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Bible Dictionaries

Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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A miracle, in the popular sense, is a prodigy, or an extraordinary event, which surprises us by its novelty. In a more accurate and philosophic sense, a miracle is an effect which does not follow from any of the regular laws of nature, or which is inconsistent with some known law of it, or contrary to the settled constitution and course of things. Accordingly, all miracles presuppose an established system of nature, within the limits of which they operate, and with the order of which they disagree. Of a miracle in the theological sense many definitions have been given. That of Dr. Samuel Clarke is: "A miracle is a work effected in a manner unusual, or different from the common and regular method of providence, by the interposition of God himself, or of some intelligent agent superior to man, for the proof or evidence of some particular doctrine, or in attestation of the authority of some particular person." Mr. Hume has insidiously or erroneously maintained that a miracle is contrary to experience; but in reality it is only different from experience. Experience informs us that one event has happened often; testimony informs us that another event has happened once or more. That diseases should be generally cured by the application of external causes, and sometimes at the mere word of a prophet, and without the visible application of causes, are facts not inconsistent with each other in the nature of things themselves, nor irreconcilable according to our ideas. Each fact may arise from its own proper cause; each may exist independently of the other; and each is known by its own proper proof, whether of sense or testimony. As secret causes often produce events contrary to those we do expect from experience, it is equally conceivable that events should sometimes be produced which we do not expect. To pronounce, therefore, a miracle to be false, because it is different from experience, is only to conclude against its general existence from the very circumstance which constitutes its particular nature; for if it were not different from experience, where would be its singularity? or what particular proof could be drawn from it, if it happened according to the ordinary train of human events, or was included in the operation of the general laws of nature? We grant that it does differ from experience; but we do not presume to make our experience the standard of the divine conduct. He that acknowledges a God must, at least, admit the possibility of a miracle. The atheist, that makes him inseparable from what is called nature, and binds him to its laws by an insurmountable necessity; that deprives him of will, and wisdom, and power, as a distinct and independent Being; may deny even the very possibility of a miraculous interposition, which can in any instance suspend or counteract those general laws by which the world is governed. But he who allows of a First Cause in itself perfect and intelligent, abstractedly from those effects which his wisdom and power have produced, must at the same time allow that this cause can be under no such restraints as to be debarred the liberty of controlling its laws as often as it sees fit. Surely, the Being that made the world can govern it, or any part of it, in such a manner as he pleases; and he that constituted the very laws by which it is in general conducted, may suspend the operation of those laws in any given instance, or impress new powers on matter, in order to produce new and extraordinary effects.

In judging of miracles there are certain criteria, peculiar to the subject, sufficient to conduct our inquiries, and warrant our determination. Assuredly they do not appeal to our ignorance, for they presuppose not only the existence of a general order of things, but our actual knowledge of the appearance which that order exhibits, and of the secondary material causes from which it, in most cases, proceeds. If a miraculous event were effected by the immediate hand of God, and yet bore no mark of distinction from the ordinary effects of his agency, it would impress no conviction, and probably awaken no attention. Our knowledge of the ordinary course of things, though limited, is real; and therefore it is essential to a miracle, both that it differ from that course, and be accompanied with peculiar and unequivocal signs of such difference. We have been told that the course of nature is fixed and unalterable, and therefore it is not consistent with the immutability of God to perform miracles. But, surely, they who reason in this manner beg the point in question. We have no right to assume that the Deity has ordained such general laws as will exclude his interposition; and we cannot suppose that he would forbear to interfere where any important end could be answered. This interposition, though it controls, in particular cases, the energy, does not diminish the utility, of those laws. It leaves them to fulfil their own proper purposes, and affects only a distinct purpose, for which they were not calculated. If the course of nature implies the general laws of matter and motion, into which the most opposite phenomena may be resolved, it is certain that we do not yet know them in their full extent; and, therefore, that events, which are related by judicious and disinterested persons, and at the same time imply no gross contradiction, are possible in themselves, and capable of a certain degree of proof. If the course of nature implies the whole order of events which God has ordained for the government of the world, it includes both his ordinary and extraordinary dispensations, and among them miracles may have their place, as a part of the universal plan. It is, indeed, consistent with sound philosophy, and not inconsistent with pure religion, to acknowledge that they might be disposed by the supreme Being at the same time with the more ordinary effects of his power; that their causes and occasions might be arranged with the same regularity; and that, in reference chiefly to their concomitant circumstances of persons and times, to the specific ends for which they were employed, and to our idea of the immediate necessity there is for a divine agent, miracles would differ from common events, in which the hand of God acts as efficaciously, though less visibly. On this consideration of the subject, miracles, instead of contradicting nature, might form a part of it. But what our limited reason and scanty experience may comprehend should never be represented as a full and exact view of the possible or actual varieties which exist in the works of God.

2. If we be asked whether miracles are credible, we reply, that, abstractedly considered, they are not incredible; that they are capable of indirect proof from analogy, and of direct, from testimony; that in the common and daily course of worldly affairs, events, the improbability of which, antecedently to all testimony, was very great, are proved to have happened, by the authority of competent and honest witnesses; that the Christian miracles were objects of real and proper experience to those who saw them; and that whatsoever the senses of mankind can perceive, their report may substantiate. Should it be asked whether miracles were necessary, and whether the end proposed to be effected by them could warrant so immediate and extraordinary an interference of the Almighty, as such extraordinary operations suppose; to this we might answer, that, if the fact be established, all reasonings a priori concerning their necessity must be frivolous, and may be false. We are not capable of deciding on a question which, however simple in appearance, is yet too complex in its parts, and too extensive in its object, to be fully comprehended by the human understanding. Whether God could or could not have effected all the ends designed to be promoted by the Gospel, without deviating from the common course of his providence, and interfering with its general laws, is a speculation that a modest inquirer would carefully avoid; for it carries on the very face of it a degree of presumption totally unbecoming the state of a mortal being. Infinitely safer is it for us to acquiesce in what the Almighty has done, than to embarrass our minds with speculations about what he might have done. Inquiries of this kind are generally inconclusive, and always useless. They rest on no solid principles, are conducted by no fixed rules, and lead to no clear conviction. They begin from curiosity or vanity, they are prosecuted amidst ignorance and error, and they frequently terminate in impious presumption or universal skepticism. God is the best and indeed the only judge how far miracles are proper to promote any particular design of his providence, and how far that design would have been left unaccomplished, if common and ordinary methods only had been pursued. So, from the absence of miracles, we may conclude, in any supposed case, that they were not necessary; from their existence, supported by fair testimony, in any given case, we may refer with confidence that they are proper. A view of the state of the world in general, and of the Jewish nation in particular, and an examination of the nature and tendency of the Christian religion, will point out very clearly the great expediency of a miraculous interposition; and when we reflect on the gracious and important ends that were to be effected by it, we shall be convinced that it was not an idle and useless display of divine power; but that while the means effected and confirmed the end, the end fully justified and illustrated the means. If we reflect on the almost irresistible force of prejudice, and the strong opposition it universally made to the establishment of a new religion on the demolition of rites and ceremonies, which authority had made sacred, and custom had familiarized; if we reflect on the extent and importance, as well as the singularity, of the Christian plan; what was its avowed purpose to effect, and what difficulties it was necessarily called to struggle with before that purpose could be effected; how much it was opposed by the opinions and the practice of the generality of mankind, by philosophy, by superstition, by corrupt passions and inveterate habits, by pride and sensuality, in short, by every engine of human influence, whether formed by craft, or aided by power;—if we seriously reflect on these things, and give them their due force, (and experience shows us that we can scarcely give them too much,) we shall be induced to admit even the necessity of a miraculous interposition, at a time when common means must inevitably, in our apprehensions, have failed of success.

The revelation of the divine will by inspired persons is, as such, miraculous; and therefore, before the adversaries of the Gospel can employ with propriety their objections to the particular miracles on which its credibility is based, they should show the impossibility of any revelation. In whatever age the revelation is given, succeeding ages can know it only from testimony; and, if they admit, on the report of their fellow creatures, that God had inspired any being with the preternatural knowledge of his will, why should they deny that he had enabled the same being to heal the sick, or to cleanse the leprous? How, may it be asked, should the divine Teacher give a more direct and consistent proof of his preternatural commission, than by displaying those signs and wonders which mark the finger of God? That the Apostles could not be deceived, and that they had no temptation to deceive, has been repeatedly demonstrated. So powerful, indeed, is the proof adduced in support of their testimony, that the infidels of these later days have been obliged to abandon the ground on which their predecessors stood; to disclaim all moral evidences arising from the character and relation of eye-witnesses; and to maintain, upon metaphysical, rather than historical, principles, that miracles are utterly incapable, in their own nature, of existing in any circumstances, or of being supported by any evidence.

Miracles may be classed under two heads: those which consist in a train or combination of events, which distinguish themselves from the ordinary arrangements of Providence; and those particular operations which are performed by instruments and agents incompetent to effect them without a preternatural power. In the conduct of Providence respecting the Jewish people, from the earliest periods of their existence, as a distinct class of society, to the present time, we behold a singularity of circumstance and procedure which we cannot account for on common principles. Comparing their condition and situation with that of other nations, we can meet with nothing similar to it in the history of mankind. So remarkable a difference, conspicuous in every revolution of their history, could not have subsisted through mere accident. There must have been a cause adequate to so extraordinary an effect. Now, what should this cause be, but an interposition of Providence in a manner different from the course of its general government? For the phenomenon cannot be explained by an application of those general causes and effects that operate in other cases. The original propagation of Christianity was likewise an event which clearly discovered a miraculous interposition. The circumstances which attended it were such as cannot rationally be accounted for on any other postulatum. ( See CHRISTIANITY. ) It may now be observed, that the institutions of the law and the Gospel may not only appeal for their confirmation to a train of events which, taken in a general and combined view, point out an extraordinary designation, and vindicate their claim to a divine authority; but also to a number of particular operations which, considered distinctly, or in a separate and detached light, evidently display a supernatural power, immediately exerted on the occasion.

Since Christ himself constantly appealed to these works as the evidences of his divine mission and character, we may briefly examine how far they justified and confirmed his pretensions. That our Lord laid the greatest stress on the evidence they afforded, nay, that he considered that evidence as sufficient to authenticate his claims to the office of the Messiah with all reasonable and well disposed inquirers, is manifest not only from his own words, John 10:25 , but also from a great variety of other passages in the evangelists. Thus, when the disciples of John were sent to Christ, to receive from his own lips the most satisfactory proofs of his divine mission, he referred them to his miracles. "Go," said he, "and show to John again those things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up,"

Matthew 11:4-5 . Again: "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not: but if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works," John 10:37 . This appeal to miracles was founded on the following just and obvious grounds:—

First: That they are visible proofs of divine approbation, as well as of divine power; for it would have been quite inconclusive to rest an appeal on the testimony of the latter, if it had not at the same time included an evidence of the former; and it was, indeed, a natural inference, that working of miracles, in defence of a particular cause, was the seal of Heaven to the truth of that cause. To suppose the contrary, would be to suppose that God not only permitted his creatures to be deceived, but that he deviated from the ordinary course of his providence, purposely with a view to deceive them. The conclusion which the man whom our Saviour restored to sight drew from this miracle was exceedingly just, and founded on the common sentiments and impressions of the human heart. "We know," says he, "that God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth. Since the world began was it not heard that any man opened the eyes of one that was born blind. If this man were not of God, he could do nothing," John 9:31-33 . If the cause which our Saviour was engaged in had not been approved of by God, it would not have been honoured with the seal of miracles: for the divine power can never be supposed to counteract the divine will. This would be to set his nature at variance with itself; and, by destroying his simplicity, would destroy his happiness, and terminate in confusion and misery. Hence we may justly reject, as incredible, those miracles which have been ascribed to the interposition of wicked spirits. The possibility of their interference is a mere hypothesis, depending upon gratuitous assumption, and leading to very dangerous consequences; and the particular instances in which credulous superstition, or perverted philosophy, has supposed them to interfere, are, as facts, destitute of any clear and solid evidence; or, as effects, often resolvable into natural causes.

Secondly: When our Lord appealed to his miracles, as proofs of his divine mission, it presupposed that those miracles were of such a nature as would bear the strictest examination; that they had all those criteria which could possibly distinguish them from the delusions of enthusiasm, and the artifices of imposture; else the appeal would have been fallacious and equivocal. He appealed to them with all the confidence of an upright mind totally possessed with a consciousness of their truth and reality. This appeal was not drawn out into any laboured argument, nor adorned by any of the embellishments of language. It was short, simple, and decisive. He neither reasoned nor declaimed on their nature or their design: he barely pointed to them as plain and indubitable facts, such as spoke their own meaning, and carried with them their own authority. The miracles which our Lord performed were too public to be suspected of imposture; and, being objects of sense, they were secured against the charge of enthusiasm. An impostor would not have acted so absurdly as to have risked his credit on the performance of what, he must have known, it was not in his power to effect; and though an enthusiast, from the warmth of imagination, might have flattered himself with a full persuasion of his being able to perform some miraculous work; yet, when the trial was referred to an object of sense, the event must soon have exposed the delusion. The impostor would not have dared to say to the blind, Receive thy sight; to the deaf, Hear; to the dumb, Speak; to the dead, Arise; to the raging of the sea, Be still; lest he should injure the credit of his cause, by undertaking more than he could perform; and though the enthusiast, under the delusion of his passions, might have confidently commanded disease to fly, and the powers of nature to be subject to his control; yet their obedience would not have followed his command.

The miracles of Christ then were such as an impostor would not have attempted, and such as an enthusiast could not have effected. They had no disguise; and were in a variety of instances of such a nature as to preclude the very possibility of collusion. They were performed in the midst of his bitterest enemies; and were so palpable and certain, as to extort the following acknowledgment even from persons who were most eager to oppose his doctrines, and to discredit his pretensions: "This man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him,"

John 11:47-48 . The miracles Christ performed were indeed sufficient to alarm the fears of those whose downfall was involved in his success.

And it was impossible for them to deny the facts, which so many thousands were ready to attest on evidence too certain to admit even the possibility of mistake, delusion, or imposture. But his enemies, who admitted their reality and yet resisted their design, by not acknowledging the person who wrought them to be the Messiah, had recourse to the most impious and most absurd suppositions, in order to evade their evidence. The Heathen imputed them to some occult power of magic: and thus applied what has no existence in nature, in order to account for a phenomenon that existed out of its common course. The stories of the Jews, who confessed the miracles, but denied what they were intended to establish, are too ridiculous to be mentioned. We must not, however, omit to take notice of the wicked and blasphemous cavil of the Pharisees, and the noble reply which our Lord made to it. They could not deny the fact, but they imputed it to the agency of an infernal spirit: "This fellow," said they, "doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub, the prince of the devils. And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand: and if Satan cast out Satan, he is divided against himself; how shall then his kingdom stand?" Matthew 12:24-26 . The purity of the doctrine which was taught by our blessed Lord was totally adverse to the kingdom of darkness. It tended to overthrow it, by the introduction of principles far different from those which Satan would inspire, and by prosecuting objects totally opposite to those which that wicked and malignant spirit would tempt us to pursue: so that in proportion to the prevalence of the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of Satan would of course be diminished. Now, supposing miracles to be in the power of an infernal spirit, can it be imagined that he would communicate an ability of performing them to persons who were counteracting his designs? Would he by them give credit to a cause that tended to bring his own into disgrace? Thus, as our Saviour appealed to miracles as proofs of his power; so he appealed to the inherent worth and purity of the doctrines they were intended to bear witness to, as a proof that the power was of God. In this manner do the external and internal evidences give and receive mutual confirmation and mutual lustre.

The truth of the Christian religion does not, however, depend wholly on the miracles wrought by its divine Founder, though sufficient in themselves to establish his claims: but, in order to give the evidence of miracles the strongest force they could possibly acquire, that evidence was extended still farther; and the same power that our Lord possessed was communicated to his disciples, and their more immediate successors. While yet on earth he imparted to them this extraordinary gift, as the seal of their commission, when he sent them to preach the Gospel: and after his glorious resurrection and ascension into heaven, they were endowed with powers yet more stupendous. Sensible of the validity of this kind of evidence, the Apostles of our Lord, with the same artless simplicity, and the same boldness of conscious integrity, which distinguished their great Master, constantly insisted upon the miracles they wrought, as strong and undeniable proofs of the truth of their doctrines. Thus the miracles of our blessed Lord may be justly considered as the evidence of his divine mission and character. If we consider their nature, their greatness, and their number; and if to this consideration we add that which respects their end and design, we must acknowledge that no one could have performed them, unless God was with him. They were too public to be the artifices of imposture; too substantial and too numerous to afford the slightest suspicion of undesigned and fortuitous coincidence. In a word, supposing that the Most High should in any instance so far counteract the common laws of nature, as to produce a miracle; and should design that miracle as a monument to future times of the truth of any peculiar doctrine, we cannot conceive any mode of communicating it more effectual than that which he has chosen. Stronger proofs could not be afforded, consistently with the design of the Gospel, which is not to overpower our understandings by an irresistible and compulsory light, but to afford us such rational evidence as is sufficient to satisfy moral inquirers, who are endowed with faculties to perceive the truth; but at the same time who also have power totally to resist it, and finally to forfeit all its blessings. These miracles were of a nature too palpable to be mistaken. They were the objects of sense, and not the precarious speculations of reason concerning what God might do; or the chimerical suggestions of fancy concerning what he did. The facts were recorded by those who must have known whether they were true or false. The persons who recorded them were under no possible temptations to deceive the world. We can only account for their conduct on the supposition of their most perfect conviction and disinterested zeal. That they should assert what they knew to be false; that they should publish it with so much ardour; that they should risk every thing dear to humanity, in order to maintain it; and at last submit to death, in order to attest their persuasion of its truth in those moments when imposture usually drops its mask, and enthusiasm loses its confidence; that they should act thus in opposition to every dictate of common sense, and every principle of common honesty, every restraint of shame, and every impulse of selfishness, is a phenomenon not less irreconcilable to the moral state of things than miracles are to the natural constitution of the world. Falsehood naturally entangles men in contradiction, and confounds them with dismay: but the love of truth invigorates the mind; the consciousness of integrity anticipates the approbation of God; and conscience creates a fortitude, to which mere unsupported nature is often a stranger.

3. How long miracles were continued in the church, has been a matter of keen dispute, and has been investigated with as much anxiety as if the truth of the Gospel depended upon the manner in which it was decided. Assuming, as we are here warranted to do, that real miraculous power was conveyed in the way detailed by the inspired writers, it is plain, that it may have been exercised in different countries, and may have remained, without any new communication of it, throughout the first, and a considerable part of the second century. The Apostles, wherever they went to execute their commission, would avail themselves of the stupendous gift which had been imparted to them; and it is clear, not only that they were permitted and enabled to convey it to others, but that spiritual gifts, including the power of working miracles, were actually conferred on many of the primitive disciples. Allusions to this we find in the epistles of St. Paul; such allusions, too, as it is utterly inconceivable that any man of a sound judgment could have made, had he not known that he was referring to an obvious fact, about which there could be no hesitation. Of the time at which several of the Apostles died, we have no certain knowledge. St. Peter and St. Paul suffered at Rome about A.D. 66, or 67; and it is fully established, that the life of John was much longer protracted, he having died a natural death, A.D. 100, or 101. Supposing that the two former of these Apostles imparted spiritual gifts till the time of their suffering martyrdom, the persons to whom they were imparted might, in the course of nature, have lived through the earlier part of the second century; and if John did the same till the end of his life, such gifts as were derived from him might have remained till more than the half of that century had elapsed. That such was the fact, is asserted by ancient ecclesiastical writers. Whether, after the generation immediately succeeding the Apostles had passed away, the power of working miracles was anew communicated, is a question, the solution of which cannot be nearly so satisfactory. The probability is, that there was no such renewal; and this opinion rests upon the ground that natural causes were now sufficient to accomplish the end for which miracles were originally designed; and it does not appear to have been any part of the scheme of the blessed Author of our religion, that, solely for the purpose of hastening that conversion of the nations which might gradually be accomplished, miracles should be wrought, when these could be of no use in establishing after ages in the faith.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Miracles'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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