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Charles Buck Theological Dictionary


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In its original sense, is a word of the same import with wonder; but, in its usual and more appropriate signification, it denotes "an effect contrary to the established constitution and course of things, or a sensible deviation from the known laws of nature." "That the visible world, " says Dr. Gleig, "is governed by stated general rules, or that there is an order of causes and effects established in every part of the system of nature which falls under our observation, is a fact which cannot be controverted. If the Supreme Being, as some have supposed, be the only real agent in the universe, we have the evidence of experience, that in the particular system to which we belong he acts by stated rules. If he employs inferior agents to conduct the various motions from which the phenomena result, we have the same evidence that he has subjected those agents to certain fixed laws, commonly called the laws of nature. On either hypothesis, effects which are produced by the regular operation of these laws, or which are conformable to the established course of events, are properly called natural; and every contradiction to this contitution of the natural system, and the correspondent course of events in it, is called a miracle.

"If this definition of a miracle be just, no event can be deemed miraculous merely because it is strange, or even to us unaccountable: since it may be nothing more than a regular effect of some unknown law of nature. In this country earthquakes are rare; and for monstrous births, perhaps, no particular and satisfactory account can be given: yet an earthquake is as regular an effect of the established laws of nature as any of those with which we are most intimately acquainted: and, under circumstances in which there would always be the same kind of production, the monster is nature's genuine issue. It is therefore necessary, before we can pronounce any effect to be a true miracle, that the circumstances under which it is produced be known, and that the common course of nature be in some degree understood; for in all those cases in which we are totally ignorant of nature, it is impossible to determine what is, or what is not, a deviation from its course. Miracles, therefore, are not, as some have represented them, appeals to our ignorance. They suppose some antecedent knowledge of the course of nature, without which no proper judgment can be formed concerning them; though with it their reality may be so apparent as to prevent all possibility of a dispute.

"Thus, were a physician to cure a blind man of a cataract, by anointing his eyes with a chemical preparation which we had never before seen, and to the nature and effects of which we are absolute strangers, the cure would undoubtedly be wonderful; but we could not pronounce it miraculous, because, for any thing known to us, it might be the natural effect of the operation of the unguent on the eye. But were he to recover his patient merely by commanding him to see, or by anointing his eyes with spittle, we should with the utmost confidence pronounce the cure to be a miracle; because we know perfectly that neither the human voice nor human spittle have, by the established constitution of things, any such power over the diseases of the eye. "If miracles be effects contrary to the established constitution of things, we are certain that they will never be performed on trivial occasions. The constitution of things was established by the Creator and Governor of the universe, and is undoubtedly the offspring of infinite wisdom, pursuing a plan for the best of purposes. From this plan no deviation can be made but by God himself, or by some powerful being acting with his permission. The proportion to their perfection, and the plans of infinite wisdom must be absolutely perfect. From this consideration, some men have ventured to conclude that no miracle was ever wrought, or can rationally be expected; but maturer reflection must soon satisfy us that all such conclusions are hasty.

"Man is unquestionably the principal creature in this world, and apparently the only one in it who is capable of being made acquainted with the relation in which he stands to his Creator. We cannot, therefore, doubt, but that such of the laws of nature as extend not their operation beyond the limits of this earth were established chiefly, if not solely, for the good of mankind; and if, in any particular circumstances, that good can be more effectually promoted by an occasional deviation from those laws, such a deviation may be reasonably expected. "We know from history, that almost all mankind were once sunk into the grossest ignorance of the most important truths; that they knew not the Being by whom they were created and supported; that they paid divine adoration to stocks, stones, and the vilest reptiles; and that they were slaves to the most impious, cruel, and degrading superstitions. : From this depraved state it was surely not unworthy of the Divine Being to rescue his helpless creatures, to enlighten their understandings that they might perceive what is right, and to present to them motives of sufficient force to engage them in the practice of it. But the understandings of ignorant barbarians cannot be enlightened by arguments; because of the force of such arguments as regard moral science they are not qualified to judge.

The philosophers of Athens and Rome inculcated, indeed, many excellent moral precepts, and they sometimes ventured to expose the absurdities of the reigning superstitions; but their lectures had no influence upon the multitude; and they had themselves imbibed such erroneous notions respecting the attributes of the Supreme Being, and the nature of the human soul, and converted those notions into first principles, of which they would not permit an examination, that even among them a thorough reformation was not to be expected from the powers of reasoning. It is likewise to be observed, that there are many truths of the utmost importance to mankind, which unassisted reason could never have discovered. Amongst these, we may confidently reckon the immortality of the soul, the terms upon which God will save sinners, and the manner in which that all perfect Being may be acceptably worshipped; about all of which philosophers were in such uncertainty, that, according to Plato, 'Whatever is set right, and as it should be, in the present evil state of the world, can be so only by the particular interposition of God. "an immediate revelation from heaven, therefore, was the only method by which infinite wisdom and perfect goodness could reform a bewildered and vicious race.

But this revelation, at whatever time we suppose it given, must have been made directly either to some chosen individuals commissioned to instruct others, or to every man and woman for whose benefit it was ultimately intended. Were every person instructed in the knowledge of his duty by immediate inspiration, and were the motives to practise it brought home to his mind by God himself, human nature would be wholly changed; men would not be moral agents, nor by consequence be capable either of reward or of punishment. It remains, therefore that, if God has been graciously pleased to enlighten and reform mankind, without destroying that moral nature which man possesses, he can have done it only by revealing his truth to certain chosen instruments, who were the immediate instructors of their contemporaries, and through them have been the instructors of succeeding ages. "Let us suppose this to have been actually the case, and consider how those inspired teachers could communicate to others every truth which had been revealed to themselves. They might easily, if it were part of their duty, to deliver a sublime divine system of natural and moral science, and establish it upon the common basis of experiment and demonstration: but what foundation could they lay for those truths which unassisted reason cannot discover, and which, when they are revealed, appear to have no necessary relation to any thing previously known? To a bare affirmation that they had been immediately received from God, no rational being could be expected to assent.

The teachers might be men of known veracity, whose simple assertion would be admitted as sufficient evidence for any fact in conformity with the laws of nature; but as every man has the evidence of his own consciousness and experience that revelations from heaven are deviations from these laws, an assertion so apparently extravagant would be rejected as false, unless supported by some better proof than the mere affirmation of the teacher. In this state of things we can conceive no evidence sufficient to make such doctrines be received as the truths of God, but the power of working miracles committed to him who taught them. This would, indeed, be fully adequate to the purpose: for if there were nothing in the doctrines themselves impious, immoral, or contrary to truths already known, the only thing which could render the teacher's assertion incredible, would be its implying such an intimate communion with God as is contrary to the established course of things, by which men are left to acquire all their knowledge by the exercise of their own faculties. Let us now suppose one of those inspired teachers to tell his countrymen, that he did not desire them, on his ipse dixit, to believe that he had any preternatural communion with the Deity, but that, for the truth of his assertion, he would give them the evidence of their own senses; and after this declaration, let us suppose him immediately to raise a person from the dead in their presence, merely by calling upon him to come out of his grave.

Would not the only possible objection to the man's veracity be removed by this miracle? and his assertion that he had received such and such doctrines from God be as fully credited as if it related to the most common occurrence? Undoubtedly it would; for when so much preternatural power was visibly communicated to this person, no one could have reason to question his having received an equal portion of preternatural knowledge. A palpable deviation from the known laws of nature in one instance, is a sensible proof that such a deviation is possible in another; and in such a case as this, it is the witness of God to the truth of a man. "Miracles, then, under which we include prophecy, are the only direct evidence which can be given of divine inspiration. When a religion, or any religious truth, is to be revealed from heaven, they appear to be absolutely necessary to enforce its reception among men; and this is the only case in which we can suppose them necessary, or believe for a moment that they ever have been or will be performed. "The history of almost every religion abounds with relations of prodigies and wonders, and of the intercourse of men with the gods; but we know of no religious system, those of the Jews and Christians excepted, which appealed to miracles as the sole evidence of its truth and divinity. The pretended miracles mentioned by Pagan historians and poets, are not said to have been publicly wrought to enforce the truth of a new religion, contrary to the reigning idolatry.

Many of them may be clearly shown to have been mere natural events; others of them are represented as having been performed in secret on the most trivial occasions, and in obscure and fabulous ages long prior to the era of the writers by whom they are recorded; and such of them as at first view appear to be best attested, are evidently tricks contrived for interested purposes, to flatter power, or to promote the prevailing superstitions. For these reasons, as well as on account of the immoral character of the divinities by whom they are said to have been wrought, they are altogether unworthy of examination, and carry in the very nature of them the completest proofs of falsehood and imposture. "But the miracles recorded of Moses and of Christ bear a very different character. None of them are represented as wrought on trivial occasions. The writers who mention them were eye-witnesses of the facts; which they affirm to have been performed publicly, in attestation of the truth of their respective systems. They are, indeed, so incorporated with these systems, that the miracles cannot be separated from the doctrines; and if the miracles be not really performed, the doctrines cannot possibly be true.

Besides all this, they were wrought in support of revelations which opposed all the religious systems, superstitions, and prejudices, of the age in which they were given; a circumstance which of itself sets them in point of authority, infinitely above the Pagan prodigies, as well as the lying wonders of the Romish church. "It is indeed, we believe, universally admitted that the miracles mentioned in the book of Exodus, and in the four Gospels, might, to those who saw them performed, be sufficient evidence of the divine inspiration of Moses and of Christ; but to us it may be thought that they are no evidence whatever, as we must believe in the miracles themselves, if we believe in them at all, upon the bare authority of human testimony. Why, it has been sometimes asked, are not miracles wrought in all ages and countries? If the religion of Christ was to be of perpetual duration, every generation of men ought to have complete evidence of its truth and divinity. "To the performance of miracles in every age and in every country, perhaps the same objections lie, as to the immediate inspiration of every individual. Were those miracles universally received as such, men would be so overwhelmed with the number rather than with the force of their authority, as hardly to remain masters of their own conduct; and in that case the very end of all miracles would be defeated by their frequency.

The truth, however, seems to be, that miracles so frequently repeated would not be received as such, and of course would have no authority; because it would be difficult, and in many cases impossible, to distinguish them from natural events. If they recurred regularly at certain intervals, we could not prove them to be deviations from the known laws of nature, because we should have the same experience for one series of events as for the other; for the regular succession of preternatural effects, as for the established constitution and course of things. "Be this, however, as it may, we shall take the liberty to affirm, that for the reality of the Gospel miracles, we have evidence as convincing to the reflecting mind, though not so striking to vulgar apprehension, as those had who were contemporary with Christ and his apostles, and actually saw the mighty works which he performed. Me. Hume, indeed, endeavoured to prove, that 'no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle? and the reasoning employed for this purpose is, that 'a miracle being a violation of the laws of nature, which a firm and unalterable experience has established, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience' can be: whereas our experience of human veracity, which (according to him) is the sole foundation of the evidence of testimony, as far from being uniform, and can therefore never preponderate against that experience which admits of no exception.'

This boasted and plausible argument has with equal candour and acuteness been examined by Dr. Campbell, in his Dissertation on Miracles, who justly observes, that so far is experience from being the sole foundation of the evidence of testimony, that, on the contrary, testimony is the sole foundation of by far the greater part of what Mr. Hume calls firm and unalterable experience; and that it, in certain circumstances, we did not give an implicit faith to testimony, our knowledge of events would be confined to those which had fallen under the immediate observation of our own senses. "We need not waste time here in proving that the miracles, as they are presented in the writings of the New Testament, were of such a nature, and performed before so many witnesses, that no imposition could possibly be practised on the senses of those who affirm that they were present. From every page of the Gospel this is so evident, that the philosophical adversaries of the Christian faith never suppose the apostles to have been themselves deceived, but boldly accuse them of bearing false witness. But if this accusation be well founded, their testimony itself is as great a miracle as any which they record of themselves, or of their Master. For if they sat down to fabricate their pretended revelation, and to contrive a series of miracles to which they were unanimously to appeal for its truth, it is plain, since they proved successful in their daring enterprise, that they must have clearly foreseen every possible circumstance in which they could be placed, and have prepared consistent answers to every question that could be put to them by their most inveterate and most enlightened enemies; by the statesman, the lawyer, the philosopher, and the priest.

That such foreknowledge as this would have been miraculous, will not surely be denied: since it forms the very attribute which we find it the most difficult to allow even to God himself. It is not, however, the only miracle which this supposition would compel us to swallow. The very resolution of the apostles to propagate the belief of false miracles in support of such a religion as that which is taught in the New Testament, is as great a miracle as human imagination can easily conceive. "When they formed this design, either they must have hoped to succeed, or they must have foreseen that they should fail in their undertaking; and, in either case, they chose evil for its own sake. They could not, if they foresaw that they should fail, look for any thing but that contempt, disgrace, and persecution, which were then the inevitable consequences of an unsuccessful endeavour to overthrow the established religion. Nor could their prospects be brighter upon the supposition of their success. As they knew themselves to be false witnesses, and impious deceivers, they could have no hopes beyond the grave; and by determining to oppose all the religious systems, superstitions, and prejudices of the age in which they lived, they wilfully exposed themselves to inevitable misery in the present life, to insult and imprisonment, to stripes and death. Nor can it be said that they might look forward to power and affluence, when they should through sufferings have converted their countrymen; for so desirous were they of obtaining nothing but misery, as the end of their mission, that they made their own persecution a test of the truth of their doctrines.

They introduced the Master from whom they pretended to have received these doctrines as telling them, that 'they were sent forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: that they should be delivered up to councils, and scourged in synagogues; that they should be hated of all men for his name's sake; that the brother should deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child; and that he who took not up his cross, and followed after him, was not worthy of him.' The very system of religion, therefore, which they invented and resolved to impose upon mankind, was so contrived, that the worldly prosperity of its first preachers, and even their exemption from persecution, was incompatible with its success. Had these clear predictions of the Author of that religion, under whom the apostles acted only as ministers not been verified, all mankind must have instantly perceived that their pretence to inspiration was false, and that Christianity was a scandalous and impudent imposture. All this the apostles could not but foresee when they formed their plan for deluding the world. Whence it follows, that when they resolved to support their pretended revelation by an appeal to forged miracles, they wilfully, and with their eyes open, exposed themselves to inevitable misery, whether they should succeed or fail in their enterprise; and that they concerted their measures so as not to admit of a possibility of recompence to themselves, either in this life or in that which is to come.

But if there be a law of nature, for the reality of which we have better evidence than we have for others, it is, that 'no man can choose misery for its own sake, ' or make the acquisition of it the ultimate end of his pursuit. The existence of other laws of nature we know by testimony, and our own observation of the regularity of their effects. The existence of this law is made known to us not only by these means, but also by the still clearer and more conclusive evidence of our own consciousness. "Thus, then, do miracles force themselves upon our assent in every possible view which we can take of this interesting subject. If the testimony of the first preachers of Christianity were true, the miracles recorded in the Gospel were certainly performed, and the doctrines of our religion are derived from heaven. On the other hand, if that testimony were false, either God must have miraculously effaced from the minds of those by whom it was given, all the associations formed between their sensible ideas and the words of language, or he must have endowed those men with the gift of prescience, and have impelled them to fabricate a pretended revelation for the purpose of deceiving the world, and involving themselves in certain and foreseen destruction. "

The power necessary to perform the one series of these miracles may, for any thing known to us, be as great as that which would be requisite for the performance of the other; and, considered merely as exertions of preternatural power, they may seem to balance each other, and to hold the mind in a state of suspense; but when we take into consideration the different purposes for which these opposite and contending miracles were wrought, the balance is instantly destroyed. The miracles recorded in the Gospels, if real, were wrought in support of a revelation which, in the opinion of all by whom it is received, has brought to light many important truths which could not otherwise have been made known to men; and which, by the confession of its adversaries, contains the purest moral precepts by which the conduct of mankind was ever directed. The opposite series of miracles, if real, was performed to enable, and even to compel, a company of Jews, of the lowest rank and of the narrowest education, to fabricate, with the view of inevitable destruction to themselves, a consistent scheme of falsehood, and by an appeal to forged miracles to impose it upon the world as a revelation from heaven. The object of the former miracles is worthy of a God of infinite wisdom, goodness, and power; the object of the latter is absolutely inconsistent with wisdom and goodness, which are demonstrably attributes of that Being by whom alone it follows, that the supposition of the apostles bearing false testimony to the miracles of their Master, implies a series of deviations from the laws of nature infinitely less probable in themselves than those miracles: and therefore, by Mr. Hume's maxim, we must necessarily reject the supposition of falsehood in the testimony, and admit the reality of the miracles.

So true it is, that for the reality of the Gospel miracles we have evidence as convincing to the reflecting mind as those had who were contemporary with Christ and his apostles, and were actual witnesses to their mighty works." The power of working miracles is supposed by some to have been continued no longer than the apostles' days. Others think that it was continued long after. It seems pretty clear, however, that miracles universally ceased before Chrysostom's time. As for what Augustine says of those wrought at the tombs of the martyrs, and some other places, in his time, the evidence is not always so convincing as might be desired in facts of importance. the controversy concerning the time when miraculous powers ceased was carried on by Dr. Middleton, in his Free Enquiry into the Miraculous Powers, &c. by Mr. Yate, Mr. Toll, and others, who suppose that miracles ceased with the apostles. On the contrary side appeared Dr. Stebbing, Dr. Chapman, Mr. Parker, Mr. Brooke, and others. As to the miracles of the Romish church, it is evident, as Doddridge observes, that many of them were ridiculous tales, according to their own historians; others were performed without any credible witnesses, or in circumstances where the performer had the greatest opportunity of juggling; and it is particularly remarkable, that they were hardly ever wrought where they seem most necessary, 1: e. in countries where those doctrines are renounced which that church esteems of the highest importance.

See Fleetwood, Clarapede, Conybeare, Campbell, Lardner, Farmer, Adams, and Weston, on Miracles, article Miracle, Enc. Brit. Doddridge's Lect. lec. 101 and 135; Leland's View of Deistical Writers, letter 3, 4, 7; Hurrion on the Spirit, p. 299. &c.

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Bibliography Information
Buck, Charles. Entry for 'Miracle'. Charles Buck Theological Dictionary. 1802.

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