Theologico-Political Treatise 1862/Chapter 6
As every science is called divine that is beyond the reach of ordinary intelligence, so are men inclined to see the hand of God in every event or phenomenon whose cause is commonly unknown. The vulgar, in fact, are persuaded that the power and providence of God never appear so manifestly as when something happens which is at variance with use and wont, especially if it interfere at the same time with their advantage or convenience. Nothing, for example, is thought to prove the existence of God so clearly as some presumed interruption of the regular course of nature; and it is on this account that they who seek to explain unusual events and phenomena by natural causes are very commonly regarded as guilty of calling in question the being, or at all events the providence, of God. So long as nature proceeds in its even and accustomed order, the vulgar think that God is doing nothing; and, on the other hand, they fancy that the powers of nature are suspended when God interferes. In this way two powers are imagined, distinct from one another, the Power of God and the Power of Nature, which last, however, is presumed to be influenced and ordered in a certain way by God; or, as is generally believed at the present time, which is created by God. But what is understood precisely by these two powers, God and Nature, is not explained; unless it be that God is conceived as a king and sovereign ruler, whilst Nature is imagined as a special subordinate force. The vulgar, therefore, give the title of a miracle or work of God to every extraordinary natural event; and partly from devotional feeling, partly from a spirit of opposition to those who cultivate natural science, they care not to inquire into the causes of phenomena, and will listen to nothing but that of which they are really most ignorant, and for which they therefore entertain the highest admiration. Now this mainly proceeds from men in general being without other reasons for adoring God, and referring all that happens to his will and pleasure, than by supposing natural causes abrogated, and the order of nature arbitrarily suspended. They only bow to the power of God, in short, when they believe the power of nature to be subjugated as it were by God.
When we inquire into the origin of such prejudices, we have to look as far back as the times of the primitive Jews. In order to convince the heathen nations about them, worshippers of visible deities, the sun, moon, stars, earth, air, water, &c., that such gods were weak and inconstant, and under the dominion of an invisible God, whom they adored, they narrated many wonderful miracles he had wrought; and, further, endeavoured to show that the whole of nature was ruled by him for their peculiar advantage. The system thus inaugurated laid such hold on the minds of men, that even to the present day each tribe or nation has not ceased from imagining miracles favourable to the conclusion that it was more acceptable to God than all the rest of mankind, and was, in fact, the final cause for which God at first created, and still continues to uphold, the world. Such vulgar folly arises from the circumstance that men in general have no sound conception either of God or of nature; that they confound the desires and imaginations of man with the desires of the Almighty, and figure nature in such small proportions as to believe that man is its principal part. But it is enough merely to hint at the opinions and prejudices of the vulgar concerning nature and miracles, and I therefore proceed to the consideration of the four principles which I here propose to myself to demonstrate, and in the following order: 1st, I shall begin by showing that nothing happens contrary to the order of nature, and that this order subsists without pause or interruption, eternal and unchangeable; I shall at the same time take occasion to explain what is to be understood by a miracle. 2nd, I shall prove that miracles cannot make known to us the essence and existence of God, nor consequently his providence, these great truths being so much better illustrated and proclaimed by the regular and invariable order of nature. 3rd, I shall prove by various examples, taken from Holy Writ, that Scripture, in speaking of the decrees and the will of God, and consequently of his providence, means nothing more than the order of nature itself, which necessarily results from his eternal laws. Fourthly and lastly, I shall discuss the proper manner of interpreting the miracles of Scripture, and insist on the main points which seem to require consideration in the narratives we have of these miracles. Such are the principal heads that form the argument of the present chapter; and they have an especial bearing upon the whole scope and purpose of this work.
1. With regard to my first position, it were almost enough to refer to my fourth chapter, on Divine Law, in which I have demonstrated that all that God wills or resolves involves the conception oft eternal truth and eternal necessity. The intelligence of God not being conceivable as distinct from his will, as I have shown above, to say that God thinks or that God wills is to affirm one and the same thing. Consequently, the same necessity, in virtue of which it follows from the nature and perfection of God that he thinks a certain thing such as it is, this same necessity, I say, implies that God wills the thing such as it is. But as nothing is absolutely true save by divine decree alone, it is evident that the universal laws of nature are the very decrees of God, which result necessarily from the perfection of the Divine nature. If, therefore, anything happened in nature at large repugnant to its universal laws, this would be equally and necessarily repugnant to the decrees and intelligence of God; so that any one who maintained that God acted in opposition to the laws of nature would at the same time be forced to maintain that God acted in opposition to his proper nature, an idea than which nothing can be imagined more absurd. I might show the same thing, or strengthen what I have just said, by referring to the truth, that the power of nature is in fact the Divine Power; Divine Power is the very essence of God himself. But this I pass by for the present. Nothing, then, happens in nature which is in contradiction with its universal laws. Nor this only; nothing happens which is not in accordance with these laws, or does not follow from them: for whatever is, and whatever happens, is and happens by the will and eternal decree of God; that is, as has been already shown, whatever happens does so according to rules and laws which involve eternal truth and necessity. Nature consequently always observes laws, although all of these are not known to us, which involve eternal truth and necessity, and thus preserves a fixed and immutable course. Nor will sound reason ever persuade us to ascribe a limited power and efficacy to nature, and to conceive its laws as operative in a certain restricted sense only, and not universally; for, since the power and efficacy of nature are the power and efficacy of God, and the laws of nature are the ordinances of God himself, we must needs believe that the power of nature is infinite, and its laws of such extent that they reach and pervade all that is comprehended by the divine intelligence. Were they not so, what else could be inferred than that God had made nature so impotent, and given it laws and statutes so barren, that he is forced frequently to intervene anew if he would have these laws continued, and the frame of things upheld in conformity with his wishes, — a doctrine as remote from reason as can well be conceived.
From these premises, therefore, viz. that nothing happens in nature which does not follow from its laws; that these laws extend to all which enters into the divine mind; and, lastly, that nature proceeds in a fixed and changeless course; it. follows most obviously that the word miracle can only be understood in relation to the opinions of mankind, and signifies nothing more than an event, a phenomenon, the cause of which cannot be explained by another familiar instance, or, in any case, which the narrator is unable to explain. I might say, indeed, that a miracle was that the cause of which cannot be explained by our natural understanding from the known principles of natural things. But as miracles were calculated for the vulgar apprehension, which ignores all knowledge of the principles of natural things, it is certain that the ancients regarded as a miracle that which they could not explain in the way in which they were wont to account for natural things, viz. by recurring to their memory for another similar thing which they were accustomed to regard without wonder; for the vulgar always think they understand a thing when they have ceased to marvel at it. The ancients therefore, and almost all men, even to the present time, have had no other standard of a miracle but this; and there can be no question but that many things are related in Scripture as miracles which are readily to be explained on the known principles of natural things, as has been already suggested in Chapter II., when we spoke of the sun standing still in the time of Joshua, and retrograding in in the days of Ahaz, of which I shall have more to say when I come to speak of the explanation of miracles, a subject which I promised to discuss in this chapter. But it is time I passed on to my second proposition, which was to show that from miracles we can neither obtain a knowledge of the existence nor of the providence of God: on the contrary, that those are much better elicited from the eternal and changeless order of nature.
2. The existence of God not being obvious of itself,, it must necessarily be inferred from ideas, the truth of which is so unquestionable that no power can be assigned or even imagined adequate to shake them. From the moment we conclude from these ideas that God exists, they ought to present themselves to the mind as beyond the sphere of doubt; for could we imagine that these notions could be changed by any power whatsoever, then should we doubt of their truth, and consequently of our conclusion as to the existence of God also, the effect of which would be that we should no longer feel certain of anything. And then we realty know of nothing that agrees with nature or differs from it, save that which we have shown to agree with or to differ from these principles; wherefore, could we conceive that aught could happen in nature from any power (whatever this might be) which was repugnant to nature, this would also be repugnant to these primary notions, and so would have to be rejected as absurd; or else we should be forced to doubt of first notions (as we have just said), and consequently of God and of all conceptions whatsoever. Miracles, therefore, conceiving these as events contravening the established order of nature, are so far from proving to us the existence of God, that they would actually lead us to call it in question, seeing that without them we can be absolutely certain of the existence of God, as we truly are when we know that all things in nature observe a definite and unchanging course.
But suppose it is said that a miracle is that which cannot be explained by natural causes; this may be understood in two ways: either that it has natural causes which cannot be investigated by the human understanding, or that it acknowledges no cause save God, or the will of God. But as all that happens, also happens by the sole will and power of God, it were then necessary to say that a miracle either owned natural causes, or if it did not, that it was something which by any cause; in other words, that it was something which it surpassed the human capacity to understand. But of anything in general, and of the particular thing in question, viz, the miracle, which surpasses our powers of comprehension, nothing whatever can be known. For that which we clearly and distinctly understand must become known to us either of itself, or by something else which of itself is clearly and distinctly understood. Wherefore, from a miracle, as an incident surpassing our powers of comprehension, we cannot understand anything, either of the essence or existence or any other quality of God or nature; on the contrary, when we know that all things are determined and sanctioned by God, that the operations of nature follow from the essence of God, and that the laws of nature are eternal decrees and volitions of God, we conclude unconditionally that we know God and his holy will by so much the better as we have a better knowledge, a clearer comprehension, of natural things, — how they depend on God as their first cause, and how they exist and act according to eternal, changeless laws ordained by him. Wherefore, as regards our understanding. those events which we clearly and distinctly comprehend, are with much better right entitled works of God, and referred to his will, than those which are wholly unintelligible to us, although they strongly seize upon our imagination and wrap us in amazement: inasmuch as those works of nature only which we clearly and distinctly apprehend render our knowledge of God truly sublime, and point to his will and decrees with the greatest clearness. They therefore plainly trifle who when they do not know a thing, fall back upon the will of God — a most ridiculous way of professing or excusing ignorance. Moreover, whatever other inference may be drawn from miracles, nothing, at all events, can be concluded from them in regard to the existence of God; for, inasmuch as a miracle is a limited act, and never expresses more than a certain limited power, it is certain that we can never from such an effect infer the existence of a cause whose power is infinite; we could at the most conceive a cause, the power of which was relatively greater. I say at the most, for a certain event might happen from many causes concurring to produce it, of which the immediate cause should be of less potency than the mass of concurring causes, though greater than that of each of them severally. But the laws of nature (as already shown), reaching to infinity, and being conceived by us as a kind of eternity, and nature in virtue of them proceeding in a certain and immutable order, they so far declare to us in an assured manner the Infinity, the Eternity, and the Unchangeable nature of God.
Let us conclude, therefore, that we can know nothing by miracles of the existence and providence of God; on the contrary, that these attributes are far better inferred from the regular and unchanging order of nature. In this conclusion I of course speak of miracles, as understanding by them nothing more than events which surpass, or are believed to surpass, the common comprehension of mankind. For if miracles be understood as interruptions or abrogations of the order of nature, or as subversive of its laws, not only could they not give us any knowledge of God, but, on the contrary, they would destroy that which we naturally have, and would induce doubt both of the existence of God and of everything else. Nor do I here recognize any difference between a phenomenon or event contrary to nature, and one beyond nature, a phrase by which some understand a phenomenon not repugnant to, but not producible by, nature; because as a miracle takes place not beyond but in nature, if it be held to be above nature, it must needs interrupt the order of nature, which we otherwise conceive to be, by the decrees of God, fixed, immutable, eternal. Did aught consequently take place in nature which did not follow from its everlasting laws, it would necessarily contravene the order which God has established in nature by the universal laws he has decreed for its government, and would thus subvert nature and its laws, and consequently lead to general scepticism and atheism. From these views and reasonings I think I have sufficiently established my second proposition, and believe we may safely conclude anew that a miracle, whether contrary to nature or above nature, is a sheer absurdity; and therefore that by a miracle in Holy Writ we are to understand nothing more than a natural phenomenon which surpasses, or is believed to surpass, human powers of comprehension.
Before proceeding to my third position, viz. that we cannot know God from miracles, I gladly take occasion to confirm the above conclusions by the authority of Scripture, which, although nowhere openly teaching so much, nevertheless gives it clearly enough to be understood in many passages. Thus Moses teaches (Deut. xiii.) that a false prophet, although he work miracles, is yet to be put to death: "If there arise among you a prophet … and giveth thee a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder come to pass, saying, Let us go after other gods, … thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet; for the Lord your God proveth you, … and that prophet shall be put to death." From this it plainly appears that wonders or signs could be worked by false prophets, and that men, unless duly imbued with a true knowledge and love of God, could be led with like facility under the guidance of miracles to worship false gods as to adore the true and only God. For in the same passage these words are added; "For Jehovah, your God, tempts you, that he may know whether you love him with all your heart and all your mind." And then, of what avail did miracles prove in giving the children of Israel reasonable ideas of God ? When they had persuaded themselves that they were forsaken by Moses, they demanded visible gods from Aaron, and, oh shame! a calf was their idea of God; and this in spite of the multitude of signs and wonders they had seen. Asaph, the psalmist, too, although he had heard of so many miracles, doubted nevertheless of the providence of God, and had almost strayed from the right way, had he not at length acquired better notions of that wherein true happiness consists (vide Psalm xxxvii.). Solomon also, in the times when the Jewish nation was at the height of its prosperity, suspects that all things happen by chance (vide Eccles. iii. 19, 20, 21, and ix. 2, 3, et seq.). Lastly, almost all the prophets exhibit a very confused idea of God's providence, and are evidently at a loss to make the order of nature and the events that happen in the world agree with such ideas as they entertained. Nevertheless, the matter has always presented itself clearly enough to the philosopher who strives to comprehend it, not by means of miracles, but by forming clear conceptions of God and nature; to the philosopher who conceives true happiness to consist in virtue and peace of mind alone, and who studies to obey nature, not to make nature bend to him; inasmuch as he knows for certain that God governs nature in the way his universal laws compel, not in the manner the particular laws of man would require, and that thus God has regard, not to the human kind alone, but to the fabric of the world at large. It is therefore certainly proved from Scripture itself that miracles give no true knowledge either of God or of his eternal providence.
There is one thing, however, constantly repeated in the Scriptures, viz. that God showed signs and wonders, or wrought miracles, in order that he might become known to the Jewish people. Thus in Exodus (x. 2) we read that God deceived the Egyptians, and gave signs of himself to the children of Israel, that they might know he was the Lord. But it does not therefore follow that miracles were the means by which God taught this truth; it only shows that the Jews held opinions which led them to be readily persuaded by signs and portents; for in our second chapter we have satisfactorily shown that prophetic reasons, or reasons formed from revelation, are not formed from universal and common notions, but from the preconceptions and opinions, however absurd, of those to whom the matter was revealed, or whom the Holy Spirit desired to convince; a position which we have illustrated by many quotations, and also by the testimony of the Apostle Paul, who tells us himself that he was Greek with the Greeks and Jew with the Jews. Now although these miracles might satisfy Egyptians and Jews, in appealing to their prejudices, they could not give any true notion or knowledge of God; they could only lead to the admission that there was a God more powerful than anything known to them; and, lastly, that the Jews, with whom at this time all had gone most prosperously, were the especial objects of his care and protection, but not that God really cared for and protected all mankind alike; for this truth philosophy alone could teach. The Jews, consequently, and all who know nothing of the providence of God save from dissimilar states of human affairs and the unequal fortunes of men, have persuaded themselves that they were more acceptable to the Supreme Being than any other people, although they did not in reality surpass other nations in aught that constitutes true excellence, as we hare shown at length in our third chapter.
3. I proceed to prove from Scripture that the decrees and commandments of God, and consequently his providence, are nothing more than the order of nature; that is to say, when Scripture declares this and that to have been done by God, or to be the will of God, nothing is to be understood but that the act was in accordance with the laws and order of nature, and not, as the vulgar believe, that nature for a season had ceased to act, or that its order had for a certain time been subverted. Scripture, I here observe, never directly teaches anything that does not bear immediately on its doctrines; for its purpose, as I have shown in connection with the divine law, is not to teach by natural causes, nor by merely speculative considerations. Thus, in the First Book of Samuel (ix. 15, 16) we are informed that God revealed "to Samuel that he should send Saul to him; yet God did not send Saul to Samuel in the way in which men are wont to send expressly one to another, for the visit of Saul to Samuel arose out of concurrent circumstances, thus — Saul was in search of the asses he had lost, as narrated in the preceding chapter of the book, and failing to find them, and even thinking of returning home without them, on the suggestion of his servant he sought out Samuel the seer, that he might inquire of him where he should discover his strayed cattle; from no part of the whole narrative does it appear that Saul received any special command from God to visit Samuel. In Psalm cv. 25 it is said that God changed the hearts of the Egyptians, so that they hated the children of Israel; but this was obviously a natural incident, as appears from Exodus i., where we find very sufficient reasons why the Egyptians oppressed the Jews and reduced them to slavery. In Genesis ix. 13 God informs Noah that he would show himself in the clouds, and set his bow there, which is but another way of expressing the natural law by which the rays of the sun suffer refraction when they fall upon drops of water. In Psalm cxlvii. 18 the natural action of wind and heat by which hoar-frost and snow are melted is spoken of as the word of God, and in ver. 15 the wind and the cold are entitled the commandment and word of the Lord. In Psalm- civ. 4, again, wind and fire are called the angels or messengers, and ministers of God; indeed, very many expressions of the same kind are met with in Scripture, all of which proclaim most distinctly that the words commandment, decree, and word of God, are often nothing more than expressions for the agency and order of nature itself. Wherefore there is no reason to doubt that everything related in Scripture happened naturally, though it is always referred immediately to God, because it is not the business of Holy "Writ to teach by reference to natural causes, but only to narrate events in such a way as shall most powerfully strike the imagination, constant recourse being had to the manner and style which best serve to arouse wonder, and consequently to impress the minds of the many with devotional sentiments.
If, therefore, some things be found in Scripture for which we can assign no reason, and which moreover seem to have happened contrary to the usual course of nature, this ought really to be no hindrance to us; we are still by all means to believe that what really happened happened naturally. The propriety of this conclusion is confirmed by the fact that special circumstances, although not always particularly dwelt on, are often connected with miracles, especially when the account of them is sung in poetic strains, which clearly proclaim that they were the effect of natural causes. For instance, when Moses wished the Egyptians to be infected with blotches and blains, he cast hot ashes into the air (Exod. ix. 10); the locusts also came upon the land through a natural command of God, namely, on the wings of an east wind which blew day and night; and they ceased their ravages or disappeared by the agency of a violent westerly gale (Exod. x. 14, 19). In the same way, by the command of God, or by means of a strong east wind which blew all night, a way was opened for the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. xiv. 21). Elisha, also, when he set about resuscitating the lad who was thought to be dead, bent over him repeatedly, until he had restored warmth to the child [and perhaps inflated his lungs], who then and at at length opened his eyes (vide 2 Kings iv. 34, 35). So also in the Gospel according to John (ix.) we find certain circumstances related as preparatives to the healing of the blind man by Christ; and, indeed, through the whole of the Scriptures many things of the same kind occur, which all proclaim that miracles require something more than the more mundute, as it is called, of God. Wherefore, we are to believe that, although the circumstances and the natural causes of miracles are not always fully related, nevertheless that none ever happened without their concurrence. This is very strikingly illustrated by what we find in Exodus (xiv. 27), where the whole statement is, that Moses "stretched forth his hand, and the waters of the sea returned to their strength in the morning." Here there is no mention of a violent wind as the agent of the phenomenon: but in the song of Moses (ib. xv. 10) we find these words: "Thou didst blow with thy wind, the sea covered them," the wind of God here being a very strong wind; but the agency is omitted in the narrative in order that the wonder might appear the more striking.
But some may perhaps insist that in Scripture a multitude of things can be pointed out which are altogether inexplicable by natural causes, as, for instance, that the wickedness or the piety and prayers of man may be the cause of rain and inundation, and of the fertility or barrenness of the earth; that faith can cure the blind, make the sick whole, &c. But I think that I have already sufficiently replied to this objection; for I have shown that the purpose of Scripture is never to explain things by their immediate causes, but only to present them in a sequence, and in a style calculated to arouse the devotional feelings of the multitude especially; and this is the reason why God and things in general are there often spoken of in what without irreverence may be styled a somewhat objectionable manner, the purpose aimed at being not to convince the reason, but to engage and influence the imagination. Suppose, for example, that the fall of a great empire were to be narrated in the sober style usual with historical and political writers, the people would be little moved by it; but a different effect would be produced if all were poetically depicted and referred to the immediate agency of God, as is most commonly done in Scripture. When the ground is said to become barren in consequence of the wickedness of mankind, therefore, or the blind are restored to sight through faith, such statements ought not to move us more than when we read that because of the sins of men God is angry or sorrowful, or repents him of the good he had promised and done, or is reminded of a promise he had made by a sign in the heavens, and very many things of the same sort, which are either mere poetical expressions, or narratives in conformity with the opinions and prejudices of the writer. Let us unhesitatingly conclude, then, that whatever of truth we find in the Scripture narratives of events, these uniformly came to pass in accordance with the laws of nature which necessarily govern all things; and when we meet with any incident there which may be demonstrated as opposed to the laws of nature, or which can in no way be reconciled with them, we may feel assured that it has been added to the sacred Scriptures by some sacrilegious hand; for whatever is against nature is against reason [and against God], and what is against reason is absurd, and therefore to be scouted.
4. I have now only to make a few remarks on the interpretation of miracles; or, rather, to resume the heads of what I have just said, and to illustrate them by one or two examples. What makes it the more necessary to do so is lest any one, by interpreting a certain miracle amiss, should rashly suspect that he had found something in Scripture which was repugnant to natural reason.
It is very seldom that men relate an event simply as it happened; that they mingle nothing of their own fancies or opinions with the narrative. When they see or hear anything new, indeed, unless especially on their guard against preconceived opinions, they mostly even perceive things quite otherwise than as they are in fact, especially if the matter in question is beyond the capacity of the listener or narrator, and still more if it interferes in any way with his interests or affections. From this it comes that in their Chronicles and Histories men are much more apt to give their own views and opinions than to narrate events as they actually happened; and so it turns out that the same incident related by two persons of dissimilar views often appears as if two different events were spoken of. It is, therefore, upon occasion not very difficult from the style and statements of a narrative to discover the opinions of the chronicler or historian. I could confirm these reflections by quotations from various philosophers, even, who have written the history of nature, as well as from the chroniclers of historical events; but I think this superfluous, and shall content myself with citing a single instance from Scripture, leaving the rest to the judgment and research of the reader. In the time of Joshua the Jews believed, as the vulgar do at the present time, that the sun was in motion and the earth at rest. They did not fail accordingly to accommodate to this opinion the account of the miracle which befell in the great battle against the five kings; for they have not said simply that the day on which the battle took place seemed longer than usual, but that the sun and moon stood still in their course, ceased from their motions. Now this manner of stating the event was obviously well calculated to impress the minds of the heathen of those times who worshipped the sun, with the conviction that this luminary was under the control of another more powerful divinity, at whose nod it could be made to pause in its course against all former experience. Partly on religious grounds, therefore, partly from preconceived opinions, the Jews apprehended and related the event of the long day during the battle with the five kings very differently from the way in which it occurred in fact.
To interpret the miracles of Scripture consequently, and to understand them from the narratives, it is absolutely necessary to be informed of the opinions of those who first witnessed or narrated them, and also of those who have left us an account of them in writing, and to make a cardinal distinction between the event in itself and the impression it may have produced on the minds of those who witnessed it. Without this precaution we should certainly confound the opinions and prejudices of witnesses and historians with events in themselves. Nor were this all, we should still be liable to confound things that actually transpired with things imaginary, or that were mere prophetic representations conceived in dreams and visions. For in Scripture many things are narrated us realities, things which were indeed believed to be realities, which nevertheless were mere fanciful or imaginative representations; as, for example, when it is said that God, the Being of beings, "came down from heaven" (Exod. xix. 28, and Deut. v. 28), and that Mount Sinai "smoked because God descended upon it enveloped in fire;" "That Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot drawn by fiery horses," &c. These are all but ideal representations, in conformity with the opinions of those who have transmitted them to us, and as they themselves received them, viz. as sober accounts of actual events. Every one, but a little raised above vulgar notions, is aware that God has neither right nor left, is neither in motion nor at rest, nor in one place more than another, but that he is absolutely infinite, and includes all perfections in himself. They, I say, know these things who judge after the conceptions of pure intelligence, and not as imagination influenced by external sense leads us to conclude, which the vulgar always do when they picture God to themselves as corporeal, as surrounded by regal pomp and state, with his throne established in the heaven of heavens above the stars, the distance of which from the earth is not conceived to be extremely great. To these and similar opinions many narratives in Scripture are plainly adapted, and are not to be accepted by the philosophical as accounts of things as they are in fact, or that actually occurred.
Another important point in the review of the Scripture miracles is this, that the figurative language of the Hebrews — with their tropes and poetical expressions — be well understood; for whosoever loses sight of these will inevitably fasten many miracles upon scripture which its writers never even imagined, and so not only mistake the manner in which signs and wonders actually occurred, but also proclaim his own ignorance of the sacred text. By way of example let us turn to Zechariah (xiv. 7). Speaking of the event of a certain approaching war, the prophet expresses himself thus, "It shall be one day which shall be known to the Lord, not day nor night; but at even time it shall be light." These words seem to involve a great miracle or mystery; and yet they signify nothing more than this, — that the battle should be doubtful through the whole of the day, its issue being only known to God, but that in the evening the victory would be won. It is in such enigmatical language indeed that the prophets were wont to speak and to write of the victories and disasters of nations. Isaiah, for instance, depicting the desolation of Babylon (xiii.), makes use of these words, "The stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine." Now, I do not suppose any one imagines that all this happened literally when the Babylonian empire fell, any more than that which the prophet immediately adds, "For I will make the heavens to tremble, and remove the earth out of her place." In like manner, the same prophet (xlviii.), desiring to make it known to the Jews that they should assuredly return to Jerusalem from Babylon and not suffer from thirst on their journey, says, "And they thirsted not when he led them through the deserts; he caused the waters to flow out of the rocks for them; he clave the rock and the waters gushed out." The meaning of this is simply that the Jews found springs in the desert to slake their thirst — and springs do well-up in the desert at intervals; — for when the Jews returned to Jerusalem with the consent of Cyrus, it is certain that no such miracle occurred literally as that which the prophet describes. Very many things of the same kind are met with in the sacred writings, — mere modes of expressing themselves in use among the Jews, which I do not think it necessary to specify more in detail. I remark generally that the Hebrews were wont not only to embroider their statements with flowery or poetical language, but, further, that they almost always used devotional expressions. This is the reason why in Scripture we sometimes find the expression bless God for the contrary, as in 1 Kings xxi. 10, and Job ii. 9. For the same reason the Jews referred everything to God, so that Scripture in parts seems to narrate nothing but miracles, even when speaking of the most natural occurrences. Examples of this system have been given in sufficient number above. "We are to conclude therefore, when we find it said that God hardened the heart of Pharaoh, that nothing more is implied than that Pharaoh was firm and uncomplying; and when it is stated that God opened the windows of heaven, we are only to understand that a great deal of rain fell, and so on. Whoever regards these passages with an unbiassed mind, and remembers that many things are spoken of in the curtest terms, and without any of the accompanying circumstances, will find almost nothing in Scripture which can be shown to be repugnant to natural reason; and on the contrary, much which, although at the first blush appearing obscure, with a little reflection comes to be readily enough interpreted and understood.
I have thus, I think, said all I had it at heart to say on the subject of miracles. But before quitting it, and bringing the chapter to a close, I find one thing which I think ought to be mentioned, namely, that in discussing the subject of miracles I have proceeded otherwise than when treating of Prophecy. Of Prophecy I affirm nothing but what I could deduce from grounds revealed in Scripture, eliciting the chief points from principles cognizable by the natural understanding; and this I did of set purpose; because, of prophecy, when its statements went beyond the reach of our faculties and the question became purely theological, I could affirm, as I could know, nothing except from the revelations made. Here, consequently, I was forced to collate the prophecies, and from them to form certain dogmatic conclusions, which gave me a glimpse, in as far as this was to be had, of the nature and qualities of prophecy in general. But in regard to miracles, as the subject of our present inquiry is plainly philosophical, viz. whether we can admit the occurrence of anything in nature subversive of its laws, or that is not the effect of these laws, I required to do nothing of the kind; I have rather and intentionally striven to elucidate the subject upon principles familiarly known, and on grounds accessible to our natural understanding; I say I have taken this course of set purpose, for I could readily have explained miracle on a dogmatic basis entirely derived from Scripture. And that this may more plainly appear, I shall here yet further show that Scripture in several places affirms of nature in general that its course is fixed and unchangeable. In the 148th Psalm, for example (ver. 6), in Jeremiah (xxxi. 35, 36), and in Solomon (Ecclesiastes i. 10), it is clearly declared that there is nothing new under the sun. The sage, indeed, in further illustration of this truth (Eccles. i. 10, 11), proceeds to say that although occasionally something happens which seems new, still it is not new, "It hath been already of old time which was before us, whereof there is no remembrance, neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after." Again, in chapter iii. 11, he says that "God hath made everything beautiful in his time," and immediately after he adds (ver. 14), "I know that whatsoever God doeth it shall be for ever; nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it;" all of which teaches most distinctly that the order of nature is fixed and immutable, that God was the same in all times, known and unknown to us, and that the laws of nature are so perfect and so fruitful that nothing can be added to, as nothing can be taken from, them, and, lastly, that miracles are only seen as something new because of the ignorance of man. These things then are expressly taught in the sacred Scriptures; but nowhere do they teach that anything happens in nature which contravenes its laws, or which might not follow from their agency; such views are therefore on no account to be connected with Scripture. Add to all this that miracles require causes and circumstances (as has been already shown), and do not proceed from that royal authority, to me inscrutable, which the vulgar connect with God, but from divine authority and decree; that is to say (as I have also made manifest out of Scripture), from the laws of nature and its unchanging order; and, finally, that miracles could also be performed by impostors, as we have it expressly declared in Deuteronomy (xiii.) and in Matthew (xxiv.). From all this it follows most obviously that [the events styled] miracles have been natural occurrences, and are therefore to be so explained as neither to appear new things, to use the words of Solomon, nor as things opposed to nature, but in such a manner, if this may in any wise be done, as shall assimilate them with natural things. It is with a view to assist every one in this course that I have brought together the few rules, derived exclusively from Scripture, which I have given for the study and interpretation of miracles. And here I beg to be allowed to say, that when I declare the teaching of Scripture in regard to miracles to be as I have stated it, I would not be understood as meaning to say that such things are there taught as principles needful to salvation, but only that the prophets regarded miracles in the same manner as we do; consequently, that it is permitted to every one to think on this subject in that way which shall seem to him best calculated to raise his mind to the worship of God, and lead him to embrace the principles of true religion with his whole heart and spirit. Such, in fact, was the view of Josephus, who ends the Second Book of his Antiquities in these words:
"The word miracle ought not to make us incredulous; why should not the men of old be believed who tell us of a path of safety opened through the sea, whether revealed to them by the will of God or followed in the natural course of things? Is it not confidently related by those who have written the life and deeds of Alexander that the Sea of Pamphylia opened a way, when there was no other left, for the King of Macedonia and those who were with him, when God willed to make use of this great commander to overthrow the Persian Empire? Of these things, therefore (miracles), every one is to be left free to think as he pleases." Such are the words of Josephus, and his opinion of the necessity of belief in miracles.
If the reader will go on to read Mr Hume's masterly Essay on the subject here discussed, he will, however well disposed to be credulous feel himself forced for ever to abandon all belief in miracles. The different lines of argument pursued by Spinoza and by Hume severally supplement each other, and seem to leave nothing more to be said on the subject. Miracles indeed have long disappeared from the world of Science; they only linger now among the uneducated — still, alas, in the only proper sense of the term, a very numerous body in the world! The uselessness of miracle as a means to any good end is as old as the Book of Genesis: "If there come a. prophet among you and he do signs and wonders, if he say: Let us go after other gods, — that prophet shall be put to death." And to come nearer the present age of the world, we ask what matters it to us whether Christ walked on the Lake of Galilee or not? we are not influenced in our life and conversation by our belief or unbelief in the report of such an unnatural incident. But it is of the last moment to us, and to mankind in all time to come, that we have the example of our Lord's blessed life, the prayer he taught his disciples, and the sermon he spoke on the mount. — Ed.
- By nature here I do not understand the material universe only, and its affections, but besides the matter an infinity of other things.
- We doubt of the existence of God, and consequently of all things, so long as we have only a confused, instead of a clear and distinct, idea of God. Just as he who does not know the nature of the triangle does not know that the sum of its angles is equal to two rectangles; in the same way, he who only conceives the Divine nature in a confused manner does not see that to exist belongs to the nature of God. Now, to conceive the Divine nature in a clear and distinct manner, it is necessary to attend to a certain number of extremely simple notions, which are called common notions, and with their assistance to connect the conceptions which we form of the attributes of the Supreme. Then only for the first time does it become evident to us that God exists necessarily; that he is omnipresent, that all we conceive envelopes the nature of God, and is conceived by its moans; lastly, that all our adequate ideas are true. On this point the reader is referred to the prolegomena of my Tractate, entitled, "Principia philosophic Cartesianæ more Geometrica demonstrate."
- And the children of Israel multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and there arose a new king over Egypt, and he said, "The children of Israel are more and mightier than we: let us deal wisely with them, lest they join unto our enemies and fight against us," &c. — Ed.
- "And he (Elisha) lay upon the child, and put his mouth to his month, and the flesh of the child waxed warm," &c — Ed.
- This is as Spinoza has it, and as we presume it is in the original Hebrew, but in the margin of the Codex opposite the word bless stands the Variorum reading curse or blaspheme; and as in our English version we always have the marginal variation substituted for the textual word, so we have blaspheme in Kings and curse in Job. Vide some interesting observations of the Author on the marginal notes of the Hebrew codices in Chapter ix. — Ed.