dwelling on the topic, so undeniably just in itself, of the danger of incautious conclusions—of the gross errors into which men fall by over-hasty generalizations. They recount with triumph the absurd mistakes into which some even eminent philosophers have fallen in prematurely denying what experience has since fully shown to be true, because in the then state of knowledge it seemed incredible.104104 Numerous instances of the kind referred to will be found cited in Mr. R. Chamber’s Essay on Testimony, &c. Edinburgh Papers, 1859; and in Abp. Whately’s Edition of Paley’s Evidences. They feel an elevating sense of superiority in putting down the arrogance of scientific pretensions by alleging the shortsighted dogmatism with which men of high repute in science have evinced a scepticism in points of vulgar belief, in which, after all, the vulgar belief has proved right. They even make a considerable display of reasoning on such cases; but we cannot say that those reasonings are particularly distinguished for consistency, force, or originality. The philosopher (for example) denies the credibility of alleged events professedly in their nature at variance with all physical analogy. These writers, in reply, affect to make a solemn appeal to the bar of analogy, and support it by instances which precisely defeat their own conclusion. Thus they advance the novel and profoundly instructive story of an Indian who denied the existence of ice as at variance with 136experience; and still more from the contradiction that being solid, it could not float in water. In like manner they dwell upon other equally interesting stories of a butterfly, who from the experience of his ephemeral life in summer, denied that the leaves were ever brown or the ground covered with snow; of a child who watched a clock made to strike only at noon through many hours, and therefore concluded it could never strike; of a person who had observed that fish are organised to swim, and therefore concluded there could be no such animals as flying fish.
These, with a host of other equally recondite, novel, startling, and conclusive instances are urged in a tone of solemn wisdom, to prove:—what? That water is converted into ice by a regular known law; that it has a specific gravity less than water by some law at present but imperfectly understood; that without violation of analogy, fins may be modified into wings; that it is part of the great law of climate that in winter leaves are brown and the ground sometimes white—that machinery may be made with action intermitting by laws as regular as those of its more ordinary operation. In a word, that the philosopher who looks to an endless subordinating series of laws of successively higher generality, is inconsistent in denying events at variance with that subordination!
It is indeed curious to notice the elaborate multiplication of instances adduced by some of the writers referred to, all really tending to prove the subordination of facts to laws, clearly evinced as soon as the cases were well understood, though, till then, often regarded in a sceptical spirit; while of that scepticism they furnish the real and true refutation in the principle of law ultimately established, under whatever primary appearance and semblance of marvellous discordance from all law. It would be beyond our limits to notice in detail such instances as are thus dwelt upon, and apparently regarded as of sovereign 137value and importance, to discredit philosophical generalization:—such as the disbelief in the marvels recounted by Marco Polo; of the miracle of the martyrs who spoke articulately after their tongues were cut out; the angel seen in the air by 2000 persons at Milan; the miraculous balls of fire on the spires at Plausac; Herodotus’s story of the bird in the mouth of the crocodile; narratives of the sea-serpent, marvels of mesmerism and electro-biology; all discredited formerly as fables; vaccination observed and attested by peasants, but denied and ridiculed by medical men:—
These and the like cases are all urged as triumphant proofs, of what?—that some men have always been found of unduly sceptical tendencies; and sometimes of a rationally cautious turn; who have heard strange, and, perhaps, exaggerated narratives, and have maintained sometimes a wise, sometimes an unwise, degree of reserve and caution in admitting them; though they have since proved in accordance with natural causes.
Hallam and Rogers are cited as veritable witnesses to the truth of certain effects of mesmerism in their day generally disbelieved; and for asserting which they were met with all but an imputation of ‘the lie direct.’ They admitted, however, that their assertion was founded on ‘experience so rare as to be had only once in a century;’ but that experience has been since universally borne out by all who have candidly examined the question, and the apparently isolated and marvellous cases have settled down into examples of broad and general laws, now fully justified by experience and analogy.
Physiological evidence is adduced (which we will suppose well substantiated) to show that the excision of the whole tongue does not take away the power of speech, though that of the extremity does so; hence the denial of the story from imperfect experience. So of other cases: the angel at Milan was the 138aerial reflexion of an image on a church; the balls of fire, at Plausac, were electrical; the sea-serpent was a basking shark, or a stem of sea-weed. A committee of the French Academy of Sciences, with Lavoisier at its head, after a grave investigation, pronounced the alleged fall of aërolites to be a superstitious fable. It is, however, now substantiated, not as a miracle, but as a well-known natural phenomenon. Instances of undue philosophical scepticism are unfortunately common; but they are the errors, not the correct processes, of inductive inquiry.
Granting all these instances, we merely ask—what do they prove?—except the real and paramount dominion of the rule of law and order, of universal subordination of physical causes, as the sole principle and criterion of proof and evidence in the region of physical and sensible truth; and nowhere more emphatically than in the history of marvels and prodigies, do we find a verification of the truth, ‘opinionum commenta delet dies, naturæ judicia confirmat.’
This in fact is the sole real result of all the profound parallelisms and illustrative anecdotes so confidently but unconsciously adduced by these writers with an opposite design.
What is the real conclusion from the far-famed Historic Doubts and the Chronicles of Ecnarf? but simply this—there is a rational solution, a real conformity to analogy and experience, to whatever extent a partially informed inquirer might be led to reject the recounted apparent wonders on imperfect knowledge, and from too hasty inference; these delightful parodies on Scripture (if they prove anything), would simply prove that the Bible narrative is no more properly miraculous than the marvellous exploits of Napoleon I., or the paradoxical events of recent history.
Just a similar scepticism has been evinced by nearly all the first physiologists of the day, who have joined 139in rejecting the development theories of Lamarck and the Vestiges; and while they have strenuously maintained successive creations, have denied and denounced the alleged production of organic life by Messrs. Crosse and Weekes, and stoutly maintained the impossibility of spontaneous generation, on the alleged ground of contradiction to experience. Yet it is now acknowledged under the high sanction of the name of Owen,105105 British Association Address, 1858. that ‘creation’ is only another name for our ignorance of the mode of production; and it has been the unanswered and unanswerable argument of another reasoner that new species must have originated either out of their inorganic elements, or out of previously organized forms; either development or spontaneous generation must be true: while a work has now appeared by a naturalist of the most acknowledged authority, Mr. Darwin’s masterly volume on The Origin of Species by the law of ‘natural selection,’—which now substantiates on undeniable grounds the very principle so long denounced by the first naturalists,—the origination of new species by natural causes: a work which must soon bring about an entire revolution of opinion in favour of the grand principle of the self-evolving powers of nature.
By parity of reason it might just as well be objected to Archbishop Whately’s theory of civilization, we have only for a few centuries known anything of savages; how then can we pretend to infer that they have never civilized themselves? never, in all that enormous length of time which modern discovery has now indisputably assigned to the existence of the human race! This theory, however, is now introduced as a comment on Paley in support of the credibility of revelation; and an admirable argument no doubt it is, though perhaps many would apply it in a sense somewhat different from that of the author. If the use of fire, the cultivation of the soil, and the like, were 140Divine revelations, the most obvious inference would be that so likewise are printing and steam. If the boomerang was divinely communicated to savages ignorant of its principle, then surely the disclosure of that principle in our time by the gyroscope, was equally so. But no one denies revelation in this sense; the philosophy of the age does not discredit the inspiration of Prophets and Apostles, though it may sometimes believe it in poets, legislators, philosophers, and others gifted with high genius. At all events, the revelation of civilization does not involve the question of external miracles, which is here the sole point in dispute. The main assertion of Paley is that it is impossible to conceive a revelation given except by means of miracles. This is his primary axiom; but this is precisely the point which the modern turn of reasoning most calls in question, and rather adopts the belief that a revelation is then most credible, when it appeals least to violations of natural causes. Thus, if miracles were in the estimation of a former age among the chief supports of Christianity, they are at present among the main difficulties, and hindrances to its acceptance.
One of the first inductive philosophers of the age, Professor Faraday, has incurred the unlimited displeasure of these profound intellectualists, because he has urged that the mere contracted experience of the senses is liable to deception, and that we ought to be guided in our conclusions—and, in fact, can only correct the errors of the senses—by a careful recurrence to the consideration of natural laws and extended analogies.106106 Lecture on Mental Education. 1854. In opposition to this heretical proposition, they107107 See Edinburgh Papers, ‘Testimony,’ &c., by R. Chambers, Esq. F.R.S.E., &c. set in array the dictum of two great authorities of the Scottish school, Drs. Abercrombie and Chalmers, that ‘on a certain amount of testimony we might believe 141 any statement, however improbable;’ so that if a number of respectable witnesses were to concur in asseverating that on a certain occasion they had seen two and two make five, we should be bound to believe them!
This, perhaps it will be said, is an extreme case. Let us suppose another:—if a number of veracious witnesses were to allege a real instance of witchcraft at the present day, there might no doubt be found some infatuated persons who would believe it; but the strongest of such assertions to any educated man would but prove either that the witnesses were cunningly imposed upon, or the wizard himself deluded. If the most numerous ship’s company were all to asseverate that they had seen a mermaid, would any rational persons at the present day believe them? That they saw something which they believed to be a mermaid, would be easily conceded. No amount of attestation of innumerable and honest witnesses, would ever convince any one versed in mathematical and mechanical science, that a person had squared the circle or discovered perpetual motion. Antecedent credibility depends on antecedent knowledge, and enlarged views of the connexion and dependence of truths; and the value of any testimony will be modified or destroyed in different degrees to minds differently enlightened.
Testimony, after all, is but a second-hand assurance;—it is but a blind guide; testimony can avail nothing against reason. The essential question of miracles stands quite apart from any consideration of testimony; the question would remain the same, if we had the evidence of our own senses to an alleged miracle, that is, to an extraordinary or inexplicable fact. It is not the mere fact, but the cause or explanation of it, which is the point at issue.
The case, indeed, of the antecedent argument of miracles is very clear, however little some are inclined perceive it. In nature and from nature, by science 142and by reason, we neither have nor can possibly have any evidence of a Deity working miracles;—for that, we must go out of nature and beyond reason. if we could have any such evidence from nature, it could only prove extraordinary natural effects, which would not be miracles in the old theological sense, as isolated unrelated, and uncaused; whereas no physical fact can be conceived as unique, or without analogy and relation to others, and to the whole system of natural causes.
To conclude, an alleged miracle can only be regarded in one of two ways;—either (1) abstractedly as a physical event, and therefore to be investigated by reason and physical evidence, and referred to physical causes, possibly to known causes, but at all events to some higher cause or law, if at present unknown; it then ceases to be supernatural, yet still might be appealed to in support of religious truth, especially as referring to the state of knowledge and apprehensions of the parties addressed in past ages; or (2) as connected with religious doctrine, regarded in a sacred light, asserted on the authority of inspiration. In this case it ceases to be capable of investigation by reason, or to own its dominion; it is accepted on religious grounds, and can appeal only to the principle and influence of faith.
Thus miraculous narratives become invested with the character of articles of faith, if they be accepted in a less positive and certain light, or perhaps as involving more or less of the parabolic or mythic character; or at any rate as received in connexion with, and for the sake of the doctrine inculcated.
Some of the most strenuous advocates of the Christian ‘evidences’ readily avow, indeed expressly contend, that the attestation of miracles is, after all, not irresistible; and that in the very uncertainty which confessedly remains lies the ‘trial of faith,’108108 See, e.g. Butler ‘a Analogy, pt. ii. ch. 6. which it is 143thus implied must really rest on some other independent moral conviction.
In the popular acceptation, it is clear the Gospel miracles are always objects, not evidences of faith; and when they are connected specially with doctrines, as in several of the higher mysteries of the Christian faith, the sanctity which invests the point of faith itself is extended to the external narrative in which it is embodied; the reverence due to the mystery renders the external events sacred from examination, and shields them also within the pale of the sanctuary; the miracles are merged in the doctrines with which they are connected, and associated with the declarations of spiritual things which are, as such, exempt from those criticisms to which physical statements would be necessarily amenable.
But even in a reasoning point of view, those who insist most on the positive external proofs, allow that moral evidence is distinguished from demonstrative, not only in that it admits of degrees, but snore especially in that the same moral argument is of different force to different minds. And the advocate of Christian evidence triumphs in the acknowledgment that the strength of Christianity lies in the variety of its evidences, suited to all varieties of apprehension; and, that, amid all the diversities of conception, those who cannot appreciate some one class of proofs, will always find cone other satisfactory, is itself the crowning evidence.
With a firm belief in constant supernatural interposition, the cotemporaries of the Apostles were as much blinded to the reception of the gospel, as, with an opposite persuasion, others have been at a later period. Those who had access to living Divine instruction were not superior to the prepossessions and ignorance of their times. There never existed an ‘infallible age’ of exemption from doubt or prejudice. And if to later times records written in the characters of a long 144past epoch are left to be deciphered by the advancing light of learning and science,—the spirit of faith covers continually increasing attestation of the Divine authority of the truths they include.
The ‘reason of the hope that is in us’ is not restricted to external signs, nor to any one kind of evidence, but consists of such assurance as may be most satisfactory to each earnest individual inquirer’s own mind. And the true acceptance of the entire revealed manifestation of Christianity will be most worthily and satisfactorily based on that assurance of ‘faith,’ by which the Apostle affirms ‘we stand,’ (2 Cor. ii. 4), and which, in accordance with his emphatic declaration, must rest, ‘not in the wisdom of man, but in the power of God.’ (1 Cor. ii. 5.)145
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