1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Miracle

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MIRACLE (Lat. miraculum, from mirari, to wonder), anything wonderful, beyond human power, and deviating from the common action of the laws of nature, a supernatural event. The term is particularly associated with the supernatural factors in Christianity. To the Lat. miraculum correspond Gr. τέρας in the New Testament, and Heb. קלא‎ (Exod. xv. 11; Dan. xii. 6) in the Old Testament. Other terms used in the New Testament are δύναμις “with reference to the power residing in the miracle worker” (cf. גבףרה‎ Deut. iii. 24 and םר׳אה‎ Num. xvi. 30), and ρημεἲον “with reference to the character or claims of which it was the witness and guarantee” (cf. איזה‎ Exod. iv. 8); that the power is assumed to be from God is shown by the phrases πνεύματι θεοῦ (Matt. xii. 28; cf. Luke iv. .18) and δακτύλω θεοῦ (Luke xi. 20).

While Augustine describes miracles as “contra naturam quae nobis est nota,” Aquinas without qualification defines them as “praeter naturam,” “supra et contra naturam.” Löscher affirms in regard to miracles that “solus Deus potest tum supra naturae vires turn contra naturae leges agere”; and Buddaeus argues that in them a “suspensio legum naturae” is followed by a restitutio. Against the common view that miracles can attest the truth of a divine revelation Gerhard maintained that “per miracula non possunt probari oracula”; and Hopfner returns to the qualified position of Augustine when he describes them as “praeter et supra naturae ordinem.” The two conceptions, once common in the Christian church, that on the one hand miracles involved an interference with the forces and a suspension of the laws of nature, and that, on the other hand, as this could be effected only by divine power, they served as credentials of a divine revelation, are now generally abandoned. As regards the first point, it is now generally held that miracles are exceptions to the order of nature as known in our common experience; and as regards the second, that miracles are constituent elements in the divine revelation, deeds which display the divine character and purpose; but they are signs and not merely seals of truth. Some of the theories regarding miracles which have been formulated may be mentioned. Bonnet, Euler, Haller, Schmid and others “suppose miracles to be already implanted in nature. The miraculous germs always exist alongside other germs in a sort of sheath, like hidden springs in a machine, and emerge into the light when their time comes.” Similar is the view of Paracelsus and Jerome Cardan, who “suppose a twofold world, existing one in the other; beside or behind the visible is an inner, ideal world, which breaks through in particular spots” (Dorner's System of Christian Doctrine, (ii. 155, 156). The 8th duke of Argyll (Reign of Law) maintains that “miracles may be wrought by the selection and use of laws of which man knows and can know nothing, and which, if he did know, he could not employ.” These theories endeavour to discover the means by which the exceptional occurrence is brought about; but the explanation is merely hypothetical, and we are not helped in conceiving the mode of the divine activity in the working of miracles. The important consideration from the religious standpoint is that God's activity should be fully recognized.

An attempt has been made to discover a natural law which will explain some at least of the miracles of Jesus. “In one respect alone,” says Matthew Arnold, “have the miracles recorded by the evangelists a more real ground than the mass of miracles of which we have the relation. Medical science has never gauged, perhaps never enough set itself to gauge the intimate connexion between moral fault and disease. To what extent or in how many cases what is called illness is due to moral springs having been used amiss, whether by being over-used, or by not being used sufficiently, we hardly at all know, and we too little inquire. Certainly it is due to this very much more than we commonly think, and the more it is due to this the more do moral therapeutics rise in possibility and importance” (Literature and Dogma, pp. 143-144). The moral therapeutics consists in the influence of a powerful will over others. Harnack accepts this view. “We see that a firm will and a convinced faith act even on the bodily life and cause appearances which appeal to us as miracles. Who has hitherto here with certainty measured the realm of the possible and the real? Nobody. Who can say how far the influences of one soul on another soul and of the soul on the body reach? Nobody. Who can still affirm that all which in this realm appears as striking rests only on deception and error? Certainly no miracles occur, but there is enough of the wonderful and the inexplicable” (Das Wesen des Christentums, p. 18). As regards the theory, it may be pointed out: (1) that the nature or cosmical miracles — feeding of the five thousand, stilling of the storm, withering of the fig-tree — are as well-attested as the miracles of healing; (2) that many of the diseases, the cure of which is reported, are of a kind with which moral therapeutics could not effect anything;[1] (3) that Christ's own insight regarding the power by which He wrought His works is directly challenged by this explanation, for He never failed to ascribe His power to the Father dwelling in Him.

The divine agency is recognized as combining and controlling, but not as producing, in the teleological notion of miracles. “In miracle no new powers, instituted or stimulated by God's creative action, are at work, but merely the general order of nature”; but “the manifold physical and spiritual powers in actual existence so blend together as to produce a startling result” (Dorner's System of Christian Doctrine, ii. 157). While we cannot deny, we have no ground for affirming the truth of this theory. Whether God's action is creative, or only selective and directive in miracles, is beyond our knowledge; we at least do not know the powers exercised, whether new or old.

An attempt is made to get rid of the distinctive nature of miracle when the exceptionalness of the events so regarded is reduced to a new subjective mode of regarding natural phenomena. H. E. G. Paulus dismisses the miracles as “exaggerations or misapprehensions of quite ordinary events.” A. Ritschl has been unjustly charged with this treatment of miracles. But what he emphasizes is on the one hand the close connexion between the conception of miracles and the belief in divine providence, and on the other the compatibility between miracles and the order of nature. He declines to regard miracles as divine action contrary to the laws of nature. So for Schleiermacher “miracle is neither explicable from nature alone, nor entirely alien to it.” What both Ritschl and Schleiermacher insist on is that the belief in miracles is inseparable from the belief in God, and in God as immanent in nature, not only directing and controlling its existent forces, but also as initiating new stages consistent with the old in its progressive development, We may accept Dorner's definition as adequate and satisfactory. “Miracles are sensuously cognizable events, not comprehensible on the ground of the causality of nature as such, but essentially on the ground of God's free action alone. Such facts find their possibility in the constitution of nature and God's living relation to it, their necessity in the aim of revelation, which they subserve” (p. 161). By the first clause, inward moral and religious changes due to the operation of the Spirit of God in man are excluded, and rightly so (see Inspiration). The negative aspect is presented in the second clause. This is prominent in J. S. Mill's definition of miracles: “to constitute a miracle, a phenomenon must take place without having been preceded by any antecedent phenomenal conditions sufficient again to reproduce it. . . . The test of a miracle is, were there present in the case such external conditions, such second causes we may call them, that wherever these conditions or causes reappear the event will be reproduced. If there were, it is not a miracle; if there were not, it is” (Essays, p. 224). The positive aspect is presented in the third clause. When the existence of God is denied (atheism), or His nature is declared unknowable (agnosticism), or He is identified with nature itself (pantheism), or He is so distinguished from the world that His free action is excluded from the course of nature (deism), miracle is necessarily denied. Thus Spinoza, identifying God and nature, declares “nothing happens in nature which is in contradiction with its universal laws.” The deists, compelled by their view of the relation of God to nature to regard miracles as interventions, disposed of the miracles of the Bible either as “mistaken allegory” or even as conscious fraud on the part of the narrators. It is only the theistic view of God as personal power — that is as free-will ever present and ever active in the world, which leaves room for miracles.

The possibility of miracles is often confidently denied. “We are of the unalterable conviction,” says Harnack, “that what happens in time and space is subject to the universal laws of movement; that accordingly there cannot be any miracles in this sense, i.e. as interruptions of the continuity of nature” (Das Wesen des Christentums, p. 17). Huxley expresses himself much more cautiously, as he recognizes that we do not know the continuity of nature so thoroughly as to be able to declare that this or that event is necessarily an interruption of it. “If a dead man did come to life, the fact would be evidence, not that any law of nature had been violated, but that these laws, even when they express the results of a very long and uniform experience, are necessarily based on incomplete knowledge, and are to be held only on grounds of more or less justifiable expectation” (Hume, p. 135).

Lotze has shown how the possibility of miracle can be conceived.

“The whole course of nature becomes intelligible only by supposing the co-working of God, who alone carries forward the reciprocal action of the different parts of the world. But that view which admits a life of God that is not benumbed in an unchangeable sameness will be able to understand his eternal co-working as a variable quantity, the transforming influence of which comes forth at particular moments and attests that the course of nature is not shut up within itself. And this being the case, the complete conditioning causes of the miracle will be found in God and nature together, and in that eternal action and reaction between them which perhaps, although not ordered simply according to general laws, is not void of regulative principles. This vital, as opposed to a mechanical, constitution of nature, together with the conceptions of nature as not complete in itself — as if it were dissevered from the divine energy — shows how a miracle may take place without any disturbance elsewhere of the constancy of nature, all whose forces are affected sympathetically, with the consequence that its orderly movement goes on unhindered” (Mikrokosmos, iii. 364).

The mode of the divine working in nature is in another passage more clearly defined.

“The closed and hard circle of mechanical necessity is not immediately accessible to the miracle-working fiat, nor does it need to be; but the inner nature of that which obeys its laws is not determined by it but by the meaning of the world. This is the open place on which a power that commands in the name of this meaning can exert its influence; and if under this command the inner condition of the elements, the magnitudes of their relation and their opposition to each other, become altered, the necessity of the mechanical cause of the world must unfold this new state into a miraculous appearance, not through suspension but through strict maintenance of its general laws” (op. cit. ii. 54).

If we conceive God as personal, and His will as related to the course of nature analogously to the relation of the human will to the human body, then the laws of nature may be regarded as habits of the divine activity, and miracles as unusual acts which, while consistent with the divine character, mark a new stage in the fulfilment of the purpose of God.

The doctrine of Evolution, instead of increasing the difficulty of conceiving the possibility of miracle, decreases it; for it presents to us the universe as an uncompleted process, and one in which there is no absolute continuity on the phenomenal side; for life and mind are inexplicable by their physical antecedents, and there is not only room for, but need of, the divine initiative, a creative as well as conservative co-operation ot God with nature. Such an absolute continuity is sometimes assumed without warrant; but Descartes already recognized, that the world was no continuous process “Tria mirabilia fecit Dommus; res ex nihilo hberum arbitrium et hominem Deum.” That life cannot be explained force is recognized by Sir Oliver Lodge. “Life may be something not only ultra-terrestrial, but even immaterial, something outside our present categories of matter and energy; as real as they are, but different, and utilizing them for its own purpose” (Life and Matter, p. 198). The theory of psychophysical parallelism recognizes that while there is a correspondence between mental and material phenomena, changes in the mind and changes in the brain, the former cannot be explained by the latter, as the transition from the one to the other is unthinkable. William James distinguishes the transmissive function of the brain from the productive in relation to thought, and admits only the former, and not the latter (Human Immortality, p. 32). Thus as life is transcendent and yet immanent in body, and mind in brain, and both utilize their organs, so God, transcendent and immanent, uses the course of nature for His own ends; and the emergence both of life and mind in that course of nature evidences such a divine initiative as is assumed in the recognition of the possibility of miracles. For such an initiative there must be adequate reason; it must be prepared for in the previous process, and it must be necessary to further progress.

The proof of the possibility of miracle leads us inevitably to the inquiry regarding the necessity of miracle. The necessity of miracles is displayed in their connexion with the divine revelation; but this connexion may be conceived in two ways. The miracles may be regarded as the credentials of the agents of divine revelation. “It is an acknowledged historical fact,” says Butler, “that Christianity offered itself to the world, and demanded to be received, upon the allegation — i.e. as unbelievers would speak — upon the pretence of miracles, publicly wrought to attest the truth of it, in such an age; and that it was actually received by great numbers in that very age, and upon the professed belief of the reality of miracles” (Analogy, part ii. ch. vii.). This view is now generally abandoned; for it is recognized that acts of superhuman power, even if established by adequate historical evidence, do not necessarily certify their divine origin. Their moral quality must correspond with the character of God; and they must be connected with teaching which to reason and conscience approves itself divine. “Miracula sine doctrina nihil valent” is the principle now generally recognized. The miracle and the doctrine mutually illuminate one another. “Les miracles discernent la doctrine, et la doctrine discerne les miracles” (Pascal's Pensées des miracles). Accordingly, the credentials must also be constituents of the revelation. Of the miracles of Jesus, Bushnell says, “The character of Jesus is ever shining with and through them, in clear self-evidence leaving them never to stand as raw wonders only of might, but covering them with glory as tokens of a heavenly love, and acts that only suit the proportions of His personal greatness and majesty” (Nature and the Supernatural, p. 364). If it be asked why the character may not be displayed in ordinary acts instead of miracles, the answer may be given, “Miracle is the certificate of identity between the Lord of Nature and the Lord of Conscience — the proof that He is really a moral being who subordinates physical to moral interests” (Lidden's Elements of Religion, p. 73). As God is the Saviour, and the chief end of the revelation is redemption, it is fitting that the miracles should be acts of divine deliverance from physical evil. This congruity of the miracle with divine truth and grace is the answer to Matthew Arnold's taunt about turning a pen into a pen-wiper or Huxley's about a centaur trotting down Regent Street. The miracles of Jesus — the relief of need, the removal of suffering, the recovery of health and strength — reveal in outward events the essential features of His divine mission. The divine wisdom and goodness are revealed in the course of nature, but also obscured by it. The existence of physical evil, and still more of moral evil, forbids the assumption without qualification that the real is the rational. God in nature as well as history is fulfilling a redemptive as well as perfective purpose, of which these miracles are appropriate signs. It is an unwarranted idealism and optimism which finds the course of nature so wise and so good that any change in it must be regarded as incredible. On the problem of evil and sin it is impossible here to enter; but this must be insisted on, that the miracles of Jesus at least express divine benevolence just under those conditions in which the course of nature obscures it, and are therefore, proper elements in a revelation of grace, of which nature cannot give any evidence.

Having discussed the possibility and necessity of miracles for the divine revelation, we must now consider whether there is sufficient historical evidence for their occurrence. Hume maintains that no evidence, such as is available, can make a miracle credible. Mill states the position with due care. “The question can be stated fairly is depending on a balance of evidence, a certain amount of positive evidence in favour of miracles, and a negative presumption from the general course of human experience against them” (Essays on Religion, p. 221). The existence of “a certain amount of positive evidence in favour of miracles” forbids the sweeping statement that miracles are “contrary to experience.” The phrase itself is, as Paley has pointed out, ambiguous. If it means all experience it assumes the point to be proved; if it means only common experience then it simply asserts that the miracle is unusual — a truism. The probability of miracles depends on the conception we have of the free relation of God to nature, and of nature as the adequate organ for the fulfilment of God's purposes. If we believe in a divine revelation and redemption, transcending the course of nature, the miracles as signs of that divine purpose will not seem improbable.

For the Christian Church the miracles of Jesus are of primary importance; and the evidences — external and internal — in their favour may be said to be sufficient to justify belief. The Gospels assumed their present form between A.D. 60 and 90. Their representation of the moral character, the religious consciousness, the teaching of Jesus, inspires confidence. The narratives of miracles are woven into the very texture of this representation. In these acts Jesus reveals Himself as Saviour. “The Jesus Christ presented to us in the New Testament would become a very different person if the miracles were removed” (Temple's Relations between Religion and Science). In His sinless perfection and filial relation to God He is unique, and His works are congruous with His Person. Of the supreme miracle of His resurrection there is earlier evidence than of any of the others (1 Cor. xv. 3-7, before A.D. 58). His conquest of death is most frequently appealed to in the apostolic teaching. The Christian Church would never have come into existence without faith in the Risen Lord. The proof of the supernaturalness of His Person sets the seal to the credibility of His supernatural works. In Christ, however, was the fulfilment of law and prophecy. This close connexion invests the antecedent revelation in some degree with the supernaturalness of His Person: at least, we are prepared to entertain without prejudice any evidence that may be presented in the Old Testament. That this evidence is not as good as that for the miracles of Jesus must be conceded, as much of it is of mtoch later date than the events recorded. The miracles connected with the beginnings of the national history — the period of the Exodus — appear on closer inspection to have been ordinarily natural phenomena, to which a supernatural character was given by their connexion with the prophetic word of Moses. The miracles recorded of Elijah and Elisha lie somewhat apart from the main currents of the history, the narratives themselves are distinct from the historical works in which they have been incorporated, and the character of some of the actions raises serious doubts and difficulties. In some cases suspense of judgment seems necessary even from the standpoint of Christian faith. The supernatural element that is prominent in the Old Testament is God's providential guidance and guardianship of His people, and His teaching and training of them by His prophets. The Apostolic miracles, to which the New Testament bears evidence, were wrought in the power of Christ, and were evidences to His church and to the world of His continued presence. When the Church had established itself in the world, and possessed in its moral and religious fruits evidence of its claims, these outward signs appear gradually to have ceased, although attempts were made to perpetuate them. It is true that in Roman Catholicism, in medieval as in modern times, the working of miracles has been ascribed to its saints; but the character of most of these miracles is such as to lack the a priori probability which has been claimed for the Scripture miracles on account of their connexion and congruity with the divine revelation. The a posteriori evidence as regards both its moral and religious quality and its date is altogether inferior to the evidence of the Gospels. Further, these records are imitative. As Christ and the apostles worked miracles, it is assumed that those who in the Church were distinguished for their sanctity would also work miracles; and there can be little doubt that the wish was often father to the thought. There may be cases which cannot be explained in this way; but “whatever may be thought about them, it is plain that even if these and their like are really to be traced to the intervention of the divine mercy which loves to reward a simple faith (and it does not seem to us that the evidence is sufficient to establish such a conclusion), yet they do not serve as vehicles of revelation as the miracles of the Gospel did” (H. J. Bernard in Hastings's Bible Dictionary, iii. 395).

(A. E. G.*)

  1. See also R. J. Ryle, “The Neurotic Theory of the Miracles of Healing,” Hibbert Journal, v. 586.