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Lecture 7. Inspiration, Prophecy, Miracle.

THIS brings us to the question of inspiration. The word has been connected with so many wild theories in past ages that it is now in some disgrace; and at first sight it may seem related rather to miraculous revelations than to Natural Theology. Yet it stands for a necessary part even of this. If there is any sort of revelation there must be some sort of inspiration, for the two words imply the same thing viewed from different standpoints. Revelation refers the knowledge given to the God who gives it, while inspiration takes it from the side of the man who receives it. Inspiration differs from discovery, which also views the knowledge from the human side, in having to do not with the man's reception of it, but with his preparation for receiving it. Now this preparation cannot be limited to any supposed divine afflatus at the time of speaking or writing. Such afflatus, whatever it be, comes in any case to a man of given character and environment; and if it is not pure magic it will be conditioned by these, and the idea of inspiration must take in the shaping of his character and of his whole environment.

But now, if even physical truth cannot be received without more or less preparation of diligent study, we can hardly doubt that some measure of purity and truthfulness will be needed for the recognition of divine truth, however it be presented. Yet so strong is the tendency of the natural man to find religion in unreason, that the followers even of the higher religions have commonly enough turned inspiration into a piece of magic, to the grievous injury of the rationality which must in any case be a principal feature of all God's dealings with men. This is the error of all theories which make prophecy ecstatic, as in the Delphic oracle, or inspiration mechanical, as in the Koran. There are two objections to all theories of this kind. In the first place, though God constantly uses men to work out purposes of which they have no conception, he cannot be supposed to use them as these theories imply—simply as live tools and not as moral beings. For us to use them so is confessedly immoral; indeed, the wrong of slavery or of fornication is just this, that we so use each other without forming true personal relations. And what is wrong for us is no more made right for God than for any tyrant by his power. Moreover, for the second objection, spiritual truth is not like a message we might learn by heart and deliver correctly without understanding it. Some such idea underlies the famous question, If the words are not inspired, what is? Words have no such fixed value as a mathematical symbol, which always means the same thing to all men who are able to use it. They cannot be more than signs of a message behind them; and if that message is meant to convey anything else than mathematical theorems, we cannot receive it as a magical formula, but must more or less digest it and make it a part of ourselves. And this we cannot do without some sort of moral preparation of the whole man. Mere intellect attacking moral questions will fare no better than common sense trying to solve mathematical problems.

There is error too on the other side, when the inspiration implied in religion is put on a level with that of some great teacher like Socrates. True, I believe the difference is of subject and purpose rather than of kind. In any case, all recognition of truth must be “thinking God's thoughts after him,” as Kepler said. But those who level Christ and Socrates commonly treat them both as purely human, instead of taking seriously the divine they ostensibly claim for both. By all means let Plato be called inspired, but not to the denial of even higher inspiration which may be evident elsewhere. There is a difference not only of degree but of subject between the parables of Jesus and the myths of Plato; and if living is higher than knowing, there can be no doubt which of the two has the higher theme and the more directly religious purpose. It is rather this difference of subject and purpose than a difference of kind in the inspiration which seems to distinguish the higher forms of revelation. There may also be a great difference in the matter of historical influence. Many “inspired” books (and some others, like the Chinese Classics, for which no claim of special inspiration is made) have been regarded more or less as Bibles by more or less civilized peoples, and more or less justified the canonical position assigned to them by a more or less healthy influence in the world. By their fruits ye shall know them, was said to them of old; and this is a test which may help us to judge of teaching as well as of teachers.

For it is further to be noted that inspiration may vary greatly from man to man, or in the same man at different times; for no inspiration but that of perfect sinlessness can lift our mortal weakness to more than partial and intermittent views of things divine. The divine fire that in one man sputters out a few sparks may in another blaze up in a bright and clear flame. An Elijah may stand out one day in more than royal majesty on Carmel, and the next be cowering away from the threats of Jezebel. So the resulting revelation will vary as much in its purity from alloy of baser things. There are sayings in the Talmud which might be divine; but they stand in a very small proportion to the things that cannot be divine. Plato falls off at times, and even in the Bible there is surely a vast difference between Proverbs and Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Isaiah.

If then inspiration is not a piece of magic, but requires moral action from the seer himself, his first qualification must be the purity and truthfulness needed for the knowledge of things divine, and the revelation will commonly be won like other knowledge by patient and earnest effort. Balaam is not a real exception, though he is represented as a bad man, and yet as having much spiritual insight. We take the story as we find it, simply as a study of character; for if the son of Beor is a legend, there are other Balaams in history. You will note that lie is not a bad man when we first meet him, but one of lofty spiritual aims, and held in high and seemingly deserved respect, so that his insight is not surprising. But he has his unsoundness like the rest of us, so that when he begins to tamper with temptation he gets fairly on the downhill road, and becomes a bad man by the time he goes to his own place. The Jewish commentators are not so far wrong when they explain, That is, to Gehenna. The character may not be common, but it does occur. A man can feed for a short time on the husks of any knowledge he is allowing to wither; and spiritual knowledge is no exception.

But we cannot take the seer by himself without regard to his environment. Nature, history, and life must all contribute to the work. Amos draws his inspiration from the wilderness of Judah, while Isaiah is a statesman watching the advance of the Assyrian world-power. The Old Testament speaks the language of the mountain heights, the Koran the dialect of the desert. Saul of Tarsus unites in his own person the cultures of Israel and Greece and Rome, while St. John has fed for more than half a century on memories of one who spake as never man spake. Æschylus is stirred to prophecy by the ruin of Persian pride, Gregory VII by the rampant anarchy of feudal Europe. Luther denounces the rapacious ungodliness of a heathenized papacy, and the Puritan delivers his testimony against the immoral frivolity of Stuart society. They are all men of their own age, speaking to their own contemporaries. If there are a few great men like John Scotus or Frederick of Sicily so faintly marked by the characters of their own age that at first sight they might almost belong to another, these are men we never find among the prophets.

The prophet's power is not in predictions of the future, though he may adventure some, nor in visions of another world if he have any, but in vivid understanding of his own age. Insight is his mark, not foresight, though marvellous foresight may come of true insight. He may see as clearly as any statesman the bearing of political or social questions; but his point of view is not the statesman's. He looks at the world like Spinoza sub specie æternitatis, though not as a purely intellectual problem like Spinoza, nor even as a purely moral problem related to impersonal right, but as a religious problem related to a living God. His aim is to see the world of his own time as God sees it—to tear open its hypocrisies and self-deceits, to unmask its falsehoods, to give its ambitions and achievements their true value, to trace and cherish every seed of good in it,—in a word, to view it in the unchanging light of the Eternal's right and goodness. God's words are what he strives to speak; and therefore he must needs begin, Thus saith the Lord. So Mahomet saw through the heathenism of the Arabs, and told them in God's name that their idol-worships turned his face away from them. So Jesus of Nazareth saw the obsoleteness of the Temple worship, and the immorality of the traditions which the Pharisees had put in its place, and traced to the estrangement of the nation from God the hatred of Gentiles, which made the Temple first a house of merchandise, then a cave of brigands, and at last a Roman slaughter-house.

The prophet speaks not to future ages, but to the men of his own time. His words are shaped by the ideas of his own time, and by the environment of his own time. If Israel is the kingdom of Jehovah, he will reach his conception of the heavenly King by idealizing the earthly prince1 of David's line. Something also of the splendour of the heavenly will be reflected on an earthly viceroy who shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. The ideal kingdom of the future is the earthly kingdom as he knows it idealized. “Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: and I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all…neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols,…so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. And David my servant shall be king over them.”2 It is the old kingdom of Ezekiel's youth; but the feud of tribes is forgotten, the idols are abolished, and the weakness of Zedekiah is remembered no more. So too the rest of the pictures of the future.

To the men of his own time the prophet speaks, not to others; yet his words are words for all generations. He watches the signs of the times as keenly as any scheming politician; but the facts of time are not mere events to him, but the embodiment of eternal principles. If God is God, the course of history must be not only rational, but the ordered purpose of eternal right and goodness; and we know generally what that purpose is. If we cannot cast a horoscope of men and nations, we can see the moral forces working in the world, and the moral forces must prevail in the end. Thus, if the Assyrian be the embodiment of godless violence, God's rightness requires that he should pass away when he has done the work appointed him. An unrighteous power cannot be a righteous God's last word in history. If Jerusalem has sinned, God's rightness requires that she should suffer; but God's goodness requires also that she should be restored when her warfare is accomplished and her iniquity pardoned. Then straightway the final victory. The prophet looks backward from the end of time, as well as forward from his own age, so that his vision has no perspective. It is a dissolving view. If the judgment of Israel is the foreground, the judgment of the world looms up behind it, and looms up more impressively the longer we look. Each present enemy, be it Assyria or Babylon or Greece or Rome, so fully embodies for him the principle of godless pride, that when that is overcome the last enemy is destroyed, and the whole contest is ended. This is idealism, however shaped by the solid facts of present history; therefore on one side the prophet's words find a true fulfilment in every age, and on another they can have no complete fulfilment before the end of time. He sees the streamlet rushing down the slope, and knows that it must reach the sea; but we in later times have traced it swirling through many a narrow pass, and joining its course with many a stream from many another mountain range; and we know that there is a long and weary journey still before the majestic river can pour its waters into the eternal ocean.

Some persons may raise the question here, whether prophecy is not the very thing Lord Gifford barred out by the word miraculous. So it might be, if it were presented in the old way, as a peculiar power of prediction depending very little on moral qualities. But the prophecy we are speaking of is no way magical, and is not specially concerned with prediction. It is the insight natural to a pure heart and truthful mind, which is open to us all; and so far as we too labour for a pure heart and truthful mind there is no reason why we should not in our measure share the gift with them of old. To the best of my judgment, this moral insight (if the divine element in it be taken into account) covers all alleged prophecy, whether preaching or prediction, which needs to be seriously considered; and we shall run some risk of turning inspiration into magic if we go further. At all events this moral insight is a plain fact, and covers much more of the ground than is commonly supposed. Indeed, even on sceptical principles (if I may adopt them for the moment) I cannot help thinking that the critics are often much too ready to bring up the universal solvent, by dating alleged predictions after the event. For instance, there seems to be nothing of itself unlikely in the statement that Nathan gave to David some such promise of an enduring house as we find recorded.3 Far too much may have been found in it; but the belief of later times that it came true is not sufficient reason for dating it after the Return.

Another reason for the permanent value of prophecy is that human nature is much the same in all ages. The cheating tradesman in Amos or Micah has left a large posterity, Pharisees and Sadducees are always with us, and Jews and Greeks are as common in London as they ever were at Corinth, though we call them other names. As of old, one man leans to tradition, another to his own understanding; one wants a miracle to crush his doubts, while another debases the search for truth into intellectual fencing. The old passions are unchanged, the old cleavages of thought are permanent from age to age. Therefore the prophet's message is abiding, though his words must wear the dress of time.

But if revelation is thus closely related to the thought of its own time, it must be a subject of development like human thought itself. To an uncultivated people even simple truth can only be given in simple form, under vivid images and sensuous conceptions. The rude justice of an avenger of blood may be a true revelation for men who were used to tribal fights; and a national God of Israel might be a stage on the road to a Father in heaven. As thought developed, and problem after problem opened out in course of ages, so must revelation too develop out in answer to them. Thus the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth would have been premature in Israel if the teaching of history had not made acute the conflict between the universalism of prophecy and the particularism of the law; and premature in the world, if the blows of the Roman hammer had not welded the nations of the earth into a political unity. There cannot be a revelation given once for all in all the fulness of its meaning. If Islam claims to be such, Christianity does not. Even though Jesus of Nazareth declared himself to be the full and final revelation of the Father, he warned his disciples that it would be a work of time to recognize the full meaning of his Person. Revelation must start from rude beginnings, and gradually develop (may be with loss as well as gain at every step) the form which explains its earlier growth, and is the only form by which it can be reasonably judged.

There seems then to be nothing in the conception of revelation to require that the prophet should be infallible, in the sense that his statements of scientific and historic truth, his judgments of men, and his presentations of moral truth, should in all cases commend themselves entirely to the maturer views of later ages. Inspiration is not bound summarily to do away the limitations of human nature. And if the prophet himself need not be infallible, neither need the record of his words.

But some will say, If the prophet's message is as human as if it were nothing more than human, it cannot escape the touch of human infirmity. Were he a mere tool in God's hands, a mere channel of communication and nothing more, the divine message might be given as unconditioned truth, or at least without any admixture of error. But if it is any way conditioned by passing through his mind, there must be some alloy in the truth he declares; and if there is any alloy at all, how can we make allowance for it, or what security have we that there is any truth left? Better no message at all than one we cannot positively know to be delivered with unerring accuracy.

Extremes meet again. This used to be the standard defence of verbal inspiration; and the antitheists have now found out that it is a reductio ad absurdum of all inspiration. But before we go further, is there not one plain blunder on the surface? If God sends a message, he will choose the messenger; and we need not put the case that he will do what no man of common sense will do, by choosing such a messenger as will entirely falsify it. But what of the main argument? We can all agree to the first step—that if man is not purely passive in receiving the message, it cannot escape the touch of human infirmity—and then we part company. The believer in verbal inspiration says that revelation is real, and therefore man's part is passive; the antitheist replies that as a matter of fact man's part is not passive, and therefore revelation cannot be real. Extremes meet again in the assumption that if revelation be real the message cannot be touched with human infirmity; and this assumption is false. Given a true revelation, it is neither possible nor needful, perhaps not even desirable, for it to escape the imperfections of human infirmity.

On the human side, it is not possible. Whatever be the prophet's purity and truthfulness, there are limits at all events to his sympathy with things divine, and therefore to his capacity of receiving them. Some things he could not understand if they were told him, and some that he does understand he will only understand in part; for he can only understand them in terms of his own knowledge. He cannot make bricks without straw; and if the straw is not of the best, the bricks may be the worse for it. He might no doubt be kept from error by a supernatural dictation overriding his human weakness as often as might be necessary; and the believers in verbal inspiration had to suppose that this dictation was given. But the antitheists (and some who were much the reverse of antitheists) very justly replied that this is large assumption, and quite unlike all other action supposed to be divine. Even if it be granted that a special revelation may require special means, we cannot easily believe that revelation in its special form drops its moral requirements and sinks into the mechanical. At all events, the theory is contrary to evidence. Some alleged revelations claim no such inerrancy; and if any do, they completely fail to make good their claim. Errors of transmission, such as various readings, are undeniable. These, however, may be allowed to pass, though they make the inerrancy rather futile; and many other difficulties may be got over with more or less success; but after all reasonable allowances, all sacred books of all religions leave a considerable remainder of facts hopelessly inconsistent with any theory of verbal inspiration. And failing some such supernatural interference to put his human weakness out of the way, the prophet cannot do more than give his message subject to that weakness, in so far as the message itself does not lift him above it.

Perhaps it is not even desirable that the message should be given free from human weakness. If God is good, be must have put limitations on us and allowed their consequences for a good purpose, so that it might not be for our good if those limitations were broken through by a higher power. It is just the power of the prophet, that he speaks as man to men on God's behalf; and if he is to speak as man, he must speak with the limitations of human weakness. If the weakness of the man is done away, the power of the prophet is done away too. It is but a case of the great question of free will. Whatever the advantages of acting freely, and whatever the advantages of acting necessarily, at all events omnipotence itself cannot give us both together.

As regards the divine side, I am not aware that any immediate purpose for inspiration has been suggested but that of securing the faithful delivery of the message; and if God's purpose is not to be stultified, it must secure such delivery so far as that purpose requires. This is the germ of truth in verbal inspiration, though the theory itself is the same logical mistake as that of church infallibility. Whether God sends a message or founds a church, we can safely say that he will not allow his purpose to be completely and finally stultified by any perversity of men; but it is a monstrous leap from this to the inference that the words of a book or the decisions of a church must be pure truth. Inspiration then, which is the training of the prophet, will guarantee his message so far as its proper purpose requires, but not necessarily any further. If more be asserted, it will have to be proved; and that not by a priori assumptions, but by the evidence of the message itself, whether so in fact it is.

The principle seems clear, though its application may be hindered by doubts how far the purpose of the message extends. On doubtful ground we must move with caution; but if anything seem to belong only to the form of the message, we must not be surprised to find mistakes in it. Conversely, anything clearly essential must be true, if the message is divine. Christianity, for instance, so obviously makes the Person (not the teaching) of Christ the message, that its records do seem pledged to give a substantially true account of his life and character; so that, if they fail in this, the message is false, or at any rate very different from what the Christians take it for. If there be a divine message, there or elsewhere, it must be perfect, but perfect only for its proper purpose. And that purpose may be rather to stimulate conscience than to give full information. A character can be clearly shewn by a very meagre selection of incidents. At any rate, we cannot assume that the record will be perfect for any use to which we may please to put—say, as sortes sanctorum, as a text-book of science or as a horoscope of the future.

The next step would be to investigate the proper purpose of a special revelation, if such there be, and see how far it can be defined beforehand. First, however, it will be necessary to discuss another question of great importance. As we have seen, we are not so well acquainted with God's plans and methods that we can form any presumption against a special revelation or a special messenger entrusted with it. But is it equally open to him to use special means? Has Natural Theology anything to say on the possibility that such a message may involve facts of the kind commonly called miraculous? In past aces men believed not only that it might, but that it must; so that a revelation not vouched by miracle could not be divine. Of late years, however, the tendency has been to a summary rejection of miracle as a self-evident untruth. Instead of proof, it is become a pure encumbrance on a revelation. So manifest is the absurdity that it is waste of time to consider the evidence; all that can possibly be worth doing is to see how the untruth arose. As the early Christians were ordered straight to execution the moment they declared themselves Christians, so miracle is condemned the moment it appears as miracle. Its opponents, to do them justice, are polite enough to give it a trial, but only a sort of post-mortem trial, subject to the condition that evidence offered for the defendant shall in no case be allowed to affect the sentence that has already been pronounced in the name of science.

If miracle be defined as contrary to the order of things or unrelated to it, all that can be said is that such a thing is not even thinkable, much less possibly true. But the definition presented by its advocates is not this; and if we summarily assume that it can be reduced to this we summarily assume the question at issue. Even the incautious people who delight in telling us that miracle is contrary to the natural order, will strenuously maintain that it is in accordance with some higher or spiritual order; and their plea cannot be set aside till the natural order is proved to be the whole order. But the more sober opinion has always been, as Butler puts it, that while miracle is confessedly unlike the natural order as at present known to us our knowledge is not so complete that we can safely pronounce it contrary to the natural order. So Augustine too had put it long before,4 and so I will take it, though I think the unlikeness is more precisely to the natural order as known at the time of the event. Given the story of a cure performed by Jesus of Nazareth, I do not see that the questions raised by it would be any way affected if we were now to discover scientific means of doing the same thing—unless of course we had reason to believe that he actually used some such scientific means. Such a case excepted, it would seem that whatever is a miracle for its own time is equally a miracle for posterity, so far as concerns its unlikeness to the natural order.

Apologists may be right in telling us that we cannot safely assume that God cannot go outside the natural order by causing a natural sequence without a natural antecedent; but it is not safe to emphasize the point in the way some of them do, as if their whole case depended on it. “Law,” indeed, is not a constraining force, and is only made such by a confusion of metaphor. It is but a symbol summing up such facts as we have observed hitherto; and any new fact may require us to amend our symbol. But the question is not of God's power to go beyond the natural order, but whether there is reason to think he has actually done so, and on this I must diverge from some, perhaps many, of the apologists. If we had perfect knowledge, both of the natural order and of the facts of history, I am inclined to think we should find that as a matter of fact such natural order has never been broken.

This, however, is no more than a verbal concession. The real question is, What precisely ought we to mean in this connexion by the natural order? Supposing an alleged fact to be contrary thereto, we cannot on that account pronounce it impossible, unless we have so defined the natural order as to include in it all things that are under any circumstances possible. This is not the usual scientific sense of the word; but it is the only sense that will make the objection tenable. Anyone can see, though all do not remember, the fallacy of limiting it to such part of the physical order as is known to us by past experience. The controversy would be much lightened if the opponents of miracle would frankly set aside such arguments as tell equally against a discovery of any sort, or a phenomenon we cannot verify at our pleasure, like a comet in a hyperbolic orbit. These may be the arguments of clumsy thinkers; but clumsy thinkers are apt to be noisy, and cannot in any case be omitted from that counting of heads which appears to be the final test of truth for the natural man, who hates nothing more than the trouble of having serious beliefs of his own.

Now in this connexion the natural order does not mean simply the physical order of things, but that order as modified by the action of persons; for even the necessitarians who finally resolve such action into the physical order do not deny that it brings out results, and that some results are not brought out without it. Hence no result is contrary to the natural order unless it cannot be reached by any action of persons. Now the results which men obtain from the natural order depend mainly on their knowledge of science. As the results which the ancients obtained are no measure of those we ourselves obtain, so these again are no measure of the results we hope our children will obtain by a better knowledge of science. Yet if science is true sympathy with the power behind Nature, it is but imperfect and one-sided sympathy. It is imperfect because it is an uncompleted evolution; and it is one-sided because it so poorly represents the moral side implied in the trustworthiness of that power. Yet such as it is, it gives us such power over Nature as we possess.

At this point I submit that even the greatest imaginable victories of science are no measure of the results a man might obtain, or possibly enable others to obtain, if he were in perfect sympathy of feeling, thought, and will with the divine order of the entire universe,—a character theologically described as without sin. To put the matter in a concrete form, let us imagine the story true, that Jesus of Nazareth was such a man. In that case he must have had power far greater than our own, and been able to do in a perfectly natural way many things we cannot do, and some perhaps which no advance of science that we can look for would enable us to do. If we think out what the supposition means, we may find it not unlikely that most of the “signs” ascribed to him would be well within the power of such a man. Nobody doubts that his vivid sympathy might account for some obscure healings; but when once we are off the ground of technical scientific skill we can establish no distinction of kind between these signs and others which seem to lie further from common experience. Given such a man, I see nothing unlikely in the story that he had power to raise the dead. If it is not our own experience that Love is stronger than death, the reason may be that none but such a man can ever wield the fulness of its power.

But what shall we say of divine action? Ultimately it may be “all one act at once”; but for us men with our limitations it is like our own, a series of actions in time. Only tinder the forms of time can we form any idea at all of timeless action; and if the universe is rational, such idea must be true so far as it goes. If then God acts in time, his action must be strictly natural, so far as it is personal action like our own, so rearranging physical forces as to bring out new results, and so influencing men that they do freely what they would not otherwise have done. Such natural divine action can hardly be pronounced impossible if there is any personal divine action at all in the world; and though it will not cover alleged miracles that are trifling or immoral, it may cover some of a more sober kind, for we cannot take for granted that it will cause only such natural sequences as we have seen before. I hardly know how far I am expressing any general opinion on the matter; but if every alleged miracle of the New Testament were supposed true, such strictly natural divine action seem enough to account for all of them. Nor do I see that any other action is needed to explain even the “breaks” of evolution. Life would come from matter, but from matter as originally moulded by infinite wisdom and infinite goodness, while matter itself would in some way beyond the reach of finite wisdom be evolved from the timeless world.

We may get a side-light on the whole subject by returning to our position that man is defined by evolution as essentially spirit, however conditioned by matter. If so, the highest embodiment we can imagine for him is rightly described by St. Paul as a spiritual body (σω̑μα πνϵνματικὸν), meaning not a body made of spirit, if such be thinkable, but a body in which spirit has complete control of matter. And it must be within God's power to evolve such a body; for, as Lotze has shewn, we are not to conceive of God as so strong that he can overcome the utmost resistance of matter, but as so related to matter that it cannot resist him at all. And must not the perfect sympathy of the sinless man with the divine order of the universe give him something of this power, divine and also natural?

Isolated physical wonders without moral significance are not worth discussion. If miracle may be supposed at all, it cannot be supposed given for the trivial purpose of displaying divine power, for the needless purpose of proving divine power, or for the impossible purpose of compelling unwilling belief in something better than power. Be the wonder what it might, something more than a wonder would be needed to distinguish divine from diabolical. The only reasonable purpose we can imagine for it, apart from what we must consider secondary or incidental ends, is to emphasize by uncommon facts the right and goodness which to us are less conspicuously declared by the common facts of experience. To call it more divine or more directly divine than common facts is meaningless or superstitious; but in some cases in some stages of history it might suggest the divine more vividly. Hence the uncommonness of the facts could not be more than a means to the end; and the end would be such more vivid suggestion. We may therefore safely set aside all cases of alleged miracle which have some other end than this. These cannot be true; others may be worth discussion.

It is plainly futile to discuss the possibility of miracle with anyone who starts from the axiom (avowed or not) that there is no God, or none of whom anything can be certainly known; or that he cannot or will not act in the world, or that he acts by necessity and not by choice. Such a man has no common ground with a believer in that possibility. So long as he holds his axiom the question is not open for him. If evidence be offered he cannot seriously approach it. He may go through the form of discussing it, and give reasons good or bad for not accepting it; but so long as he holds his axiom he is bound to find such reasons in the face of any evidence whatever. It is useless to debate surface matters when they are no more than the outcome of deeper doubts.

A general objection sometimes made is that if many stories of miracle are confessedly false, there can be no certainty about others. This is the ground recently taken by an eminent student, of whom I wish to say nothing that is not respectful.5 But I cannot reconcile this argument with the first rule of investigation, that everything is to be judged by its own evidence and not by the evidence of something else. If many charters have been forged, can we have no certainty about the Great Charter of King John?

However, if it be allowed that the possibility of miracle is not to be summarily rejected without regard to evidence, we must here particularly notice that some groups of alleged miracles are presented to us as a connected series of historical events belonging more especially to the moral order, and vividly suggestive of divine right and goodness; and as such a series they must be judged, and not otherwise. If we have before us a theory that these things are true, the only scientific way of dealing with it is to take it exactly as it stands, and make sure that we understand it, before we compare such theory (and not something else) with facts. In this case it would be a serious fallacy of ignoratio elenchi if we insisted on discussing them singly as unconnected marvels, like Huxley's example of the centaur in the streets of London, or if we laid down any canons of historical criticism which are not reasonable tests of the particular phenomena alleged, or if we left out of consideration the moral significance claimed for them as parts of a coherent moral scheme.

For instance, I am not aware of any alleged miracle which might not reasonably be rejected, if it could fairly be viewed as an event out of relation to others. Thus the Resurrection is one thing, if treated as a story of a Jew who returned from the grave with no particular result; quite another when presented as the central event of history.

Again, it is a common fallacy to suppose that extraordinary events require an extraordinary weight of evidence to prove them, much as the False Decretals required seventy-two witnesses to prove a crime against a bishop, and sifted them with such sweeping objections that hardly one would have been left unchallenged. Supposing the alleged miracle morally and otherwise admissible, so that nothing remains but to examine the historical evidence for such and such events, the kind and quantity of such evidence needed to complete the proof will depend almost entirely on the nature of the outward fact alleged. Some facts, for instance, are more likely to be invented than others, and some are more difficult of observation. Some are so delicate that we should not be satisfied without skilled evidence; others are so evident, or form such a series, that almost any honest witness will suffice. Thus many tales of apparitions which seem honestly told are evident mistakes, which a competent observer would not have made; but when we come to so circumstantial a story as (we will say) that of Mrs. Veal, we must either accept it as true or reject it as deliberate invention. No eye-witness could have made such a series of mistakes. No doubt we make a difference between a fact of weighty meaning and an unimportant story. But our inference is not, We want double evidence: it is the very different one, We must make doubly sure that we have sufficient evidence. We may want a margin before we are sure; but then we stake life if need be without hesitation on our conclusion. If an alleged fact is even unique, that is good ground for caution, but none for scepticism.

There is a similar fallacy of ignoratio elenchi in the most telling of all arguments—“Miracles do not happen now.” Why should they? Suppose the contention is not that miracles are scattered broadcast over history, but that they are connected with a certain critical period in the past. Then what becomes of the objection? It can hardly be maintained that a power which is not alleged to have done these things except for certain reasons is bound to go on doing them (or cannot help doing them) when those reasons have ceased to exist. It is no evasion to point out that past events cannot be directly verified by present experiment. Nor is the appeal to history necessarily doubtful. Root out once for all from your mind any lurking idea that historical evidence is made uncertain by lapse of time. There is a change when the document is no longer backed up by living memory; but after that there is little further change. If writings are lost or mutilated, whatever remains, remains exactly what it was at first. If texts become corrupt in course of time, words drop out of use, and manners and ways of thinking change, these are difficulties with which historical criticism can deal almost as effectively after twenty centuries as after two. The number of the Beast was exactly the puzzle to Irenæus that it is to us; and Augustine's nearness to the Gospel gave him scarcely any advantages above our own for understanding it. Nor do the changes bear much relation to the lapse of time. The old Greeks are easier to understand than the men of the Middle Ages; and the laws of Hammurabi seem scarcely more obscure than the Dooms of Alfred. We have more in common with Pericles and Cæsar than with Karl the Great and Nicephorus Phocas. The Old Testament bears the stamp of the unchanging East, and the apostolic age is in many ways more modern than the eighteenth century. It is utter fallacy to imagine, as many do, that history steadily becomes more uncertain as we trace it backwards into what are metaphorically called the mists of antiquity.

There is one thing more that ought not to be left unsaid. It is futile to argue, as many do, that “even if miracles be supposed true, they prove nothing but themselves.”6 Is that so? Judge for yourselves. Let the story of Jairus’ daughter (as interrupted by the woman with the issue of blood) be supposed true. Will it not compel us to believe, not simply that Jesus of Nazareth had power to do this thing, but also that he spewed much patience and delicacy in doing it? And must not such patience and delicacy count for something in any reasonable opinion about him? I confess I am half ashamed to go on laying such simple things before you; but the simple things are overlooked, and those who know most of current controversies will bear me witness that I am not fighting shadows of my own imagination, but answering as best I can the floating thoughts of thousands.

Our last illustration brings us to the heart of the matter, for we have already seen that patience and delicacy belong to character and personality, while does not. The men of the eighteenth century were more influenced than they knew by the old Calvinism in which a God of power took back by predestination the freedom he seemed to have given in creation; and by the older Romanism, in which a God of power was propitiated by elaborate ceremonial and easy-going morality. They were still in the after-swell of the great storm of the Reformation. But a God of power cannot be revealed without works of power; therefore miracle being a work of power was held indispensable to revelation. In this they were certainly wrong. Their imperfect idea of God led them first to empty the “signs” of their spiritual significance, then to debase the revelation itself to vague moralism and legal fiction. They forgot that the still small voice may speak more loudly than the earthquake and the storm, and that the shining of a saintly face is more divine than works of might. This is what Jesus of Nazareth meant when he ranked the raising of the dead below the preaching of a gospel to the poor.7

It was a clear advance when the science of the nineteenth century led men to think of God as law. The indefinite outline of power was now filled in, if not with a living Person, at least with a method of working. But a God of law cannot be revealed except by works of law; therefore miracle being a breach of law was held impossible in revelation. And this again seems clearly wrong. Their imperfect idea of God led them first to limit his action to the physical order, then to put the physical order in his place. They forgot that persons are more than things, and that the physical order will not account even for things.

The eighteenth century was right, in so far as God has power; and the nineteenth, in so far as law is the method of his working: but now we see that there can be neither law nor power without an intending will behind; and the character of that will is not unknown to us. If religion, science, thought itself are not all a delusion together, God cannot be other than self-revealing right and goodness, and the “greater and more perfect tabernacle”8 where he reveals himself to men cannot be less than the entire universe of things and persons in space and time. If divine action is made the test of miracle, then the universe in all its parts is one stupendous miracle. If “direct” divine action, no one form of divine action is more direct than another. If breach of law, we never can be certain whether any events whatever are miraculous or not. If the test is to be real, it must be a moral test based on the fact that God deals with men as moral beings. He is the head, not only of the physical order of things, but of a moral order of persons; and the two, being both of his creation, must form one organic whole, yet so that the physical order has neither sense nor meaning apart from the moral or spiritual which governs it and causes all its movements. Therefore we have no right so to limit God's action by physical law at present known to us as to foreclose the possibility that he may please to reveal himself to moral persons in ways which after all do not otherwise transcend the physical order of things than does the ordinary action of our own will, though they transcend it in particular manifestations unfamiliar to beings of finite knowledge and finite wisdom. Whether he has in fact so done is a question of history on which we cannot enter here. All that Natural Theology can tell us is that there is no reason why it should not be decided on historical evidence like other historical questions, for we have found nothing of weight in the a priori presumption so often brought against it.

  • 1.

    The proper title of the earthly king was דיגִגִָ ruler, not ׃דֶלֶמ king, e.g. 1 Sam. x 1, 1 Kings xvi 2.

  • 2.

    Ezek. xxxvii 21-24.

  • 3.

    2 Sam. vii.

  • 4.

    Aug. de Gen. ad Lit. vi 13: Nec ista cum fiunt, contra naturam fiunt, nisi nobis quibus aliter naturæ cursus innotuit; non autem Deo, cui hoc est natura quod fecerit.

  • 5.

    G. L. Dickinson, in Hibbert Journal.

  • 6.

    Thus (not however in these words) Nettleship, Remains, 104, 105.

  • 7.

    Mt. xi 6, noting the climax.

  • 8.

    Hebr. ix 11.