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Miracle

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(Latin miraculum, from mirari, "to wonder").

In general, a wonderful thing, the word being so used in classical Latin; in a specific sense, the Latin Vulgate designates by miracula wonders of a peculiar kind, expressed more clearly in the Greek text by the terms terata, dynameis, semeia, i.e., wonders performed by supernatural power as signs of some special mission or gift and explicitly ascribed to God.

These terms are used habitually in the New Testament and express the meaning of miraculum of the Vulgate. Thus St. Peter in his first sermon speaks of Christ as approved of God, dynamesin, kai terasin kai semeiois (Acts 2:22) and St. Paul says that the signs of his Apostleship were wrought, semeiois te kai terasin kai dynamesin (2 Corinthians 12:12). Their united meaning is found in the term erga i.e., works, the word constantly employed in the Gospels to designate the miracles of Christ. The analysis of these terms therefore gives the nature and scope of the miracle.

Nature

(1) The word terata literally means "wonders", in reference to feelings of amazement excited by their occurrence, hence effects produced in the material creation appealing to, and grasped by, the senses, usually by the sense of sight, at times by hearing, e.g., the baptism of Jesus, the conversion of St. Paul. Thus, though the works of Divine grace, such as the Sacramental Presence, are above the power of nature, and due to God alone, they may be called miraculous only in the wide meaning of the term, i.e., as supernatural effects, but they are not miracles in the sense here understood, for miracles in the strict sense are apparent. The miracle falls under the grasp of the senses, either in the work itself (e.g. raising the dead to life) or in its effects (e.g., the gifts of infused knowledge with the Apostles). In like manner the justification of a soul in itself is miraculous, but is not a miracle properly so called, unless it takes place in a sensible manner, as, e.g., in the case of St. Paul.

The wonder of the miracle is due to the fact that its cause is hidden, and an effect is expected other than what actually takes place. Hence, by comparison with the ordinary course of things, the miracle is called extraordinary. In analyzing the difference between the extraordinary character of the miracle and the ordinary course of nature, the Fathers of the Church and theologians employ the terms above, contrary to, and outside nature. These terms express the manner in which the miracle is extraordinary.

A miracle is said to be above nature when the effect produced is above the native powers and forces in creatures of which the known laws of nature are the expression, as raising a dead man to life, e.g., Lazarus (John 11), the widow's son (1 Kings 17). A miracle is said to be outside, or beside, nature when natural forces may have the power to produce the effect, at least in part, but could not of themselves alone have produced it in the way it was actually brought about. Thus the effect in abundance far exceeds the power of natural forces, or it takes place instantaneously without the means or processes which nature employs. In illustration we have the multiplication of loaves by Jesus (John 6), the changing of water into wine at Cana (John 2) — for the moisture of the air by natural and artificial processes is changed into wine — or the sudden healing of a large extent of diseased tissue by a draught of water. A miracle is said to be contrary to nature when the effect produced is contrary to the natural course of things.

The term miracle here implies the direct opposition of the effect actually produced to the natural causes at work, and its imperfect understanding has given rise to much confusion in modern thought. Thus Spinoza calls a miracle a violation of the order of nature (proeverti, "Tract. Theol. Polit.", vi). Hume says it is a "violation" or an "infraction", and many writers — e.g., Martensen, Hodge, Baden-Powell, Theodore Parker — use the term for miracles as a whole. But every miracle is not of necessity contrary to nature, for there are miracles above or outside nature.

Again, the term contrary to nature does not mean "unnatural" in the sense of producing discord and confusion. The forces of nature differ in power and are in constant interaction. This produces interferences and counteractions of forces. This is true of mechanical, chemical, and biological forces. So, also, at every moment of the day I interfere with and counteract natural forces about me. I study the properties of natural forces with a view to obtain conscious control by intelligent counteractions of one force against another. Intelligent counteraction marks progress in chemistry, in physics — e.g., steam locomotion, aviation — and in the prescriptions of the physician. Man controls nature, nay, can live only by the counteraction of natural forces. Though all this goes on around us, we never speak of natural forces violated. These forces are still working after their kind, and no force is destroyed, nor is any law broken, nor does confusion result. The introduction of human will may bring about a displacement of the physical forces, but no infraction of physical processes.

Now in a miracle God's action relative to its bearing on natural forces is analogous to the action of human personality. Thus, e.g., it is against the nature of iron to float, but the action of Eliseus in raising the axe-head to the surface of the water (2 Kings 6) is no more a violation, or a transgression, or an infraction of natural laws than if he raised it with his hand. Again, it is of the nature of fire to burn, but when, e.g., the Three Children were preserved untouched in the fiery furnace (Daniel 3) there was nothing unnatural in the act, as these writers use the word, any more than there would be in erecting a dwelling absolutely fireproof. In the one case, as in the other, there was no paralysis of natural forces and no consequent disorder.

The extraordinary element in the miracle — i.e. an event apart from the ordinary course of things; enables us to understand the teaching of theologians that events which ordinarily take place in the natural or supernatural course of Divine Providence are not miracles, although they are beyond the efficiency of natural forces. Thus, e.g., the creation of the soul is not a miracle, for it takes place in the ordinary course of nature. Again, the justification of the sinner, the Eucharistic Presence, the sacramental effects, are not miracles for two reasons: they are beyond the grasp of the senses and they have place in the ordinary course of God's supernatural Providence.

(2) The word dynamis, "power" is used in the New Testament to signify:

Hence the miracle is called supernatural, because the effect is beyond the productive power of nature and implies supernatural agency. Thus St. Thomas teaches: "Those effects are rightly to be termed miracles which are wrought by Divine power apart from the order usually observed in nature" (Contra Gent., III, cii), and they are apart from the natural order because they are "beyond the order or laws of the whole created nature" (ST I-II:113:10). Hence dynamis adds to the meaning of terata by pointing out the efficient cause. For this reason miracles in Scripture are called "the finger of God" (Exodus 8:19, Luke 11:20), "the hand of the Lord" (1 Samuel 5:6), "the hand of our God" (Ezra 8:31). In referring the miracle to God as its efficient cause the answer is given to the objection that the miracle is unnatural, i.e., an uncaused event without meaning or place in nature. With God as the cause, the miracle has a place in the designs of God's Providence (Contra Gent. III, xcviii). In this sense — i.e., relatively to GodSt. Augustine speaks of the miracle as natural (City of God XXI.8).

An event is above the course of nature and beyond its productive powers:

God's power is shown in the miracle:

In the latter case the effects must be ascribed to God, for He works in and through the instruments; "Ipso Deo in illis operante" (Augustine, City of God X.12). Hence God works miracles through the instrumentality

Hence the contention of some modern writers, that a miracle requires an immediate action of Divine power, is not true. It is sufficient that the miracle be due to the intervention of God, and its nature is revealed by the utter lack of proportion between the effect and what are called means or instruments.

The word semeion means "sign", an appeal to intelligence, and expresses the purpose or final cause of the miracle. A miracle is a factor in the Providence of God over men. Hence the glory of God and the good of men are the primary or supreme ends of every miracle. This is clearly expressed by Christ in the raising of Lazarus (John 11), and the Evangelist says that Jesus, in working His first miracle at Cana, "manifested his glory" (John 2:11). Therefore the miracle must be worthy the holiness, goodness, and justice of God, and conducive to the true good of men. Hence they are not performed by God to repair physical defects in His creation, nor are they intended to produce, nor do they produce, disorder or discord; do they contain any element which is wicked, ridiculous, useless, or unmeaning. Hence they are not on the same plane with mere wonders, tricks works of ingenuity, or magic. The efficacy, usefulness, purpose of the work and the manner of performing it clearly show that it must be ascribed to Divine power. This high standing and dignity of the miracle is shown, e.g., in the miracles of Moses (Exodus 7-10), of Elias (1 Kings 18:21-38), of Eliseus (2 Kings 5). The multitudes glorified God at the cure of the paralytic (Matthew 9:8), of the blind man (Luke 18:43), at the miracles of Christ in general (Matthew 15:31, Luke 19:37), as at the cure of the lame man by St. Peter (Acts 4:21). Hence miracles are signs of the supernatural world and our connection with it.

In miracles we can always distinguish secondary ends, subordinate, however, to the primary ends. Thus

This analysis shows that

Errors

Deists reject miracles, for they deny the Providence of God. Agnostics also, and Positivists reject them: Comte regarded miracles as the fruit of the theological imagination. Modern Pantheism has no place for miracles. Thus Spinoza held creation to be the aspect of the one substance, i.e., God, and, as he taught that miracles were a violation of nature, they would therefore be a violation of God. The answer is, first that Spinoza's conception of God and nature is false and, secondly, that in fact miracles are not a violation of nature. To Hegel creation is the evolutive manifestation of the one Absolute Idea, i.e., God, and to the neo-Hegelians (e.g., Thos. Green) consciousness is identified with God; therefore to both a miracle has no meaning.

Erroneous definitions of the supernatural lead to erroneous definitions of the miracle. Thus

The mechanical view of Babbage (Bridgewater Treatises)

In Babbage's view, which was later advanced by the Duke of Argyll (Reign of Law), nature is presented as a vast mechanism wound up in the beginning and containing in itself the capacity to deviate at stated times from its ordinary course. The theory is ingenious, but it makes the miracle a natural event. It admits the assumption of opponents of miracles, viz., that physical effects must have physical causes, but this assumption is contradicted by common facts of experience, e.g., will acts on matter.

The "unknown" law of Spinoza

Spinoza taught that the term miracle should be understood with reference to the opinions of men, and that it means simply an event which we are unable to explain by other events familiar to our experience. Locke, Kant, Eichhorn, Paulus Renan hold the same view. Thus Prof. Cooper writes "The miracle of one age becomes the ordinary working of nature in the next" ("Ref. Ch. R.", July, 1900). Hence a miracle never happened in fact, and is only a name to cover our ignorance. Thus Matthew Arnold could claim that all Biblical miracles will disappear with the progress of science (Lit. and Bible) and M. Muller that "the miraculous is reduced to mere seeming" (in Rel., pref., p. 10). The advocates of this theory assume that miracles are an appeal to ignorance.

The "higher law" theory of Argyll of "Unseen Universe"

Trench, Lange (on Matt., p. 153), Gore (Bampton Lect, p. 36) proposed to refute Spinoza's claim that miracles are unnatural and productive of disorder. Thus with them the miracle is quite natural because it takes place in accordance with laws of a higher nature. Others — e.g., Schleiermacher and Ritschl — mean by higher law, subjective religious feeling. Thus, to them a miracle is not different from any other natural event; it becomes a miracle by relation to the religious feeling. A writer in "The Biblical World" (Oct., 1908) holds that the miracle consists in the religious significance of the natural event in its relation to the religious appreciation as a sign of Divine favour. Others explain higher law as a moral law, or law of the spirit. Thus the miracles of Christ are understood as illustrations of a higher, grander, more comprehensive law than men had yet known, the incoming of a new life, of higher forces acting according to higher laws as manifestations of the spirit in the higher stages of its development. The criticism of this theory is that miracles would cease to be miracles: they would not be extraordinary, for they would take place under the same conditions. To bring miracles under a law not yet understood is to deny their existence. Thus, when Trench defines a miracle as "an extraordinary event which beholders can reduce to no law with which they are acquainted", the definition includes hypnotism and clairvoyance. If by higher law we mean the high law of God's holiness, then a miracle can be referred to this law, but the higher law in this case is God Himself and the use of the term is apt to create confusion.

Antecedent improbability

The great problem of modern theology is the place and value of miracles. In the opinion of certain writers, their antecedent improbability, based on the universal reign of law is so great that they are not worthy of serious consideration. Thus his conviction of the uniformity of nature led Hume to deny testimony for miracles in general, as it led Baur, Strauss, and Renan to explain the miracles of Christ on natural grounds. The fundamental principle is that whatever happens is natural, and what is not natural does not happen. On belief in the uniformity of nature is based the profound conviction of the organic unity of the universe, a characteristic trait of nineteenth-century thought. It has dominated a certain school of literature, and, with George Eliot, Hall Came, and Thomas Hardy, the natural agencies of heredity, environment, and necessary law rule the world of human life. It is the basic principle in modern treatises on sociology.

Its chief exponent is science philosophy, a continuation of the Deism of the eighteenth century without the idea of God, and the view herein presented, of an evolving universe working out its own destiny under the rigid sway of inherent natural laws, finds but a thin disguise in the Pantheistic conception, so prevalent among non-Catholic theologians, of an immanent God, who is the active ground of the world-development according to natural law — i.e., Monism of mind or will. This belief is the gulf between the old and the modern school of theology. Max Muller finds the kernel of the modern conception of the world in the idea that "there is a law and order in everything, and that an unbroken chain of causes and effects holds the whole universe together" ("Anthrop. Relig.", pref., p. 10). Throughout the universe there is a mechanism of nature and of human life, presenting a necessary chain, or sequence, of cause and effect, which is not, and cannot be, broken by an interference from without, as is assumed in the case of a miracle. This view is the ground of modern objections to Christianity, the source of modern scepticism, and the reason for a prevailing disposition among Christian thinkers to deny miracles a place in Christian evidences and to base the proof for Christianity on internal evidences alone.

Criticism

(1) This view ultimately rests upon the assumption that the material universe alone exists. It is refuted:

(2) This view is also based on an erroneous meaning of the term nature. Kant made a distinction between the noumenon and the phenomenon of a thing, he denied that we can know the noumenon, i.e., the thing in itself; all we know is the phenomenon, i.e., the appearance of the thing. This distinction has profoundly influenced modern thought. As a Transcendental Idealist, Kant denied that we know the real phenomenon; to him only the ideal appearance is the object of the mind. Thus knowledge is a succession of ideal appearances, and a miracle would be an interruption of that succession. Others, i.e., the Sense-School (Hume, Mill, Bain, Spencer, and others), teach that, while we cannot know the substance or essences of things, we can and do grasp the real phenomena. To them the world is a phenomenal world and is a pure coexistence and succession of phenomena, the antecedent determines the consequent. In this view a miracle would be an unexplained break in the (so-called) invariable law of sequence, on which law Mill based his Logic. Now we reply that the real meaning of the word nature includes both the phenomenon and the noumenon. We have the idea of substance with an objective content. In reality the progress of science consists in the observation of, and experimentation upon, things with a view to find out their properties or potencies, which in turn enable us to know the physical essences of the various substances.

(3) Through the erroneous conception of nature, the principle of causality is confounded with the law of the uniformity of nature. But they are absolutely different things. The former is a primary conviction which has its source in our inner consciousness. The latter is an induction based upon a long and careful observation of facts: it is not a self-evident truth, nor is it a universal and necessary principle, as Mill himself has shown (Logic, IV, xxi). In fact uniformity of nature is the result of the principle of causation.

(4) The main contention, that the uniformity of nature rules miracles out of consideration, because they would imply a break in the uniformity and a violation of natural law, is not true. The laws of nature are the observed modes or processes in which natural forces act. These forces are the properties or potencies of the essences of natural things. Our experience of causation is not the experience of a mere sequence but of a sequence due to the necessary operation of essences viewed as principles or sources of action.

Now essences are necessarily what they are and unchangeable, therefore their properties, or potencies, or forces, under given circumstances, act in the same way. On this, Scholastic philosophy bases the truth that nature is uniform in its action, yet holds that constancy of succession is not an absolute law for the succession is only constant so long as the noumenal relations remain the same. Thus Scholastic philosophy, in defending miracles, accepts the universal reign of law in this sense, and its teaching is in absolute accord with the methods actually pursued by modern science in scientific investigations. Hence it teaches the order of nature and the reign of law, and openly declares that, if there were no order, there would be no miracle.

It is significant that the Bible appeals constantly to the reign of law in nature, while it attests the actual occurrence of miracles. Now human will, in acting on material forces, interferes with the regular sequences, but does not paralyze the natural forces or destroy their innate tendency to act in a uniform manner. Thus a boy, by throwing a stone into the air, does not disarrange the order of nature or do away with the law of gravity. A new force only is brought in and counteracts the tendencies of the natural forces, just as the natural forces interact and counteract among themselves, as is shown in the well-known truths of the parallelogram of forces and the distinction between kinetic and potential energy. The analogy from man's act to God's act is complete as far as concerns a break in the uniformity of nature or a violation of its laws. The extent of the power exerted does not affect the point at issue. Hence physical nature is presented as a system of physical causes producing uniform results, and yet permits the interposition of personal agency without affecting its stability.

(5) The truth of this position is so manifest that Mill admits Hume's argument against miracles to be valid only on the supposition that God does not exist for, he says, "a miracle is a new effect supposed to be produced by the introduction of a new cause . . . of the adequacy of that cause, if present, there can be no doubt" (Logic, III, xxv). Hence, admitting the existence of God, Hume's "uniform sequence" does not hold as an objection to miracles. Huxley also denies that physicists withhold belief in miracles because miracles are in violation of natural laws and he rejects the whole of this line of argument ("Some Controverted questions", 209; "Life of Hume", 132), and holds that a miracle is a question of evidence pure and simple. Hence the objection to miracles on the ground of their antecedent improbability has been abandoned. "The Biblical World" (Oct., 1908) says "The old rigid system of 'Laws of Nature' is being broken up by modern science. There are many events which scientists recognize to be inexplicable by any known law. But this inability to furnish a scientific explanation is no reason for denying the existence of any event, if it is adequately attested. Thus the old a priori argument against miracles is gone." Thus in modern thought the question of the miracle is simply a question of fact.

Place and value of miracles in the Christian view of the world

As the great objection to miracles really rests on narrow and false philosophical views of the universe, so the true world-view is necessary to grasp their place and value.

Christianity teaches that God created and governs the world. This government is His Providence. It is shown in the delicate adjustment and subordination of the tendencies proper to material things, resulting in the marvellous stability and harmony which prevail throughout the physical creation, and in the moral order, which through conscience, is to guide and control the tendencies of man's nature to a complete harmony in human life. Man is a personal being, with intelligence and free-will, capable of knowing and serving God, and created for that purpose. To him nature is the book of God's work revealing the Creator through the design visible in the material order and through conscience, the voice of the moral order based in the very constitution of his own being. Hence the relation of man to God is a personal one. God's Providence is not confined to the revelation of Himself through His works. He has manifested Himself in a supernatural manner throwing a flood of light on the relations which should exist between man and Himself. The Bible contains this revelation, and is called the Book of God's Word. It gives the record of God's supernatural Providence leading up to the Redemption and the founding of the Christian Church. Here we are told that beyond the sphere of nature there is another realm of existence — the supernatural, peopled by spiritual beings and departed souls. Both spheres, the natural and the supernatural, are under the overruling Providence of God. Thus God and man are two great facts. The relation of the soul to its Maker is religion.

Religion is the knowledge, love, and service of God; its expression is called worship, and the essence of worship is prayer. Thus between man and God there is constant intercourse, and in God's Providence the appointed means of this intercourse is prayer. By prayer man speaks to God in acts of faith, hope, love, and contrition and implores His aid. In answer to prayer God acts on the soul by His grace and, in special circumstances, by working miracles. Hence the great fact of prayer, as the connecting link of man to God, implies a constant interference of God in the life of man. Therefore in the Christian view of the world, miracles have a place and a meaning. They arise out of the personal relation between God and man. The conviction that the pure of heart are pleasing to God, in some mysterious way, is worldwide; even among the heathens pure offerings only are prepared for the sacrifice.

This intimate sense of God's presence may account for the universal tendency to refer all striking phenomena to supernatural causes. Error and exaggeration do not change the nature of the belief founded in the abiding conviction of the Providence of God. To this belief St. Paul appealed in his discourse to the Athenians (Acts 17). In the miracle, therefore, God subordinates physical nature to a higher purpose, and this higher purpose is identical with the highest moral aims of existence. The mechanical view of the world is in harmony with the teleological, and when purpose exists, no event is isolated or unmeaning. Man is created for God, and a miracle is the proof and pledge of His supernatural Providence. Hence we can understand how, in devout minds, there is even a presumption for and an expectation of miracles. They show the subordination of the lower world to the higher, they are the breaking in of the higher world on the lower ("C. Gent.", III, xcviii, xcix; Benedict XIV, 1, c,1,IV, p. l.c.I).

Some writers — e.g., Paley, Mansel, Mozley, Dr. George Fisher — push the Christian view to the extreme, and say that miracles are necessary to attest revelation. Catholic theologians, however, take a broader view. They hold

Testimony

A miracle, like any natural event, is known either from personal observation or from the testimony of others. In the miracle we have the fact itself as an external occurrence and its miraculous character. The miraculous character of the fact consists in this: that its nature and the surrounding circumstances are of such a kind that we are forced to admit natural forces alone could not have produced it, and the only rational explanation is to be had in the interference of Divine agency. The perception of its miraculous character is a rational act of the mind, and is simply the application of the principle of causality with the methods of induction. The general rules governing the acceptance of testimony apply to miracles as to other facts of history. If we have certain evidence for the fact, we are bound to accept it. The evidence for miracles, as for historical facts in general, depends on the knowledge and veracity of the narrators, i.e., they who testify to the occurrence of the events must know what they tell and tell the truth. The extraordinary nature of the miracle requires more complete and accurate investigation. Such testimony we are not free to reject; otherwise we must deny all history whatsoever. We have no more rational warrant for rejecting miracles than for rejecting accounts of stellar eclipses. Hence, they who deny miracles have concentrated their efforts with the purpose of destroying the historical evidence for all miracles whatsoever and especially the evidence for the miracles of the Gospel.

Hume held that no testimony could prove miracles, for it is more probable that the testimony is false than that the miracles are true. But

The attack by Hume on miracles in general has been applied to the miracles of the Bible, and has received added weight from the denial of Divine inspiration. Varying in form, its basic principle is the same, viz., the humanism of the Renaissance applied to theology. Thus we have:

The interpretation theory

The old rationalism of Semler Eichhorn, de Wette, and Paulus, who held the credibility of the Bible records, but contended that they were a collection of writings composed by natural intelligence alone, and to be treated on the same plane with other natural productions of the human mind. They got rid of the supernatural by a bold interpretation of miracles as purely natural facts. This is called the "interpretation" theory, and appears today under two forms:

Modified rationalism, which teaches that we are warranted in accepting a very considerable portion of the Gospel narratives as substantially historical, without being compelled to believe in any miracles. Hence they give credence to the accounts of the demoniacs and healings, but allege that these wonders were wrought by, or in accordance with, natural law. Thus we have the electric theory of M. Corelli, the appeal to "moral therapeutics" by Matthew Arnold, and the psychological theory advanced by Prof. Bousset of Gottingen, in which he claims that Christ performed miracles by natural mental powers of a superior kind (cf. "N. World", March 1896). But the attempt to explain the miracles of the Gospel either by the natural powers of Christ, i.e., mental or moral superiority, or by peculiar states of the recipient, faith cure, and allied psychic phenomena, is arbitrary and not true to facts. In many of the miracles faith is not required, and is in fact absent this is shown, in the miracles of power, by the expressed fear of the Apostles, e.g., at Christ stilling the tempest (Mark 4:40), at Christ on the waters (Mark 6:51), at the draught of fishes (Luke 5:8), and in the miracles of expelling demons. In some miracles Christ requires faith, but the faith is not the cause of the miracle, only the condition of His exercising the power.

Others, like Holstein, Renan, and Huxley, follow de Wette, who explains the miracles as the emotional interpretation of commonplace events. They claim that the facts which occurred were substantially historical, but in the narrating were covered over with the interpretations of the writers. Hence, they say that, in studying the Gospels, we must distinguish between the facts as they actually took place and the subjective emotions of those who witnessed them, their strong excitement, tendency to exaggeration, and vivid imagination. Thus they appeal not to the "fallacies of testimony" so much as to the "fallacies of the senses". But this attempt to transform the Apostles into nervous visionaries cannot be held by an unbiased mind. St. Peter clearly distinguished between a vision (Acts 10:17) and a reality (Acts 12), and St. Paul mentions two cases of visions (Acts 22:17; 2 Corinthians 12), the latter by way of contrast with his ordinary missionary life of labours and sufferings (2 Corinthians 11). Renan even goes so far as to present the glaring inconsistency of a Christ remarkable, as he says, for moral beauty of life and doctrine, who nevertheless is guilty of conscious deception, as, e.g., in the make-believe raising of Lazarus. This teaching is in reality a denial of testimony. The miracles of Christ must be taken as a whole; and in the Gospel setting where they are presented as a part of his teaching and his life. On the ground of evidence there is no reason to make a distinction among them or to interpret them so that they become other than they are. The real reason is prejudgment on false philosophical grounds with a view to get rid of the supernatural element. In fact the conjectures and hypotheses proposed are far more improbable than the miracles themselves. Again, how thus explain the great miracle that the hero of a baseless legend, the impotent and deceitful Christ, could be come the founder of the Christian Church and of Christian civilization? Finally, this method violates the first principles of interpretation; for the New Testament writers are not allowed to speak their own language.

The theory of Biblical Humanism

The fundamental idea of Hegel's metaphysic (viz., that existing things are the progressive manifestation of the idea, i.e., the absolute) gave a philosophical basis for the organic conception of the universe, i.e., the Divine as organic to the human. Thus revelation is presented as a human process, and history — e.g., the Bible — is a record of human experience, the product of a human life. This philosophy of history was applied to explain the miraculous in the Gospels and appears under two forms: the Tübingen School and the "Mystical" School.

(a) the Tübingen School

Baur regards the Hegelian process in its objective aspect, i.e., the facts as things. He held the books of the New Testament to be states through which the human life and thought of early Christianity had passed. He attempted to do with reference to the origin what Gibbon tried with reference to the spread of Christianity — i.e., get rid of the supernatural by the tacit assumption that there were no miracles and by the enumeration of natural causes, chief of which was the Messianic idea to which Jesus accommodated Himself. The evolution element in Baur's Humanism, however, constrained him to deny that we possess contemporaneous documents of our Lord's life, to hold that the New Testament literature was the result of warring factions among the early Christians, and therefore of a much later date than tradition ascribes to it, and that Christ was only the occasional cause of Christianity. He accepted as genuine only the Epistles to the Galatians, Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and the Apocalypse. But the Epistles admitted by Baur show that St. Paul believed in miracles and asserted the actual occurrence of them as well-known facts both in regard to Christ and in regard to himself and the other Apostles (e.g., Romans 15:18; 1 Corinthians 1:22; 12:10, 2 Corinthians 12:12, Galatians 3:5, especially his repeated references to the Resurrection of Christ, 1 Corinthians 15). The basis on which the Tübingen School rests, viz., that we possess no contemporaneous records of Christ's life, and that the New Testament writings belong to the second century, has been proved to be false by the higher criticisms. Hence Huxley admits that this position is no longer tenable (The Nineteenth Century, Feb., 1889), and in fact there is no longer a Tübingen School at Tübingen. Harnack says: "As regards the criticisms of the sources of Christianity, we stand unquestionably in a movement of return to tradition. The chronological framework in which tradition set the earliest documents is to be henceforth accepted in its main outlines" (The Nineteenth Cent., Oct., 1899). Hence Romanes said that the outcome of the battle on the Bible documents is a signal victory for Christianity (Thoughts on Religion, p. 165). Dr. Emil Reich speaks of the bankruptcy of the higher criticism ("Contemp. Rev.", April, 1905).

(b) The "Mythical" School

Strauss regarded the Hegelian process in its subjective aspect. The facts as matters of consciousness with the early Christians concerned him exclusively. Hence he regarded Christ within the Christian consciousness of the time, and held that Christ of the New Testament was the outcome of this consciousness. He did not deny a relatively small nucleus of historical reality, but contended that the Gospels, as we possess them, are mythical inventions or fabulous and fanciful embellishments and are to be regarded only as symbols for spiritual ideas, e.g., the Messianic idea. Strauss thus attempted to remove the miraculous — or what he considered the unhistorical matter — from the text. But this view was too fanciful long to hold currency after a careful study of the truthful, matter-of-fact character of the New Testament writings, and a comparison of them with the Apocrypha. Hence it has been rejected, and Strauss himself confessed to disappointment at the result of his labours (The Old and New Faith).

The Critical Agnostic School

Its basis is the organic idea of the universe, but it views the world process apart from God, because reason cannot prove the existence of God, and therefore, to the Agnostic, He does not exist (e.g., Huxley); or to the Christian Agnostic, His existence is accepted on Faith (s.g., Baden-Powell). To both there is no miracle, for we have no way of knowing it. Thus Huxley admits the facts of miracles in the New Testament, but says that the testimony as to their miraculous character may be worthless, and strives to explain it by the subjective mental conditions of the writers ("The Nineteenth Cent.", Mar., 1889). Baden-Powell (in "Essays and Reviews"), Holtzmann (Die synoptischen Evangelien), and Harnack (The Essence of Christianity) admit the miracles as recorded in the Gospels, but hold that their miraculous character is beyond the scope of historical proof, and depends on the mental assumptions of the readers.

Criticism

The real problem of the historian is to state well-authenticated facts and give an explanation of the testimony. He should show how such events must have taken place and how such a theory only can explain them. He takes cognizance of all that is said about these events by competent witnesses, and from their testimony he draws the conclusion. To admit the facts and to deny an explanation is to furnish very great evidence for their historical truth, and to show qualities not consistent with the scientific historian.

The theory of liberal Protestantism

(a) Older form

In its older form, this was advocated by Carlyle (Froude's "Life of Carlyle"), Martineau (Seal of Authority in Religion), Rathbone Greg (Creed of Christendom), Prof. Wm. H. Green (Works, III pp. 230, 253), proposed as a religious creed under the title of the "new Reformation" ("The Nineteenth Cent.", Mar., 1889) and popularized by Mrs. Humphry Ward in "Robert Elsmere." As the old Reformation was a movement to destroy the Divine authority of the Church by exalting the supernatural character of the Bible, so the new Reformation aimed at removing the supernatural element from the Bible and resting faith in Christianity on the high moral character of Jesus and the excellence of His moral teaching. It is in close sympathy with some writers on the science of religion who see in Christianity a natural religion, though superior to other forms. In describing their position as "a revolt against miraculous belief", its adherents yet profess great reverence for Jesus as "that friend of God and Man, in whom, through all human frailty and necessary imperfection, they see the natural head of their inmost life, the symbol of those religious forces in man which are primitive, essential and universal" ("The Nineteenth Cent.", Mar., 1889). By way of criticism it may be said that this school has its source in the philosophical assumption that the uniformity of nature has made the miracle unthinkable — an assumption now discarded. Again, it has its basis in the Tübingen School which has been proved false, and it requires a mutilation of the Gospels so radical and wholesale that nearly every sentence has to be excised or rewritten. The miracles of Jesus are too essential a part of His life and teaching to be thus removed. We might as well expurgate the records of military achievements from the lives of Alexander or of Caesar. Strauss exposed the inconsistencies of this position, which he once held (Old Faith and the New), and von Hartmann considered the Liberal theologians as causing the disintegration of Christianity ("Selbstersetzung des Christ", 1888).

(b) Newer form

In its recent form, it has been advocated by the exponents of the psychological theory. Hence, where the old school followed an objective, this pursues a subjective method. This theory combines the basic teaching of Hegel, Schleiermacher, and Ritschl. Hegel taught that religious truths are the figurative representation of rational ideas; Schleiermacher taught that propositions of faith are the pious states of the heart expressed in language; Ritschl, that the evidence of Christian doctrine is in the "value judgment", i.e., the religious effect on the mind; on this basis Prof. Gardner ("A Historical View of the New Test.", London, 1904) holds that no reasonable man would profess to disprove the Christian miracles historically; that in historical studies we must accept the principle of continuity as set forth by evolution, that the statements of the New Testament are based mainly on Christian experience, in which there is always an element of false theory; that we must distinguish between the true underlying fact and its defective outward expression; that this expression is conditioned by the intellectual atmosphere of the time, and passes away to give place to a higher and better expression. Hence the outward expression of Christianity should be different now from what it was in other days. Hence, while miracles may have had their value for the early Christians, they have no value for us, for our experience is different from theirs. Thus M. Réville ("Liberal Christianity", London, 1903) says: "The faith of a liberal Protestant does not depend upon the solution of a problem of historical criticism. It is founded upon his own experience of the value and power of the Gospel of Christ", and "The Gospel of Jesus is independent of its local and temporary forms" (pp. 54, 58). All this, however, is philosophy, not history, it is not Christianity, but Rationalism. So it inverts the true standard of historical criticism — viz., we should study past events in the light of their own surroundings, and not from the subjective feeling on the part of the historian of what might, could, or would have occurred. There is no reason to restrict these principles to questions of religious history; and if extended to embrace the whole of past history, they would lead to absolute scepticism.

The fact

The Bible shows that at all times God has wrought miracles to attest the Revelation of His will.

(1) The miracles of the Old Testament reveal the Providence of God over His chosen people. They are convincing proof for the commission of Moses (Exodus 3:4), manifest to the people that Jehovah is Sovereign Lord (Exodus 10:2, Deuteronomy 5:25), and are represented as the "finger of God" and "the hand of God." God punishes Pharaoh for refusing to obey His commands given by Moses and attested by miracles, and is displeased with the infidelity of the Jews for whom He worked many miracles (Numbers 14). Miracles convinced the widow of Sarephta that Elias was "a man of God" (1 Kings 17:24), made the people cry out in the dispute between Elias and the prophets of Baal, "the Lord he is God" (1 Kings 18:39), caused Naaman to confess that "there is no other God in all the earth, but only in Israel" (2 Kings 5:15), led Nabuchodonosor to issue a public decree in honour of God upon the escape of the Three Children from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3), and Darius to issue a like decree on the escape of Daniel (Daniel 5). The ethical element is conspicuous in the miracles and is in consonance with the exalted ethical character of Jehovah, "a king of absolute justice, whose love for his people was conditioned by a law of absolute righteousness, as foreign to Semitic as to Aryan tradition", writes Dr. Robertson Smith ("Religion of the Semites", p. 74, cf. Kuenen, Hibbert Lect., p. 124). Hence the tendency among recent writers on the history of religion to postulate the direct intervention of God through revelation as the only explanation for the exalted conception of the Deity set forth by Moses and the prophets.

(2) The Old Testament reveals a high ethical conception of God who works miracles for high ethical purposes, and unfolds a dispensation of prophecy leading up to Christ. In fulfillment of this prophecy Christ works miracles. His answer to the messengers of John the Baptist was that they should go and tell John what they had seen (Luke 7:22; cf. Isaiah 35:5). Thus the Fathers of the Church, in proving the truth of the Christian religion from the miracles of Christ, join them with prophecy (Origen, Against Celsus I.2, Irenaeus, Against Heresies I.2.32; St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus XII). Jesus openly professed to work miracles. He appeals repeatedly to His "works" as most authentic and decisive proof of His Divine Sonship (John 5:18-36; 10:24-37) and of His mission (John 14:12), and for this reason condemns the obstinacy of the Jews as inexcusable (John 15:22, 24). He worked miracles to establish the Kingdom of God (Matthew 12; Luke 11), gave to the Apostles (Matthew 10:8) and disciples (Luke 10:9, 19) the power of working miracles, thereby instructing them to follow the same method, and promised that the gift of miracles should persist in the Church (Mark 16:17). At the sight of His marvellous works, the Jews (Matthew 9:8), Nicodemus (John 3:2), and the man born blind (John 9:33) confess that they must be ascribed to Divine power.

Pfleiderer accepts the second Gospel as the authentic work of St. Mark, and this Gospel is a compact account of miracles wrought by Christ. Ewald and Weiss speak of the miracles of Christ as a daily task. Miracles are not accidental or external to the Christ of the Gospels; they are inseparably bound up with His supernatural doctrine and supernatural life — a life and doctrine which is the fulfillment of prophecy and the source of Christian civilization. Miracles form the very substance of the Gospel narratives, so that, if removed, there would remain no recognizable plan of work and no intelligent portrait of the worker. We have the same evidence for miracles that we have for Christ. Dr. Holtzmann says that the very traits whose astonishing combination in one person presents the highest kind of historical evidence for His existence are indissolubly connected with miracles. Unless we accept miracles, we have no Gospel history. Admit that Christ wrought many miracles, or confess that we do not know Him at all — in fact, that He never existed. The historical Christ of the Gospels stands before us remarkable in the charm of personality, extraordinary in the elevation of life and beauty of doctrine, strikingly consistent in tenor of life, exercising Divine power in varied ways and at every turn. He rises supreme over, and apart from, His surroundings and cannot be regarded as the fruit of individual invention or as the product of the age. The simplest clearest, only explanation is that the testimony is true. They who deny have yet to offer an explanation strong enough to withstand the criticism of the sceptics themselves.

(3) The testimony of the Apostles to miracles is twofold:

(4) Dr. Middleton holds that all miracles ceased with the Apostles. Mozley and Milman ascribe later miracles to pious myths, fraud, and forgery. Trench admits that few points present greater difficulty than the attempt to determine the exact period when the power of working miracles was withdrawn from the Church. This position is one of polemical bias against the Catholic Church, just as presumptions of various kinds are behind all attacks on the miracles of scripture.

Now we are not obliged to accept every miracle alleged as such. The evidence of testimony is our warrant, and for miracles of church history we have testimony of the most complete kind. If it should happen that, after careful investigation, a supposed miracle should turn out to be no miracle at all, a distinct service to truth would be rendered. Throughout the course of church history there are miracles so well authenticated that their truth cannot be denied.

Hence Gibbon says, "The Christian Church, from the time of the Apostles and their disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of visions and of prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick and of raising the dead" (Decline and Fall, I, pp. 264, 288), thus miracles are so interwoven with our religion, so connected with its origin, its promulgation its progress and whole history, that it is impossible to separate them from it. The existence of the Church, the kingdom of God on earth, in which Christ and His Holy Spirit abide, rendered illustrious by the miraculous lives of saints of all countries and all times, is a perpetual standing witness for the reality of miracles (Bellarmine, "De notis eccl.", LIV, xiv). The well-attested records are to be found in the official Processes for the canonization of saints. Mozley held that an enormous distinction exists between the miracles of the Gospel and those of church history, through the false notion that the sole purpose of miracles was the attestation of revealed truth: Newman denies the contention and shows that both are of the same type and as well-authenticated by historical evidence.

Place and value of the gospel miracles

In studying the Gospel miracles we are impressed by the accounts given of their multitude, and by the fact that only a very small proportion of them is related by the Evangelists in detail; the Gospels speak only in the most general terms of the miracles Christ performed in the great missionary journeys through Galilee and Judea. We read that the people, seeing the things which He did, followed Him in crowds (Matthew 4:25), to the number of 5000 (Luke 9:14) so that He could not enter the cities, and His fame spread from Jerusalem through Syria (Matthew 4:24). His reputation was so great that the chief priests in council speak of Him as one who "doth many miracles" (John 11:47), the disciples at Emmaus as the "prophet, mighty in work and word before God and all the people" (Luke 24:19), and St. Peter describes Him to Cornelius as the wonder-working preacher (Acts 10:38). Out of the great mass of miraculous events surrounding our Lord's person, the Evangelists made a selection. True, it was impossible to narrate all (John 20:30). Yet we can see in the narrated miracles a twofold reason for the selection.

(1) The great purpose of the Redemption was the manifestation of God's glory in the salvation of man through the life and work of His Incarnate Son. Thus it ranks supreme among the works of God's Providence over men.

This explains the life and teaching of Christ; it enables us to grasp the scope and plan of His miracles. They can be considered in relation to the office and person of Christ as Redeemer. Thus

The relief which Christ brought to the body represented the deliverance He was working on souls. His miracles of cures and healings were the visible picture of His spiritual work in the warfare with evil. These miracles, summarized in the answer of Jesus to the messengers of John (Matthew 11:5), are explained by the Fathers of the Church with reference to the ills of the soul (ST III:44). The motive and meaning of the miracles explain the moderation Christ showed in the use of His infinite power. Repose in strength is a sublime trait in the character of Jesus; it comes from the conscious possession of power to be used for the good of men. Rousseau confesses "All the miracles of Jesus were useful without pomp or display, but simple as His words, His life, His whole conduct" (Lettr. de la Montag., pt. I, lett. iii). He does not perform them for the sake of being a mere worker of miracles. Everything He does has a meaning when viewed in the relation Christ holds to men. In the class known as miracles of power Jesus does not show a mere mental and moral superiority over ordinary men. In virtue of His redeeming mission He proves that He is Lord and Master of the forces of nature. Thus by a word He stills the tempest, by a word He multiplied a few loaves and fishes so that thousands feasted and were filled, by a word He healed lepers, drove out demons, raised the dead to life, and finally set the great seal upon His mission by rising from death, as He had explicitly foretold. Thus Renan admits that "even the marvellous in the Gospels is but sober good sense compared with that which we meet in the Jewish apocryphal writings or the Hindu or European mythologies" (Stud. in Hist. of Relig., pp. 177 203).

Hence the miracles of Christ have a doctrinal import. They have a vital connection with His teaching and mission, illustrate the nature and purpose of His kingdom, and show a connection with some of the greatest doctrines and principles of His Church. Its catholicity is shown in the miracles of the centurion's servant (Matthew 8) and the Syro-phoenician woman (Mark 7). The Sabbatical miracles reveal its purpose, i.e., the salvation of men, and show that Christ's kingdom marks the passing of the Old Dispensation. His miracles teach the power of faith and the answer given to prayer. The central truth of His teaching was life. He came to give life to men, and this teaching is emphasized by raising the dead to life, especially in the case of Lazarus and His own Resurrection. The sacramental teaching of the miracles is manifested in the miracle of Cana (John 2), in the cure of the paralytic, to show he had the power to forgive sins [and he used this power (Matthew 9) and gave it to the Apostles (John 20:23) ], in the multiplication of the loaves (John 6) and in raising the dead. Finally, the prophetic element of the fortunes of the individual and of the Church is shown in the miracles of stilling the tempest, of Christ on the waters, of the draught of fishes, of the didrachma and the barren fig tree. Jesus makes the miracle of Lazarus the type of the General Resurrection, just as the Apostles take the Resurrection of Christ to signify the rising of the soul from the death of sin to the life of grace, and to be a pledge and prophecy of the victory over sin and death and of the final resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4).

(2) The miracles of Christ have an evidential value. This aspect naturally follows from the above considerations. In the first miracle at Cana He "manifested His glory", therefore the disciples "believed in Him" (John 2:11). Jesus constantly appealed to His "works" as evidences of His mission and His divinity. He declares that His miracles have greater evidential value than the testimony of John the Baptist (John 5:36); their logical and theological force as evidences is expressed by Nicodemus (John 3:2). And to the miracles Jesus adds the evidence of prophecy (John 5:31). Now their value as evidences for the people then living is found not only in the display of omnipotence in His redeeming mission but also in the multitude of His works. Thus the unrecorded miracles had an evidential bearing on His mission. So we can see an evidential reason for the selection of the miracles as narrated in the Gospels.

Thus, for us, who depend on the Gospel narratives, the evidential value of Christ's miracles comes from a comparatively small number related in detail, though of a most stupendous and clearly supernatural kind, some of which were performed almost in private and followed by the strictest injunctions not to publish them. In considering them as evidences in relation to us now living, we may add to them the constant reference to the multitude of miracles unrecorded in detail, their intimate connection with our Lord's teaching and life, their relation to the prophecies of the Old Testament, their own prophetic character as fulfilled in the development of His kingdom on earth.

Special providences

Prayer is a great fact, which finds expression in a persistent manner and enters intimately into the life of humanity. So universal is the act of prayer that it seems an instinct and part of our being. It is the fundamental fact of religion, and religion is a universal phenomenon of the human race. Christian philosophy teaches that in his spiritual nature man is made to the image and likeness of God, therefore his soul instinctively turns to his Maker in aspirations of worship, of hope, and of intercession.

The real value of prayer has been a vital subject for discussion in modern times. Some hold that its value lies only in its being a factor in the culture of the moral life, by giving tone and strength to character. Thus Professor Tyndall, in his famous Belfast address, proposed this view, maintaining that modern science has proved the physical value of prayer to be unbelievable (Fragments of Science). He based his contention on the uniformity of nature. But this basis is now no longer held as an obstacle to prayer for physical benefits. Others, like Baden-Powell (Order of Nature) admit that God answers prayer for spiritual favours, but denies its value for physical effects. But his basis is the same as that of Tyndall, and besides an answer for spiritual benefits is in fact an interference on the part of God in nature.

Now Christian philosophy teaches that God, in answer to prayer confers not only spiritual favours but at times interferes with the ordinary course of physical phenomena, so that, as a result, particular events happen otherwise than they should. This interference takes place in miracles and special providences.

When we kneel to pray we do not always beg God to work miracles or that our lives shall be constant prodigies of His power. The sense of our littleness gives an humble and reverential spirit to our prayer. We trust that God, through His Infinite knowledge and power, will in some way best known to Him bring about what we ask. Hence, by special providences we mean events which happen in the course of nature and of life through the instrumentality of natural laws. We cannot discern either in the event itself or in the manner of its happening any deviation from the known course of things. What we do know, however, is that events shape themselves in response to our prayer. The laws of nature are invariable, yet one important factor must not be forgotten: that the laws of nature may produce an effect, the same conditions must be present. If the conditions vary, then the effects also vary. By altering the conditions, other tendencies of nature are made predominant, and the forces which otherwise would work out their effects yield to stronger forces. In this way our will interferes with the workings of natural forces and with human tendencies, as is shown in our intercourse with men and in the science of government.

Now, if such power rests with men, can God do less? Can we not believe that, at our prayer, God may cause the conditions of natural phenomena so to combine that, through His special agency, we may obtain our heart's desire and yet so that, to the ordinary observer, the event happens in its ordinary place and time. To the devout soul, however, all is different. He recognizes God's favour and is devoutly thankful for the fatherly care. He knows that God has brought the event about in some way. When, therefore, we pray for rain or to avert a calamity, or to prevent the ravages of plague, we beg not so much for miracles or signs of omnipotence: we ask that He who holds the heavens in His hands and who searches the abyss will listen to our petitions and, in His own good way, bring about the answer we need.


About this page

APA citation. Driscoll, J.T. (1911). Miracle. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10338a.htm

MLA citation. Driscoll, John T. "Miracle." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10338a.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Don Ross.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1911. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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