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The Proof From Miracles

We have seen that some new treatment or other the religion of the Bible certainly seems to require, for it is attacked on all sides, and the theologians are not so successful as one might wish in defending it. One critic says, that if these islands had no religion at all it would not enter into his mind to introduce the religious and ethical idea by the agency of the Bible. Another, that though certain common places are common to all systems of morality, yet the Bible-way of enunciating these commonplaces no longer suits us. And we may rest assured, he adds, that by saying what we think in some other, more congenial, language, we shall really be taking the shortest road to discovering the new doctrines which will satisfy at once our reason and our imagination. Another critic goes farther still, and calls Bible-religion not only destitute of a modern and congenial way of stating its commonplaces of morality, but a defacer and disfigurer of moral treasures which were once in better keeping. The more one studies, the more, says he, one is convinced that the religion which calls itself revealed contains, in the way of what is good, nothing which is not the incoherent and ill-digested residue of the wisdom of the ancients. To the same effect the Duke of Somerset,—who has been affording proof to the world that our aristocratic class are not, as has been said, inaccessible to ideas and merely polite, but that they are familiar, on the contrary, with modern criticism of the most advanced kind, the Duke of Somerset finds very much to condemn in the Bible and its teaching; although the soul, he says, has (outside the Bible, apparently) one unassailable fortress to which she may retire,—faith in God.

All this seems to threaten to push Bible-religion from the place it has long held in our affections. And even what the most modern criticism of all sometimes does to save it and to set it up again, can hardly be called very flattering to it. For whereas the Hebrew race imagined that to them were committed the oracles of God, and that their God, 'the Eternal who loveth righteousness,' was the God to whom 'every knee shall bow and every tongue shall swear,' there now comes M. Emile Burnouf, the accomplished kinsman of the gifted orientalist Eugène Burnouf, and will prove to us in a thick volume that the oracles of God were not committed to a Semitic race at all, but to the Aryan; that the true God is not Israel's God at all, but is 'the idea of the absolute' which Israel could never properly master. This 'sacred theory of the Aryas,' it seems, passed into Palestine from Persia and India, and got possession of the founder of Christianity and of his greatest apostles St. Paul and St. John; becoming more perfect, and returning more and more to its true character of a 'transcendent metaphysic,' as the doctors of the Christian Church developed it. So that we Christians, who are Aryas, may have the satisfaction of thinking that 'the religion of Christ has not come to us from the Semites,' and that 'it is in the hymns of the Veda, and not in the Bible, that we are to look for the primordial source of our religion.' The theory of Christ is accordingly the theory of the Vedi Agni, or fire. The Incarnation represents the Vedic solemnity of the production of fire, symbol of force of every kind, of all movement, life, and thought. The Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit is the Vedic Trinity of Sun, Fire, and Wind; and God, finally, is 'a cosmic unity.'

Such speculations almost take away the breath of a mere man of letters. What one is inclined to say of them is this. Undoubtedly these exploits of the Aryan genius are gratifying to us members of the Aryan race. The original God of the Hebrews, M. Burnouf says expressly, 'was not a cosmic unity;' the religion of the Hebrews 'had not that transcendent metaphysic which the genius of the Aryas requires;' and, 'in passing from the Aryan race to the inferior races, religion underwent a deterioration due to the physical and moral constitution of these races.' For religion, it must be remembered, is, in M. Burnouf's view, fundamentally a science; 'a metaphysical conception, a theory, a synthetic explanation of the universe.' Now, 'the perfect Arya is capable of a great deal of science; the Semite is inferior to him.' As Aryas or Aryans, then, we ought to be pleased at having vindicated the greatness of our race, and having not borrowed a Semitic religion as it stood, but transformed it by importing our own metaphysics into it.

And this seems to harmonize very well with what the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester say about 'doing something for the honor of Our Lord's Godhead,' and about 'the infinite separation for time and for eternity which is involved in rejecting the Godhead of the Eternal Son, Very God of Very God, Light of Light;' and also with the Athanasian Creed generally, and with what the clergy write to the Guardian about 'eternal life being unquestionably annexed to a right knowledge of the Godhead.' For all these have in view high science and metaphysics, worthy of the Aryas. But to Bible-religion, in the plain sense of the word, it is not flattering; for it throws overboard almost entirely the Old Testament, and makes the essence of the New to consist in an esoteric doctrine not very visible there, but more fully developed outside of it. The metaphysical element is made the fundamental element in religion. But, 'the Bible-books, especially the more ancient of them, are destitute of metaphysics, and consequently of method and classification in their ideas.' Israel, therefore, instead of being a light of the Gentiles and a salvation to the ends of the earth, falls to a place in the world's religious history behind the Arya. He is dismissed as ranking anthropologically between the Aryas and the yellow men; as having frizzled hair, thick lips, small calves, flat feet, and belonging, above all, to those 'occipital races' whose brain cannot grow above the age of sixteen; whereas the brain of a theological Arya, such as one of our bishops, may go on growing all his life.

But we, who think that the Old Testament leads surely up to the New, who believe that, indeed, 'salvation is of the Jews,' and that, for what concerns conduct or righteousness (that is, for what concerns three-fourths of human life), they and their documents can no more be neglected by whoever would make proficiency in it, than Greece can be neglected by anyone who would make proficiency in art, or Newton's discoveries by whoever would comprehend the world's physical laws,—we are naturally not satisfied with this treatment of Israel and the Bible. And admitting that Israel shows no talent for metaphysics, we say that his religious greatness is just this, that he does not found religion on metaphysics, but on moral experience, which is a much simpler matter; and that, ever since the apparition of Israel and the Bible, religion is no longer what, according to M. Burnouf, to our Aryan forefathers in the valley of the Oxus it was,—and what perhaps it really was to them,—metaphysical theory, but is what Israel has made it.

And what Israel made, and how he made it, we seek to show from the Bible itself. Thus we hope to win for the Bible and its religion, which seem to us so indispensable to the world, an access to many of those who now neglect them. For there is this to be said against M. Burnouf's metaphysics: no one can allege that the Bible has failed to win access for want of metaphysics being applied to it. Metaphysics are just what all our theology runs up into, and our bishops, as we know, are here particularly strong. But we see every day that the making religion into metaphysics is the weakening of religion; now, M. Burnouf makes religion into metaphysics more than ever. Yet evidently the metaphysical method lacks power for laying hold on people, and compelling them to receive the Bible from it; it is felt to be inconclusive as thus employed, and its inconclusiveness tells against the Bible. This is the case with the old metaphysics of our bishops, and it will be the case with M. Burnouf's new metaphysics also. They will be found, we fear, to have an inconclusiveness in their recommendation of Christianity. To very many persons, indeed to the great majority, such a method, in such a matter, must be inconclusive.

Therefore we would not allow ourselves to start with any metaphysical conception at all, not with the monotheistic idea, as it is styled, any more than with the pantheistic idea; and, indeed, we are quite sure that Israel himself began with nothing of the kind. The idea of God, as it is given us in the Bible, rests, we say, not on a metaphysical conception of the necessity of certain deductions from our ideas of cause, existence, identity, and the like; but on a moral perception of a rule of conduct not of our own making, into which we are born, and which exists whether we will or no; of awe at its grandeur and necessity, and of gratitude at its beneficence. This is the great original revelation made to Israel, this is his 'Eternal.'

Man, however, as Goethe says, never knows how anthropomorphic he is. Israel described his Eternal in the language of poetry and emotion, and could not thus describe him but with the characters of a man. Scientifically he never attempted to describe him at all. But still the Eternal was ever at last reducible, for Israel, to the reality of experience out of which the revelation sprang; he was 'the righteous Eternal who loveth righteousness.' They who 'seek the Eternal,' and they who 'follow after righteousness,' were identical; just as, conversely, they who 'fear the Eternal,' and they who 'depart from evil,' were identical. Above all: 'Blessed is the man that feareth the Eternal;' 'it is joy to the just to do judgment;' 'righteousness tendeth to life;' 'the righteous is an everlasting foundation.'

But, as time went on, facts seemed, we saw, to contradict this fundamental belief, to refute this faith in the Eternal; material forces prevailed, and God appeared, as they say, to be on the side of the big battalions. The great unrighteous kingdoms of the world, kingdoms which cared far less than Israel for righteousness and for the Eternal who makes for righteousness, overpowered Israel. Prophecy assured him that the triumph of the Eternal's cause and people was certain: Behold the Eternal's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save. The triumph was but adjourned through Israel's own sins: Your iniquities have separated between you and your God. Prophecy directed its hearers to the future, and promised them a new, everlasting kingdom, under a heaven-sent leader. The characters of this kingdom and leader were more, spiritualized by one prophet, more materialized by another. As time went on, in the last centuries before our era, they became increasingly turbid and phantasmagorical. In addition to his original experimental belief in the Almighty Eternal who makes for righteousness, Israel had now a vast Aberglaube, an after or extra-belief, not experimental, in an approaching kingdom of the saints, to be established by an Anointed, a Messiah, or by 'one like the Son of Man,' commissioned from the Ancient of Days and coming in the clouds of heaven.

Jesus came, calling himself the Messiah, the Son of Man, the Son of God; and the question is, what is the true meaning of these assertions of his, and of all his teaching? It is the same question we had about the Old Testament. Is the language scientific, or is it, as we say, literary?—that is, the language of poetry and emotion, approximative language, thrown out, as it were, at certain great objects which the human mind augurs and feels after, but not language accurately defining them? Popular religion says, we know, that the language is scientific; that the God of the Old Testament is a great Personal First Cause, who thinks and loves (for this too, it seems, we ought to have added), the moral and intelligent Governor of the universe. Learned religion, the metaphysical theology of our bishops, proves or confirms the existence of this personal God by abstruse reasoning from our ideas of cause, design, existence, identity, and so on. Popular religion rests it altogether on revelation and miracle. The God of Israel, for popular religion, is a magnified and non-natural man who has really worked stupendous miracles, whereas the Gods of the heathen were vainly imagined to be able to work them, but could not, and had therefore no real existence. Of this God, Jesus for popular religion is the Son. He came to appease God's wrath against sinful men by the sacrifice of himself; and he proved his Sonship by a course of stupendous miracles, and by the wonderful accomplishment in him of the supernatural Messianic predictions of prophecy. Here, again, learned religion elucidates and develops the relation of the Son to the Father by a copious exhibition of metaphysics; but for popular religion the relationship, and the authority of Jesus which derives from it, is altogether established by miracle.

Now, we have seen that our bishops and their metaphysics are so little convincing, that many people throw the Bible quite aside and will not attend to it, because they are given to understand that the metaphysics go necessarily along with it, and that one cannot be taken without the other. So far, then, the talents of the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester, and their zeal to do something for the honor of the Eternal Son's Godhead, may be said to be actual obstacles to the receiving and studying of the Bible. But the same may now be also said of the popular theology which rests the Bible's authority and the Christian religion on miracle. To a great many persons this is tantamount to stopping their use of the Bible and of the Christian religion; for they have made up their minds that what is popularly called miracle never does really happen, and that the belief in it arises out of either ignorance or mistake. To these persons we restore the use of the Bible, if, while showing them that the Bible-language is not scientific, but the language of common speech or of poetry and eloquence, approximative language thrown out at certain great objects of consciousness which it does not pretend to define fully, we convince them at the same time that this language deals with facts of positive experience, most momentous and real. We have sought to do this for the Old Testament first, and we now seek to do it for the New. But our attempt has in view those who are incredulous about the Bible and inclined to throw it aside, not those who at present receive it on the grounds supplied either by popular theology or by metaphysical theology. For persons of this kind, what we say neither will have, nor seeks to have, any constraining force at all; only it is rendered necessary by the want of constraining force, for others than themselves, in their own theology. How little constraining force metaphysical dogma has, we all see. And we have shown, too, how the proof from the fulfilment in Jesus Christ of a number of detailed predictions, supposed to have been made with supernatural prescience about him long beforehand, is losing, and seems likely more and more to lose, its constraining force. It is found that the predictions and their fulfilment are not what they are said to be.

Now we come to miracles more specially so called. And we have to see whether the constraining force of this proof, too, must not be admitted to be far less than it used to be, and whether some other source of authority for the Bible is not much to be desired.

That miracles, when fully believed, are felt by men in general to be a source of authority, it is absurd to deny. One may say, indeed: Suppose I could change the pen with which I write this into a penwiper, I should not thus make what I write any the truer or more convincing. That may be so in reality, but the mass of mankind feel differently. In the judgment of the mass of mankind, could I visibly and undeniably change the pen with which I write this into a penwiper, not only would this which I write acquire a claim to be held perfectly true and convincing, but I should even be entitled to affirm, and to be believed in affirming, propositions the most palpably at war with common fact and experience. It is almost impossible to exaggerate the proneness of the human mind to take miracles as evidence, and to seek for miracles as evidence; or the extent to which religion, and religion of a true and admirable kind, has been, and is still, held in connection with a reliance upon miracles. This reliance will long outlast the reliance on the supernatural prescience of prophecy, for it is not exposed to the same tests. To pick Scripture miracles one by one to pieces is an odious and repulsive task; it is also an unprofitable one, for whatever we may think of the affirmative demonstrations of them, a negative demonstration of them is, from the circumstances of the case, impossible. And yet the human mind is assuredly passing away, however slowly, from this hold of reliance also; and those who make it their stay will more and more find it fail them, will more and more feel themselves disturbed, shaken, distressed, and bewildered.

For it is what we call the Time-Spirit which is sapping the proof from miracles,—it is the 'Zeit-Geist' itself. Whether we attack them, or whether we defend them, does not much matter. The human mind, as its experience widens, is turning away from them. And for this reason: it sees, as its experience widens, how they arise. It sees that, under certain circumstances, they always do arise; and that they have not more solidity in one case than another. Under certain circumstances, wherever men are found, there is, as Shakespeare says:—

No natural exhalation in the sky,
No scape of nature, no distemper'd day,
No common wind, no customed event,
But they will pluck away his natural cause,
And call them meteors, prodigies, and signs,
Abortives, presages, and tongues of heaven.

Imposture is so far from being the general rule in these cases, that it is the rare exception. Signs and wonders men's minds will have, and they create them honestly and naturally; yet not so but that we can see how they create them.

Roman Catholics fancy that Bible-miracles and the miracles of their Church form a class by themselves; Protestants fancy that Bible-miracles, alone, form a class by themselves. This was eminently the posture of mind of the late Archbishop Whately:—to hold that all other miracles would turn out to be impostures, or capable of a natural explanation, but that Bible-miracles would stand sifting by a London special jury or by a committee of scientific men. No acuteness can save such notions, as our knowledge widens, from being seen to be mere extravagances, and the Protestant notion is doomed to an earlier ruin than the Catholic. For the Catholic notion admits miracles,—so far as Christianity, at least, is concerned,—in the mass; the Protestant notion invites to a criticism by which it must before long itself perish. When Stephen was martyred, he looked up into heaven, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God. That, says the Protestant, is solid fact. At the martyrdom of St. Fructuosus the Christian servants of the Roman governor, Babylas and Mygdone, saw the heavens open, and the saint and his deacon Eulogius carried up on high with crowns on their heads. That is, says the Protestant, imposture or else illusion. St. Paul hears on his way to Damascus the voice of Jesus say to him: 'Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?' That is solid fact. The companion of St. Thomas Aquinas hears a voice from the crucifix say to the praying saint: 'Thou hast written well of me, Thomas; what recompense dost thou desire?' That is imposture or else illusion. Why? It is impossible to find any criterion by which one of these incidents may establish its claim to a solidity which we refuse to the others.

One of two things must be made out in order to place either the Bible-miracles alone, or the Bible-miracles and the miracles of the Catholic Church with them, in a class by themselves. Either they must be shown to have arisen in a time eminently unfavorable to such a process as Shakespeare describes, to amplification and the production of legend; or they must be shown to be recorded in documents of an eminently historical mode of birth and publication. But surely it is manifest that the Bible-miracles fulfil neither of these conditions. It was said that the waters of the Pamphylian Sea miraculously opened a passage for the army of Alexander the Great. Admiral Beaufort, however, tells us that, 'though there are no tides in this part of the Mediterranean, a considerable depression of the sea is caused by long-continued north winds, and Alexander, taking advantage of such a moment, may have dashed on without impediment.' And we accept the explanation as a matter of course. But the waters of the Red Sea are said to have miraculously opened a passage for the children of Israel; and we insist on the literal truth of this story, and reject natural explanations as impious. Yet the time and circumstances of the flight from Egypt were a thousand times more favorable to the rise of some natural incident into a miracle, than the age of Alexander. They were a time and circumstances of less broad daylight. It was said, again, that during the battle of Leuctra the gates of the Heracleum at Thebes suddenly opened, and the armor of Hercules vanished from the temple, to enable the god to take part with the Thebans in the battle. Probably there was some real circumstance, however slight, which gave a foundation for the story. But this is the utmost we think of saying in its favor; the literal story it never even occurs to one of us to believe. But that the walls of Jericho literally fell down at the sound of the trumpets of Joshua, we are asked to believe, told that it is impious to disbelieve it. Yet which place and time were most likely to generate a miraculous story with ease,—Hellas and the days of Epaminondas, or Palestine and the days of Joshua? And of documentary records, which are the most historical in their way of being generated and propagated, which the most favorable for the admission of legend and miracle of all kinds,—the Old Testament narratives with their incubation of centuries, and the New Testament narratives with their incubation of a century (and tradition active all the while), or the narratives, say, of Herodotus or Plutarch?

None of them are what we call critical. Experience of the history of the human mind, and of men's habits of seeing, sifting, and relating, convinces us that the miraculous stories of Herodotus or Plutarch do grow out of the process described by Shakespeare. But we shall find ourselves inevitably led, sooner or later, to extend the same rule to all miraculous stories; nay, the considerations which apply in other cases, apply, we shall most surely discover, with even greater force in the case of Bible-miracles.

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 ardor 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 another 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, anything 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 parted my garments among them, not an antithesis to it. The alleged prophecy is, therefore, 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 connection 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 recognized. 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 previous record of the words and life of Jesus! And honor, eternal honor, 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 connection 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!' 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 instances of miracles where this belief comes in. For 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 labor 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 wonderland. 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.

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Matthew Arnold

  • English poet and cultural critic
  • Born on December 24th, 1822 and died on April 15th, 1888

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