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The Proof From Prophecy

'Aberglaube is the poetry of life.' That men should, by help of their imagination, take short cuts to what they ardently desire, whether the triumph of Israel or the triumph of Christianity, should tell themselves fairy-tales about it, should make these fairy-tales the basis for what is far more sure and solid than the fairy-tales, the desire itself,—all this has in it, we repeat, nothing which is not natural, nothing blameable. Nay, the region of our hopes and presentiments extends, as we have also said, far beyond the region of what we can know with certainty. What we reach but by hope and presentiment may yet be true; and he would be a narrow reasoner who denied, for instance, all validity to the idea of immortality, because this idea rests on presentiment mainly, and does not admit of certain demonstration. In religion, above all, extra-belief is in itself no matter, assuredly, for blame. The object of religion is conduct; and if a man helps himself in his conduct by taking an object of hope and presentiment as if it were an object of certainty, he may even be said to gain thereby an advantage.

And yet there is always a drawback to a man's advantage in thus treating, when he deals with religion and conduct, what is extra-belief and not certain as if it were matter of certainty, and in making it his ground of action. He pays for it. The time comes when he discovers that it is not certain; and then the whole certainty of religion seems discredited, and the basis of conduct gone. This danger attends the reliance on prediction and miracle as evidences of Christianity.

They have been attacked as a part of the 'cheat' or 'imposture' of religion and of Christianity. For us, religion is the solidest of realities, and Christianity the greatest and happiest stroke ever yet made for human perfection. Prediction and miracle were attributed to it as its supports because of its grandeur, and because of the awe and admiration which it inspired. Generations of men have helped themselves to hold firmer to it, helped themselves in conduct, by the aid of these supports. 'Miracles prove,' men have said and thought, 'that the order of physical nature is not fate, nor a mere material constitution of things, but the subject of a free, omnipotent Master. Prophecy fulfilled proves that neither fate nor man are masters of the world.'

And to take prophecy first. 'The conditions,' it is said, 'which form the true conclusive standard of a prophetic inspiration are these: That the prediction be known to have been promulgated before the event; that the event be such as could not have been foreseen, when it was predicted, by an effort of human reason; and that the event and the prediction correspond together in a clear accomplishment. There are prophecies in Scripture answering to the standard of an absolute proof. Their publication, their fulfilment, their supernatural prescience, are fully ascertained.' On this sort of ground men came to rest the proof of Christianity.

Now, it may be said, indeed, that a prediction fulfilled, an exhibition of supernatural prescience, proves nothing for or against the truth and necessity of conduct and righteousness. But it must be allowed, notwithstanding, that while human nature is what it is, the mass of men are likely to listen more to a teacher of righteousness, if he accompanies his teaching by an exhibition of supernatural prescience. And what were called the 'signal predictions' concerning the Christ of popular theology, as they stand in our Bibles, had and have undoubtedly a look of supernatural prescience. The employment of capital letters, and other aids, such as the constant use of the future tense, naturally and innocently adopted by interpreters who were profoundly convinced that Christianity needed these express predictions and that they must be in the Bible, enhanced, certainly, this look; but the look, even without these aids, was sufficiently striking.

Yes, that Jacob on his death-bed should two thousand years before Christ have 'been enabled,' as the phrase is, to foretell to his son Judah that 'the scepter shall not depart from Judah until Shiloh (or the Messiah) come, and unto him shall the gathering of the people be,' does seem, when the explanation is put with it that the Jewish kingdom lasted till the Christian era and then perished, a miracle of prediction in favor of our current Christian theology. That Jeremiah should during the captivity have 'been enabled' to foretell, in Jehovah's name: 'The days come that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch; in his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely; and this is his name whereby he shall be called, the lord our righteousness!' —does seem a prodigy of prediction in favor of that tenet of the Godhead of the Eternal Son, for which the Bishops of Winchester and Gloucester are so anxious to do something. For unquestionably, in the prophecy here given, the Branch of David, the future Savior of Israel, who was Jesus Christ, appears to be expressly identified with the Lord God, with Jehovah. Again, that David should say: 'The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou on my right hand until I make thine enemies thy footstool,' —does seem a prodigy of prediction to the same effect. And so long as these prophecies stand as they are here given, they no doubt bring to Christianity all the support (and with the mass of mankind this is by no means inconsiderable) which it can derive from the display of supernatural prescience.

But who will dispute that it more and more becomes known, that these prophecies cannot stand as we have here given them? Manifestly, it more and more becomes known, that the passage from Genesis, with its mysterious Shiloh and the gathering of the people to him, is rightly to be rendered as follows: 'The pre-eminence shall not depart from Judah so long as the people resort to Shiloh (the national sanctuary before Jerusalem was won); and the nations (the heathen Canaanites) shall obey him.' We here purposely leave out of sight any such consideration as that our actual books of the Old Testament came first together through the instrumentality of the house of Judah, and when the destiny of Judah was already traced; and that to say roundly and confidently: 'Jacob was enabled to foretell, The scepter shall not depart from Judah,' is wholly inadmissible. For this consideration is of force, indeed, but it is a consideration drawn from the rules of literary history and criticism, and not likely to have weight with the mass of mankind. Palpable error and mistranslation are what will have weight with them.

And what, then, will they say as they come to know (and do not and must not more and more of them come to know it every day?) that Jeremiah's supposed signal identification of Jesus Christ with the Lord God of Israel: 'I will raise to David a righteous Branch, and this is the name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our righteousness,' runs really: 'I will raise to David a righteous branch; in his days Judah shall be saved and Israel shall dwell safely and this is the name whereby they shall call themselves: The Eternal is our righteousness!' The prophecy thus becomes simply one of the many promises of a successor to David under whom the Hebrew people should trust in the Eternal and follow righteousness; just as the prophecy from Genesis is one of the many prophecies of the enduring continuance of the greatness of Judah. 'The Lord said unto my Lord,' in like manner;—will not people be startled when they find that it ought instead to run as follows: 'The Eternal said unto my lord the king,'—a simple promise of victory to a royal leader of God's chosen people?

Leslie, in his once famous Short and Easy Methods with the Deists, speaks of the impugners of the current evidences of Christianity as men who consider the Scripture histories and the Christian religion 'cheats and impositions of cunning and designing men upon the credulity of simple people.' Collins, and the whole array of writers at whom Leslie aims this, greatly need to be re-surveyed from the point of view of our own age. Nevertheless, we may grant that some of them, at any rate, conduct their attacks on the current evidences for Christianity in such a manner as to give the notion that in their opinion Christianity itself, and religion, is a cheat and an imposture. But how far more prone will the mass of mankind be to hearken to this opinion, if they have been kept intent on predictions such as those of which we have just given specimens; if they have been kept full of the great importance of this line of mechanical evidence, and then suddenly find that this line of evidence gives way at all points? It can hardly be gainsaid, that, to a delicate and penetrating criticism, it has long been manifest that the chief literal fulfilment by Jesus Christ of things said by the prophets was the fulfilment such as would naturally be given by one who nourished his spirit on the prophets, and on living and acting their words. The great prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah are, critics can easily see, not strictly predictions at all; and predictions which are strictly meant as such, like those in the Book of Daniel, are an embarrassment to the Bible rather than a main element of it. 'The Zeit-Geist,' and the mere spread of what is called enlightenment, superficial and barren as this often is, will inevitably, before long, make this conviction of criticism a popular opinion, held far and wide. And then, what will be their case, who have been so long and sedulously taught to rely on supernatural predictions as a mainstay?

The same must be said of miracles. The substitution of some other proof of Christianity for this accustomed proof is now to be desired most by those who most think Christianity of importance. That old friend of ours on whom we have formerly commented, who insists upon it that Christianity is and shall be nothing else but this, 'that Christ promised Paradise to the saint and threatened the worldly man with hell-fire, and proved his power to promise and to threaten by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven,' is certainly not the guide whom lovers of Christianity, if they could discern what it is that he really expects and aims at, and what it is which they themselves really desire, would think it wise to follow.

But the subject of miracles is a very great one; it includes within itself, indeed, the whole question about 'supernatural prescience,' which meets us when we deal with prophecy. And this great subject requires, in order that we may deal with it properly, some little recapitulation of our original design in this essay, and of the circumstances in which the cause of religion and of the Bible seems to be at this moment placed.

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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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