The Proof From Miracles - Part 4
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
This being so, there is nothing one would more desire for a person or document one greatly values, than to make them independent of miracles. And with regard to the Old Testament we have done this ; for we have shown that the essential matter in the Old Testament is the revelation to Israel of the immeasurable grandeur, the eternal necessity, the priceless blessing of that with which not less than three. fourths of human life is indeed concerned,—righteousness. And it makes no difference to the preciousness of this revelation, whether we believe that the Red Sea miraculously opened a passage to the Israelites, and the walls of Jericho miraculously fell down at the blast of Joshua's trumpet, or that these stories arose in the same way as other stories of the kind. But in the New Testament the essential thing is the revelation of Jesus Christ. For this too, then, if one values it, one's great wish must in like manner be to make it independent of miracle, if miracle is a stay which one perceives, as more and more we are all coming to perceive it, to be not solid.
Now, it may look at first sight a strange thing to say, but it is a truth which we will make abundantly clear as we go on, that one of the very best helps to prepare the way for valuing the Bible and believing in Jesus Christ, is to convince oneself of the liability to mistake in the Bible-writers. Our popular theology supposes that the Old Testament writers were miraculously inspired, and could make no mistakes ; that the New Testament writers were miraculously inspired, and could make no mistakes ; and that there this miraculous inspiration stopped, and all writers on religion have been liable to make mistakes ever since. It is as if a hand had been put out of the sky presenting us with the Bible, and the rules of criticism which apply to ' other books did not apply to the Bible. Now, the fatal thing for this supposition is, that its owners stab it to the heart the moment they use any palliation or explaining away, however small, of the literal words of the Bible ; and some they always use. For instance, it is said in the eighteenth Psalm, that a consuming fire went out of the mouth of God, so that coals were kindled at it. The veriest literalist will cry out : Everyone knows that this is not to be taken literally ! The truth is, even he knows that this is not to be taken literally ; but others know that a great deal more is not to be taken literally. He knows very little ; but, as far as his little knowledge goes, he gives up his theory, which is, of course, palpably hollow. For indeed it is only by applying to the Bible a criticism, such as it is, that such a man makes out that criticism does not apply to the Bible.
There has grown up an irresistible sense that the belief in miracles was due to man's want of experience, to his ignorance, agitation, and helplessness. And it will not do to stake all truth and value of the Bible upon its having been put out of the sky, upon its being guaranteed by miracles, and upon their being true. If we present the Bible in this fashion, then the cry, Imposture! will more and more, in spite of all we can do, gather strength, and the book will be thrown aside more and more.
But when men come to see, that, both in the New Testament and in the Old, what is given us is words thrown out at an immense reality not fully or half fully grasped by the writers, but, even thus, able to affect us with indescribable force ; when we convince ourselves that, as in the Old Testament we have Israel's inadequate yet inexhaustibly fruitful testimony to the Eternal that makes for righteousness, so we have in the New Testament a report inadequate, indeed, but the only report we have, and therefore priceless, by men, some more able and clear, others less able and clear, but all full of the influences of their time and condition, partakers of some of its simple or its learned ignorance, inevitably, in fine, expecting miracles and demanding them, -a report, I say, by these men of that immense reality not fully or half fully grasped by them, the mind of Christ,—then we shall be drawn to the Gospels with a new zest and as by a fresh spell. We shall throw ourselves upon their narratives with an ardour answering to the value of the pearl of great price they hold, and to the difficulty of reaching it.
So, to profit fully by the New Testament, the first thing to be done is to make it perfectly clear to oneself that its reporters both could err and did err. For a plain person, an incident in the report of St. Paul's conversion,—which comes into our minds the more naturally as this incident has been turned against something we have ourselves said, —would, one would think, be enough. We had spoken of the notion that St, Paul's miraculous vision at his conversion proved the truth of his doctrine. We related a vision which converted Sampson Staniforth, one of the early Methodists ; and we said that just so much proving force, and no more, as Sampson Staniforth's vision had to confirm the truth of anything he might afterwards teach, St. Paul's vision had to establish his subsequent doctrine. It was eagerly rejoined that Staniforth's vision was but a fancy of his own, whereas the reality of Paul's was proved by his companions hearing the voice that spoke to him. And so in one place of the Acts we are told they did ; but in an-other place of the Acts we are told by Paul himself just the contrary: that his companions did not hear the voice that spoke to him. Need we say that the two statements have been ' reconciled'? They have, over and over again; but by one of those processes which are the opprobrium of our Bible-criticism, and by which, as Bishop Butler says, any-thing can be made to mean anything. There is between the two statements a contradiction as clear as can be. The contradiction proves nothing against the good faith of the reporter, and St. Paul undoubtedly had his vision; he had it as Sampson Staniforth had his. What the contradiction proves is the incurable looseness with which the circumstances of what is called and thought a miracle are related ; and that this looseness the Bible-relaters of a miracle exhibit, just like other people. And the moral is : what an unsure stay, then, must miracles be !
But, after all, that there is here any contradiction or mistake, some do deny ; so let us choose a case where the mistake is quite undeniably clear. Such a case we find in the confident expectation and assertion, on the part of the New Testament writers, of the approaching end of the world. Even this mistake people try to explain away ; but it is so palpable that no words can cloud our perception of it. The time is short. The Lord is at hand. The end of all things is at hand. Little children, it is the final time. The Lord's coming is at hand; behold, the judge standeth before the door. Nothing can really obscure the evidence furnished by such sayings as these. When Paul told the Thessalonians that they and he, at the approaching coming of Christ, should have their turn after, not before, the faithful dead :—' For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trump of God, and the dead in Christ shall rise first, then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air,'—when he said this, St. Paul was in truth simply mistaken in his notion of what was going to happen. This is as clear as anything can be.
And not only were the New Testament writers thus demonstrably liable to commit, like other men, mistakes in fact; they were also demonstrably liable to commit mistakes in argument. As before, let us take a case which will be manifest and palpable to everyone. St. Paul, arguing to the Galatians that salvation was not by the Jewish law but by Jesus Christ, proves his point from the promise to Abraham having been made to him and his seed, not seeds. The words are not, he says, 'seeds, as of many, but as of one ; to thy seed, which is Christ.' Now, as to the point to be proved, we all agree with St. Paul ; but his argument is that of a Jewish Rabbi, and is clearly both fanciful and false. The writer in Genesis never intended to draw any distinction between one of Abraham's seed, and Abraham's seed in general. And even if he had expressly meant, what Paul says he did not mean, Abraham's seed in general, he would still have said seed, and not seeds. This is a good instance to take, because the Apostle's substantial doctrine is here not at all concerned. As to the root of the matter in question, we are all at one with St. Paul. But it is evident how he could, like the rest of us, bring forward a quite false argument in support of a quite true thesis.
And the use of prophecy by the writers of the New Testament furnishes really, almost at every turn, instances of false argument of the same kind. Habit makes us so lend ourselves to their way of speaking, that commonly nothing checks us ; but, the moment we begin to attend, we perceive how much there is which ought to check us. Take the famous allegation of the parted clothes but lot-assigned coat of Christ, as fulfilment of the supposed prophecy in the Psalms : ` They parted my garments among them, and for my vesture did they cast lots.' The words of the Psalm are taken to mean contrast, when they do in truth mean identity. According to the rules of Hebrew poetry, for my vesture they did cast lots is merely a repetition, in different words, of they started my garments among them, not an antithesis to it. The alleged ' prophecy' is, there-fore, due to a dealing with the Psalmist's words which is arbitrary and erroneous. So, again, to call the words, a bone of him shall not be broken a prophecy of Christ, fulfilled by his legs not being broken on the cross, is evidently, the moment one considers it, a playing with words which nowadays we should account childish. For what do the words, taken, as alone words can rationally be taken, along with their context, really prophesy? The entire safety of the righteous, not his death. Many are the troubles of the righteous, but the Eternal delivereth him out of all; he keepeth all his bones, so that not one of them is broken.' Worse words, therefore, could hardly have been chosen from the Old Testament to apply in that connexion where they come ; for they are really contradicted by the death of Christ, not fulfilled by it.
It is true, this verbal and unintelligent use of Scripture is just what was to be expected from the circumstances of the New Testament writers. It was inevitable for them ; it was the sort of trifling which then, in common Jewish theology, passed for grave argument and made a serious impression, as it has in common Christian theology ever since. But this does not make it the less really trifling ; or hinder one nowadays from seeing it to be trifling, directly we examine it. The mistake made will strike some people more forcibly in one of the cases cited, some in another, but in one or other of the cases the mistake will be visible to everybody.
Now, this recognition of the liability of the New Testament writers to make mistakes, both of fact and of argument, will certainly, as we have said, more and more gain strength, and spread wider and wider. The futility of their mode of demonstration from prophecy, of which we have just given examples, will be more and more felt. The fallibility of that demonstration from miracles to which they and all about them attached such preponderating weight, which made the disciples of Jesus believe in him, which made the people believe in him, will be more and more recognised.
Reverence for all, who in those first dubious days of Christianity, chose the better part, and resolutely cast in their lot with ' the despised and rejected of men' ! Gratitude to all, who, while the tradition was yet fresh, helped by their writings to preserve and set clear the precious record of the words and life of Jesus ! And honour, eternal honour, to the great and profound qualities of soul and mind which some of these writers display ! But the writers are admirable for what they are, not for what, by the nature of things, they could not be. It was superiority enough in them to attach themselves firmly to Jesus ; to feel to the bottom of their hearts that power of his words, which alone held permanently,—held, when the miracles, in which the multitude believed as well as the disciples, failed to hold. The good faith of the Bible-writers is above all question, it speaks for itself; and the very same criticism, which shows us the defects of their exegesis and of their demonstrations from miracles, establishes their good faith. But this could not, and did not, prevent them from arguing in the methods by which everyone around them argued, and from expecting miracles where everybody else expected them.
In one respect alone have the miracles recorded by them a more real ground than the mass of miracles of which we have the relation. Medical science has never gauged,—never, perhaps, 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 far 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.' The bringer of light and happiness, the calmer and pacifier, or invigorator and stimulator, is one of the chiefest of doctors. Such a doctor was Jesus ; such an operator, by an efficacious and real, though little observed and little employed agency, upon what we, in the language of popular superstition, call the unclean spirits, but which are to be designated more literally and more correctly as the uncleared, unpurified spirits, which came raging and madding before him. This his own language shows, if we know how to read it. ` What does it matter whether I say, Thy sins are forgiven thee ! or whether I say, Arise and walk !' And again : ` Thou art made whole; sin no more, lest a worse thing befall thee.' 3 His reporters, we must remember, are men who saw thaumaturgy in all that Jesus did, and who saw in all sickness and disaster visitations from God, and they bend his language accordingly. But indications enough remain to show the line of the Master, his perception of the large part of moral cause in many kinds of disease, and his method of addressing to this part his cure.
It would never have done, indeed, to have men pronouncing right and left that this and that was a judgment, and how, and for what, and on whom. And so, when the disciples, seeing an afflicted person, asked whether this man had done sin or his parents, Jesus checked them and said :
`Neither the one nor the other, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.' Not the less clear is his own belief in the moral root of much physical disease, and in moral therapeutics ; and it is important to note well the action of Jesus in these instances, however it may be amplified in the reports, was real ; but it is not, therefore, as popular religion fancies, thaumaturgy,—it is not what people are fond of calling the supernatural, but what is better called the non-natural. It is, on the contrary, like the grace of Raphael, or the grand style of Phidias, eminently natural ; but it is above common, low-pitched nature. It is a line of nature not yet mastered or followed out.
Its significance as a guarantee of the authenticity of Christ's mission is trivial, however, compared with the guarantee furnished by his sayings. Its importance is in its necessary effect upon the beholders and reporters. This element of what was 'really wonderful, unprecedented, and unaccountable, they had actually before them ; and we may estimate how it must have helped and seemed to sanction that tendency which in any case would have carried them, circumstanced as they were, to find all the performances and career of Jesus miraculous.
But, except for this, the miracles related in the Gospels will appear to us more and more, the more our experience and knowledge increases, to have but the same ground which is common to all miracles, the ground indicated by Shakespeare ; to have been generated under the same kind of conditions as other miracles, and to follow the same laws. When once the `Zeit-Geist' has made us entertain the notion of this, a thousand things in the manner of relating will strike us which never struck us before, and will make us wonder how we could ever have thought differently. Discrepancies which we now labour with such honest pains and by such astonishing methods to explain away,—the voice at Paul's conversion, heard by the bystanders according to one account, not heard by them according to another ; the Holy Dove at Christ's baptism, visible to John the Baptist in one narrative, in two others to Jesus himself, in another, finally, to all the people as well ; the single blind man in one relation, growing into two blind men in another ; the speaking with tongues, according to St. Paul a sound without meaning, according to the Acts an intelligent and intelligible utterance,—all this will be felt to require really no explanation at all, to explain itself, to be natural to the whole class of incidents to which these miracles belong, and the inevitable result of the looseness with which the stories of them arise and are propagated.
And the more the miraculousness of the story deepens, as after the death of Jesus, the more does the texture of the incidents become loose and floating, the more does the very air and aspect of things seem to tell us we are in wonder-land. Jesus after his resurrection not known by Mary Magdalene, taken by her for the gardener; appearing in another form, and not known by the two disciples going with him to Emmaus and at supper with him there ; not known by his most intimate apostles on the borders of the Sea of Galilee ;—and presently, out of these vague beginnings, the recognitions getting asserted, then the ocular demonstrations, the final commissions, the ascension ;—one hardly knows which of the two to call the most evident here, the perfect simplicity and good faith of the narrators, or the plainness with which they themselves really say to us : Behold a legend growing under your eyes !
And suggestions of this sort, with respect to the whole miraculous side of the New Testament, will meet us at every turn ; we here but give a sample of them. It is neither our wish nor our design to accumulate them, to marshal them, to insist upon them, to make their force felt. Let those who desire to keep them at arm's length continue to do so, if they can, and go on placing the sanction of the Christian religion in its miracles. Our point is that the objections to miracles do, and more and more will, without insistence, without attack, without controversy, make their own force felt ; and that the sanction of Christianity, if Christianity is not to be lost along with its miracles, must be found elsewhere.